The Myth of Digital Nirvana

MEME 2.03

United Nodes of Internet -- are we forming a digital nation?

The Myth of Digital Nirvana

David S. Bennahum


Some people believe cyberspace is separate from the realities of the physical world. They argue that cyberspace, because it is "not where bodies live" is the inevitable catalyst which will usher in a new, better world.

The CDA is then just another example of foolish, ham-fisted government.

Government, according to these prophets, a vestige of primitive society, will soon become obsolete, replaced by a society of mind. So who cares what governments think? Why not just wait out these times of troubles until the new world is unveiled? Don't roll your eyes yet -- serious people, at least serious in the sense that they get media attention and the public sees them as representatives of cyberspace, argue that:

"This bill was enacted upon us by people who haven't the slightest idea who we are or where our conversation is being conducted. It is, as my good friend and Wired Editor Louis Rossetto put it, as though 'the illiterate could tell you what to read.'([,..])

That quote comes from "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace," by John Perry Barlow. Barlow, a co- founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, former Grateful Dead tunemaster (an American rock and roll band) and cattle rancher is perceived by the public and the media as a messenger representing the views of a new wired culture. So, his opinions do matter.

This declaration of independence, written the week after the CDA became law, is the best encapsulation to date of all that is wrong with seeing cyberspace as separate from the rest of the world. It is wrong because it invites people to ignore reality, and sit with their thumbs in their eyes while the real world passes them by.

Reality Check

The Internet received direct US Federal funding until April of 1995, through the National Science Foundation which managed the high-capacity fiber backbone (in April, management was turned over to private industry). Today the Internet receives indirect Federal funding through government agencies which use the Internet to distribute information to the public and from Federal research grants to universities conducting research that the US government wants to promote. NASA is one such institution, MIT is another.

All the protocols governing the exchange of information through the Internet -- things like FTP, TCP/IP, HTTP, SMTP -- were set by standards bodies, a de facto kind of government.

The Internet is a wonderful product, the beneficiary of a rare kind of international cooperation. In a world where the dynamics of the free market are hailed as the best way to manage systems, the Internet is a great, and fascinating, example of a successful collective. Too easily we dismiss this phenomenon, but the development of the Internet is remarkable. It flies in the face of those who argue government is inherently inefficient and tyrannical -- a vestige of some primitive cycle in human evolution. I cannot fathom how Internet users like Barlow can dismiss the importance or role of government in shaping this medium, and that it can have no positive influence from now on. Was the US government not a primary influence behind the development of the Internet, from 1969 (the year the Pentagon started funding research on packet networks) to 1995?

In the world of polemic, invective and hyperbole, history is nothing more than fiction to be manipulated to suit the appropriate end. So when Barlow trashes government by claiming:

"Cyberspace does not lie within your borders. Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project. You cannot. It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions."

I look back at the Pentagon, the Defense Department, the American universities with Federal funds paying AT&T, Sun Microsystems, and others to build a network of cables and computers and telephone lines and I think, what is he talking about? Government built the heart of this thing with real money -- the kind you get by collecting taxes. An "act of nature" is a rain storm or the moon rising, it is not the spontaneous birthing of packet network spanning the globe.

Anyway, having ditched history, Barlow presents a simple solution to problems which might interest governments, like phone sex companies advertising their services through web-pages featuring nude women and orgasmic audio tracks:

"You claim there are problems among us that you need to solve. You use this claim as an excuse to invade our precincts. Many of these problems don't exist. Where there are real conflicts, where there are wrongs, we will identify them and address them by our means. We are forming our own Social Contract."

I'm wondering what it means to form a social contract in cyberspace, one with the kind of authenticity and authority of a constitution. Sounds great in theory, but I don't actually "live" in cyberspace -- I live in New York city, in the state of New York, in the United States of America. I guess I'm taking things too literally. Apparently my "mind" lives in cyberspace and that's what counts. It's my vestigial meat-package, also known as my body, which lives in New York. Government, geography, my body -- all are obsolete now thanks to "cyberspace that new home of mind," Barlow explains. That's why, speaking to government, Barlow argues:

"Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are based on matter. There is no matter here."

This philosophy is a Potemkin village, a sham of language, which serves to create its own self-contained universe of logic where the real world is always wrong and the cyber world is always right. It is not a universe I want to live in.

This is the cyberspace I know -- and there are lots of them.

The essay you are now reading is being disseminated, initially, to the readers of MEME -- a bi-weekly newsletter I author. At last check, MEME had 2500 subscribers in 54 different nations. A sample: Iran, Pakistan, Singapore, Turkey, Chile, India, Saudi Arabia, New Zealand, Japan, England, the United States, Ukraine. This is the world into which this essay goes.

What might I ask, are the binding values between the nations I mention above -- Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Secular -- Democracy, Monarchy, Theocracy? How do we "form our own Social Contract", as Barlow proposes? Is it realistically possible? Each and every reader of MEME is participating in the creation of Cyberspace. How, cutting through the digital polemic, do we then, as supposed "cyber-citizens" or "netizens" act in consort to form a community with the depth of complexity equivalent to a geographic nation?

The last time I checked, some of these countries on my subscription list were in state of near war, yet we are all expected to form some autonomous, self-governing community on-line, bypassing the very real history of Homo Sapiens? Unless the last 30,000 years of recorded human history are suddenly null and void, I think the odds of pulling that off in the near future are pretty low.

So this ostensible solution of creating a parallel government in cyberspace will not work anytime soon. Why is this then a center piece of debate over establishing standards for cyberspace?

What will work?

Computer networks and the communications they carry are products of people, and people live by geography, in physical space, under the rule of law.[...]

Lost in the shuffle may be the important fact of why cyberspace is worth nurturing: it is a medium, which for the first time in the history of the world, gives one person the power to reach another person or a million people equally easily. Never before has such power rested in hands of non-elites, such as television companies and governments. Wider access to power is the essence of what is great about the Internet, acting like vaccine for a world where information is consolidating into the hands of a few media-monoliths. But this power is also the source of the Internet's own potential undoing. Greater power for each of us requires greater responsibility. That's the flip side of the equation -- are we up to that challenge?

I see this as the start of an essential and self-defining discussion. I am extremely interested to hear from readers who do not live in the United States, especially those living under laws separate from the traditions of secular democracies. What is your impression of the limits of acceptable behavior in cyberspace? Can we reach a consensus, as a global medium? Do you feel the debate over free-speech in the United States is a universal debate, which speaks to you? Do you think, as a group, Internet users can form a community able to justly govern itself?

My intention is to gather these comments, and make them available to everyone in a future issue of MEME. If you wish to keep your identity confidential, I will do so. Your thoughts matter, because only through dialogue can we reach consensus.

Meme 2.03 and its contents copyright 1996 by David S. Bennahum. First spawned by Into The Matrix at Pass me along all you want, just include this signature file at the end.