Everyone knows that middle-aged sexual predators lurk in chatrooms, posing as insecure tweens looking for a friend; or friend other insecure tweens on MySpace; or that if you don’t lock up your wireless network tight, terrorists are going to tap into it and turn your naivete into massive-scale crime; or that that email with the suspicious subject line is a virus that’s going to delete all your files (even if you do have a Mac); and that if you don’t forward this message of holiday cheer to 42 people by midnight, an axe murderer will sneak into your room at 3 am and— ZZSWAR9ARG7Z
You get the point. There are dangers hiding behind every hyperlink.
I don’t mean to be flippant (no, that’s a lie; I do, but it’s strictly rhetorical)—the Internet can be a scary place, and scary people use it. I’m all for parental controls and spam queues. What I’m not for is the underlying premise beneath Internet fear-mongering—because it’s not always just “Stranger Danger.”
Some of the outcry against danger (or obscenity, or perversion, etc, et al) comes with a call to action that frightens me more than any technological boogeyman—if the Internet is dangerous because it’s so open, because anyone can do, really, anything, why not regulate?
In 1993, SF author Bruce Sterling (“Junk DNA,” remember?) wrote an article called “A Short History of the Internet,” which you can find in its entirely online, and which I highly recommend. For my part, I’ll focus on just a few key facts, some of the points from the reading assignment for today’s American Studies lecture on “The Internet Revolution.” So:
1. The very openness and decentralization of the Internet that makes it “dangerous” was built into its most basic structure—from the perspective of a Cold War scientist, you see, a communication network would have to be as decentralized as possible in order to still function after a nuclear holocaust wiped out God-knew-where in the United States. With this in mind, the less authority—the better (sounds strange for a military-government program, doesn’t it?).
2. And after decades of evolution, that’s what we still have: no authority. Sterling asks:
Why do people want to be “on the Internet?” One of the main reasons is simple freedom. The Internet is a rare example of a true, modern, functional anarchy. There is no “Internet Inc.” There are no official censors, no bosses, no board of directors, no stockholders. In principle, any node can speak as a peer to any other node, as long as it obeys the rules of the TCP/IP protocols, which are strictly technical, not social or political.
Sixteen years after those words hit shelves in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and that’s still true: it’s simple science fact, and no less amazing for it.
Online, you are what you type, upload, or post—identities are fluid. It’s true that might mean a fifty-year-old man staring at a glowing screen in his basement could pretend to be a junior high girl on a some Edward Cullen fan site, but it also means that young Peter Wiggin can blog and be seen by the world as an elder statesman.
It’s freedom to be creative without the stigma of age, sex, race, or anything else that might lead someone to prejudge you before looking at your work or ideas: online, you are your ideas.
Blogger and SF writer Cory Doctorow’s name (which I feel I mention every other post) is almost synonymous with Internet freedom. Publishing his novels under a Creative Commons license for free distribution online (DRM-free, I might add), Doctorow could almost be a character from one of his own books—Alan/Adam/Albert/Avi, for example, from Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, spends the time he’s not brooding about his troubled childhood as the eldest son of a mountain and a washing machine, setting up a free, open, wireless network for the people of his local town.
(I did say almost a character.) In any case, he practices what he preaches, and in all his books shows just how cool our world is. I’m going to have to quote Makers again– we’re living in the “weirdest and best time” in the history of the world. Witness the astonishing success of modern anarchy:
“No one needed to draw a map of the Web,” Kurt said, “It just grew and people found its weird corners on their own. Networks don’t need centralized authority, that’s just the chains on your mind talking.”
I have to give my professor credit—revolution was a good title for the lecture. Even after our first Revolution, observers (read: Alexis de Tocqueville) noticed a tension in American society between liberty and equality, freedom and democracy. Oftentimes, they clash (see any debate on social welfare programs—the object is equality of outcome, but at the expense of freedom to use and dispose of one’s property, money).
But no political arguments in this post about liberty and equality: the anarchy of the Internet is one of the only places where you don’t really have to choose.