Save the Wave

An Open Letter to Cyber-Intellectuals

by Dan Carol

It's great that netizens are actively stepping up to protect privacy on the Internet -- but it concerns us if that's as far as the emerging political thinking of the on-line age goes.

The current beta-philosophy that many of the cyber-elite tout -- brand name: Libertarian-Lite -- is a clunker. Libertarian-Lite is spelled out most clearly in your Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age , a document whose title suggests an exposition of fundamental rights and privileges. In the Magna Carta and elsewhere we're told that the Third Wave will free us -- apparently inevitably -- from the shackles of mass American culture and permit us to find our own custom-fit cyber- communities on-line. These communities will be free of the trials and tensions of our geographically-defined Second Wave lives because we will associate only with others who have chosen to share our virtual space.

Yet exactly how is this all to come to pass? You lead us to believe that the promised electrosphere will follow naturally once government has stepped aside and freed the telecommunications industry to build the network from which we will chart the new frontier. In this on-line utopia, bureaucracies and standardization will give way to uniqueness and rugged individualism not seen since the last covered wagon headed westward over the plains. It all sounds fine and dandy -- as long as you live in a gated community with a pastel SGI Indy and T-1 lines. For non-netizens, the rosy scenario painted by the Magna Carta sounds like so much techno-trickle-down. Outside these gates, the world will still be an unruly -- and substantially unwired -- place. The vision of civic life that you offer -- a combination of paid security guards, privatized trash collection, and an automated IRS that debits our accounts to pay for national defense -- offers little to the unconnected. When do we start looking outside the gates and toward solutions for everyone?

It might all work when the day comes that we realize Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's vision and are nothing but brains in one big vat (see Wired 3.06 ). But until then, we think the Libertarian-Lite vision is not only not inevitable, as you would have people believe, but also undesirable and dangerously elitist. Can we ignore the real risks of the telecom bill -- industry consolidation and cream-skimming (remember airline deregulation?). And can we just assume that "perfect information" will exist on the net -- or will electronic democracy be just another market of ideas ripe for manipulation.

Right about now your knee-jerk, I've-transcended-politics, you-don't-know- cyberspace-like-I-know-cyberspace attitude is probably kicking into high gear -- we've seen it before. But before you write us off as neo-Luddites unfit to shine Alvin Toffler's shoes, you should know that in many ways we're living out your vision for the future: we work "together" from five different cities, we design web pages for clients, we're on the net daily both seeking and providing information. We don't quibble with your description of cyberspace as a virtual universe in which people choose where to visit and what to see and do. Nor do we disagree that voluntary cyber- communities of people who share interests and/or values can flourish under self-rule with no interference from governments, terrestrial or otherwise.

We just are thinking...that your political thinking...needs a serious upgrade.

Of course, you may not be willing to acknowledge that there are problems with your neo-isolationist, love-it-or-leave-it philosophy. T his is a First Wave but still highly relevant phenomenon called hubris. Are you willing to consider that your prophecies of cyber gold might not have all the answers? (Let's be real: the Magna Carta glosses over a few practical issues like, say, employment, education, crime, and health care rationing.) Second, you might consider acknowledging the critical fact that civic life -- on or off the net -- is about managing and distributing power; nixing government from the equation and replacing it with companies won't change that. Even Plato's Philosopher-Kings had that much self-awareness. (If you need a primer, The Republic is available at

Lastly, your utopian vision -- Libertarian-Lite -- sounds good because it suggests no actions outside of cyberspace are of consequence. In your world, government and politics are dirty realities best ignored, lest you have to take responsibility for the world beyond your domain name. But in the real world, governments and people are still acting upon each other with real consequences -- the utopian's conflict described so well by Jean-Paul Sartre in his Dirty Hands . In sum, meaningful new wave politics can't ignore the real world we live in.

So stop promising things you can't deliver. First off, people can't be empowered by technology they don't have or cannot use -- and like it or not access to information technologies or the lack thereof are facts of the material world. To pretend otherwise is short-sighted -- where's your plan to spread the technologies that are shaping your lives and your future?

Stop implying that allowing cable and telephone companies to do as they wish will absolutely lead to a rosy society of self-confident, intellectually thriving, engaged people. In her recent New York Times piece on cyberspace ("If You Don't Love It, Leave It" , 7/16/95), Cybernationalist Esther Dyson writes, for example, that cyberspace "liberates us from the tyranny of government where everyone lives by the rule of the majority." Why is liberation for all more likely than the plunder-for-profit bonanza for a few that has resulted in the past when we have laid open our resources for the free use of oil companies or gold miners, for example? Maybe it comes down to whether you believe that Ray Smith and John Malone think that $20 per month PPP accounts are a good idea -- or bad for business.

Stop selling the idea that shifting power from government to giant technology conglomerates will automatically erase social problems and free everyone to live fulfilled lives. Your own prophet William Gibson doesn't. He recognizes that the very existence of cyberspace is predicated on pre- existing power and control relationships in the terrestrial world. Don't forget that what you are talking about are VIRTUAL communities, and that the simple rule-by-peer-pressure that may be the glue that binds in cybersociety won't necessarily port over to our REAL communities where we can't just boot people out of our cyber-sandboxes. Off-line, we'll still have different needs, values, education levels, and incomes -- cyberspace alone can't change that.

And stop pretending that the move away from heavy industries and toward knowledge-based industries is cost-free. Manufacturing high-tech products takes its toll: according to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition there are more Superfund dumps in The Silicon Valley than anywhere else in the country. We must also recognize the Orwellian language that glosses over a new value system that routinely touts productivity over people (Here's one recent headline: "MCI Reports Rise in Profits and Plan for a 7% Staff Cut.") If this and the concept of working more and making less is a preview of the upcoming "release", we might just stick with the older version, thank you very much. These issues are real and will never be solved with a friendly IRC session.

Even the most vaunted benefit of the virtual age -- telecommuting -- is not cost-free to society. We may come to regret the dispersed development patterns made possible by this flexibility -- development which turns farm fields into Office Depots while our cities decline. Of course, the Magna Carta has an answer for netizens concerned with urban decay. It promises that the spread of computing will "allow people [read: we gainfully employed digerati] to live further away from crowded or dangerous urban areas" -- conveniently ignoring the people who live in those urban areas and don't have the option to flee.

In The Third Wave , the Tofflers explain that the costs of transforming to a Third Wave society are real, not virtual. Yet no one in the cyberspace elite seems to give a damn. But if we don't make the change correctly, we will be leaving half of our real nation behind. If you have given up thinking in terms of human beings, fine. Think of the economics. Ship builders to chip builders? Go ask the people of Fort Collins, Colorado who are losing their jobs because Hyundai is moving its chip plant to a better tax shelter.

To us, meaningful Third Wave politics will encourage people to be as engaged and active in their off-line communities as cyber-intellectuals would have them be in their on-line lives. We don't want our on-line lives to supplant terrestrial lives we feel powerless to change. We want the tools of the digital age to help us not only grow as individuals and explore our interests with like-minded people across the globe, but also to help us be more powerful and connected in the geographic communities we call home. You're right to assert that people feel distanced from the decision-making process. But neat high-tech toys and decentralized decision-making in the tiniest of communities are not going to save the day. The answer is to encourage people to use the tools of technology to get active at the grassroots in both their real and virtual communities and try to force decision-makers to be more responsive to the people they purportedly represent.

Here's a suggestion: instead of fantasizing about an unlikely utopia as though its realization is a foregone conclusion, try leading by example and use your command of cyberspace to make a difference in some meaningful corner of civic life. Or help us take baby steps toward the self-actualized lives you describe by recommending policies that do more than deregulate the telecommunications industry -- policies, for example, that will educate and equip the children of the Third Wave to contribute to their communities both on- and off-line. Or push for measures that will help ease the economic blow of jobs lost to automation -- before we become a nation of freelancers -- some with $100-per-hour gigs and others scraping by at $4.35. You're smart people who have mastered tools the rest of the world is only beginning to understand. Why not save the wave you started -- before it washes out.

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