Richard Thieme's Islands in the Clickstream

Freedom and the Net

The Fourth of July 1997

The recent decision by the Clinton Administration to advocate a free and open Internet and the U. S. Supreme Court decision in favor of free speech on the Net are acknowledgements that you can't catch an avalanche coming downhill.

It's always wisest -- and takes less energy -- to ride a horse in the direction its going. The nature of the Net undermines control of the free flow of information. When computer hackers say that "information wants to be free," they don't mean we ought to loot cyberspace, but that ideas and information in their very essence will propagate, that powerful ideas are contagious and multiply in the petri dish that is human culture.

A single idea, ripening at the right time, can not be stopped by all the NOs in the world.

For freedom to be meaningful, of course, we need a guarantee of privacy. Only strong encryption can guarantee the secure boundaries we need to be free. But that's another conversation.

The partisans of social control who want to impose mandatory rule-based behavior on the world are marshalling their forces for a counter attack. When your own safety requires that everyone live under the same rigid structure, you can never rest. Until the Ayatollahs have the guns and can write the rules, their anxiety keeps them awake at night, no matter how well the rest of us are sleeping. When one side is willing to compromise and the other can't, real dialogue is impossible.

Rules aren't bad, but rules are the beginning, not the end. Beyond all rules, there are meta-rules. Rules spell out exactly what to do in every situation. Meta-rules say, "Evaluate the situation and do the right thing."

How we position ourselves between rules and meta-rules determines our ability to tolerate ambiguity and complexity, trust the process of life, and trust others to regulate themselves without the benefit of our advice -- letting parents accept responsibility for using net censors, for example, rather than censoring the Net for them. Trusting others to learn how to be experts at living their own lives.

Which brings us to expert systems.

Expert systems are programs that attempt to capture the "rules" according to which human experts make decisions. Before neural nets and fuzzy logic, expert systems were strictly rule based.

"Knowledge engineers" attempted to codify the behavior of human experts as a series of if-then rules regulated by logic gates. When they elicited the heuristics or rules of thumb by which experts came to conclusions, however, they discovered that experts broke the rules all the time ... and knew WHEN to break them.

Beginners need context-free rules because they lack the wisdom of experience. Experts engage with the flow of life in all its complexity and richness. Experts respond intuitively to the bullets of real life fired at us every day at point blank range.

Example: Tim Hoeksema, President of Midwest Express Airlines, one of the great examples of a quality program in action, spoke of how hard it is for beginners to catch the "meta- rule" behind the written rules.

A ticket agent responded by the book when a woman at the counter requested a senior citizen discount. The rules required a picture ID to verify that she was over 65. Since she did not have one, the agent told her to pay full fare and send a copy of her ID later to get a refund.

Hoeksema received an angry letter from the woman's daughter, who had been with her at the counter. The DAUGHTER was in her 70s and noted that anyone could see that her mother was well into her 90s. But the ticket agent went by the rules because he did not know how to transcend the rules and access the reason for which the rules were written in the first place -- to ensure fair, incomparable customer service.

Example: Huckleberry Finn, at the end of the novel of the same name, was told to return the slave Jim to his rightful owner or face (1) legal sanctions for harboring stolen property and (2) eternal damnation for breaking God's laws.

Huck agonized all night before choosing to break the rules. "I'll go to hell then," he concluded.

The meta-rule -- "do the right thing" or "do the loving thing" -- required that he break the rules sanctioned by society and conventional religion.

Trusting people to "do the right thing" -- or learn from their mistakes how to do it next time -- can drive rule-based people crazy.

So the one supreme rule is ... if you don't know when to break the rules ... don't break the rules.

We only feel a need to impose a rigid structure on the flow of life when we are afraid that in our cores we are chaotic, that we are in danger of losing control at any moment, and without training wheels, we will never keep the bicycles of our lives upright. Those who live life out of a more secure center concede to others the freedom to learn from their experience. They trust the process of life to be self-correcting. Ultimately that trust is the ground of real faith, a faith that intuits an intelligence and energy animating and sustaining the universe and trusts it to do what it does best.

The Net, a simulation and celebration of life, invites the same kind of trust. That doesn't mean that anything goes. "There are roughly zones," wrote Robert Frost, boundaries that we recognize when we cross them. Aristotle defined the Golden Mean as a plumb line we need to "true ourselves up" but which we see over our shoulders as we tack back and forth across it. The trick is to tack closer and closer to the wind, measuring progress by our speed and the exhilarating experience of real freedom. We can't do that if we don't have room to maneuver.

The Internet -- like the world -- is best ruled by letting things take their course.

Islands in the Clickstream is a weekly column written by Richard Thieme exploring social and cultural dimensions of computer technology. Comments are welcome.

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Richard Thieme is a professional speaker, consultant, and writer focused on the impact of computer technology on individuals and organizations.

Islands in the Clickstream (c) Richard Thieme, 1997. All rights reserved.

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