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By Mitchell Kapor <email@example.com>
Co-founder, Electronic Frontier Foundation.
New communities are being built today. You cannot see them, except on a computer screen. You cannot visit them, except through your keyboard. Their highways are wires and optical fibers; their language a series of ones and zeroes.
Yet these communities of cyberspace are as real and vibrant as any you could find on a globe or in an atlas. Those are real people on the other sides of those monitors. And freed from physical limitations, these people are developing new types of cohesive and effective communities - ones which are defined more by common interest and purpose than by an accident of geography, ones on which what really counts is what you say and think and feel, not how you look or talk or how old you are.
The oldest of these communities is that of the scientists, which actually predates computers. Scientists have long seen themselves as an international community, where ideas were more important than national origin. It is not surprising that the scientists were the first to adopt the new electronic media as their principal means of day-to-day communication.
I look forward to a day in which everybody, not just scientists, can enjoy similar benefits of a global community.
But how exactly does community grow out of a computer network? It does so because the network enables new forms of communication.
The most obvious example of these new digital communications media is electronic mail, but there are many others. We should begin to think of mailing lists, newsgroups, file and document archives, etc. as just the first generation of new forms of information and communications media. The digital media of computer networks, by virtue of their design and the enabling technology upon which they ride, are fundamentally different from the now dominant mass media of television, radio, newspapers and magazines. Digital communications media are inherently capable of being more interactive, more participatory, more egalitarian, more decentralized, and less hierarchical.
As such, the types of social relations and communities which can be built on these media share these characteristics. Computer networks encourage the active participation of individuals rather than the passive non-participation induced by television narcosis.
In mass media, the vast majority of participants are passive recipients of information. In digital communications media, the vast majority of participants are active creators of information as well as recipients. This type of symmetry has previously only been found in media like the telephone. But while the telephone is almost entirely a medium for private one-to-one communication, computer network applications such as electronic mailing lists, conferences, and bulletin boards, serve as a medium of group or "many-to-many" communication.
The new forums atop computer networks are the great levelers and reducers of organizational hierarchy. Each user has, at least in theory, access to every other user, and an equal chance to be heard. Some U.S. high-tech companies, such as Microsoft and Borland, already use this to good advantage: their CEO's -- Bill Gates and Philippe Kahn -- are directly accessible to all employees via electronic mail. This creates a sense that the voice of the individual employee really matters. More generally, when corporate communication is facilitated by electronic mail, decision-making processes can be far more inclusive and participatory.
Computer networks do not require tightly centralized administrative control. In fact, decentralization is necessary to enable rapid growth of the network itself. Tight controls strangle growth. This decentralization promotes inclusiveness, for it lowers barriers to entry for new parties wishing to join the network.
Given these characteristics, networks hold tremendous potential to enrich our collective cultural, political, and social lives and enhance democratic values everywhere.
And the Internet, and the UUCP and related networks connected to it, represents an outstanding example of a computer network with these qualities. It is an open network of networks, not a single unitary network, but an ensemble of interconnected systems which operate on the basis of multiple implementations of accepted, non-proprietary protocols, standards and interfaces.
One of its important characteristics is that new networks, host systems, and users may readily join the network -- the network is open to all.
The openness (in all senses) of the Internet reflects, I believe, the sensibilities and values of its architects. Had the Internet somehow been developed outside the world of research and education, it's less likely to have had such an open architecture. Future generations will be indebted to this community for the wisdom of building these types of open systems.
Still, the fundamental qualities of the Net, such as its decentralization, also pose problems. How can full connectivity be maintained in the face of an ever-expanding number of connected networks, for example? What of software bugs that bring down computers, or human crackers who try to do the same? But these problems can and will be solved.
Digital media can be the basis of new forms of political discourse, in which citizens form and express their views on the important public issues of the day. There is more than one possible vision of such electronic democracy, however. Let's look at some examples of the potential power, and problems, of the new digital media.
The idea of something called an "electronic town meeting" received considerable attention in 1992 with Ross Perot's presidential campaign (or, at least, its first incarnation).
Perot's original vision, from 20 or so years ago, was that viewers would watch a debate on television and fill out punch cards which would be mailed in and collated. Now we could do it with 800 telephone numbers.
In the current atmosphere of disaffection, alienation and cynicism, anything that promotes greater citizen involvement seems a good idea. People are turned off by politicians in general -- witness the original surge of support for Perot as outsider who would go in and clean up the mess -- and the idea of going right to the people is appealing,
What's wrong with this picture? The individual viewer is a passive recipient of the views of experts. The only action taken by the citizen is in expressing a preference for one of three pre-constructed alternatives. While this might be occasionally useful, it's unsophisticated and falls far short of the real potential of electronic democracy. We've been reduced to forming our judgments on the basis of mass media's portrayal of the personality and character of the candidates.
All this is in contrast to robust political debates already found on various on-line computer systems, from CompuServe to Usenet. Through these new media, the issues of the day, ranging from national security in the post-Cold War era to comparative national health care systems, are fiercely discussed in a wide variety of bulletin boards, conferences, and newsgroups.
What I see in online debate are multiple active participants, not just experts, representing every point of view, in discussions that unfold over extended periods of time. What this shows is that, far from being alienated and disaffected from the political process, people like to talk and discuss -- and take action -- if they have the opportunity to do so. Mass media don't permit that. But these new media are more akin to a gathering around the cracker barrel at the general store -- only extended over hundreds, thousands of miles, in cyberspace, rather than in one physical location.
Recent years have shown the potential power of these new media. We have also seen several examples of where talk translated into action.
In 1987, the Federal Communications Commission proposed changing the way certain online providers paid for access to local phone service. Online, this quickly became known as the "modem tax" and generated a storm of protest. The FCC withdrew the idea, but not quickly enough: the "modem tax" has penetrated so deeply into the crevices of the Net that it has taken up a permanent and ghostly residence as a kind of virtual or cognitive virus, which periodically causes a re-infection of the systems and its users. FCC commissioners continue to receive substantial mail on this even though the original issue is long dead; in fact, it has generated more mail than any other issue in the history of the FCC.
More recently, Jim Manzi, chairman of Lotus Development Corp., received more than 30,000 e-mail messages when the company was getting ready to sell a database containing records on tens of millions of Americans. The flood of electronic complaints about the threat to privacy helped force the company to abandon the project. Issues of narrow but vital interest to the online community give a hint of the organizing power of the Net.
In August, 1991, the managers of a Soviet computer network known as Relcom stayed online during an abortive coup, relaying eyewitness accounts and news of actions against the coup to the West and to the rest of Russia.
And many public interest non-profit organizations and special interest groups already use bulletin boards heavily as a means of communicating among their members and organizing political activity.
But all is not perfect online. The quality of discourse is often very low. Discussion is often trivial and boring and bereft of persuasive reason. Discourse often sinks to the level of "flaming," of personal attacks, instead of substantive discussion. Flaming. Those with the most time to spend often wind up dominating the debate -- a triumph of quantity of time available over quality of content.
It seems like no place for serious discussion. Information overload is also a problem. There is simply far too much to read to keep up with. It is all without organization. How can this be addressed?
Recent innovations in the design of software used to connect people to the Net and the process of online discussion itself reveal some hope.
Flaming is universal, but different systems handle it in different ways. Both the technology and cultural norms matter.
On Usenet, for instance, most news reader applications support a feature known as a "killfile," which allows an individual to screen out postings by a particular user or on a particular subject. It is also sometimes referred to as "the bozo filter." This spares the user who is sufficiently sophisticated from further flamage, but it does nothing to stop the problem at its source.
Censorship would be one solution. But what else can be done without resorting to unacceptably heavy-handed tactics of censorship? There is a great tradition of respect for free speech on these systems, and to censor public postings or even ban a poster for annoying or offensive content is properly seen as unacceptable, in my opinion.
Some systems use cultural norms, rather than software, to deal with flame wars. These online communities have developed practices which rely more on a shared, internalized sense of appropriate behavior than on censorship, for instance. The WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) is a relatively small online conferencing system based in the San Francisco Bay area. On the WELL, individuals who get into a fight are encouraged to move the discussion out of the public conference and into e-mail. The encouragement is provided not only by the host of the conference, but also by the users. It is part of the culture, not part of the technology.
WELL hosts are volunteers who facilitate the discussion of a particular subject. While they have the power to censor individual postings, the power is very rarely used and only as a last resort, as it has been found that dispute resolution by talking it out among the parties is a superior method of problem solving in the long run.
It is not an accident that the WELL has a uniquely high quality of conversation. Nor is it coincidental that it developed as a small and originally isolated community (now on the Net) which gave it a chance to develop its own norms or that key management of the system came from "The Farm," a large, successful commune of the 1960's and 1970's led by Stephen Gaskin.
We still know very little about the facilitation of online conversations. It is a subject well worth further formal study and experimentation.
Some problems have to do with the unrefined and immature format and structure of the discussion medium itself. The undifferentiated stream of new messages marching along in 80 columns of ASCII text creates a kind of hypnotic trance. Compare this with the typical multiplicity of type fonts, varied layouts, images, and pictures of the printed page.
New media take time to develop and to be shaped. Reading text on a terminal reminds me of looking at the Gutenberg Bible. The modern book took a century to develop after the invention of printing with movable type and the first Western printed books. Aldus Manutius and the inventions of modern typefaces, pagination, the table of contents, the index, all of which gave the book its modern form, came later, were done by different people, and were of a different order than the invention of printing with movable type itself. The new electronic media are undergoing a similar evolution.
Key inventions are occurring slowly, for example, development of software tools that will allow the dissemination of audio and video across the Net. This type of software has usually been done so far by volunteers who have given away the results. It's a great thing, but it's not sufficient, given how hard it is to develop robust software. Innovation in the application space will also be driven by entrepreneurs and independent software vendors at such point as they perceive a business opportunity to create such products (it would be nice if creators did it for art's sake but this seems unlikely).
There are some requirements to provide incentives to attract additional software development. This requires a competitive free market in network services at all levels to serve the expanding user demand for network services. It requires a technologically mature network able to support these services.
And there must be a user population, current or prospective, interested in paying for better applications -- and not just the current base of technically sophisticated users and students, though they will absolutely benefit.
There are multiple classes of new application opportunities. E-mail is overloaded because there aren't readily available alternatives yet. New and different kinds of tools are needed for collaborative work. Computer conferencing, as it evolves, may be sufficient for discussion and debate. But by itself, it cannot really support collaborative work, in the sense of readily enabling a group to make decisions efficiently, represent and track the status of its work process. Trying to run an organization via e-mail mailing list is very different than trying to have a discussion.
Computer networks can only fully realize their potential as innovative communications media in an environment which encourages free and open expression.
In some countries, legal principles of free speech protect freedom of expression in traditional media such as the printed word. But once communication moves to new digital media and crosses international borders, such legal protections fall away. As John Perry Barlow, the co-founder of EFF puts it: "In Cyberspace, the First Amendment is a local ordinance." There is no international legal authority which protects free expression on trans-national networks. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls for the protection of free expression in all media, but the declaration falls far short of being binding.
And if we're to take seriously the idea of the electronic online forum, we have to deal with the access issue. If the only people with access to the medium are well-educated, affluent, techno-literate elite, it won't be sufficiently inclusive to represent all points of view.
We also need, fundamentally, a better infrastructure (the highway system for information). As we move from the high-speed Internet to the even more powerful National Research and Education Network, we need to look at how to bring the power of these new media into the homes of everybody who might want it. Addressing this "last mile" problem (phone networks are now largely digitized, fiber-optic systems, except for the mile between your home and the nearest switching station) should be a priority.
Computer networks will eventually become ubiquitous around the world. We should therefore be concerned with the impact on society that they have, the opportunities to improve society, and the dangers that they pose. Fundamentally, we are optimists who believe in the potential of networks to enhance democratic values of openness, diversity, and innovation.
Because the medium is so new, it is important now to develop policies at the national and international level that help achieve the potential of computer networks for society as a whole. By the time television was recognized as a vast wasteland it was already too late to change. There is a rare opportunity to develop policies in advance of a technologically and economically mature system which would be hard to change.
"As a net is made up of a series of ties, so everything in this world is connected by a series of ties. If anyone thinks that the mesh of a net is an independent, isolated thing, he is mistaken. It is called a net because it is made up of a series of interconnected meshes, and each mesh has its place and responsibility in relation to other meshes." -- Buddha
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