May 21, 2011

Why the Internet is the Most Important Thing in the World

Today is the day the world ended. At least it was scheduled to end according to another in an endless chain of "end times" prophecies. I'm not usually a gambling man, but I'll take a chance that I can finish this posting before the Apocalypse arrives to ultimately still my fingers, heart, and blood.

I'm not a big believer in doomsdays, except of the human-created kind. Oh yes, it's certainly possible that a giant asteroid, an errant comet, or some other natural catastrophe totally beyond our control spells the end to mankind and roaches alike.

But of much more immediate concern are those aspects of our world and lives that we do architect and control. For those are where the onus falls squarely on our own shoulders, where we can't rightly blame God, the universe, and everything except ourselves.

Over the years I've probably written and spoken millions of words about the Internet, related to technical issues, policy matters, and the intersection of those two complex domains. In retrospect, I've probably done this to the neglect of other issues that at times probably should have taken precedence. C'est la vie -- the choices are our own.

When I started working on the Internet's ancestor ARPANET in the early 70s, most other students at UCLA only had computer access of any kind via punched card batch input systems -- just like you see in those grainy old clips in computer history films. You want to feel really old in a hurry? Try watching grungy old footage like that and realize that back then you routinely used every piece of antique equipment being shown.

Much has changed since those early days -- and a perhaps surprising amount has not.

Obviously, the speed of our computing and communications capabilities has vastly improved since the time that the Net backbone itself ran at what would be dial-up modem speeds today. Yet oddly, the subjective experiences of waiting for responses from online systems then and now seem very similar. One might be tempted to partly blame software "bloat" for at least part of this effect, but we'll let that pass for now.

The obsession with sex on the Net is not a new phenomenon, except in quantity and perhaps degree of explicitness. From the earliest ARPANET days, line printers were being used to generate giant nude images for display (always of women -- then as now the computer science field has to its detriment been dominated by us boys). And if you knew the right sites and port numbers, you could obtain at any time a bawdy limerick or a happily obscene "tingle" quote. I still have online the source databases for both the original ARPANET limerick and tingle servers -- even today I could not post them publicly without triggering upset.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the ARPANET and Internet that has not significantly changed is the hacker culture.

I'm not using the word hacker here in its popularized evil, "black hat" sense of computer break-ins and damage. Rather, I'm referring to the term as we originally used it decades ago, and how it is still used today by many aficionados of computer science and related technologies.

This positive form of hacker, both then and now, are those persons, young or not, variously over the years sitting at keypunches, TV-style CRT terminals, or modern displays, often up to the wee hours ingesting endless cups of coffee. Their "hacking" has produced prodigious amounts of code to extend and organize the reach of knowledge, to improve communications around the world, and as the Net has extended to become a foundational basis of our technological societies.

And of course, much positive hacking has always been done for the sheer joy of creation, sometimes -- often in fact -- not even knowing exactly where you'll end up. Many of computing's most important developments have sprung forth from very much these kinds of efforts.

It has been suggested that a sort of "hippie" freedom-loving, free speech promoting, "end-to-end" philosophy has traditionally existed on both the ARPANET and Internet --- at least partially rooted in the counterculture mindset of the late 1960s. After all, while ARPANET was a U.S. Department of Defense project, its actual implementation in many respects was largely in the hands of university professors and students.

The Net as counterculture? Perhaps not explicitly, but rather implicitly under the surface. Though most of us hacking on the Net back then spent far too much time in basement computer rooms to actually have participated much in the more colorful aspects of counterculture sensibilities, perhaps a bit to our social detriments.

But yes. There is a strong current of freedom running through the Internet since its inception, a strong sense that it should foster communications and knowledge without itself "getting in the way" by attempting to punitively control -- or censor -- information, knowledge, or speech.

As I've suggested in The New Campaign to Demonize Google for Their Protection of the Constitution and various essays linked from that posting, it is this very sense of freedom that has so pervaded the Internet throughout its genesis and development, that is now so greatly at risk.

While it's easy to point fingers at various corporate Internet entities for lapses of one sort or another, I have come to believe that the ultimate enemy of freedom on the Internet is governments themselves -- often (but not always) well meaning, but always carrying the potential for enormous damage.

For the Internet is now arguably the most important thing in the world.

How can I possibly say this? What of life, love, energy, famine, disease, global warming, and the rest of a seemingly infinite list of human desires, concerns, and travails?

Individually, in isolation, those issues are indeed more important than the Net.

But in our modern world, all of these concerns are increasingly fundamentally entwined with the triumvirate of communications, information, and knowledge. And our abilities to perform functions as basic as phone calls or as far-ranging as complex medical or other research increasingly are dependent on the Internet and its connected resources, with "offline" alternatives decreasingly useful or available.

Government control and surveillance over Internet content -- especially government-mandated censorship, blocking, and eavesdropping regimes -- are in some ways more dangerous than nuclear weapons. They all have the ability to cause destruction on an enormous scale. One hopes that the utter decimation of life that can result from nuclear weapons will continue to further restrain their use.

But few if any such restraints seem apparent on governments' desires to control and surveil the Internet, even though this could be as ultimately damaging to the human spirit, as fusion bombs are to human life.

By controlling, monitoring, and spying on Internet content, governments around the world will have the ability to observe, influence, or control almost every aspect of our lives -- how we communicate, how we research, where we go, what we say.

At no previous time in human history has a technology existed that has become as pervasively crucial to so many aspects of our individual and collective experiences.

But the Internet is that very technology. It is, in this crucial sense especially, the most important thing in the world. For so much else that makes us human, so much that is critical to our future lives and societies, is or will be dependent in one way or another on the Internet ecosystem.

Government efforts to restrict, monitor, and control the Internet, its services, and its users are the most serious threat to freedoms of our time, perhaps ultimately of any time in history. For abuse of the Internet in such manners could set the stage for a future of dictatorial surveillance and restrictions on communications, knowledge, and speech that simply would not have previously been technically possible.

Except in hindsight, it sometimes is not very obvious when humanity reaches a momentous crossroads. But when it comes to the Internet today, the choices we face are stark indeed, and require that now -- right now -- we choose the path forward that we desire not only for ourselves, but for our children as well. In the process, we will either be promising freedom to the future, or alternatively be relegating freedom only to the annals of history.

Take care, all.


Posted by Lauren at May 21, 2011 11:56 AM | Permalink
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