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Mitch Kapor: Civilizing Cyberspace

The Rolling Stone interview with the visionary behind ‘Lotus 1-2-3’ and the Electronic Frontier Foundation

Mitch Kapor

Mitch Kapor

Ann E. Yow-Dyson/Getty Images

Mitch Kapor, one of the folk heroes of the computer revolution, has an uncanny knack for staying two steps ahead of the world around him. At Yale in the late Sixties he majored in a field – cybernetics – that few had even heard of. He was already through with transcendental meditation in the Seventies, just as every hipster in the country was taking it up. Then, in the early Eighties, when the first IBM PCs were hitting the stores, Kapor started a software company called Lotus and developed 1-2-3, the first spreadsheet program written specifically for the PC. Almost overnight, it became the bestselling applications program of all time. And Kapor became a very rich man.

Now, Kapor has moved on again. His latest adventure is the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which he founded in 1990, along with John Perry Barlow, a Grateful Dead lyricist and dedicated hacker.

EFF was born at the crossroads of Sixties idealism and Nineties technology, a kind of garage start-up civil-rights organization that has provoked debate about the design and texture of the coming digital era. In just under three years, EFF has become an important think tank for a wide range of technological and social issues, the public arbiter of what Kapor calls “a Jeffersonian vision of cyberspace.” That Kapor would find himself, at forty-two, engaged in a debate about electronic democracy could hardly have been predicated. He was born on Long Island into a solidly middle-class family, the oldest of two children. His father ran a’ corrugated-box factory and had dreams of his son becoming a college professor. But Kapor had his own ideas. After graduating from Yale, Kapor got a master’s degree in psychological counseling and eventually worked as a counselor in a mental-health clinic. “I soon realized that the best thing I could do for the profession of human services was to get out of it,” he says.

Kapor went on to flirt with a number of alternate lives, including a short stint as a stand-up comic. But then, in the late Seventies, he got his hands on an Apple II, and his life suddenly found direction. He taught himself how to write programming code and went to work for a few months as a consultant for Apple. But programming was never Kapor’s strength. He had an even rarer quality: an ability to see what could be done with a computer and a notion about how to implement it.

With the success of 1-2-3, Kapor was catapulted into a new world. Suddenly, he had a $6 million home on twenty-two acres in Brookline, Massachusetts, and was darting around the country on a private jet. But unlike his ex-rival Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, seemingly born with a robber baron’s compulsion to rule the world, Kapor quickly grew bored by corporate life. “A few years into it, I could already see that property lines were being drawn up, and it was pretty clear what the product categories were going to be,” he says. “It was turning into battles over market share-it was becoming like the detergent industry.” In 1986, at the height of Lotus’s success, he walked away.

Kapor had been fooling around with computer networks since the late Seventies, but it wasn’t until he stumbled onto the WELL, a small bulletin board operating out of the Bay Area, that he really understood their potential. “Being on-line was no longer a kind of sociological goof, where you could impersonate different people,” Kapor says. “These were people I would actually like to know in the real world, who have important things to say, who are intellectually stimulating.”

It was on the WELL that Kapor learned about a cyberpunk gang called Legion of Doom, a loose alliance of about twenty teenage crackers being harassed by the Secret Service for gaining unauthorized access into the computer systems of AT&T and other big corporations. Believing these young adventurers were a dangerous hightech crime ring, the Secret Service organized a major investigation involving more than 150 federal agents around the country, often breaking into hackers’ homes with guns drawn and confiscating every bit of electronic equipment they could lay their hands on: computers, printers, even telephones. Kapor and Barlow, united in their outrage, quickly got involved in the hackers defense. In the three years since, EFF has won several major court decisions protecting the civil rights of hackers and computer-network users.

But the legal hassles of wayward hackers are just the beginning of the complicated issues lurking in cyberspace. “If you want to compare cyberspace to television, we haven’t even got to The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy yet,” Kapor says. “The medium is still in its formative stages, and we have a chance now to decide what kind of world we want it to be.”

Questions abound: What should the government’s role be in developing this new technology? Is everyone going to have access to on-line networks or will only a select few? Goliaths like AT&T and Time Warner are already maneuvering for control of information highways, threatening to turn the hacker wonderland into a digital wasteland. Fear of getting cut out of the deal is shaking up rivals in the communications industry, the computer business, the cable-television business, even the newspaper business. Old alliances are crumbling by the hour, even as new ones are forming.

Last January, EFF underwent some realignment of its own. The organization closed its Cambridge, Massachusetts, office and consolidated operations in Washington, D.C.(666 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, Suite 303, Washington, DC 20003. E-mail: eff@eff.org). Kapor remains chairman but will stay in Cambridge. We talked recently in his office near the MIT campus, a loftlike space equipped with a vintage Twenties Coke machine and a sleek black ping-pong table.

‘The electronic frontier’ seems to have caught on as the most appropriate metaphor to describe cyberspace. Where did that come from?

The metaphor owes to John Barlow, who grew up in Wyoming, in a county the size of Rhode Island, with 5000 people – a pretty rugged environment.

There are a lot of similarities between cyberspace and the frontier. It’s pretty raw and primitive. I mean, you have to churn your own butter in cyberspace. You can’t go down to the 7-Eleven and buy a stick of butter, because it’s not that well developed. You have to do a lot of your own technical work or have someone do it for you, because things are not running smoothly.

There’s a lack of well-defined boundaries, another frontier condition. The property lines are just not clear. What exactly is unauthorized entry into a network? We all have a sense that there is such a thing, but nobody can really say what it is yet, because we just haven’t worked it out. The harshness of the environment is actually one way that people are brought together, because they band together for survival in little communities.

You’ve said that the coming battles in cyber space will be similar to the home-steading battles of the 1890s.

Well, if I said it, I probably picked it up from John. There were those people who wanted to fence it in and those people who wanted to keep the frontier open. Similarly, in cyberspace, there are those people who want to fence it in and those who want to keep it open. Just like powerful forces – such as the Union Pacific Railroad – bought up land rights cheap and seized control of large portions of the West, there will be similar efforts in cyberspace by cable and telephone companies and others.

Can you conceptualize the struggle that is going on right now?

The first thing is, there are more and more people who are on-line somewhere. There are 45,000 individual bulletin boards operating in this country. Bulletin boards are sort of the garage bands of cyberspace. The Internet, the network of networks, is growing at an exponential pace. It’s growing so fast, in fact, nobody really knows how many people use the Internet. It’s in the millions. They’re doing electronic mail, they’re doing computer conferencing, and now they’re doing packet-video experiments, where you can watch TV going on someplace else. There’s a lot of new software, even books for nontechnical users. You can go to the bookstore and buy the Internet Companion or the Whole Internet User’s Guide and learn how to do it yourself.

The second thing that’s happening is that – and just this year – cable-TV and telephone companies have finally gotten serious about building that fiber-optic field of dreams to bring very large amounts of bandwidth to the home and workplace. After talking about this for a decade, people are now making commitments.

So we know the underlying technology is going to be very different in a few years. It’s no longer a matter of speculation. The speculation is, what’s going to happen with it? You know you’re going to be able to get whatever movie you want by dialing it up; the question is, what else and how soon? All of this makes the broader issues more pressing.

We have a vision that is, we think, true to the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, 250 years old last week. Jefferson believed very strongly in individual liberty. He also had a very strong belief in the right of local communities to self-determination. Instead of a kind of centralized government, where one size fits all, the Jeffersonian view is very decentralized, very non-hierarchical. It says let people do their own thing and let groups of people be free, on a voluntary basis, to do their own thing.

We think that model has a lot of value for the on-line world. In other words, there will be pervasive networks that can move huge numbers of bits around – by video, by data, by voice – and we think people should have the ability to use them for what they see fit. It should not be like television, where programming was for a very long time in the control of the three networks. It’s a bit broader now, because of cable and other things, but a very small number of people substantially determine what you can watch. That’s the wrong model.

Our view is that the diversity of print is the right model. You have, what, 500,000 books in print, 100,000 different periodicals. And today, anybody with $1500 for a computer – which is tens and tens of millions of people – can do desktop publishing. There has been an explosion of different points of view in print. Any body with an opinion about anything can use print.

Where are the battle lines being drawn? Who’s on what side?

There are three big changes that are coming: bandwidth, openness and control.

First, bandwidth. Bandwidth is just a measure of how many bits you can move from one point to another in a given amount of time. The more bits you can move, the more things you can do. If you’ve only got 2400 bits per second, as is standard today, you can move text, but you really can’t move graphics, much less sound or video. If you get enough bandwidth, about 1.5 millions bits per second, that is enough, with the video compression available today, to move a high-quality video image.

No question about it, we’re going to have more bandwidth, and it’s going to be provided by the private sector. The Clinton-Gore administration believes that. This notion that the government is going to build an information superhighway – which has been touted a lot – is not going to happen. Nobody says it is going to happen, including the vice-president. There is agreement on that.

Where there is no clarity yet is openness and control. There are going to be numerous battles between cable companies and telephone companies. They each want a piece of the other guy’s business, but there are legal restrictions on both sides. Local phone service is a monopoly, so cable can’t get into that, and local telephone companies cannot offer video programming. But there are all sorts of moves afoot to increase the amount of competition so that both parties will be able to do each other’s business. On the whole, that’s good.

But here’s the question: The network that comes into your home and terminates in a little box on top of your TV – will it just be one-way? In other words, stuff will come down that network, but will you be able to send anything back up? Some cable and phone companies favor that approach, others favor a two-way network.

This is terribly important. If you can only receive things, we’ll train a new generation of couch potatoes. If you can send things, then people can get on with their camcorders and do their thing.

Why are the phone and cable companies only interested in one-way?

Because they understand the business case for doing one-way: They can take away money from Blockbuster Video. When you go to the video store, they’re always out of the latest movie. It’s a lot easier if you can just sit there and punch up Terminator 3 or Jurassic Park on your remote control. It starts exactly when you want it to. So they’re convinced there’s a business there. But to do that you only need a one-way system. Why spend extra for capabilities you can’t make money on?

Another thing. Cable companies have a grip on content. You can’t put programming onto a local cable system unless the cable operator lets you. That seems to work fine for them. But we’d argue that’s the wrong model. Anybody ought to be able to put content onto the network.

That’s sort of the way the phone companies work. You get a phone line, you can say whatever you want on it. You can set up a bulletin board, you can set up an audio-text service and so on. That right is guaranteed under the Common Carriage Act. As a common carrier, phone companies are obligated to serve everybody who wants service and not to interfere with content.

Obviously, the government is going to have to play a key role in all of this, if online communications is going to develop the way you’re hoping it will.

The prediction about what the government will do, or ought to do, depends on your degree of optimism or pessimism. One line of argument says that cable and phone companies will wind up doing the right thing – possibly unintentionally or accidentally. In other words, they will conclude that their interests are best served if they build open networks, two-way networks, so people can originate information as well as receive it. They’ll do that because they think it’s good business, but it will also serve the public interest. That’s an optimist’s view.

A pessimist thinks they’re bound to act in a venal, narrow-minded way and screw it up. In the extreme pessimist’s view, things will be so bad that government will not only have to oversee it but do it itself. I don’t think it will be that bad.

Let me give you one reason there are grounds for optimism. The personal-computer industry is quite remarkable in having grown from zero to about a hundred billion dollars, all told, in fifteen years. And the ideas that have characterized the success and rapid growth of the computer industry are infecting cable and telephone. The ideas are foreign, but they’re so powerful that an optimist would say they’re inevitably going to win out, because it’s win-win economics – you get bigger markets when you do things this way.

There is really something new going on there – the idea of open architecture. In the old days of computers, IBM did it all. IBM made the chips, built the mainframe, wrote the software and sold the computer. It was IBM top to bottom. But it doesn’t work like that anymore – as IBM’s board of directors has recently found out. Different people do different things. Today, Intel makes the chips, Compaq assembles them into PCs, Microsoft makes the operating system, and Lotus makes the applications. All of the parties exist because they all talk to each other through interfaces, through standards – that’s what I mean by open architecture.

It’s very different from the way cars are made. In the auto industry, you’ve got lots of different companies that make the parts of a car, but you have these very long contracts and specifications, it’s all tightly coordinated. The great thing about doing things digitally is that you don’t need to do that. If you publish a specification, then anybody can do any piece; therefore, you get a huge amount of competition. It’s pretty brutal – most start-up companies in the computer industry go out of business. But I think what people have found is, there’s a faster pace of innovation.

That’s why I tend to be a cautious optimist. But it is absolutely necessary to be vigilant at all times, and government intervention may well be required at any point to maintain a level playing field, to prevent abuses and guarantee inter-operability.

There is a lot of debate going on about fiber optics versus ISDN. The phone companies want –

I wouldn’t say versus. I think that’s actually a common mischaracterization of our view. To us, it isn’t either-or. It’s both-and. Our view is that the phone companies are already spending hundreds of billions to upgrade the existing telephone network, which is still largely copper wire. They’re moving from analog to digital – meaning they’re going to be sending bits. The name that it goes under is ISDN. Integrated Services Digital Network. ISDN is a set of digital protocols for moving information, voice and video over ordinary telephone wires at a much higher rate of speed than you can do with a modem today.

The proposition that we’ve put forward is, if ISDN were offered soon, and if it were offered ubiquitously and at affordable prices, we could jump-start the information age. There are an enormous number of applications – though certainly not all – that would become possible. For instance, video conferencing can be done very well over ISDN. Various types of telecommuting work-at-home applications, where you’ve got a local-area network at the office, and you’re using electronic mail, spreadsheets or databases or a product like Lotus Notes, a kind of a work-group product that lets people collaborate. Once you leave the office today, you’re in a very impoverished environment for that, because you just can’t move things fast enough over ordinary phone lines to get the full effectiveness you’d get in your office.

But ISDN is fast enough to be a kind of local-area-network extender. It lets people work at home. There are already a lot of people – nobody has counted them – who work at home with a modem. These are not just computer programmers – they’re writers, designers, all sorts of people whose product is information and have found that they can do that with-out having to be in the office five days a week. ISDN would radically accelerate those sorts of trends, it would let more people seize control of their economic destiny by going into business for themselves.

There are also some very interesting applications in health care and education, and we say, why wait? If you think of the Internet as a set of information highways and then ISDN as the on ramp to it, what we have is a kind of a prototype of a national information infrastructure. It’s not the full thing, but it’s something that can be used today.

So the effect that ISDN would have is similar to that of the first PCs. The first PCs were fairly primitive, but they allowed the guy on the street to start messing around with a computer and allowed software developers to start writing programs. Is that an accurate comparison?

Yeah, that’s fair. ISDN is a kind of platform, in fact an entry-level platform. For instance, it is not fast enough to deliver broadcast-quality movies. But on the other hand, there are a lot of things you can do, and if developers believe that it is going to be widely available and affordable, they are ready with a whole new generation of products and services. I would say that the jury isn’t in yet, but telephone companies have gotten the message and are moving much more swiftly now to make it available. Maybe they need a nudge from the government – I don’t think they really need a club.

What’s holding up ISDN?

This is a mind-set issue. Some engineers say: “ISDN, that’s old, that’s obsolete. We have things that are a hundred times faster. Why waste time?” But that’s like saying fifteen years ago that a PC was uninteresting because it wasn’t as powerful as a mainframe. Sheer power is not the only thing. Can you put your hands on it? A person couldn’t buy a mainframe, but he couldn’t buy a PC, and if it was good enough to do word processing or spreadsheets, he was thrilled.

Telecommunications is the same way. If you give people tools they haven’t had before, it doesn’t matter if there are other things more powerful. What matters is that they are good enough. And ISDN is good enough. That point is often overlooked. Phone companies have focused on large corporate customers when it comes to digital services, the same way that mainframe-computer companies focused on large corporate customers. That’s why, by and large, they missed the PC market, which was very much a grass-roots phenomenon.

Would you say that the computer industry is more or less unifield behind ISDN?

I would say it is totally unified on the issues of the principles of openness and incrementality. Apple and IBM and Microsoft and Lotus and Adobe, people who generally want to kill each other, have been absolutely uniformly consistent in all public statements with those principles. Those voices have begun to carry a lot of weight as they’ve begun to be heard in Washington.

Those voices were not heard in Washington when the debate in Congress was dominated by telephone companies, newspaper publishers – who are afraid of losing classified-adrevenue – and cable companies. EFF has been one of the forces that has been instrumental in bringing computer companies to Washington.

Something that is very important to understand is just how huge a cultural chasm there is between computer people and communications people. We really did start Lotus and Microsoft in artics and garages. It’s a myth, but it’s a true myth. We were total outsiders, and we had a better way of doing things, and we took over the computer industry. We really believe in openness and entrepreneurship.

Telephone and cable companies have a monopoly. There’s no competition. What local phone companies are good at is getting things out of regulators. They’re terrific at it. But when it comes to surviving in a market-based economy, they don’t have a clue.

Are they scared about all this?

The smart ones are scared. They are trying to reinvent themselves, top to bottom. A company like Bell Atlantic understands that it has to transform itself into a company that can survive in a market in which all segments are competitive. It remains to be seen how successful it will be, because it’s very difficult to change a company’s culture top to bottom. Look at General Motors, look at Sears, look at IBM. I’m sure there were plenty of people inside all of those companies who knew the end was near, but they were unable to generate sufficient critical mass to turn the ship around. Now, maybe some of those ships will survive, but they’ve definitely all hit the rocks.

It’s the same thing with telephone companies. Some of them may survive. But there’s going to be competition. Other people are going to come in with newer, cheaper, faster, smarter technology and compete for their main market. There is $80 billion of business in local phone service, and these new second-generation digital wireless telephone systems – PCS, Personal Communication Systems – are going to eat the Baby Bells’ lunch unless they can figure out a way to do it themselves. But to do that they have to cannibalize themselves. It’s hard for a person or a corporation to chew off their own arm in order to get out of a trap. But that’s what they’re being asked to do.

That’s one side of it. But what is this going to do to the other side, the computer establishment – Apple, Compaq, Microsoft?

They have some fabulous opportunities to extend their business into the communications realm by making software and platforms for it, and that’s what they’re seeking to do. But there are lots of potential problems. If cable companies, for instance, have a monopoly on getting these new services to the subscribers, if it has control of the content and everything else, this is not going to be good for the computer industry. The computer industry has to get cable to open up in order to fulfill its business mission.

Right now, alliances are forming. Everyone is getting into bed with at least one other partner across industry boundaries. So Microsoft just announced a relationship with Intel – Intel is going to make the chips and Microsoft the software. General Instruments, one of the biggest manufacturers of cable-TV converters, wants to put Microsoft Windows into a new $300 set-top box. That set-top is actually going to be a computer, which is going to be the device that is actually going to take this broad-band cable signal and let you do things with it, let you interact with it.

Why is Microsoft pushing ISDN so hard?

Because Microsoft understands as well as anybody that ISDN is good enough for now. The first PCs used dinky 8088 chips, but they were good enough to make the IBM PC a big success – once 1-2-3 came along.

Microsoft has more practical reasons. It wants to order 3000 ISDN lines in the Seattle area for its employees to use at home to telecommute. Then instead of working twelve hours a day, they’ll work sixteen. But they can’t get it, because US West and GTE don’t offer the service. Microsoft also wants to talk to its top 100 software developers nationally via ISDN to down-load new releases of software.

Let’s talk about your involvement in politics. In January, EFF decided to close its Cambridge office and consolidate operations in Washington. You’ve been criticized for selling out, for turning EFF into another bunch of suits. Did you expect that?

There are people who felt like what we did was betrayal. They believed EFF’s purpose was to serve the denizens of the Net and in particular to protect their civil liberties. End of story. And when they discovered that we were actually serious about a broader agenda – about public-policy issues of infrastructure and privacy – and we had to be in Washington, they felt betrayed, as if we had sold them out. But that is just not what we felt our mission was.

There was a lot of talk, about high technology during the campaign last year. Gore is obviously very involved with it, and Clinton voiced his support for a fiber-optic superhighway every chance he got. How are they doing so far?

They’re a lot better than the last class. They’re interested in these issues, and they take them seriously. That is a huge change. Now there is a chance of building a kind of national consensus on infrastructure and privacy. The vision that Gore has is on the whole very consistent with our vision and with the vision of industry. There’s a statement by CEOs of the leading telephone companies, both local and long distance, that echoed what Gore was saying, echoes what we’re saying. We need to have a national information infrastructure for economic reasons, for social reasons, and it should be built and operated by the private sector. Government will play a supporting role in funding research, in helping to get standards adopted, in funding and subsidizing access to the networks for schools and other institutions. That’s excellent.

Now, just today, the White House announced a big new initiative on cryptography. That, so far, appears to be a good news/bad news announcement. The good news is that they’re going to start a process that will afford better privacy in the electronic era, because the technology of cryptography is as necessary as the laws protecting privacy. If you can’t encrypt, eavesdropping is too easy in an electronic environment to rely on legal protection. That’s the good news.

But the solution they’re proposing is not sufficiently public. They have a ready-made solution: Use this chip and this secret algorithm, and everything will be fine. That is entirely unacceptable. How do we know that algorithm is safe? How do we know it doesn’t have a back door? They should make the algorithm public, let people hack at it, debate about it, see if it is really as good as they say it is.

John Sculley has had a high-profile involvement in the administration –

He sat next to Hillary Clinton at the State of the Union. Couldn’t miss that!

What do you think of the role he’s playing in all of this?

He certainly was very important as a symbol of high tech backing Clinton. He’s played a leadership role in an organization called CSPP – Computer Systems Policy Project, made up of the CEOs of thirteen big computer companies – which has been a forceful advocate for developing a national information infrastructure.

What he does not do, and what CSPP does not do, is work at a detailed level on particular policy initiatives for infrastructure or for privacy – although Apple as a company does, which is why we work with Apple on these sorts of things. It’s the same sort of thing he does at Apple. Sculley provides a symbolic presence – and I mean that in a positive, not a pejorative, way.

What should the administration be doing that it isn’t?

In infrastructure, there is the idea of near-term, affordable, ubiquitous access, regardless of technology; that should be the policy. But right now, it’s kind of an issue of, well, is that really the policy?

So far, the debate has not been about infrastructure and open networks, it’s been about what should telephone companies be able to do, what should cable companies be able to do, cross-ownership issues. Those are legitimate issues, but those should not define the debate about information and communications policy.

Obviously, one of the dangers with this being such an arcane debate is that the powers that be will establish their own Union Pacific Railroad before the rest of us know what happened.

That’s right. Deals will be cut between private parties to avoid a full airing. That’s why the involvement of the computer industry is so important politically. Because if you’ve just got cable and telephone companies, or any two parties – say, telephone companies and newspaper publishers – they can always cut a deal with each other.

But if you get a third party, with a different set of interests, that’s powerful enough, they can block that kind of deal. That was an intentional piece of our political strategy, to accelerate the involvement of the computer industry. We have tried to substantiate the computer industry at particular points in the debate, to create this third force.

A lot of the action is in Congress. Key senators and congressmen really determine what happens. Often, if there is a dispute between two parties, they’ll say: “Don’t come to us, go settle this yourselves. Come to us when you have a consensus.” Because if nobody’s objecting, it’s easy to pass a law. But there are times when, from a public-interest point of view, you don’t want that to happen. That’s why politics is very interesting – it’s a form of strategic competition that’s very different from business. I think it’s subtler, in certain ways.

What about the larger political ramifications of cyberspace? How telecommunications will influence the way democracy actually works? We got our first taste of it with Perot last year and his idea of the electronic town hall. All of a sudden there was a lot of speculation about electronic democracy.

Let us separate voting from discussion. I think the idea of electronic voting, if that’s what the idea of an electronic town hall really means – and I think that’s really what it amounted to in the Perot sense – is … well, it increases the potential for demagoguery and oppression of minorities by the majority, and I think it’s a terrible idea. It’s not very deliberative. People can just punch the button. I mean, it’s a great way to get a fascist dictator responding to the will of the people. That is not electronic democracy. Or if it is, I don’t like it.

On the other hand, one thing that happens on networks – and you see this on bulletin boards and on the Internet – is this new medium of many-to-many communication, of many people talking to many other people. It’s not one source broadcasting a single point of view to everyone, and it’s not a bunch of isolated conversations – it’s an ongoing group conversation. And that is a very potent medium for the development of ideas and points of view – when it is properly done. When it is poorly done, it degenerates very quickly into adhominem attacks and other problems.

But when it is done well – and sometimes it is done well on the WELL – it’s an amazing thing, because what happens over a period of time is that an idea will be set out, it will be developed, expanded, challenged, built on, and it will gain momentum if people support it. And it’s a very effective tool for political organizing and political discourse. It really reinforces democratic values – it’s very participatory and very deliberative. And I think that has enormous potential.

I’ve seen people on the WELL compare it to the agora, the ancient Greek marketplace.

The marketplace of ideas. Yeah. I think that’s right. But as a practical matter, when I give this little rap about my vision of electronic democracy, anybody who really knows what goes on on FidoNet or news groups is tempted to laugh, because what I’m talking about is like one time in a thousand. The other nine hundred and ninety-nine times it’s a bunch of people screaming at each other. We’ve got a lot of work to do in that community to realize that potential.

So what are the ramifications of this?

I hope that it will empower people, I hope that it will give people a way to feel like their voice matters, that they can say things and be heard and they won’t simply feel yelled at from some point source of information. That’s good. People really do want to participate and be informed about the things that they care about, but too often they lack the medium for doing that.

One of the interesting things that has happened is a shift in the TV viewership away from the networks, especially for people who are interested in the news. First they went to CNN, now they watch C-SPAN. The reason they watch C-SPAN is they want the unfiltered, they want the real stuff. They don’t want somebody telling them what it means. They don’t want somebody with an expensive haircut simplifying reality for them. People are hungry for reality. But they don’t want to just – receive reality, they want to give it back.

So it would be terrific if everything were televised. That’s perfectly possible and not that expensive. If there were forums for that, and people could talk back, then people would sort themselves into the issues they really cared about and talk about them, and the people in Washington and elsewhere would listen to it. That would be cool. A thousand channels of C-SPAN. It could be done. The totality of Washington, the public stuff, could all be put on a network, and there could be discussion groups and moderation.

The Clinton administration is playing with this stuff. Now, all the White House stuff comes over the Internet through electronic mail – it just shows up. So I don’t have to wait until the next day to see what the reporter from the New York Times thinks of it. I get the whole transcript, and the discussion starts immediately. It’s pretty amazing.

Some people talk about computers as tools that transform consciousness, as cyberspace as an extension of the mind –

I wish I found that true, but it doesn’t resonate for me. People who think that way may be able to take advantage of cyberspace in that fashion, but I’m a very big believer in face to face. That’s where the real and subtle energies are exchanged, not in cyberspace.

I’m not, therefore, in sympathy with the whole cyberpunk Mondo 2000 mind-set. I think a lot of that is just adolescent wishful thinking. I don’t feel like it should be squashed, but I haven’t been able to find anything in it that amounts to anything. But I don’t know, I might still have something to learn about this.

We’ve talked about the high-minded aspects of the Net. But there is another side – women who get sexually harassed on the WELL and so on. Obviously, there is potential for abuse here, not to mention outright crime. Who are going to be the cops in cyberspace?

There need to evolve models for managing conflicts and problems in online environments. It’s a very active area of exploration. Some places do it better than other places. Free-for-alls generally don’t work. On the other hand, a heavy-handed approach of prior review before you post anything works equally poorly.

The WELL-type answer is a good alternative. Moderators, or hosts, read stuff, but they have a very light touch. Yes, they have the power to censor, they even have the power to throw somebody out of the forum, but they rarely do it. And the less the better.

Why is it that Americans are so good at the computer business, at pushing the boundaries of what computers can do?

Actually, I think that’s pretty straightforward to explain. If you look at the way kids are bought up, if you look at what they’re rewarded for, what their messages are – we reward individualism and creativity. Go to Japan, they have a saying, “It’s the nail that sticks up that gets hammered down.” All their messages are about making it work in a group. Well, they’ve got a much more cohesive society, but they weed out all the individualists. They’ve got a big problem. We have problems, they have problems. If you just look at the messages, we tend to reinforce those things that produce great individual accomplishment and do much more poorly when the task requires large-scale social cohesion and cooperation, because we believe in every man for himself. And in the Nineties we would say, every man for himself and every woman for herself.

Don’t you think this sense of a limitless frontier has something to do with that? There’s that line at the end of ‘Huck Finn’ when he says he’s going to “light out for the territory.” Frontier literature is full of stories about people who pack up and move on as soon as they can see the next chimney on the horizon.

I think that’s about where the metaphor ends. All metaphors have a span of usefulness, and you get yourself in trouble when you mistake your metaphor for the territory. There are always going to be some people who, when they see the chimney, they’re going to move on. But I think the task at hand is the transformation of a whole bunch of frontier into a lot of space where a lot of people can live for a long time into a civilized society we can be proud of rather than feel apologetic for.

In This Article: Coverwall, Internet, technology

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