[I am currently helping Berin Szoka edit a collection of essays from various Internet policy scholars for a new PFF book called "The Next Digital Decade: Essays about the Internet's Future." I plan on including two chapters of my own in the book responding to the two distinct flavors of Internet pessimism that I increasingly find are dominating discussions about Internet policy. Below you will see how the first of these two chapters begins. I welcome input as I refine this draft. ]
Surveying the prevailing mood surrounding cyberlaw and Internet policy circa 2010, one is struck by the overwhelming sense of pessimism about our long-term prospects for a better future. "Internet pessimism," however, comes in two very distinct flavors:
First, there is an elitist air to their pronouncements; a veritable "the-rest-of-you-just-don't-get-it" attitude pervades their work. In the case of the Net Skeptics, it's the supposed decline of culture, tradition, and economy that the rest of us are supposedly blind to, but which they see perfectly--and know how to rectify. For the Net Loving Pessimists, by contrast, we see this attitude on display when they imply that a Digital Dark Age of Closed Systems is unfolding since nefarious schemers in high-tech corporate America are out to suffocate Internet innovation and digital freedom more generally. The Net Loving Pessimists apparently see this plot unfolding, but paint the rest of us out to be robotic sheep being led to the cyber-slaughter since we are unwittingly using services (AOL in the old days; Facebook today) or devices (the iPhone and iPad) that play right into the hands of those corporate schemers who are out to erect high and tight walled gardens all around us.
Unsurprisingly, this elitist attitude leads to the second thing uniting these two variants of Net pessimism: An underlying belief that someone or something--most often, the State--must intervene to set us on a better course or protect those things that they regard as sacred. They either fancy themselves as the philosopher kings who can set things back on a better course, or they imagine that such creatures exist in government today and can be tapped to save us from our impending digital doom--whatever it may be.
In both cases, I will argue that today's Internet pessimists have over-stated the severity of the respective problems they have identified. In doing so, I will argue that they both have failed to appreciate the benefits of evolutionary dynamism. I borrow the term dynamism from Virginia Postrel, who contrasted the conflicting worldviews of dynamism and stasis so eloquently in her 1999 masterpiece, The Future and Its Enemies. Postrel argued that:
The future we face at the dawn of the twenty-first century is, like all futures left to themselves, "emergent, complex messiness." Its "messiness" lies not in disorder, but in an order that is unpredictable, spontaneous, and ever shifting, a pattern created by millions of uncoordinated, independent decisions.
How we feel about the evolving future tells us who we are as individuals and as a civilization: Do we search for stasis--a regulated, engineered world? Or do we embrace dynamism--a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition? Do we value stability and control, or evolution and learning? Do we declare with [Tim] Appelo that "we're scared of the future" and join [Judith ] Adams in decrying technology as "a killing thing"? Or do we see technology as an expression of human creativity and the future as inviting? Do we think that progress requires a central blueprint, or do we see it as a decentralized, evolutionary process? Do we consider mistakes permanent disasters, or the correctable by-products of experimentation? Do we crave predictability, or relish surprise? These two poles, stasis and dynamism, increasingly define our political, intellectual, and cultural landscape. The central question of our time is what to do about the future. And that question creates a deep divide.
In this chapter, I will take on the first variant of Internet pessimism (the Net Skeptics) and make the dynamist case for what I call "pragmatic optimism." I will argue that the Internet and digital technologies are reshaping our culture, economy and society in most ways for the better, but not without some serious heartburn along the way. My bottom line comes down to a simple cost-benefit analysis: Were we really better off in the scarcity era when we were collectively suffering from information poverty? Generally speaking, I'll take information overload over information poverty any day. But we should not underestimate or belittle the disruptive impacts associated with the Information Revolution. We need to find ways to better cope with those changes in a dynamist fashion instead of embracing the stasis notion that we can roll back the clock on progress and recapture "the good 'ol days"--which actually weren't all that good.
In another chapter in the book, I will address the second variant of Internet pessimism (the Net Loving Pessimists) and show how reports of the Internet's death have been greatly exaggerated. Although the Net Loving Pessimists will likely recoil at the suggestion that they are not dynamists, the reality is that their attitudes and recommendations are decided stasisist in nature. They fret about a cyber-future in which the Internet might not as closely resemble the its opening epoch. Worse yet, many of them agree with what Lawrence Lessig said in his seminal--by highly pessimistic--1999 book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, that "Left to itself, cyberspace will become a perfect tool of control." Lessig and his intellectual disciples--especially Zittrain and Wu--have continued to forecast a gloomy digital future unless something is done to address the Great Digital Closing we are supposedly experiencing. I will argue that while many of us share their appreciation of the Internet's current nature and its early history, their embrace of the stasis mentality is unfortunate since it forecloses the spontaneous evolution of cyberspace and invites government intervention to create a more "regulated, engineered world" that will, ironically, undermine much of what they hope to preserve about the current Internet.
[I'll then go on to finish this chapter, basically by finally completing my essay, "Are You An Internet Optimist or Pessimist? The Great Debate over Technology's Impact on Society." In the second chapter addressing the pessimism of the "Net Lovers," I will build on my review of Zittrain's "Future of the Internet," my two-part debate with Lawrence Lessig on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of "Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace," and my forthcoming review of Tim Wu's soon-to-be-released book, "The Master Switch The Rise and Fall of Information Empires." I will then eagerly await the hate mail from all the affected parties.]