Technology July/August 2010

Closing the Digital Frontier

The era of the Web browser’s dominance is coming to a close. And the Internet’s founding ideology—that information wants to be free, and that attempts to constrain it are not only hopeless but immoral— suddenly seems naive and stale in the new age of apps, smart phones, and pricing plans. What will this mean for the future of the media—and of the Web itself?
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Jason Schneider

As Chris Anderson pointed out in a moment of non-hyperbole in his book Free, the phrase Information wants to be free was never meant to be the rallying cry it turned into. It was first uttered by Stewart Brand at a hacker conference in 1984, and it came with a significant disclaimer: that information also wants to be expensive, because it can be so important (see “Information Wants to Be Paid For,” in this issue). With the long tail of Brand’s dictum chopped off, the phrase Information wants to be free—dissected, debated, reconstituted as a global democratic rallying cry against monsters of the political, business, and media elites—became perhaps the most powerful meme of the past quarter century; so powerful, in fact, that multibillion-dollar corporations destroyed their own businesses at its altar.

It’s a bit of a Schrödinger’s-cat situation when you try to determine what would have happened if we had not bought into the IWTBF mantra, but by the time digital culture exploded into the mainstream with the introduction first of the Mosaic browser and then of Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer, in the mid-’90s, free was already an idea only the very old or very obtuse dared to contradict. As far back as the mid-’80s, digital freedom was a cause célèbre on the Northern California–based Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link (known as the WELL), the wildly influential bulletin-board service that brought together mostly West Coast cyberspace pioneers to discuss matters of the day.

It gives you a feel for the WELL’s gestalt to know that Brand, who founded the WELL, was also behind the Long Now Foundation, which promotes the idea of a consciousness-expanding 10,000-year clock. Thrilling, intense, uncompromising, at times borderline self-parodically Talmudic, the WELL had roots in the same peculiar convergence of hippiedom and techno-savantism that created Silicon Valley, but it also called out, consciously and un-, to a neo-Jeffersonian idea of the digital pioneer as a kind of virtual sodbuster. The WELL-ite Howard Rheingold, in his 1993 digital manifesto, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, described himself as being “colonized” (in a good way) by his virtual community. The libertarian activist John Perry Barlow, an early member of the WELL’s board of directors, was a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital version of the ACLU.

At the WELL, the core gospel of an open Web was upheld with such rigor that when one of its more prolific members, Time magazine’s Philip Elmer-DeWitt, published a scare-the-old-folks cover story on cyber porn in 1995, which carried the implication that some measure of online censorship might not be a bad thing, he and his apostasy were torn to pieces by his fellow WELL-ites with breathtaking relentlessness. At the time, the episode was notable for being one of the first examples of the Web’s ability to fact-check, and keep in check, the mainstream media—it turned out that the study on which Time’s exclusive report was based was inaccurate, and its results were wildly overstated. In retrospect, what seems notable is the fervor with which digital correctness—the idea that the unencumbered flow of everything, including porn, must be defended—was being enforced. In the WELL’s hierarchy of values, pure freedom was an immutable principle, even if the underlying truth (that porn of all kinds was and would be increasingly ubiquitous on the Web, with actual real-life consequences) was ugly and incontestable.

Digital freedom, of the monetary and First Amendment varieties, may in retrospect have become our era’s version of Manifest Destiny, our Turner thesis. Embracing digital freedom was an exaltation, a kind of noble calling. In a smart essay in the journal Fast Capitalism in 2005, Jack Shuler shows how similar the rhetoric of the 1990s digital frontier was to that of the 19th-century frontier era. It’s a short jump from John L. O’Sullivan in 1839—“The far-reaching, the boundless will be the era of American greatness. In its magnificent domain of space and time, the nation of many nations is destined to manifest to mankind the excellence of divine principles”—to Kevin Kelly, the pioneering conceptualizer of the “hive mind” and a founding editor of Wired, writing in Harper’s in 1994, “A recurring vision swirls in the shared mind of the Net, a vision that nearly every member glimpses, if only momentarily: of wiring human and artificial minds into one planetary soul.” Two years later Barlow, a self- described advocate for “online colonists,” got down on bended knee, doublet unbraced, to beseech us mere analog mortals: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone … You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

I take you on this quick tour not to make fun of futurism past (I have only slightly less-purple skeletons in my closet), but to point out how an idea that we have largely taken for granted is in fact the product of a very specific ideology. Despite its Department of Defense origins, the matrixed, hyperlinked Internet was both cause and effect of the libertarian ethos of Silicon Valley. The open-source mentality, in theory if not always in practice, proved useful for the tech and Internet worlds. Facebook and Twitter achieved massive scale quickly by creating an open system accessible to outside developers, though that openness is at times more about branding than anything else—as Twitter’s fellow travelers are now finding out. Mainframe behemoths like IBM wave the bloody shirt of Linux, the nonprofit open-source competitor of Microsoft Windows, any time they need to prove their bona fides to the tech community. Ironically, only the “old” entertainment and media industries, it seems, took open and free literally, striving to prove that they were fit for the digital era’s freewheeling information/entertainment bazaar by making their most expensively produced products available for free on the Internet. As a result, they undermined in little more than a decade a value proposition they had spent more than a century building up.

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Michael Hirschorn is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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