President Obama’s brief statement last week in support of net neutrality may or may not be enough to sway the Federal Communications Commission, expected to “hand down—spooky phrase—”new rules early in the New Year.“ The Internet has been one of the greatest gifts our economy—and our society—has ever known,” the president said, before “respectfully” asking the FCC “to preserve this technology’s promise for today and future generations to come.”
The Nation has been watching how new technologies interact with politics for almost 150 years. In September of 1866, the editors imagined a future thoroughly altered by the telegraph:
Where it is all going to end, and what kind of life the “merchant of the future” will lead, nobody knows, or pretends to know. From present appearances it would seem as if the commerce of the world would pass into the hands of a few great houses; that all the small dealers would be converted into clerks on salaries, and everything be done by a few vast combinations conceived by half-a-dozen heads, the details being worked out by subordinates, possessing only a limited responsibility, and, therefore, suffering little from wear and tear.
Sounds about right.
While not exactly at the vanguard of the technological revolution of the second half of the twentieth century—the political implications of computers largely (though not entirely) evaded our attention—The Nation’s very first article about the Internet is a fascinating read. It is in some places hopelessly (and hilariously) dated, but in others quite timeless.
Published in our issue dated July 12, 1993, “The Whole World Is Talking” was written by Kevin Cooke and Dan Lehrer, graduate journalism students at the University of California, Berkeley. (The author note at the bottom of the piece said “they claim they are not computer weenies,” and then printed their e-mail addresses. Tim Ziegler, now editor of Austin Post, also contributed.)
It began with a set piece about a man named Wam Kat, who “files daily reports on life in Zagreb, Croatia.” The catch?
Kat’s bulletins, which he calls “Zagreb Diary,” don’t appear in Yugoslav papers or on television. They exist in cyberspace. Kat types them on his own computer in Zagreb and sends them by modem to an electronic bulletin board in Germany. From there, his stories are relayed to computers around the world via the global mega-information stream called the Internet.
So the guy had a blog.
Cooke and Lehrer’s article is full of delicious little items like that: barely more than twenty years old, it already feels like an artifact from another era, one as inaccessible to us now as the early days of the telegraph. Even so, as with the 1866 article, it is fun (and genuinely informative) to read now not because of its irrelevance to the current debate about information and society, but because of its surprising relevance.
“The Net is changing more than just the flow of information,” Cooke and Lehrer wrote. “It’s changing the way we relate to one another. The advent of global networking is fragmenting and re-sorting society into what one author calls ‘virtual communities.’ Instead of being bound by location, groups of people can now meet in cyberspace, the noncorporeal world, existing between two linked computers. There they can look for colleagues, friends, romance or sex.”
There are some passages that, through no fault of the writers, come off a little goofy today:
While Internet experts deride the term “information superhighway” as an empty soundbite, the concept works as an analogy to understand how the Internet functions. Think of its as a massive road system, complete with freeways, feeders and local routes. At every intersection sits a computer, which has to be passed through to get to the next computer until you’ve reached your destination. Any computer on the Internet system can connect with any other computer through the road system. And if the route to your destination is closed, you will automatically take a detour to get there.
The difference between the Internet and the Interstate is that you can go to Finland as quickly as you can go down the block. Once there, you can remotely manipulate the computer to do anything your own can do. You can retrieve a file from it in the blink of an eye.
And the milkman came around three times a week.
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But Cooke and Lehrer also noted that potential that the Internet could be used for activism, organizing and political discussion unavailable in the mainstream press. “You’re not going to find anything to the left of the Democratic Party on TV or in newspapers,” they quoted one Harel Barzilai, a Cornell graduate student, saying. “And for those of us who have access to the Internet, it’s free to use it and post information. This is our chance to be heard.” The authors also quoted the writer Howard Rheingold saying that “the direct access to information the Internet provides is ‘inherently subversive.’”
The article then launches into a discussion about the privatization and profitization of the early Internet, which, in some ways, anticipates the one going on today. “Internet activists,” Cooke and Lehrer wrote, “want to make sure that this power stays with individuals.”
The primary threat was then, as it is today, plans to charge different prices for access to different content—precisely the kind of arrangement President Obama said last week must not be allowed. In 1993, Cooke and Lehrer saw that danger remarkably clearly:
By giving the private sector unregulated and monopolistic control over the Net’s electronic connections, the government would in effect allow megacorporations like AT&T and Time Warner, who own the cable lines and manage what flows through them, to call the shots in the future. They could determine how much anyone, from a single individual to a university, will have to pay for access. Some phone companies, for example, are already discussing charging users either by the amount of time they log on to the Internet or by the amount of data they send over it—despite the fact that their network operating costs are fixed no matter how many people us it or how much data flows through it. Changing the funding structure means the eventual extinction of the small, mom-and-pop computer networks, which could find themselves victims of predictable market forces. And that means that isolated users and cash-strapped colleges could be cut off from their virtual communities.
Some of the details of the problem, of course, have changed in ways we don’t have time or space to go into. But the principle at stake, and the threats to it, remain astonishingly identical to those Cooke and Lehrer wrote about in 1993:
In a worst-case scenario, Rheingold says, corporations would not only monitor what’s on the Internet, they would monitor you. If, as some predict, the information superhighway becomes primarily a conduit for watching movies, banking at home and shopping, the same computers that we use to lessen the burden of our daily errands could also be used by the corporations that provide those services to destroy our personal privacy. The Net could be used by marketing wizards—the same ones who flood us with annoying junk mail—to keep tabs on us all in Orwellian fashion, automatically recording our interests and habits.
Hackers have already developed a few defenses, which could be the seeds for preserving the right to free communication. Free software to encode all electronic transmissions is now widely available, with codes that even the fastest super-computers would have a tough-time cracking. This means that nobody but the person you send something to—whether an e-mail note or a piece of software—can read it.
The conclusion to the article, twenty-one years later, is fairly chilling:
Internet activists are also not happy with the Clinton Administration’s effort to impose a standard encoding scheme for data, whether e-mail or a movie, that only the government can break. “The machinery of oppression has weak spots,” Rheingold says, noting the spread of encryption techniques that even the National Security Agency may not be able to crack. “But the powers that be in the N.S.A. have convinced Clinton that they have to closet he doors before all the cows get out.”
Whether it’s the government or private corporations, what everyone wants is control of a new form of communication, one that currently cannot be controlled. Given the stakes and the power of the interests now seeking to shape and profit from this new technology, the end result may not be a happy one for the average citizen-user. “The key questions of access, pricing, censorship and redress of grievances will be answered in practice, in law, in executive order or legislative action, over the next five years,” Rheingold writes, “and will thus determine the political and economic structure of the Net for decades to come.”
But for the time being, the activities of people like Wam Kat seem to prove an old hacker adage: “All information wants to be free.”
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I e-mailed both Cooke and Lehrer, asking them to reread the 1993 article send me their reflections. Cooke wrote back first:
In the twenty-one years since this article was published, the Internet has become both more magical and more invasive than I expected. I have worked all that time as an Internet technologist for media companies, so I should probably not be as awed by the Internet as I am. I think the Internet ranks as one of the most important human-created things. Information does want to be free, as we continue to learn from people like Edward Snowden. Governments tremble before its power, and do whatever they can to control the cord, if they can’t cut it (see the Great Firewall of China for a very crazy example of this tendency.)
The uses we find for these technologies are beyond any one person’s comprehension, and were of course well beyond my imagination, when I pitched the idea for the article to Victor Navasky in a dark bar near the UC-Berkeley campus in the Spring of 1993. For most users, the Internet and smartphones are indistinguishable from magic. Count me among that number.
Dan Lehrer had this to say:
I remember that at the time, the “information superhighway” (and thank goodness that term has retired) was a hot topic in newspapers, but it was still a vague concept to most people. This story was really one of the first to explain to non-computer-friendly people what the Internet actually was and what it did.
A couple of things jumped out at me when rereading the article that Kevin, Tim and I wrote in the Pleistocene. The biggest is that we were even called upon to explain what the Internet was in the first place. We now take the Internet for granted—we expect to be able to scroll through epic cat fail videos, make free overseas video calls, and get free shipping. The Internet is seamlessly integrated into our daily lives. That’s why it should be a public utility, right? But except for college students and early adopters who joined private virtual communities like Marin County’s the WELL (which stood for Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) the promise of the Internet bordered on science fiction at that time. Indeed, in the article, we briefly mention that the Internet may become “primarily a conduit for watching movies, banking at home and shopping” but downplayed this aspect of the piece—it was kind of like a flying car.
The other major thing about the story is that the issues are the same now—completely, exactly the same—as they were back when Mosaic was the best browser around (and it was slow and crashed a lot). Marketing companies using browsing habits to invade privacy? Monopolistic megacorporations limiting access to competitors? Encryption as a way of protecting privacy? Check, check and check. The forms of communication that we use on the Internet have changed—newsgroups to Facebook—but the implications of what we do online and how we do it remain.
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