Jeff Mogul: So. I’m already running a little late. I’d like to now introduce our keynote speaker. And let me start by explaining that our keynote speaker, John Perry Barlow, has a somewhat unusual career for a computer science conference keynote speaker. He started as a cattle rancher in Wyoming. He’s been the Republican Party county chair of his area in Wyoming. He also has been a lyricist for the Grateful Dead. More recently he’s one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And he’s been active writing about civil liberties issues in cyberspace. He has a column in CACM, Mondo 2000, Wired…he was in magazines that I’ve lost track of.
He’s a very interesting speaker and I think we should just give him the next hour and ten minutes or so of our time. We will by the way taking questions from people in the MBONE. Unfortunately we didn’t set this up quite far enough in advance so we’ll have to have you mail your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org for John and we will [indistinct] those, put them on paper, and read some of the questions later on. But without further ado, I’d like to introduce John Perry Barlow.
John Perry Barlow: Over the last four or five years since I left the cattle business, I’ve started to feel like my life has turned into a Thomas Pynchon novel. And weird experiences are so numerous that I don’t even keep track of them anymore but I’ve got to say, for somebody who spent most of his working career pushing cows around this is a very weird audience for me to be addressing. [laughter]
You people are great, though. I honestly believe without hyperbole that people in this room are doing things which will change the world more than anything since the capture of fire, in terms of what it is to be a human being. And I’ll justify that very broad statement here as I go along.
But I’m not entirely unqualified to think and talk about wild places. I come from a part of Wyoming which is… The county I live in is larger than the Netherlands and has a population of thirty-five hundred at the moment. And is the focal point of the history of the fur trade. And the fur trade was an economic manifestation that came into the West in the 1820s and ’30s. And many of its constituents would be familiar to you. They were kind of a fractious lot of misfits. Opinionated loners. They were somewhat irregular in their…both their eating habits and their personal hygiene. [laughter] They were hairy and anarchistic. They were smart. They created a society which was largely self-organizing. And they were exploring unmapped territory using tools that they developed themselves for getting around. And I would to try to draw a close parallel between them and the people in this room but I think that will be unnecessary.
So, when I first started to put my head into cyberspace it was not as unfamiliar to me as it is to a lot of folks who are now getting into that area, because it had a lot of the characteristics that still remain culturally in my odd little part of the world. And I could see that a number of things were going to go on in there, one of which if history was to be any guide was that after a very free society had developed naturally in a very pretty place, then another society would come and try to make money off of it. And in the course of trying to make money off of it would impose an awful lot of control.
There has been a lot of unfortunate talk about the national information infrastructure being a data superhighway—this is largely an artifact of the fact that Al Gore’s father was instrumental in creating the interstate highway system. And it’s no mistake that Al Gore likes that metaphor. But in fact what has been going on lately reminds me a lot more of the development of the railroad in this country. It is not a data superhighway so much as a data railroad system that we seem to be developing. And there is a cautionary tale in there because the folks, Jay Gould and his fellow barbarians who created the railway system in the West, knew that if they owned the roadbed and the area around it, they also essentially owned the society that was going to develop there because they could tear up whatever products were created in that society on the basis of their own whim.
And the West today is still trying to get out from underneath the burden of regulation and legal standardization that was created in those early days by the railroad barons. It was almost impossible for farmers in the upper Midwest to make a living for a while even though the Northern Pacific Railroad had asked them to come in there and settle for nothing and had given them land. As soon as they got established on that land, they were charged usurious rates for transporting their their product to market. And I think if we look at the history of the railroad we can see exactly what kind of damage occurs when you give too few people control over too much of the economy.
Actually I really think that it’s far more useful to look at the development of the Internet in biological rather than structural terms. The Internet to me seems very much like a lifeform. It has all those characteristics. It is self-organizing. It adapts itself readily into the possibility space that it finds. It is being created in an interactive way, out at the margins rather than in the center. I’ve heard Unix described as a virus from outer space. But it’s very much like a virus, I think. But it’s more a virus from inner space, the space inside the cerebral cavities of many of the people in this room.
Among the notable characteristics of the Internet, outside of explosive growth, is the extent to which it can naturally route itself around problems. John Gilmore, who may be here and is probably known to many of you, said something profound when he said that the Internet deals with censorship as a malfunction. And it really does. You see people trying to stop the traffic in certain kinds of intellectual material on the Internet, and it simply routes itself around it and gets that material distributed by some other pathway.
Unfortunately, the folks who are now entering into the game, and to a more precise extent the organizations and institutions that are now entering into the game, are very different from what has previously characterized the development of networks in the world. And they come at this with a different paradigm of how the world works, and how to create order. They came at it with the notion that order is something that you impose and not something that emerges. They come at it thinking about their products as being something that are focused and centralized, require large amounts of capital to create, and then broadcast in a one-to-many medium.
I don’t think that these are necessarily bad people. But they have a very hard time getting it. Most of the folks that I talk to from the television industry think that interactive television consists of putting a “buy” button on your channel clicker. [laughter] I’m not kidding. I wish I were.
And they fail to understand that there is a profound difference between information and experience. And they are trying to sell non-interactive, stored information as though it were experience. And I think they actually believe that they’re accomplishing that task.
They are going to try, in many ways, some of them overt, some of them unknown even to themselves, to impose their culture and their their metaphors in this environment. And there are all sorts of ways in which their immune response system is already working and I’ll give you just one example.
I was recently talking to somebody from Viacom about the importance of creating interoperability between whatever set-top boxes Viacom was sponsoring and other kinds of networking, specifically the Internet. And I talked about TCP/IP with this fellow from Viacom. And he said, “Well, we would love to be able to incorporate TCP/IP but really it’s just too slow. The packets are just too big. It can’t be made to be isochronous. We really don’t think that it has a place on top of your television set.”
And while that may seem like an irrelevant factor to many of you who probably don’t even own a television set, if we are to create a society on the Internet that is genuinely inclusive and doesn’t consist of its present sort of large band of wild geese, we are going to have to make it so that you can get Internet connection from that electronic device which is your principle access point into cyberspace and that is liable to be that set-top box.
The folks in the television and entertainment business are also intrigued by the possibility that the railroaders first confronted, which is that they are going to build the roadbed, essentially, and they’re also going to be in the information business. And it’s not lost on them that if you own the rails and are also shipping the cargo that you get a really good deal on your rates. And that other people may not get a very good deal, especially if you feel them to be in competition with you.
This has given rise to a whole set of concerns and problems which the Electronic Frontier Foundation is now dealing with. You know, EFF did not start out to be some kind of a traffic cop on the data superhighway. That wasn’t our objective. A the time that Mitchell Kapor and I started EFF, we had a very narrow set of concerns. We just thought that there were actions taking place on the part of the government that made it clear that they didn’t quite realize that speech was speech, whether it was expressed in bits or ink on the page. And we felt like really all we were going to have to do was to hire a few really scary civil liberties attorneys in New York and kick hell out of the Secret Service, and dust our hands off in satisfaction and go back to whatever it was we were doing.
But, we hadn’t been at this very long before I got some electronic mail from a young fellow who was in what at that time was still the Soviet Union saying, “Well, I applaud what you and Mr. Kapor are doing in trying to assure the application of the First Amendment to cyberspace, but you should realize that in cyberspace the First Amendment is a local ordinance.”
And that was a revelation to me. And also to Mitch and we started thinking about what had to be done, on a structural rather than legal level, to make certain that people who connected to one another electronically were able to do so without fear of reprisal for the things that they might think and say. Mitch said something profound at one point, which is that architecture is politics. And when I say that to something like the TV Academy, they don’t have the slightest idea what I’m talking about, but I’ll bet the people in this room know that very well. And it’s a message that I think you need to start carrying to the world in a much more forward and proactive way than is your natural bend. I know that when I’ve talked to computer audiences at times in the past, I’ve had a continuous question and complaint from people in the room who say, “Well you know, you want me to behave as though I were a social philosopher, and actually what I do is bus architecture.”
Well…exactly. [laughter; applause] And I don’t think that you can expect the social philosophers to understand bus architecture very very well for a while, either. So the job falls to you and the people who understand the basic nature of this very very different terrain.
When I was down in Los Angeles last week I went to something that some of you may have heard about, which was the Superhighway Super Summit. You never saw such self-importance in your life. It was unbelievable. This has nothing to do with anything except it’s more evidence that I’m in a Thomas Pynchon novel. As a guest of the White House I had a packed which included a discrete little card said that “Those persons who will be accompanied by a personal security assistant are reminded that their assistant may not carry his weapon while in the building.” And there were also two parking passes, one for regular cars and one for limousines. So, they knew a fair amount about the culture that they were pitching to down there.
And the idea that this particular set of hooligans was going to be in charge was terrifying to me. In spite of the fact that to my surprise and satisfaction, I found people like John Malone saying all the right things. And it was very gratifying to see that the things that EFF was pretty much alone in saying two years ago are now politically correct. But there’s a great distance between being able to mouth the politically correct thing and actually having the kind of consciousness that will promote those goals in a serious way. These folks are in business. They’re not in it for their health.
And I looked around that audience, and I realized that what I was looking at was perhaps the ultimate expression of contemporary civilization. Which made me start to think that…you know, while Mitch and I had always talked about the job of EFF as being symbolizing the electronic frontier, I think that our job and your job increasingly is going to be frontier-izing civilization. [applause] Because I believe that as a species we have gone just about as far as we can go by design. If we’re going to try to design society from the top, we will continue to have the sort of results that they had in the Soviet Union, and at IBM. [laughter; applause] The world is simply too complex a place to figure out. It’s pretty good at figuring itself out, as long as you have an extremely open architecture, basically an ecology or ecosystem, which supports ideas in a fluid and nutritious kind of way. And that’s one of the great geniuses of Unix. I mean, I have a NeXT machine— (I expect a “boo” or two.) That’s as close to Unix as I’ve been able to get, and that’s kind of like Unix with training wheels by Armani. [laughter; applause]
I have no personal aspirations to you know, write a lot of shell scripts and I still kind of feel like C++ must be just an exceptionally exceptionally mediocre report card [inaudible due to audience laughter]. But Unix, if you look at the development of Unix over the course of its existence it’s really truly remarkable how this critter has grown. I think of it sometimes as being the 1990s equivalent of Chartres Cathedral, where thousands of people worked for many years creating something that was amazingly complex, and yet somehow worked rather elegantly to the purposes for which it had been created. I look at Unix as it continues to develop and I think that it will continue for a long time to be the genetic code of cyberspace. And you have to approach your work, I think, with that in mind. Of course the government and the large entertainment and television bodies that are now getting into this really don’t have a sense of how important it is to have an adaptive organism as your substrate. They are not approaching it from that angle.
But you know, I am pleased to say that among the things that Al Gore announced down in Los Angeles the other day, had to do with opening up information infrastructure to competition. In the past as you know, most of the information infrastructure of the United States was designed on the basis of a regulated monopoly. And so we had for many years a stranglehold on the part of AT&T, which up until very recently would still require you to fill out a whole bunch of forms in order to put a suction cup on your telephone. And I’m very grateful to Judge Greene, who took a lot of flak at the time, for having the insight to see that this stuff was going to develop much more rapidly and much more openly in the hands of a lot of different companies rather than one.
And the same thing is now starting to happen with regard to the impending trainwreck between the cable industry and the telcos and the the wireless industry. These various industries have been regulated in the past by completely different regimes originating in completely different places. Most of the broadcasters have been regulated by the FCC—and poorly, I might add. Most telephone companies are regulated by state public utilities commissions. And most cable operators are regulated by municipalities.
What they’re trying to do is to create a system whereby all these different media can come into direct competition with one another so that the path by which bits can get into your home or office is so repetitious and so open that competition brings down prices and creates bandwidth. And there’s going to be, as you folks know well, an enormous desire for bandwidth that it’s going to take a lot of different agencies to produce. I mean bandwidth is one of those things kind of like money and sex. You know, the more you’ve got the shorter it feels. [laughter]
And as soon as we start moving away from text, as I hope we will since I personally have a text allergy at this point. I get a kind of ASCII glaze at the end of the week after five days of 100 to 150 email messages a day. Each one of which I have to read in order to understand whether or not it’s important to me. And I want to see a lot of richer data that has a kind of semiotic format that tells me right away whether or not I want to mess with it. But it’s gonna take a lot of bandwidth to do that.
In any case, there are several bills already in Congress which the EFF has been a pretty involved in helping create. There’s the Markey bill, which is HR3636, the National Communications Competition and Information Infrastructure Act of 1994, which would make it possible for cable companies to provide telco services and vice versa. And also make it possible for the national long-distance carriers to compete with the RBOCs in InterLATA telecommunications.
There’s another fairly similar bill in the Senate, the Telecommunications Infrastructure Act, which is being promoted by Inoue and Danforth.
And as Vice President Gore announced on Tuesday, the administration is currently drafting an amendment to the Communications Act which would include a whole new section of code called Title 7. And Title 7 essentially does something pretty enlightened. It’s a promotion of a lot of the principles that EFF has been talking about in open platform. And it essentially would make it possible for telecommunications providers to enter into a fairly non-regulated regime if they were willing to assure complete openness of whatever channel they were creating to whatever service or server might wish to attach itself to it. And there is a lot of emphasis being placed on making certain that the data superhighway is not 500 lanes one direction and a footpath the other.
I can’t tell you how important it is that these design principles are full duplex. This does not resonate with their culture. They don’t know very much about getting that bit back from the consumer. They really don’t. And they are understandably a little afraid of what will happen when the couch potatoes actually start to speak up about what has been smothering them, from their glass tubes all these years. It may turn out that they don’t really like this stuff very much, and that they are not going to be pleased by 500 versions of the Hair Channel For Men [laughter] or the ability to watch My Mother the Car at any hour of the day or night.
In spite of these fairly enlightened activities, I think that you will see that Congress is even more inclined than ever to act in loco parentis. And there are pending bills which would impose the necessity of having some kind of technological switch on your set-top box that sensed violence…and would just circumvent its entry into your home. This is obviously pretty boneheaded but these are the kinds of things that we have to deal with. We have to make Congress and the various communications providers recognize that the best way to assure family values for whatever family might be having those values is to tag information in ways so that they can make their own choices. And there are ways to do that that’re not particularly demanding from a technical level. But we do not need a society which protects us from our own words. [applause]
You know one of the great things about talking to you guys is I don’t really feel like I have to go through a very detailed history of EFF or what we’re doing. But I know that many of you who had a natural affinity for the work that we did in defending freedom of speech in the very beginning were baffled when we suddenly became something that looked like a telco trade organization and started pushing ISDN and dealing with telecommunications regulation. And as I say, I think that we did that for good and sufficient reasons, even if they didn’t communicate very well to the other side. And I want to run down some of the fundamental aspects of open platform.
We are trying to promote the idea that there needs to be common carriage, much as there has been throughout the history of the telephone system, where the phone company certainly didn’t try to regulate content over its lines. The problem here is that common carriage under the telephone model was protected by a regulatory regime which essentially gave a monopoly…the right to go on being a monopoly and a lot of incentive to go on being a monopoly, if they would keep those lines open. And now it’s a whole new ballgame. Trying to come up with a model for common carriage which does not involve a regulatory overburden or monopolistic practice is going to be a very significant challenge and we don’t have all the answers by any means. [recording cuts out]
…is a hard-wired version of the radio spectrum, in which they are broadcasting throughout these wires but they are not receiving anything from the other end. We have to make certain that the Vail notion of universal service continues to prevail even in cultures that may not find that so amenable. We have to work on interconnection and interoperability. I mean, when the fella from Viacom told me that TCP/IP had too much overhead, as a non Unix weenie, I didn’t have a good response to him except I said that it sounded to me faintly like a religious rather than technological statement. Which I think it is. But the people who know that and have sound evidence to prove it need to be speaking to the people who think that that is a canon of their faith.
You also need to be thinking about set-top box and video architecture protocols that will make it very easy for the telcos and the information services to provide video in a fairly cheap bandwidth-wise and orderly fashion. And I think there probably is some truth that it’s hard to do under the current system. I saw what happened to the Internet as soon as Mosaic got out there. And I’m somewhat concerned that if a lot more of this goes on it’s going to be very difficult to get traffic across the Internet. There are some serious technical challenges.
There’s a new initiative which EFF is just starting to open up that you maybe interested in, trying to work with the companies themselves, and these include some of the new Internet-based companies, to convince them that there is a business advantage to allowing those people who connect to their system to use those connections for whatever purpose. And I don’t want to pick on Rick Adams, who I assume is here, but I think it’s unfortunate that AlterNet and PSI, and other commercial Internet providers have forbade those people who connect through them to use their facilities for such commercial services as bulletin boards. And this is a debate that’s going to have to be carried on among you folks who are on the Internet and use those providers. And it may well be that you have to start looking to other providers that are willing to open up their lines to real communication and not impose unnecessarily restrictive barriers to competition. [applause]
There are another set of issues that I think are going to be particularly troubling, and difficult to solve. And the government is really not even on the chart with this yet. I…more Thomas Pynchon. I had a really weird experience the other day. I managed to schmooze myself onto Air Force Two and ride back up here with Al Gore. A…surreal sense of unreality pervaded that experience for me. But Al Gore’s a good guy and a smart guy, but he has been very focused on those issues around regulation and competition and has not thought about some other issues very hard, and one of these is cryptography.
When I started to to talk to him about cryptography he said, “Well, you know, we have national security interests at stake.” And I think that we need to think long and hard about whether or not our national security interests are actually addressed by trying to impose export embargoes on cryptographic code. This strikes me as being like trying to impose export embargoes on wind, first and foremost. I mean, you can get MacPGP or PGP from FTP sites all over the world in seconds, so I’m not quite sure what they’re accomplishing, except that they are accomplishing a chilling effect on the ability of American corporations to incorporate robust cryptography into software and hardware which they might design. Because obviously it doesn’t make a lot of sense to build a system that puts in cryptographic standards that the NSA is not going to allow you to ship overseas. You don’t want to have to build one system for the United States, and another system for overseas sales, especially in a business that exports as much of its product as we do in the hardware and software industries.
So we have to get the government to recognize the futility of crypto embargo. It would be nice if they could recognize that the Cold War is over. But that may take some time. And even when they do recognize that we still have to deal with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: kiddie pornographers; drug lords; terrorists; and unnamed foreign enemies. And these monsters are rattled out every time I suggest that maybe it would be a good idea to free up cryptography. I think they are all fairly illusory beasts at this moment. Assuming that we have to shut down privacy in America because of terrorists doesn’t make a lot of sense to me when we only lost six of our citizens to terrorism last year. This is not quite the threat that the government would portray it to be.
And really what we’ve got going on I think is the NSA acting as a stalking horse for the FBI and other domestic law enforcement interests, who are scared to death they’re going to lose their ability to wiretap as analog communications becomes some kind of digital fruit salad. And they don’t see—and there may be a fortunate quality to this—they don’t see yet the technological opportunities that digitization will present them. And I think we need to see that and deal with it accordingly. We may be hurtling toward a future in which every single thing we do will be visible to the government. And as it is right now, any time you make a financial transaction you smear your fingerprints all over cyberspace. This does not need to be the case. But it’s going to take a lot of changing consciousness to have it be otherwise. And I was talking to Gore the other day, he was boasting about how government services were going to be a lot more efficient as a result of a centralized card that people could use to get any money that was owed them by the government in disability payments, social security payments, or whatever. They could simply go to a kiosk and insert their card and get their payments. And I asked him if there weren’t some privacy considerations that went along with this and I drew a complete blank. So we have a serious problem.
There are also serious problems that have to be reckoned with in giving cryptography to everybody. I mean I’m not certain that I’m completely sanguine with the idea that the advent of digital cash may create an economy in which taxes become voluntary. You know, at first blush that seems immensely appealing to me. [laughter] And I’m sure it does to you, too. But the problem with simply buying the government that you think you need is that the people who can afford government get it and the people who can’t don’t get it, and you see what’s happening already in the delivery of a lot of vital services.
Education has become privatized at the top. Mail has become privatized at the top. I mean I don’t know anyone with an income over 50,000 that use the Postal Service when they want to send a package. They use Federal Express or UPS.
Even the police services. If you go down to Los Angeles, which I guess you won’t be able to do for a few days, you will find that in the wealthier parts of Los Angeles, the local established government-supported police force is not a major element. The real police come from WESTEC. It’s kind of like out of Snow Crash. I don’t know how many of you have read that but I mean…we’re talking about a future in which Don’s Police Company will be more important than the local police. And in fact be the local police.
But I also think that we have to detach financial transaction from identity or we are going to be in a serious mess. I think that the current government we’ve got, for all of its ineptitude, is relatively benign. But as Lord Acton said, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” and when the government can see every single thing we’re up to, I think that conveys to them a level of power that I’m not going to be comfortable with their having. And I don’t think you should be.
There is also a whole set of extremely knotty questions about intellectual property. And again, I’m pleased that I don’t have to explain to this audience that the digitization of everything presents us with certain intellectual property challenges. You know a lot about this. Believe me, the people in traditional media do not. And we are entering a situation where the primary article of commerce looks a hell of a lot like speech. And given the ambiguity of property law in this area, I think it’s almost impossible for us to say that free speech is assured when proprietary interests will try to control its transport, in their own economic regard. There is going to be a lot of that, there already is a lot of that. There are other aspects of this that are more inconvenient than threatening but I don’t see how we’re going to avoid a complete collapse of technological progress if we continue do things like put patents on things like cursors. [applause]
But, I’m sure that many of you work for companies that now feel obligated to patent every thought that happens to gel up in your heads. And I think you have to think about how you can serve Caesar, and at the same time serve the collective good of humanity. Because I am convinced that a lot of those thoughts really are the collective property of humanity. Somebody once said that art is what happens when God speaks through a human being. And I think there is something bold and arrogant about thinking that you own whatever happens in your head. I think it’s there for everyone. That’s my own personal belief and I’m sure I can get a good argument out of some of you on that point.
But when I discussed the intellectual property dilemma with Gore on the plane the other day he said, “Well, you’re a songwriter and you must know that there is already a system operating that deals in intellectual property that doesn’t have some physical manifestation, and that is BMI and ASCAP.”
And I said, “Well I’m a member of ASCAP. And if you think that’s the solution, I invite you to write some songs.” [laughter] Because ASCAP and BMI have a system for extracting royalty payments from radio and television stations and distributing to their members which is so disorganized and disorganizable that I look at ASCAP payments as being manna. I mean, when I get a check from ASCAP I think, “Well that’s nice. I wonder if it reflects anything real about radio play and television broadcasts.” I suspect not, because what they really do is they’ve got people walking around streets with randomly-selected tapes of radio broadcasts, listening to them on their Walkmans, and writing down every song they hear and coming up with some kind of very crude statistical reckoning of what that means in terms of actual airplay. And this is a sloppy system.
But I think there are going to be other systems of intellectual property protection which evolve, probably based on something more like a performance model or a service model, than instantiation in some physical widget, whether it’s a book, or a tape, or whatever. Those things are all going to go away, and we have to figure out how to sell the wine without any bottles. And I think that we probably will. I can’t imagine that we’re going into the information age without any way of getting paid for the work that we do with our minds. But we’re just going to have to change our sense of what that work is from ownership, to performance and service. We’re going to have to look at ourselves in a continuous relationship with the people who use our work rather than saying, “Alright, well I’ve put my work in this box, and I’m going to give you this box and the next time it’s going to be a whole new transaction.”
But, these are going to involve some fairly profound economic and social changes. About the only thing I’m willing to say about them from here is that anything I say about them at this point is liable to look ridiculous in ten years. Everything is going to change very much. I really feel that what we are essentially doing here is roughly like what the French theologian and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin was talking about when he started to write in the ’30s about the Omega Point, or that point at which human beings became so good at communicating with one another that they created what amounted to the collective organism of mind. We are going to become a creature. In a sense maybe we already are. And that will be a very different kind of creature than has ever been seen in the universe before. It will be enormously powerful. And you folks are helping it be born. I want to take some questions and answers, but thank you very much.
John Perry Barlow: Could I have some light in here? I like it a lot better when I’m talking to people I can see. Yes, go ahead.
Audience 1: Okay. In the past, even though the Internet has had funding from the government, I think there’s been more sweat equity from some of us, and more local money put into the Internet compared to the government’s contribution. With the advent of the superhighway, this ratio may change and therefore the government’s control of the Internet may also increase. Do you have any comments on that?
Barlow: Well, you know, fortunately…you’d never guess it from hearing their public statements but the government has no intention of building the national data superhighway. They know that that’s not something that they can afford or something that they should be doing. What they are doing instead is trying to create the right economic environment in which that thing can be built by private industry. And that’s really the appropriate approach, as long as you can put in place certain standards for behavior that will help private industry act in a democratizing rather than pluto-craticizing kind of way.
The government is also doing the right thing in the sense that they are trying to stimulate internet use by providing grants to schools and other other public interest bodies for Internet connection. And they’re also interested in creating applications which will become strongly supportive of public use of the Internet.
So, I think that whenever government gets involved in anything you’ve got to be vigilant. But I’m very pleased with the overall approach they’re taking to building this thing. They’re not setting out to try to pour concrete. Or in this case lay fiber. They know enough to know that there’s an awful lot of dark fiber already out there and what they need to stimulate are the on-ramps and the country roads. Because the main routes have already been built.
Audience 2: In yesterday’s Chronicle, Michael Schrage is a columnist, he wrote that all the talk about information haves and have-nots is creating a welfare ethic in cyberspace, and goes on to say that the real problems are not poverty or wealth in a monetary sense but how illiterate or literate people are. I’d like to know your thoughts about that.
Barlow: Well, I don’t think Michael Schrage gets it. He also in the same column talks about what this is all for is for television, essentially. He doesn’t seem to understand that people want to interact with each other over this. And he also doesn’t understand something an Andrew Carnegie understood very well. I’ve got a great quote in here which I could read you if my battery hadn’t gone flat on me. [laughter; applause] I don’t know about these things. …from Andrew Carnegie, who said that he gave his money to libraries because he felt that libraries were one of the great tools for achieving social equity and justice. They did not pauperize people. They didn’t make them dependent. They give them the tools that were necessary for them to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. And really what we’re talking about is the construction of a great meta library. And I can’t believe that giving people access to a system on which all the world’s information is going to reside will have a truly deleterious effect on the ability of people to get information.
There are problems, and they’re primarily cultural rather than economic problems. You folks have created an interface, if we can call it that [laughter], which is highly exclusive. It’s congenial to people like you. And there aren’t a lot of people like you, as you may have noticed. [laughter] It is not particularly congenial to people like my mother, or a 13 year-old from Harlem. Or, I might, add most women. Just take a look at the numbers in this room. There are women here but you are a special lot. There aren’t enough of you here. [applause] And I think that we can’t really settle cyberspace until we can make it safe for the women and children, and it isn’t. [laughter; applause]
And I don’t blame you guys this. I mean, Brenda Laurel and I were at a conference a few years ago talking about why there aren’t more women in digital media, and whether it was a process of active exclusion or what. And a young, pale man got up in the back of the room and he said, “Well, you have to understand that I got in the computer science because I was scared of girls. [laughter] And there weren’t any there.”
So you know, I think that there are a lot of problems that have to be addressed with regard to access, but they’re mostly problems with making the tools easy for people to use. Because I don’t think that the technology itself is going to be very expensive for very long. I mean I’ve seen 286’s as doorstops and paperweights. And they’re still perfectly good for accessing the Internet. We need to get that machinery out into the community that can’t afford it. And you need to make certain that the information providers and infrastructure providers feel some sense of social responsibility about putting access points at low cost into every home in America. But Schrage’s argument that this is all for the rich I think is a little misleading.
I am…you know, I am a bit concerned about what I’m afraid is going to break down in the library model. I mean, in the library model you come to the library and get books free. The contents of those books didn’t cost you anything, it had already been paid for when the library bought the book. And now I’m afraid we’re going to a system where an awful lot of information is going to cost everyone who uses it. And I don’t know the answer to that question. I hope that the collective mental horsepower of the people in this room can turn themselves to that because it’s going to be a tough question.
Audience 3: I had a somewhat more practical question about openness. You mentioned a desire to make sure there are multiple wires to the house. But one of the problems I’m seeing is that the local municipalities own the conduits. And this is actually becoming a tremendous difficulty for example in getting rights to get conduit—look at the [MCLI?] deal that made sure they could install stuff in New York City.
Similarly, I mean you know, if I can get to a railroad line, for example, almost anywhere in the country—railroad lines being an interesting situation because you can put fiber along them very cheaply. I mean for example to wire the entire peninsula could cost a few thousand bucks to go down the Caltrain line here. But getting from one house to Caltrain means you have to go through the local municipality to get permission to put something in the conduit, which means huge amounts of money and difficulty of access. Is there anything one can do to try to encourage competition in the conduit sort of space?
Barlow: Well this is essentially what EFF is trying to get done in Congress, and in working with the various congressmen and with the administration. You know, that’s been Priority A, is making certain that there are a lot of competitors who are operating on a level playing field in getting those bits to you. And I think that the bills that’re presently pending are headed the right direction. I strongly recommend…you know, tedious as it may be, that you make yourself familiar with that legislation.
And I would also recommend you know, EFF as being a good way to do that. If there are a lot of you who have not joined EFF I’m going to be perfectly self-serving now in saying that I think you really ought to. And if you don’t feel like joining us, at least try to check in on our news groups, which are…um… I didn’t get enough sleep last night. comp.org.eff.talk and eff-news. But the best way to get information from us is to write email@example.com and ask to be put on our mailing list. And also if you’re interested in getting paper for those friends of yours that may not be digitally-connected, you can request that paper materials be sent to you. We will try to keep you extremely up-to-date on what’s going on in Washington, where we have the dismal chore of keeping track of it.
We’ll do that for you so you don’t have to, but you need to be somewhat aware. You need to know that there are going to be moments where it becomes critical to write your congressman. And you need to try to make your friends aware of what’s going on here. Because people are in a serious state of confusion. Most folks are differently clued from yourself, and you need to help them out a little bit.
Audience 4: You seem to be advocating two things that at least at first blush seem like they might be at least somewhat mutually contradictory.
Barlow: I hope so.
Audience 5: One is letting competition in a level playing field get things going. The other is universal access as a type of of…that the telephone companies have subsidized local access to get as their quid pro quo for regulated monopoly. This seems to be a sticking point in the various bills in Congress. What is the best position?
Barlow: Well this is a tough problem. I tend to think, though, that if I’m not in the presence of irony and paradox I must not be in the presence of the truth. And you know, the way in which the Vail model worked was by the imposition of the telephone company as a regulated monopoly which was in a position to charge some of its customers a lot more in order to subsidize other of its customers who couldn’t afford those rates. And we don’t want to go to that regime, and there’s no enthusiasm anywhere in the industry for doing that. Too many years of dealing with the FCC has hardened everybody against regulation.
But I think that the answer to that is that there is something about real competition, and not the kind of bogus competition you get between two or three agencies, that is going to have an enormously distributive effect, naturally. If it’s real competition, it’s in their best interest to get those connections to everybody. Because they’re also going to be in the business of selling the stuff that comes over that wire, and if they can’t get that wire to you they can’t sell that stuff to you. I’ve had that experience from a number of people in places like Bell Atlantic and TCI and I tend to believe them. I think they see it as being in their self-interest to get everything connected.
But you know, I don’t feel some sense of great security in that, I feel like we have to be continuously vigilant. And you know, it’s one thing to say that we want open competition, it’s another thing to come up with an appropriate mechanism for assuring it and God is in the details. And there’s going to be a lot of hard work in working out those details.
By the way I have a question from the net here, which is “Will a recording of this speech be available afterwards?” and I guess the answer is yes though I don’t know…
Jeff Mogul: The answer to that is that Carl Malamud who runs Internet Talk Radio will be given the tape of this and he’ll make it available via his usual techniques.
Audience 5: Yes, I had a question. Amongst this audience I—and I mean to insult no one—you usually use the word “politics” to describe any social phenomenon you don’t understand. [Barlow laughs] And in my experience, I come from the actual precinct in which Tip O’Neill lived, and his famous dictum about all politics being local I think probably holds here. The only thing I guess I would I would ask you is if you could comment on the degree to which politics is about voice. And in my experience on the local level, it has always been that those who are frankly allied on the side of goodness are those who are doing it out of love and in their spare time. And the opposite number is paid to do it and arrive in vast multitudes in proportion to the amount of money to be made. The descriptions you were giving earlier sound like an ever-greater Goliath for us sundry Davids in the audience. I wondered how you might address the inequity.
Barlow: Well at least that ought to get you out of bed in the morning. Or at nightfall whenever you get up. [laughter; applause] But you know, I think we need to look at the Internet itself, which is one of the greatest volunteer projects of all time. And is doubling in size annually in spite of the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any money in it anywhere that anybody can— [laughter] People from the physical world keep asking me about how the Internet gets paid for and I…you know… I don’t know. [laughter]
Audience 5: Time Warner does.
Barlow: Uh…no Time Warner definitely doesn’t, I assure you. They really don’t. They’re trying hard to figure that out.
But you know, you’re absolutely right. All sensible politics are local, for sure. And that’s one of the great geniuses of distributed communication systems. Because the sort of macro decisions, the meta decisions that get made about the Internet emerge from little collective decisions that are made all over its outer boundaries. I think there’s something enormously democratizing about this. And I think that it is a very, very powerful system that the old structural methods are going to have a difficult time competing with. In spite of the fact that they have a lot of money behind them, they don’t have the same kind of passion. They don’t have the same sense of personal investment and involvement in what they’re doing that people who are building the Internet do. And I…I think, you know there are times when I feel like this thing is just going to spread of its own accord, at the present rate which is sometimes 20% growth per month, until sometime before the turn of the millennium every man, woman, and child on the planet has an email address. But you know, I think we can also expect to see that curve go asymptotic at some point and… You know, I’m not completely sanguine about about our chances but I’m very optimistic. We just have to stay on it.
Audience 6: My question is, when I think about the question of maintaining quality on the net, you know I’m not sure that all thought [flame?] is any better than Geraldo. And unfortunately—
Barlow: At least you don’t have to see them. [laughter]
Audience 6: Unfortunately, quality in things like this conference and on the net has relied traditionally on unpaid program committee members and moderators. And as everyone of the businesses involved in this starts saying, “We don’t do anything unless we see the return,” I’m worried about the sustaining volunteer effort to create the basic information, ie., writing the first copy when you can’t usually charge people who’re making more copies, and sorting the out good information from the bad. And I hope that the government will try to arrange the politics so that there is a reward in that part of the business in what would traditionally be the librarian refereeing business once the printing business is no longer throwing up the surplus to support it.
Barlow: Well, I don’t think that the government needs to do very much along those lines. Because I think that one of the greatest problems that we face citing data shock. I mean, certainly our political system is already reeling under the effects of too much information. The average congressman has got an attention span of about five seconds. And I personally don’t spend a lot of time reading Usenet anymore because I just don’t have the time or the energy to sort out personally the signal-to-noise ratio. Which is lousy.
And furthermore I’m having to do it you know, with…the human I/O is worse than a cheat modem. For text. I mean it’s great for experience. I mean we’re getting gigabits per second of information about our environment. But with text it’s not very high. So I think that there are a couple of solutions to the problem, one of which is gonna be richer media. But also I think that there’s going to be a natural development of a lot of people who make their living by trying to sort out relevance for a specific audience that contracts with them. You know, at this point I would be willing to pay a certain amount to quite a number of people to identify what I really want to know about and flag the stuff that’s out there on the Internet, to bring it to my attention so I don’t have to read the whole damn thing to get the stuff that is important. [applause]
And I think that’s already starting to happen, and will will happen a lot. I mean I really see that there are two great economic opportunities here. One is for virtual editing and the other one is for virtual community and ways in which you can bring people together and provide them a rich medium in which to interact with one another. I think they’re going to be very successful business models and they’re going to be small sort of machete and loincloth-style businesses. They’re not the sort of thing that Bell Atlantic is ever going to know very much about running.
Audience 7: What about systems like the French Minitel? Do you think these are models that we should look at for the information superhighway?
Barlow: Well, first of all I can’t imagine that Jesse Helms would be very appreciative of most of the content on Minitel. But you know, if anything I’ve had dealings with the French about trying to get the Minitel system connected to the net. And there’s an enormous amount of cultural immune response there. As you would imagine, their being French and all. [laughter]
Interestingly enough you know, you run into the same problem in Japan. I mean, they recognize that…you know, their culture is very important to them and they recognize that there is something enormously infectious about this. They hate the fact that it’s in English. Gore was saying the other day that he had been talking to the president of Kazakhstan and this fellow’s son had said that he wanted to learn English because that was the language that the computer spoke. This is the sort of statement that chills a lot of Frenchmen.
But I’m pleased to say that they’re starting to come around on this. I know that they have recently contracted with a Silicon Valley company that is in the PDA business to start connecting Minitel to a larger network. They’ve got some serious technical problems. I mean, Minitel was amazingly advanced when it was created. I don’t think you could say that of it now. But I think there’s a lot of there’s suction in the online world that eventually is going to attract everything that produces electronic information.
Audience 8: This is kind of on a more mundane plane. What kind of connectivity do you expect to have at your ranch in Wyoming in the next decade, say?
Barlow: Well, I’m really hopeful that I’m not stuck at 19.2 forever. But I think that that again is is an area where I have plenty of reason for optimism. There are a number of companies that are working on satellite technology. And I think that there’s going to be an economy of scale developed there fairly rapidly for those those kinds of extremely rural areas where running in traditional networks may be prohibitive.
But you know, actually the little companies, little telephone providers in places like I live have been consistently a lot more advanced than than the RBOCs. US West, which serves most of the area around me, is selling off a lot of its small tendrils rather than put in digital switching, whereas the private companies in those small areas have had digital switching for a long time, including one in my little town. Tnd they’re presently running a fiber optic cable forty-five miles from Big Piney to Pinedale. I think it’ll be a while before they start running fiber around Pinedale, but they’re going to have ISDN there next year. [applause]
So again, it falls to a large extent to folks like you to go to your local telephone provider and say, “I want to get ISDN service, how can I do that?” I mean that’s really important. Because a lot of these folks don’t know that there’s a real desire on the part of the public, that there’s a market for this kind of product.
Have you been…?
Audience 9: I’ve been standing here in the middle.
Barlow: Okay, who’s been there the longest? I haven’t the slightest idea. Okay, go ahead.
Audience 10: I have, yes. To go on with this particular discussion, I live up in the mountains of New Mexico way up away from everywhere and I have a PageSAT satellite receiver. And that is one way, as you pointed out. The problem I’m having there is to get back to the Internet I need to feed back through an FCC-controlled spectrum. And the FCC is not quite coming around as fast as you seem to think the telephone company is, although I’m just totally getting around the telephone company. I really haven’t had a phone for three or four years. I just recently got one because I bought a new house and it had a phone in it. But it will go away after a while.
Barlow: Well everybody knows that the FCC is a problem. That’s the good news. I mean even the FTC knows that. And I think that as Title 7 gets drafted, we’re going to see some fundamental changes in the way in which the FCC operates. Because the FCC has been doing something very different in the past from what it’s about to start doing.
There’s also finally an awareness that radio spectrum is not quite the same thing as real estate. That it has an infinitely divisible quality. And it’s not quite necessary with present day technology to protect so much of the sideband as it has been in the past. So I think we’re going to see some real changes in FCC policy. Again, you’re going to have to help make those changes happen. I mean these organizations do not change because they want to. They change because they have to.
Audience 10: Well, the thing that I see that’s got me scared is that I’ve a satellite receiver for like fifteen years. And the changes that went into effect when Time Warner turned the skies dark are just terrifying. Because as soon as there was a market, as soon as there were enough satellite receivers out there, then Time Warner decided that they would only send their satellite programming to those people who scrambled their signal so that the home satellite receiver could not receive it. And they had instant market at that point. And so that’s why I support the cryptography thing. I’m against the Clipper chip. I’m all of those things just because it’s already happened and you guys weren’t even aware of it.
Barlow: Well you know, I don’t want to be too enthusiastic about these people but another great market developed at that point which was in pirate decoding chips, and those people are amazing.
Audience 10: But the Time Warner people have defeated that market, too. They replace the video cipher almost every year.
Audience 10: They’re up to video cipher three and four technology at this point. As soon as you start to beat them or start to come even, then they replaced the hardware.
Barlow: And so marches technology. I’m afraid I’m out of time, folks. If you want immediate materials on EFF I think there’s some out here on a table. I thank you all very much. I’m honored to be able to speak to you.
Mogul: Thank you John. Apparently we had about seventy people from the Internet listening in at 1 point or another—I don’t think all at the same time. And I’d like to thank everybody. We have a break session and then at eleven o’clock sharp we’ll be starting the first session of refereed papers in here and the first invited talk session I guess on the other side of the divider.
This recording at archive.org
A version of this speech, minus Q&A, is published at the EFF web site, titled “Stopping the Information Railroad”. It is marked as having been transcribed, though there are differences from the recording above.