"Is There Room for Democracy in Cyberspace?"

By Mitchell Kapor
Adjunct Professor in Media Arts and Sciences
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Founder of Loutus Development Corporation
Co-founder of the Electronic Froniter Foundation

Sunday, 21 May 1995

SCS Commencement Speaker 1995
Carnegie Mellon University Convocation

Well, thank you so much for inviting me to speak with you today. Thanks in particular to the Dean and the Senior Administrators of the School of Computer Science, Raj Reddy, Jim Morris, Takeo Kanade, Allan Fisher, Mark Stehlik and Jim Tomayko. And good afternoon graduates, families, students, friends, my distinguished colleagues. That was the hardest part of my speech, is remembering who to say hello to.

Well, it's been a long day, today. And what I would like to try to do is not help you get into your afternoon nap, but to talk a little bit about what the larger meaning of all of this environment of computers, and technology, and networks, and robots that you spend all of your time with and have worked so hard with {is}. I titled my talk, Is There Room for Democracy in Cyberspace, because I'm concerned, as I think we all should be, with what the quality of our collective lives together is likely to be like and what will be the nature of freedom in a world in which computer networks are pervasive.

So I'm going to ask those of you who are are already in the techno-elite to bear with me a little bit while I try to establish some common ground for folks in the audience, possibly your parents, who are not quite as far up the learning curve on all this technology as you are.

As far as the world at large is concerned, cyberspace has only been noticed in the past couple of years as word of its existence made its way into our mass media. But members of the technical community obviously know quite a bit more about its origins. The term cyberspace itself comes from the imagination of a science fiction writer who barely knows how to use computers, that is, William Gibson, in the book Neuromancer. But cyberspace was first really transformed from a literary conceit to a literal descriptor by my friend and colleague, John Barlow, who has been explaining cyberspace as the place where two people are when they are on the phone together. And he also notes, that with the exception of what you are currently carrying on your person, cyberspace is also where all of your money is. And in the popular lexicon, it's now firmly established itself on the front pages of our newspapers, magazine covers, and television news broadcasts, really as a convenient way to refer the entire territory of online computer networks and services.

The most important embodiment of cyberspace is the internet, which embraces an interconnected, global network of networks forming the embryonic planetary nervous system. There is an ever-expanding alphabet soup of technical protocols, from TCP/IP to HTTP, and I'm not going to talk about those this afternoon, and a lot of services from electronic mail to the world-wide web.

What is most striking to me about the internet as a social phenomenon has been its remarkable transformation from a small, and seemingly unimportant playground, for a techno-elite of academics and industrial researchers and college and university students and a few digital pioneers, to a sprawling electronic frontier where everyday new waves of thousands of immigrants are rapidly arriving. [Siren from emergency vehicle passing]...There goes one right now. [Laughter].

After 25 years of steady funding by the U.S. government and patient development of the theory and technique, protocols and procedures, and hardware and software, the internet has grown through a metamorphosis. It's becoming mainstream.

Well, it's true that we are still very much in the age of pioneers. Not all the technology is ready for primetime. But even so, I don't think it is taking a big risk to say that that the internet, and what becomes of it, will be a big factor in the world's collective future. One final piece of evidence, the net is now big enough to enjoy its own backlash and so we witnessed the arrival of books like Silicon Snake Oil by Clifford Stoll, the author of the Cuckoo's Egg, which has an over-romanticized nostalgia for life before cyberspace.

Well, I would argue, that right now, is the best time to influence the future state of the net, because it is still in its infancy. And when things are in their infancy, they are still pliable and malleable, before rigidity sets in. So these next few years are times in which actions taken and not taken are really going to make enormous differences to the world that's created. And this is a rare opportunity. We can not go back and change the world at the time of the introduction of the telephone or of the automobile, but we do have a say in how the world turns out to be because of computer networks.

I have found and I think a lot of people have found the metaphor of cyberspace to be quite compelling. Five years ago John Barlow and I likened cyberspace to an electronic frontier, a phrase which has now passed into the common lexicon. We likened it to the physical frontier of the American West, up to the end of the 19th century, trying to suggest a kind of life at the edge of society, existing beyond the bounds of law and custom --- a kind of exotic locale. In 1990, just five years ago, we saw a particular set of conditions in cyberspace that disturbed us a great deal. The United States Secret Service was on the trail of some so-called nefarious hackers and they were engaged in a systematic campaign of seizing and shutting down computer bulletin boards as part of something that was called "Operation Sun Devil." There was an atmosphere ignorance and hysteria while charges were being flung about that hackers represented a threat to the national security. They were going to bring down the emergency 911 system, and if they could do that, the airtraffic control system was next. And in such an atmosphere, no thought was being given to devising and following appropriate procedures during investigations, to guard against overly broad and sweeping actions by law enforcement. And what happened was that the innocent were swept up along with the allegedly guilty. In fact, one of these seized bulletin board systems belonged a Texas-based manufacturer of role-playing games, Steve Jackson Games. They came in. They seized all the computers. They almost shut the company down. They seized the bulletin boards system by which the company communicated with its customers, depriving them of their electronic mail and their means of speech. And we had no idea what was going on, other than one day, law enforcement just showed up with a warrant and came and took all the machines away.

And that really was the origin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization I've spent the last five years being very involved with. We wanted to make sure that the United State Constitution and the civil liberties it guarantees were applied to the digital media of computer networks as much as they apply to the written and spoken word. And so, we made the case that the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and of the press, and the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable search and seizure, needed to apply in cyberspace as much as in the terrestrial realm. And in fact, we ultimately won a lengthy court battle which recovered damages for Steve Jackson Games. We established some legal precedents. But more importantly, and I hope it's not too immodest to say this, we were able to begin a dialogue in society about cyberspace which places issues of freedom at the center of the debate. And that debate is still going on, with a lot more voices in it today.

We especially had an effect in raising awareness about these issues for many parties who, until that time, just simply had not been thinking about essential freedoms and civil liberties. Namely, people in law enforcement and government officials and the corporate world. And I'm happy to report that the awareness level is infinitely greater than it was five years ago. And before I conclude my talk, I want to return briefly to the current state of freedom in cyberspace.

What I would really like to do is to deconstruct this myth of the electronic frontier for you. As one of the perpetrators of the myth, I think this is a wonderful opportunity to examine it with you, because the way we understand new things very often is in terms of the metaphors we bring with us from the world as we know it.

The idea of the frontier in American culture has always brought with it some really powerful images. What kind of a place is it? Well, it's a place of freedom, where "a man can be a man", where there is freedom from the stultifying limits of a rigid and classbound society. And where there is freedom from interference by a meddlesome and dangerous government. The frontier is a place of opportunity, a place to start over, to make something of oneself. And it is also a place of community, where folks come together, possibly out of the shared adversity in living in a primitive and undeveloped environment, but a community where people stick together and help one another. I mean, isn't that what the frontier spirit is all about?

And I think one of the reasons that the myth, the idea of the electronic frontier, has proven to be so powerful in cyberspace is that, similarly, people who spend a lot of time hanging out on the net, share those feelings. That it is a place of openness, of unbounded opportunity, and a place where people become who they truly are.

But what wasn't so clear to us back in 1990, when we started EFF, was the dark side of the myth. We know some things from the history of real frontiers. They attract the ruthless, misfits and the chronically malcontent, not merely those wanting to start over, but those who really can't get along with themselves or with anyone else, and for whom their lack of attachment and their freedom from is itself a kind of cage of torment for themselves and a provocation to others. And I think this is one, but only one, of the origins of one of the most troubling things about the net, which is the abusive quality of much of the discourse that goes on there. You can't help but notice it if you read any kind of discussion group on the net, how quickly the discussion sinks to the least common denominator, which as we know can be pretty low. When freedom is used to be rude or abusive or antisocial, I think we have to ask ourselves what decides freedom, would be a desirable quality in a civilization that we are trying to build. And I'll argue later that this is ultimately not a matter for censorship and restriction but of cultivation of responsibility through ethical and moral means. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself. Back to the dark side.

As a frontier booms, it becomes a haven for economic exploitation. The western frontier attracted more than its share of con-men, grifters, fast buck artists, and the electronic frontier has its greencard lawyers. And as to rugged individualism, we know from history that the real frontier, the western frontier, was developed by the most rugged individualists of all --- greedy, ruthless robber barons of the railroads, who bribed and cheated and stole to build their empires and who routinely engaged in violence to achieve their end of economic domination. And it's been argued by some people that we today have our modern day equivalent of these robber barons in the heads of pick-your-favorite multinational megacorporation.

So, there is a kind of bottomline here. A lot of the appeal of the net has been that it's an environment that readily evokes the bright side of the frontier myth. It's new. It offers enormous possibilities, not the least of which are the economic possibilities. I understand this really well. I mean, to me, this is the most opportune time to launch a new high-tech business since the early days of the PC industry fifteen years ago. But at the same time, we don't do ourselves any favors to deny the dark side of the myth, for our denial makes it more likely that darkness will more permanently establish itself, that the monopolist will win again, or that the government will impose regimes which limit our abilities for self-expression and self-determination.

I see some underlying reasons for hope though, that reside in the very technical architecture of the internet and in its governance, both of which embody and reflect democratic values and both of which, therefore, can be foundations on which to build a more democratic environment in cyberspace.

There's a tradition in American democracy that emphasizes decentralization of power and the importance of civic participation. It's the tradition of Thomas Jefferson and of the American pragmatist movement exemplified by the philosopher John Dewey. What's so important about decentralization? Well, decentralization of power was central to Jefferson's vision of democracy, in which self-reliance and local self-determination played a major role. He favored a system of distributing the power of government to the local level and a system of wards and councils. And as Jefferson himself said, if we have to depend on Washington to tell us when to plant our crops, we would all starve to death. On this view, if people have the power and, I might add, the education as Jefferson pointed out, they don't need to be told what to do --- they will do the right thing. This is the basic statement of fate in a decentralized, participatory democracy.

Well how does the internet stack up along these lines? Well interestingly, technically, at bottom the internet is highly decentralized. It is a very sophisticated packet network where the intelligence is distributed through its millions of nodes. It's not contained in any giant, electronic brain or control center. There is no single fortress to be breached which could give anyone control of the internet. And this is quite remarkable. Ironically, the historical origins of packet networks had to do with the efforts of the defense department to build a communications network that could withstand a nuclear attack. And so that the Pentagon, the very embodiment of a huge and centralized hierarchical government agency, was responsible for giving rise to the single most liberating technological arrangement we know of, is a wonderful irony.

And so the decentralization of the internet applies to its physical arrangements, how the packets of data get from point A to point B. Decisions are made one hop at a time. If one link is broken, other ways are found to move the information. And that has some immediate, very practical consequences. Another one of my colleagues at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, John Gilmore, coined a widely circulated aphorism. The net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it. The decentralization of the internet also applies to its governance. There is no central authority, no Internet, Inc., which imposes rules and sets standards. The internet works because all of its cooperating networks have agreed to use the same technical protocols for communicating. There is no real coercion here, mostly there is cooperation. Decision making about the changes and evolution of protocols is very much an open process. Importantly, decisions are not handed down from on high but through a carefully worked out alternation of proposal and experiment, which leads to feedback and modification of proposal and so on, until consensus is reached, often through the leadership of particular individuals. But these individuals get their authority because of the high regard in which they are held, not because of the authority that they wield. And this is a wonderful working example of a participatory democracy. And I have seen the internet standards process up close and, those of you who have, know that it's full of blemishes. But it can not be denied that the process has been an absolutely spectacular success in what it has achieved in terms of innovation.

But what about life on the net itself, as lived by its participants. Is that democratic? Well, here I think the evidence is a little bit more mixed. And I want to share with you an incident that happened in the seminar that I teach at MIT on democracy and the internet. I need to give you just a couple of points of background.

First, you need to know that in cyberspace, when people are online today, your face generally can't be seen nor your voice heard, instead you are what you type. And your identity consists of your electronic mail address, which comes in two parts. It has one part that's like your name and it has another part which is called your domain, which is like the equivalent of your street and city and state, except that in this case it has the name of the internet host where you receive your electronic mail. So if you have an account at Carnegie Mellon your domain is, I think, cmu.edu, where edu is a suffix used by educational institutions. If you are a subscribe to America On Line, you will be somebody at @aol.com, where com stands for commercial.

Well, in the recent history of the internet, America On Line, which is a very large consumer service, was an island continent, unconnected to the internet until a couple of years ago. And then they started building bridges. They enabled their users to exchange electronic mail with the rest of the internet. And then a critical event happened. AOL provided access for its customers to the usenet newsgroups, to the netwide discussions groups of which there are several thousand, many thousands, that have conversations that have been going on for fifteen years now. Two different cultures met for the first time. The culture of the net and the culture of America On Line, and it was not a happy meeting. You could think of it as if there was this simultaneous arrival of millions of new immigrants into a country whose customs they were unfamiliar with and whose language they did not speak. And I'll give you one very practical example of this.

When you enter into a new newsgroup, it is common practice, if you know the practice, to check to see whether there is what is known as a FAQ, which stands for frequently asked questions, which is a document that is usually compiled by a volunteer that is a kind of recital of the kinds of topics that come up over and over again in the discussion group. And you are supposed to read the FAQ so that you don't waste everybody else's time by the 10,000th posting of the same old question. Only nobody told the AOL people about this. They were just let loose. So very quickly a kind of negative social dynamic developed.

So in my class, we were talking about this and one of the students remarked that he was a regular participant in a newsgroup and there was a new user from AOL who showed up. And my student said, quite emphatically, I could tell he was going to post something clueless before he even opened his metaphorical mouth. Now I said, let me see if I've got this right. You didn't know the person. You hadn't actually heard him say anything. But you did know he was from AOL and you believe that all AOL users are clueless. Therefore this person is clueless. Let me ask you a question. If you did this in the real world, not in cyberspace, what would that kind of behavior be called? Well, the class got the point. It would be some kind of -ism. We can call it domainism, because your domain --- that's skin color in cyberspace. It is the single, ineradicable mark which identifies you as a member of a group.

Well you know, actually, the students knew that domainism existed. They just didn't have a name for it. What this actually helped the class with was getting a better understanding of the dynamics of racism and sexism in the real world, which many of them were not all that familiar with. But I think for most of us the vignette offers a profound insight about the nature of life in cyberspace and I call it the first noble truth of cyberspace. And that is simply, that we bring our baggage with us. All of the ways of being that we are as individuals, whether we are enthusiastic, idealistic, romantic, naive, ambitious, impatient, bigoted, selfish...we're going to manifest all those ways of being in our online existence.

So what matters in the end is what we bring to cyberspace as much as what cyberspace offers us. There isn't going to be any cyberutopia anymore than we'll make heaven on earth. We would all be better-off to surrender that idea as soon as possible. I invite you to spend a few minutes with yourself sometime soon, to ask what baggage you're bringing with you and how can you lighten your own load. And if you're with me so far, I'd ask you to go a step further, which is, can you keep theses issues on the table in your professional life or are you forced or do you force yourself to be silent.

Some of you will be going into industry. You may well find a kind of double standard of behavior. You'll hear employers tell you or suggest that honesty and fairness and caring are fine if that's what you want to do on your own time, but business is war and there's no room for such weak-minded sentimentality on the battlefield. All I can tell you is that changing the world starts with your own willingness to be honest with yourself and to confront both within yourself and without that which dehumanizes yourself or others.

Well I couldn't come here without saying a few words about the crucial role that freedom of expression plays in preserving democracy. Many words have been spoken on this campus recently about this important issue and I'm not going to---time does not permit---going into that debate. But I want to tell you that freedom of expression is quite essential to participatory democracy because paradoxically, it's only through an unconstrained exchange of views that we have a hope of transcending the divisions that exist between us to reach common ground. We have to find within ourselves ways to make our discourse civil, but we should not depend on the imposition of coercive external constraints.

The net is a tremendous tool to give voice to the less empowered. And in this regard, it's a two-edged sword. It opens the possibility for more exposure of marginal ideas. There is a widely voiced source of concern about the ability, for instance, of extreme right wing militias to use the net to spread hateful and distorted views. But not all marginal ideas are destined to remain marginal. Consider for instance the idea of women's suffrage, truly a radical idea in its time. It the net had existed in 1900, would parties now be calling for the banning of the speech of suffragettes demanding the right to vote? To those who would control the net, in order to prevent the spread of views they find hateful or offensive or dangerous, I remind them of the maxim[um] of Benjamin Franklin who said, Those would give up their essential liberty for a little safety deserve neither. And as regard to the vexed issue of pornography on the net, experience has shown time and time again that the cure for offensive speech is more speech, not silencing or censorship.

You graduates today are likely destined to play leadership roles in our society. And that's by virtue of the special technical knowledge that you have which will be at the center of developments in our civilization. Computers and networks will become principal conduits through which the economic transactions of our society are conducted, the principal way entertainment is delivered. It will be a major vehicle for education and the delivery of ideas and information, and for politics --- in short, the whole of our life as a society.

I began by asking if there is room for democracy in cyberspace and I conclude that it largely depends on whether there is room for democracy within ourselves and whether we can nurture the democratic spirit of respect and tolerance within our own hearts. That is the challenge that you face and I fervently hope you'll rise to that challenge.

Thank you very much.


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