WI-FI by NIGHT, South Wallowas [click photo for next . . . ]
Over the past four years, on a bike with a trailer,
I've trekked through large parts of the Pacific Northwest,
going from wilderness to wilderness.
In between, I'm dependent on the Internet and the Web.
I'm also a student of both.
The essay below summarizes some of my thoughts, ideas,
and, indeed, in North America, my disappointments and
My view, in a nutshell, is this:
In web-like, non-centralized, non-hierarchical structures,
simplicity and freedom are absolutely essential features
of energy-efficient and inherently non-violent
That is why the Web must be open and, exactly like roads,
must be non-commercial, must not be under arbitrary private
corporate control of any kind, must be recognized, like
water, as an essential human right, and as protected
Why? Because the Web now already embodies in a way that
Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin would have
instantly recognized an enlightened freedom of discourse
and expression. And these, as they understood with more
depth of spirit than any living political leader or
philosopher one can think of, are necessary prerequisites
of liberty, justice and democracy.
I often joke with people I meet along the way. That America
is being destroyed from within by a false idea of freedom.
I've written a good bit about this, but it is admittedly hard
to make clear in a compelling, visceral, way. Freedom is not
just freedom to. That's everywhere in North America. That's
the "do what I damn please, and get the hell out of the way,"
so typical of the arrogance of inherited power.
But its necessary complaisant of freedom from is nowhere to
be found. Freedom from your pollution, your climate change,
your noise, your corrupt ideas of health and religion,
freedom from your petty schemes to cripple the insipient,
nay, the self-evident greatness of the Web revolution, into
just more self-centered greed and selfish gain.
Freedom from is essentially limit. It says what cannot
The example which comes instantly to mind is the limit
which states that Congress shall establish no state religion.
This freedom from state imposed religious dogma has so
far saved America. Now we need some similar principle
to safeguard worldwide the internet and the Web from those
who fear for whatever reason the implications
of its necessary spiritual freedom.
On the road in the American Northwest.
FFREEDOM & LIMITS
Highways exist to move traffic,
As Internets exist to move bits,
And Economies to move goods.
All three are paths of movement,
of exchange, of communication.
And with all three, freedom flourishes
only when it is strictly limited by universal,
clear, unambiguous laws.
Without clear limits, the worst and most brutish
of our natural tendencies shall come to rule
the many roads that run between us.
ON THE NECESSITY OF ONE FREE
Just as economies move goods, and roads move traffic, the Internet’s
function is essentially to simply freely move bits.
“Freely” is a key word here. Freedom of flow, in my view, can be
achieved and safe-guarded only by the democratic, open and transparent
structure of public works. Public roads are perhaps the best
example. Notice that around the world we hardly need add the epithet
public, because roads are by now almost by definition, ‘public.’ My
contention here is that public roads would serve as a good model for
the Internet and the World-wide Web as well. Why? Because the Internet,
just like roads, has already become far too important a resource
to let it be controlled and determined merely by the short-sighted and
highly fragmentary vision of commercial self-interest.
Imagine for a moment a patchwork of roads and highways broken up
into arbitrary pieces, all designed, owned and managed by different
individuals, families and clans, with gateways and check points that
require that you stop your vehicle and pay a fee for right-of-passage.
Indeed, in the not-that-distant past, roads in many parts of the American
Northwest started out in just this way. The problem with this kind
of wild-west model of development is that, while it may function well
at first to get things started, in the long-term it lacks real social
intelligence which comes with accountability and spirited, open debate.
It will therefore eventually reveal itself to be the bottleneck of economic
development and community well-being that it really is.
Why? Just imagine for moment that I build a bridge across a stream that
is difficult to ford. And say that this bridge cost me about $10,000 to
built. Now, I charge 10 cents to cross, a fair price I think, and an average
of about 100 people cross each day. So in less than three years time
I’ve recouped my initial investment, and can look forward to both an
increase of traffic and perhaps a measured yearly addition to the fee I
charge as well. I have a monopoly, because I have the only way to gain
access to the other side of the river. You might say I have a pretty good
business model. The only flaw is that, when seen from the wider social
context, the model is unambiguously bad for everybody else. So, in an
open society based on democratic discourse, very quickly, the community
will decide I’m sure that it should take responsibility for the bridge
and purchase it from me, drop the charge, and finance its maintenance
with public money.
After having biked so far more than five thousand kilometers all around
the Northwest of the US the past two years, I can say without hesitation
that the state of the Internet is as far as I’m concerned a complete mess.
Connections are slow. Connections are hard to find. Connections are
expensive when you do find them, and even when paying a relatively high
price, they are unreliable. In sum, I would say—and I am by no means
an expert here but simply amazed that it is not the top priority issue that
it deserves to be—the development of the infrastructure for the Internet
has been left to what is essentially the private road paradigm sketched
above, with all its inevitable random profiteering, helter-skelter, confused
and outdated infrastructures, and ultimately, nearly universal enduser
In other words, there is a total lack of vision.
What is remarkable is that this lack of vision is entirely at the social
and political levels, and not at all in terms of the science of the
Internet’s technical infrastructure itself. Here, the Internet sparkles
brilliantly on all its sides with the robust simplicity and foresight of
well-designed open source protocols, and their nearly miraculous
decentralized physical embodiment as servers, routers, and an
increasingly rich polyphony of Internet-enabled portable devices.
So why, we might ask, are things in such a state of disarray at the
social and political levels? I would say because of a chaotic confusion
of meanings. The basic question is, “What’s the Internet good
for?” Shifting from our internet-as-road analogy for the moment to the
image of the internet-as-pipe, we might then ask the question, “What
flows through it?” Clearly, for some, it is cash. For others, it is enter-
tainment, not that different from TV. For others, it is communication,
not that different from the telephone. Or others might say more generally
it is information, not that different from radio or print journalism,
or what you might find on the shelves of your public library. One pipe;
many different contents. Many different contents; many different meanings.
What they all have in common, however, is that they are social,
cultural networks based on the free flow of bits of data. Where they
differ is again, what the network is for, who controls it, and who pays
My own view is that in a highly abstract, subtle, and yet at the same
time completely earth-bound, physical and tactile way, the culture
has become the network, and in a reciprocal manner, the network has
become a central and key manifestation of the culture. In other words,
it is vastly more than the mere sum of its parts, vastly more than just
television, or radio, or motion pictures, or telephone. And yet these are
still the predominant controlling models used to grasp the network’s
nature. In the view being sketched here, with the Web’s great and still
largely unsounded cultural promise becoming potentially locked down
in traffic jams behind a motley assortment of unnecessarily blocked
gateways and toll bridges, none of these seem adequate.
Far better would be to have one adventurous and creative city, or small
nation anywhere in the world demonstrate to the rest of us the extra-
ordinary cultural benefits of realizing maximum achievable bandwidth
(say, 1 or so Gb . . .) combined with universal free access. I would
guess that the rest of the world will stumble over itself to imitate their
success. After all, a good third or more of the world’s resources are
presently squandered on the highly questionable ends of war and its
weaponry. It might prove much more effective to shift and enlighten
our paradigm, and focus not on weaponry, but, as R. Buckminster
Fuller used to say in his charming and inimitable way—livingry.
Livingry, yes. Not a bad image for a network that links us all together,
and thereby both celebrates and protects, the rich diversity of the wide
and wonderful interwoven web of the world.
[Note: Net neutrality, or the principle that all bits that move through the Internet
should move in an inherently unbiased way at equal speed, is from
this perspective as vitally important as it is in fact secondary. The primary
problem, in my view, is ownership, and who has a right to set limits, and
how and why these limits are set. Like roads and water, the infrastructure
of the Internet and Web should be publicly owned common ground for
the simple reason that we shall all come to rely and depend on it to an
ever-greater, and at present largely unforeseen and extra
Camp Lost & Found,
Eagle Cap Wilderness
INTERCONNECTIONS & ON NECESSITY are part
of THE LITTLE CLAVIER please preview 150 of 631 pages
w/ my black & white photography [opens in new window]