On "Democracy and the New Information Highway"

Mitchell Kapor's "Democracy and the New Information Highway" (Boston Review, October/November 1993) elicited a number of responses from readers. Here Alan Shaw, Sven Birkerts, Richard Stallman, Vinton Cerf, and Nathan Myhrvold respond to Kapor.

Real Democracy or Just More Exclusion?

Alan Shaw

Mitchell Kapor did an admirable job of clarifying some of the technical, political, and economic factors that will affect the future of a National Information Infrastructure (NII). I agree with Kapor's Jeffersonian ideals of "diversity, openness, and decentralization," and support his goal of ensuring that the networks themselves provide easy access, diverse content, multiple uses, and flexible architecture. I think, however, that much more needs to be said about the problem of "information haves and have-nots." The NII may redefine what it means to be a part of this society. What, then, will happen to those who are already alienated from it? Today, if you are without a high school diploma, without a phone or credit card or bank account, you are excluded from opportunities and activities available in the broader culture. Now the NII may add even more hoops for the underclass to jump through and dances for them to perform.
Living up to the ideals of true democracy is not simply a matter of providing access to voting booths and information about candidates and issues. If a large number of people choose not to vote, something is wrong with the system. If those who do vote do not feel that their issues are being adequately addressed, or if they feel that voting is the limit of their involvement, something is wrong with the system. Democracy is more than a matter of voting; it is also about people engaging issues collectively and wielding influence in groups with particular interests.
In this country, haves and have-nots are divided by their disparate collective organizational capacities. Sometimes the haves are the middle and upper classes who come together to fight against higher taxes; sometimes they are the technological enthusiasts who come together to push NII in directions that most people do not even know exist. But the poor are always the have-nots and they rarely come together at all for technological, political, or economic objectives. Suppose the NII brings with it new patterns for organizing information and labor, and suppose these changes are influenced primarily by the lobbying efforts of the haves. Then there is likely to be a large group of have-nots who will be even more disempowered than they were before these systems were in place. Empowerment is not simply a matter of access. Important social and cultural factors help to explain why people may choose not to take advantage of crucial resources even when the resources are accessible. Voting is one example of a missed opportunity that can be extremely consequential. Missed educational opportunities which consistently plague poor communities are another. When NII is in place, the question may be, "Why do so many people pass up the opportunity to get involved with these networks and take advantage of resources that are available to them only through the networks?" Part of the answer is that many people think that advanced technology „ like the political and academic opportunities they already avoid „ is for elites, and that only the professionals and the exceptionally talented need to think about its ramifications. Others have come to believe that they have little to offer, or simply are technologically incompetent. I doubt that this will change with the introduction of the information "superhighways."
To talk about how things might be different we need to look at how the poor have pulled together in the past. The civil rights movement in the South in the 1960s provides a case in point. Thirty years ago, civil rights workers from the North joined together with poor people in the South to make voting rights a reality in a system that was openly hostile to blacks in particular and the poor in general. Southern blacks had been disempowered for so long that many had come to believe that they were not qualified or competent enough to vote, and many doubted that their vote could succeed at bringing about any real changes.
Yet, after generations of frustration and despair, things changed. In places like Mississippi, where blacks had been especially abused and terrorized, northerners from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) sought to encourage local communities to develop their own leadership, platforms, and programs. As southern blacks began to see their own initiatives bringing them together, the act of voting took on new meaning. Voting was not just an attempt at accomplishing something; voting showed you already had accomplished something. Voting was not just to become involved; voting was because you were involved. As a racist system provided enormous barriers for southern blacks, an elitist system now provides enormous barriers for the poor all over this country. If the have-nots are to believe that their vote counts, that they should take advantage of academic opportunities, or that they should deal with the information technology that is rushing towards them, they will have to overcome these social and cultural barriers. They will have to overthrow the idea that experts or professionals are better equipped than they are for making decisions about their lives. The have-nots will have to believe in their own leadership, platforms, and programs. With this confidence in place, they will not be using networks to become involved; they will use them because they are already involved.
Proponents of electronic networking have been focusing almost exclusively on how these networks will make it easier for people to get access to the broader national and international scene. But for fragmented and alienated communities, local issues are often essential for pulling together. If networks focus the attention of the poor outside their community, then the networks will provide just one more obstacle to addressing local concerns. To make the information "superhighways" of the future more democratic, we need to think like SNCC. We need to look for ways to make networks helpful in promoting local issues and local leadership. We need to try to discover ways that this technology can help neighbors work on projects that affect their lives together. Networking should help people tell their own stories and develop their own programs „ not simply help them to consume more of the stories and programs that come from the experts. In this way, networking can help people recapture the magic of a community where everyone is important and each has something to offer.
As part of an MIT Media Lab project, I am now working on building such a network in Dorchester, the inner city Boston neighborhood where I live. The network is called MUSIC (Multi-User Sessions In Community), and works through a computer in my home. Some 20 people are connected to it, and use it to communicate about neighborhood issues „ from crime watches to food co-ops „ and to develop a neighborhood newsletter. The network provides an electronic infrastructure that is locally situated. When people in the neighborhood put it to use as an organizational tool, they demonstrate ownership in a way that can serve as a catalyst for new, neighborhood-based leadership and development. It is an experiment in overcoming the cultural obstacles to computer technology by connecting computer-networking with community-building.
The future of networking can either continue to disempower the have-nots or it can help turn the tide in their favor. Ultimately, however, the technology itself will not make the difference. Instead it will be the attitudes and philosophy that guide the use of the technology. If the system is geared toward national issues and away from local concerns, then networking will only be for the experts. If the system is geared toward providing services, rather than helping neighbors provide those services to one another, then it will be used by professionals to produce and by the rest of society to consume. But if networking can support shared local initiatives, then the information highways of the future can help the have-nots to find their individual and collective voices in a world that seems intent on drowning them out.

A View From the Breakdown Lane

Sven Birkerts

I read Mitchell Kapor's article with great interest, and so long as my reactions stayed within the general thought circuit of the essay I was mainly nodding my agreement. But I was also aware of a gradually mounting sense of disquiet, the source of which, I finally realized, was not to be found in the essay itself, in what it said, but outside in the realm where assumptions and unstated issues reside. First, I was troubled "obliquely" by the ready conflation of terms, those pertaining to the New Information Highway and those invoking the Jeffersonian vision of participatory democracy. It is not that the discourses cannot be connected with a bit of transitional ingenuity even the Bhagavad Gita and The Critique of Pure Reason can inform one upon the other. But I understood Kapor as suggesting that the information highway can actually serve and enhance a Jeffersonian egalitarianism. And here we part company. As I see it, the techno-web and the democratic ideal are in opposition. Our whole economic and technological obsession with getting "on line" is leading us away; not from democracy, necessarily, but from the premise that individualism and circuited interconnectedness are, at a primary level, inimical notions. Warring terms. Let me make what looks like a digression before returning to this idea. In the later chapters of his intellectual biography, The Education of Henry Adams, Adams reported on a revelation he experienced at the Great Exposition of 1900. In the chapter entitled "The Dynamo of the Virgin," he adduced the two great forces that, in a manner of speaking, divided the world between them. One was the dynamo, the apotheosis of applied mechanics, of which he wrote:
The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm's-length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring; scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair's-breadth further for respect of power „ while it would not wake the baby lying close against its frame. The other, the Virgin, the force of faith and inwardness, "was still felt at Lourdes, and seemed to be as potent as x-rays," but in rude America her influence was almost negligible. Still, it would be between dynamo and Virgin, those representative centers of opposing force, that our personal and societal fortunes would be sorted out.
Adams's formulation, construed metaphorically - perhaps more metaphorically than he himself intended it - has been in my thoughts often, first as an explanatory trope for our own present-day situation, later as the template for a new trope, one more suited to our transformed culture. These days I don't think in terms of dynamo and Virgin: I think of circuit and therapist. The terms are less grand than Adams's, but they lend themselves better to the facts of the case. As the dynamo brought industrialism to its zenith in the middle of our century, so now has the microscopic mazework of the silicon chip extended the promise of an electronic future. And where the Virgin was once the locus of spirit and care, protectress of the interior life, the new site of power, now secular, is the office of the trained and well-paid therapeutic specialist. Like Adams's, mine are symbolic orders in opposition. But mine, unlike his, connect; they are not mutually exclusive. Where the circuit makes possible „ maybe inevitable „ a life lived largely through mediated interactions (fax, e-mail, ATM banking, home shopping networks, etc.), often leading to an obscure sense of subjective dissolution, of unreality (once called anomie), the therapist is the agent of repair and reconstitution. The electronic involvement leaches traditional meaning and sense of self by shattering the basic space and time coordinates we have always oriented ourselves by, the therapeutic looks to develop the narratives that, if they cannot restore wholeness, can at least offer some compensation for its loss.
To put it yet another way: being "on line" and having the subjective experience of depth, of existential coherence, are mutually exclusive situations. This is because electricity and inwardness are fundamentally discordant. Electricity - and the whole circulatory network predicated upon it - is about immediacy; it is in the nature of the current to surmount impedences. Electricity is, implicitly, of the moment - NOW. Depth, meaning, and the narrative orchestrations of subjectivity - these are not now; they flourish only in that order of time that
Henri Bergson called "duration." Duration is deep time, time experienced without the awareness of time passing. Until quite recently - I would not want to put a date to it - most people on the planet lived mainly in terms of duration time. Time undivided, shaped around natural rhythmic cycles. Time bound to the integrated functioning of the senses, the perceptions.
We have destroyed that duration „ we have created invisible elsewheres that are as immediate as our actual surroundings; we have fractured the flow of time, layered it into competing simultaneities. We learn to do five things at once or pay the price. We have plunged ourselves into an environment of invisible signals and operations, live in a world where it is as unthinkable to walk five miles to visit with a friend as it was once unthinkable to speak across that distance through an electrical wire. The hardwiring of the nation proceeds apace. The infrastructure is being set into place; the control battles are now being fought. We are not about to turn from the millennial remaking of the world - indeed, we are all excited to see just how much power and ingenuity we command. By degrees - it is happening year by year, appliance by appliance - we are wiring ourselves into a hive. Life in the near future will take place among an exciting and maddening and deeply distracting hum of signals. When everyone is "on line," when the circuits are cracking, the impulses speeding every which way like thoughts in a fevered brain, we will have to re-think our definitions of individuality and our time-honored ideals of subjective individualism. And of the privacy that has always pertained thereto. It may already be time. But to undertake such a reconsideration of ourselves - our private and collective selves - we will have to dispense with certain illusions. One of the deepest and most fiercely held may be that proposed by the Jeffersonian paradigm. I have no trouble, then, with anything in Kapor's presentation. But what alarms me, not just about his essay but in general, is that the terms of this most massive change are bandied about - accepted - with no debate. No one is stepping forth to suggest that there might be something at stake, that the headlong race to wire ourselves might, in accordance with the gain-loss formulae that apply in every sphere of human endeavor like the laws of physics, threaten or diminish us in some way. To me the wager is intuitively clear - we gain access and efficiency at the expense of depth; we gain global connectedness at the expense of subjective self-awareness. I am not ready to trade, and I wonder how the man from Monticello would vote could we bring him back for a moment from the informationless realm of the dead.

The Not So Free Flow of Information

Richard Stallman

I share Mitch Kapor's enthusiasm for the possibilities of the new information highway. But powerful interests that stand to lose may block its potential. The central advantage of digital information technology lies in making it easier to copy and change information. That is good for everyone except those who would like to control what we can copy and change - those who
are considered the owners of the information. Historically, each step forward in technology tends to be accompanied by a compensating step backward of the social arrangements governing its use. It is virtually a law of nature: as technical change makes it easier to manipulate with information, the owners impose new rules to make sure we can't really take advantage of it.
Consider some examples:
In the 1980s, MIT experimented with digital broadcast of news articles. Participants in the experiment had to sign a contract agreeing 1) not to show any of the articles to anyone else, 2) not to save more than an insignificant fraction of the articles received, and 3) to destroy all saved articles on demand. If the newspaper publishers tried to impose such restrictions on printed newspapers, readers would rise to defend their traditional rights. Imagine the outrage if readers could be told not to show clippings to a friend - or ordered to destroy them. But when these restrictions were imposed on electronic newspapers, hardly a complaint was heard. That's because electronic distribution was new, with no traditions to serve as a basis for comparison. Meanwhile, the early participants were technofans, attracted by new technology and not interested in social adjuncts. Over the coming decades, electronic distribution will grow and paper distribution will shrink. If electronic newspapers ultimately replace print, the result will be new restrictions on newspaper reading. When your favorite newsdaily stops publishing on paper, and you are forced to accept restrictions to continue to read it, the restrictions won't be new - just new for you.
2. Digital music broadcasting is just becoming available, but record companies have already proposed laws to restrict what they call the "celestial juke box."
Aiming to placate the record companies, broadcasters have taken steps to make their service less convenient. For example, they do not preannounce songs: the idea is to discourage listeners from exercising their right to record the broadcast for repeated listening in the future. Record companies are not satisfied with that; they demand the power to control whether a record can be broadcast. This power is something they have never had. Traditionally, music broadcasters have not needed to get permission to play a song; any station can play any song (but must pay for doing so). What kinds of consequences could result from this power? Music video is broadcast much like music - but, because it contains visual material, copyright law treats it differently: broadcasters must ask for permission for each individual video they play. MTV has been accused of using this, together with its commanding market position, to stamp out competitors - by telling producers, in effect, that they would broadcast videos only if competing stations were not give permission. It's difficult to verify this accusation, but there are countless examples of other businesses which have been caught using such methods. Of course, that problem can happen only if a broadcaster is more powerful than the production companies.
Since record companies are more powerful than digital broadcasters, different problems will result. They will surely try to make it even harder for us to record broadcast music. Perhaps they will permit digital broadcasting only with some mechanism to prevent home taping. Perhaps they will simply say "No" whenever asked for permission, and thus block all digital broadcasting. They may have other clever ideas - after all, they can afford to have smart people working full time on how to use this power once they get it. The US legal system says that the aim and justification for copyright is to serve the interest of users, not that of copyright holders. So why do we accept laws that place the owners above the users? Because of exaggeration and unclear thinking. We are told that copyright must be very strong to ensure the production of information. But the owners gloss over the difference between creative individuals and media companies, between money to live on and royalties in particular, between needing a living and craving money above all, between diminished affluence and starvation, between possibility and certainty. When they get through, a possible future reduction in publishers' profits is magnified into starvation for everyone creative.
The pattern is clear. If the new information highway really allows us to exchange information, it will tend to undermine the control that information owners want. Since they are wealthy and well organized, they will try to limit what we can do with the information highway to what suits them. This will hold it back from its democratic potential „ unless users organize to prevent this.
[Copyright notice: Verbatim copying of this article from the Boston Review is permitted provided this notice is preserved.]

Reflections on the Information Highway

Vinton Cerf

Mitch Kapor mentions a three-point consensus in which the National Information Infrastructure will be provided by the private sector, based on fiber and other technologies (i.e., "hybrid"), and driven by movie delivery to residential viewers.
1. With regard to private sector provisioning and operation of the National Information Infrastructure, I am largely in agreement although I think the US government will continue to build and operate mission-oriented and government-use networks, possibly doing so via contract with the private sector. The government's involvement in health and social security services, to say nothing of information service to the public, will surely place it in the middle of any information infrastructure that evolves. Public good concerns may also place the government in traditional oversight or even regulatory roles as the NII evolves and its socio-economic impact can be observed.
I certainly agree that the NII will make use of a variety of communication networks. I'd like to emphasize, however, that NII must be far more than merely a means for transmitting digitized information. To make it work as a business infrastructure, an enormous amount of software and a vast number of critical services must be placed on-line and configured to support interactions between myriad software packages operating in personal computers and workstations scattered throughout the telecommunications fabric.
2. Kapor says that it is "unnecessary and too expensive to replace the last segment into the home with fiber optics." He may well be right, but the cable companies managed to install enormous capacity (120 TV channels in many systems) to residential subscribers. The point that this capacity is one-way and not switched is well taken. I believe, however, that there will be increasing desire for two-way, switched, high bandwidth communication for business and eventually residential customers. In the latter case, one can readily imagine "play group" entertainment as a driving factor, just as "work group" and "work flow" notions seems to be current buzzwords in the business sector.
3. Finally, with regard to NII being driven by home movie delivery, I remain agnostic if not skeptical about the economics. An interesting, if perhaps unlikely, alternative scenario has the cable companies using some of the cable capacity to deliver data services to residential users. Performance Systems International and Continental Cable have begun to offer this service in the Boston area and others have announced plans to follow suit. In this case, switched service is provided to customers by deriving an Ethernet-like service from the cable. The bandwidths involved permit considerable amounts of data and compressed voice/video to be carried and could readily support telecommuting and work/play group scenarios. Whether the economics of such a service are compatible with budgets and interests still remains to be seen, of course. Kapor raises the concern that the evolution of the NII will lead to information "haves and have-nots." In a world where information access is increasingly vital to workaday survival, this is a concern of some magnitude. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) impinges here as well, since much of that legislation effectively deals with access to information, among other things. The ADA implicitly recognizes the importance of ready access to information and supports legitimate concerns that the NII not disenfranchise any part of the society. One must be honest, however, and recognize that it has always been the case that the more affluent parts of our society have had far better information access than the less affluent. I think the real issue is the desire to set a minimum level of information access which is provided at lowest cost or perhaps even subsidized in the way the public library system has been subsidized.
Regarding the competition between cable service companies and telephone companies (local and inter-exchange), I think the core battle will be over switched services. Here, the telephone companies have a great deal of experience, but this is rather limited on the data side (leaving out modem-based data services which are essentially invisible to the telephone companies). Neither cable nor telephone service providers have much experience with subscriber-based computer-mediated communications. (Well, I suppose X.25 counts for something but that's been the province of value-added resellers for the most part).
In the midst of all the elephants stomping around in the landscape, I hope that it will not be lost on the consumers and the government that continuous competition is a key element of price reduction and efficiency.
By continuous competition, I mean to suggest that provision of telecommunication services by means of infrequently recompeted franchise is a poor approach. The fact that one can change inter-exchange carriers readily and even from one telephone call to the next has been an important factor in keeping competitive pressures high and prices low. I believe that the services embedded in the NII should have the characteristic that they are in constant competition for private and public sector business and that barriers to entry into NII services be kept as low as possible by careful structuring of the architecture of the NII.
I am in complete agreement with Kapor's key observation: "Universal service is the baby which must not be thrown out with the bathwater of a dysfunctional regulatory system." I don't consider myself competent to judge the regulatory system, but want to endorse the value and importance of maintaining a universal service objective as a national imperative.
With regard to open system specifications and the NII, I agree that public availability and open processes for specification are very attractive. While it is true that privately-defined network specifications (e.g., IBM's SNA, Digital Equipment Corporation's DECNET, Novell's IPX) have been very successful in the market, the openly developed TCP/IP protocol suite of the Internet has captured the most rapid growth curve in telecommunications history. Open specifications are not a guarantee, however. The OSI protocols were similarly specified in public processes but failed to achieve the same penetration as TCP/IP.
Kapor's concern about the "same old television pie" despite larger numbers of channels is well-taken, but perhaps is overtaken if one considers the possibilities inherent in broadband switched services. If at reasonable cost any group of consumers can be linked in a multicast conference, some participating and some just watching, we may find a diversity as wide as the print medium and perhaps even more readily accessible.
I liked the regulatory principles that Kapor listed but would add one important public good concern. As the NII evolves, penetrates the socio-economic landscape and becomes fundamental to daily living, its reliability and robustness will become a paramount concern. The engineers who design it, the operators who provide service, the programmers who provide the software that uses it, and the policy-makers who oversee it must, without exception, make every effort to assure reliable service. Failure to pay careful attention to this requirement will only serve to paint a fragile future for all of us.
For readers who wonder what it will be like to have a ubiquitous, global information infrastructure, there is a growing community of Internet users who have been living in the nearest facsimile for many years. I would like to invite you to join the Internet Society and learn more.

Software in the Driver's Seat

by Nathan Myhrvold

We at Microsoft read with interest Mitch Kapor's insightful analysis of the digital information highway. We agree that control, freedom, diversity, openness, and accessibility will indeed determine the viability and long-term success of the emerging broadband network. However, additional critical methodologies and technologic approaches need to be addressed and acknowledged before we can begin to ensure that the so-called "digital information highway" meets the needs of consumers in the long term. Customers will ultimately choose their personalized methods of information access when and in the ways they want it whether it's cable, telephone wires, or wireless carrying the content. How it works and what network is utilized are insignificant to the user, as they should be. It doesn't matter if, as Kapor states, the cable companies are in a good position to succeed. The network should, and we believe will, be neutral. We believe software technology will allow disparate networks to plug into the highway and work synergistically to ensure that Jeffersonian ideals will prevail: access, openness, freedom, and control for the individual.
Centuries before the revolutionary democratic theories of Jefferson were adopted, a powerful new information technology liberated Europe and its people: the Gutenberg printing press. This 15th century technology gave the world an information distribution vehicle that influenced the evolution of humankind. This dissemination process raised the education level of the masses and opened new worlds of invention. It put the control of content and its use literally in the hands of readers. It directly delivered the world's ideas and resources to the individual, carrying insight across sociological as well as geographical boundaries. This advent of mass communications revolutionized politics, religion, science, and literature and redefined the quality of life for all. This dramatic impact wasn't driven by the availability of content but by the means of distribution. Great philosophical, mathematical, and religious works existed long before the printing press. Yet it was the ability to access information that rewrote the world. The same has occurred with each major advancement in information dissemination: the telephone, movies, radio, and television all reshaped the world. Today, we're on the brink of another life-altering transformation.
The emerging digital information networks have the potential to impact the world and free the individual in ways that extend beyond the Gutenberg revolution. And the computer industry, specifically software technology, will play a critical role. Software is the technologic enabler and essential link that will ensure that the broadband network vision materializes in ways that not only give the consumer more access to meaningful information but, more important, bring increased personal choice and control over the flow of facts and content. Without software, the network is nothing more than wires and switches. Cables and fiber optics are, in a sense, a nervous system without the brain. The wiring is in place, but movement is paralyzed without direction and impulses from the brain. Similarly, without software, the highway networks and machines will be incapable of responding to even the simplest command or forwarding the smallest message. Software will actually "pull" the information through the physical network: the computer's switches and wires. It will be the key to making the digital highway as fluid, ubiquitous, and taken for granted as our water supply, plumbing, electricity, or telephone. Software will make hardware appliances that use the infrastructure truly interactive smart machines. What will make the network valuable are information appliances that process the flow of information in useful applications. To date, when people have talked about a national information infrastructure, most of the discussion has focused on the physical networks. Although this medium is incredibly important, it undervalues the importance of the infrastructure and the role software will play. An example is electricity. At one level are the power plants, transmission lines, transformers, and outlets in the home that provide the electricity. But the exciting thing isn't the electricity itself; it is the appliances we plug into the outlets and the things they enable us to do.
What's more, in our view, software can play a necessary part in ensuring interoperability and connectivity across the networks. For example, you may want to use the same information or content in a variety of machines and have the ability to transmit the information between different types of machines everywhere. The idea is that data needed in business, school, or the home should be instantly accessible from these digital appliances. Software needs to make them simple to use, adaptable, and powerful. The neutrality of the network, facilitated by software, will serve as a catalyst to help accelerate the deployment of the network. Software that is network-neutral, openly accessible to all those who are interested, and supported by a variety of industries including cable, telecommunications, and entertainment will help speed the delivery of the digital highway to consumers.
Software will provide ways in which consumers can filter the flow of information and allow people to experience content in formats most meaningful to them. It will provide guides that help the consumer navigate oceans of information, and locate or create that which is useful or desired. Kapor is correct in his analysis of the immediate economic opportunities and applications presented by the highway. Yet we want to stretch the imagination of its users and encourage exploration into the myriad ways Americans will eventually tap into this stream of information. In addition to pay-for-view movies, home shopping, and on-line services, we believe the more interesting areas are those opportunities that exist in applications that enhance the wealth, quality, and evolution of society as a whole: opportunities, for example, in health care, education, library and government document access, and manufacturing. On another grand scale, the information highway will dissolve the geographical boundaries that have, in the past, prevented meaningful person-to-person communication. It will open new venues and methods of exchange that will encourage the accelerated advancement of society.
Like the Gutenberg press, the evolution of the digital highway will be steady and exponential, but it will nonetheless be a dynamic, life-changing evolution. This is not a gold rush. It will be a long time before we truly realize the richness and potential of this future infrastructure.
It's a new continent, a new frontier to be explored over time with a lot of hard work. This is, however, a tremendous opportunity for companies now to begin building a base; and there is plenty of room for many businesses and industries to prosper along with society and its individual members.

Mitchell Kapor Responds:

While I don't share the full emotionalism of Richard Stallman's Manichean view of the universe, I think we would agree that the successful resolution of intellectual property battles over ownership and control of information will be central to the success of the information highway. The problem is greatly exacerbated by a copyright regime which is well-suited to a world in which print has been the dominant medium, but very poorly suited to a digital era. The result, I am afraid, will be that copyright holders will cling to a rigid system which is bound, in the end, to be overturned and replaced by something else which is more resonant with the fluidity of the digital medium, but only after much needless struggle, frustration for users, and possible delays in on-line availability of information sources.
Concerning the issues raised by Sven Birkerts, I have this to say: in my view we suffer from an excess of individualism in this society, which manifests itself in the raging currents of selfishness, fear, alienation, and numbness which characterize life in America on the edge of the Millennium. The role networks and the allied media of bulletin boards and computer-mediated conferencing can play as the basics for the enhancement of community, both physical and virtual, is perhaps their strongest contribution to our common well-being. If the information highway is nothing but an excuse for a new exercise in collective vidiocy, then their worst fears will have been realized. If the system is allowed to develop along the Jeffersonian lines I have suggested, and in the ways being developed by Alan Shaw in his community-oriented grassroots network, then perhaps we can avoid the darker future scenarios. The importance of access, as raised by both Shaw and Vint Cerf, is worth emphasizing. The principle of equitable access to basic services is an integral part of the national's public switched telephone network. Since the divestiture of AT&T, many of the internal cross-subsidies that supported the "social contract" of universal service have fallen away. Recreation of old patterns of subsidy may no longer be possible or necessarily desirable, but serious thought must be given to sources of funds that will guarantee that the economically disadvantaged will still have access to basic communications services. In a competitive telecommunications environment, regulatory paradigms must be industry neutral and treat all similarly situated providers equally. Interconnection and universal service fund obligations should apply to all entities that provide telecommunications service, regardless of the traditional industry category with which they are associated. The scope of these obligations should certainly be proportionate to a company's market presence, but otherwise, all who choose to provide telecommunications services should be subject to the same requirements.


HOME OIKOS BACK