[governance] FW: [IP] The Ghosts of Internet Time

Gurstein, Michael gurstein at ADM.NJIT.EDU
Sun Dec 25 08:21:11 EST 2005

A bit of an insider's joke, but may be of some interest...


-----Original Message-----
From: David Farber [mailto:dave at farber.net] 
Sent: December 25, 2005 10:35 AM
To: ip at v2.listbox.com
Subject: [IP] The Ghosts of Internet Time

---------------------------- Original Message
Subject: The Ghosts of Internet Time
From:    "Andy Oram" <andyo at oreilly.com>
Date:    Sat, December 24, 2005 11:42 pm
To:      dave at farber.net

(This first came out six years ago, but at this season I find it
relevant once again.)


                          The Ghosts of Internet Time

   December 17, 1999

   In the murky light of dawn I was bestirred by a sound I had not heard
for a long, long time. Groggily stumbling toward the piercing beep, I
exclaimed, "Why, it's the old Unix talk program! That strange little
full screen utility--discussed by Douglas Hofstadter in Metamagical
Themas--that prefigured chat and instant messaging." In response to the
letters flashing on the green monitor, I quickly entered talk ghost and
pressed the RETURN key.

   "This is the Ghost of Internet Past," wrote my mysterious
   correspondent. "NSA, poppy, Castro. I shall show you the Internet in
its glorious early days. Tools were clunky back then, but we all studied
a bit and learned to understand the medium we were using; and such a
wonderful community we built online!"

   I remembered what the ghost was talking about. True, 99% of all
newsgroups degenerated into philosophical spats between leftists and
libertarians, and three-quarters of all the alerts circulated had been
hoaxes, but we still exploited the incredible power of instant
   worldwide diffusion to carry out some impressive campaigns. Lotus was
a pretty big company when an Internet protest made it withdraw its
database product on consumer spending.

   "Look, Andy, you were more idealistic then too," admonished the
ghost. "It's been years since you contributed to free software projects.
Look at the dates on these files." A stream of file names, dates, and
sizes dribbled down my scream.

   I squinted at the vaguely familiar output format. "Yeah, those dates
are old. Where did you dig up that list?"

   "Archie," typed the ghost.

   "Oh, Ghost," I hammered out. "What has happened to the flame of
Internet community? Why do so few of the new users understand it?"

   "What do you expect once ANS took over the backbone?" spat out the
ghost. "Canter and Siegel, eye candy, streaming media."

   "But mere commercial usage isn't bad," I replied. "When people trust
a medium enough to put the very stuff of which life is made there, it
has come of age. Non-profit organizations can be self-seeking
   information hoarders just as much as for-profit organizations."

   "Damned private-sector hegemonism--"

   "Humbug. I've heard that all before; you're putting me to sleep," I
typed, and as if to lend credence to that statement fell into
   unconsciousness once again.

   Next I was awakened to a furious rush of talk. It was as if someone
had started several dozen RealPlayer streams at once. The babble of many
contributors crowded out all hope of understanding. "Can anyone make
sense of this!" I cried.

   Coming to my rescue, a voice rose above the rest. "Welcome to the
debates over Internet policy. As the Ghost of Internet Present, I have
to follow them all."

   "What on earth are they talking about?" I demanded.

   "Do you mean: what do they claim to be talking about, or what are
they really talking about?"

   "Both, I guess," I answered, non-plussed.

   "Well," explained the ghost, "they think they are talking about which
of the old regulatory models to apply to a revolutionary new space."

   "Sounds pretty pointless."

   "And that's why so few bother to listen. But really what they're
talking about is bandwidth."

   "Yeah, I heard of that--won't dark fiber solve everything?"

   "That's a 90s panacea," interrupted the ghost scornfully. "The
current fad is packet radio. But I was not talking about physical
bandwidth at all. I was referring to control. Who has the power to use
   Internet? Will it have job postings for the underprivileged or only
stock quotes for the affluent? Can communities grow up spontaneously
around great works of creative art or must they pay a middleman? Should
taxpayer-funded research be sold for hundreds of dollars a document or
made freely available to all? Who can be reached simply by requesting a
name--big corporations or small voices?"

   "For goodness's sake," I exclaimed, "why don't people talk about the
issues that way!"

   "A few try," replied the ghost, "but as soon as you start looking
closely at the legal, social, and implementation implications, the
answers get so--well, technical."

   I wanted to ask more, but my ghost said, "The present is fleeting. I
must depart; the Ghost of Internet Future will be here in my stead."

   Excitement seized me. "Oh Ghost of Internet Future," I cried, "show
me what glories the medium has still to offer!"

   Someone grasped my arm and dragged me running through mazes of
   clattering streets under gray skies, where no creature tread and no
breeze stirred. "Where is the Internet Future?" I yelled. "Where did
everybody go?"

   "The Internet is gone," said my companion, stooped and hoary.

   "How could that be--what could replace its bounty?"

   "The international financial institutions have a proprietary
   satellite-based network, imposing and impenetrable. The entertainment
companies put out 6500 programs a week, all strictly metered by kilobyte
and filtered to isolate controversial content. The electric
companies--which always controlled the ultimate pipe, and therefore
ended up controlling the medium--run the network that activates devices
in the home. Everything the vendors want is built into
   powerful circuits costing a thousandth of a penny, making software
and the culture that accompanied it obsolete. So there are many separate
networks, each specialized and tightly controlled."

   "But what about democracy? What about a public space? Is there no
forum for the average citizen?"

   The old Ghost's wrinkled face cracked in a sputtering, hollow laugh.
"Forum? You want a forum? I'll give you a million of 'em. Every time
Consolidated Services, Inc. or Skanditek puts up a new item on their
media outlets, they leave a space for viewers to post reactions. And
they post, and post, and post. Nobody can track the debates..."

   "They forgot," I sighed. "People forgot that the Internet enables
discussion and community; they acquiesced to an overly pragmatic and
impersonal approach that fragmented protocols and media in such a way as
to remove the human element. What can I do to prevent this, Ghost? Tell
me what to do when I return to my present life!"

   But mists swept over the scene and the hand of the Ghost of the
Internet Future slipped invisibly from mine. "I am fading," it
   whispered. "The Internet is gone..."

   And so I awoke, but I lay with eyes closed and addressed my three
Ghosts in my thoughts: "I promise I will learn the lessons you taught

   "Ghost of Internet Past, I promise I will learn about the
technologies that affect my life so that I can control them.

   "Ghost of Internet Present, I will talk to ordinary people about the
everyday issues that are affected by Internet politics. And I'll use it
to fight real problems: racism, the income gap, war, ecological

   "Finally, Ghost of Internet Future, I will always insist that the
Internet is more than a means of transmitting data--it is a place for
building community."

   And the day was still just dawning.

   Andy Oram is an editor at O'Reilly Media and a member of Computer
Professionals for Social Responsibility. This article represents his
views only. It was originally published in the online magazine Web

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