The Internet and the Anti-net

Two public internetworks are better than one

by Nick Arnett

World-Wide Web Product Manager

Verity Inc.

1550 Plymouth St.

Mountain View, CA 94043

(415) 960-7600

Networking policy debates usually assume a future monolithic internetwork following consistent policies despite a number of independent operators, rarely questioning whether such a structure makes practical sense. Although interstate highway and telephone systems -- favorite metaphors for network futurists -- operate that way, historical comparisons suggest that it is probably not appropriate or even likely for public information systems. Two distinct, loosely interconnected publicly accessible digital internetworks may emerge, which will surely be better than just one.

The participants in the creation of these two networks are emerging from three communities: technologists, scientists and academics, and the mass media. Technologists play the pivotal role. Their partnerships with science and academia have produced the Internet; their partnerships with the mass media are creating the Anti-net. I call the second internetwork the Anti-net not for demagoguery but to make a historical allusion, explained below.

The point of this paper is not to join the heated debate over commercialization of the Internet. Its intent is to argue that new technology will bring about enormous changes in social and cultural power by re-establishing a balance of information control in modern society. This a desirable balance that is only possible through the encouragement of a dual, perhaps even plural set of internetworks with similar technology but vastly different operating paradigms.

Historically, losses and gains of information technology have triggered power shifts between monolithic, inevitably corrupt leadership and open, democratic societies in which corruption is more readily uncovered and remedied. For example, Marshall McLuhan suggests that the republican Greek culture's loss of a papyrus supply was its downfall. Through the Dark Ages, the Catholic church dominated popular information, but the technologies of printing and mass production of paper led to the creation of alternatives to the corruption that grew out of the church's absolute authority.

Today, information flow to the public at large is dominated by the mass media. Virtually every broadcaster and publisher of significant size exists at the mercy of the advertisers who provide 80 to 100 percent of their revenue. In short, although ordinary people like to believe that they have some choice about what to read in publications and view on television, advertisers are choosing nearly all of the published information that reaches them.

Advertisers today, like the church in the Dark Ages, rely on a "push" model of providing information, presented as truth that is not to be questioned. The well-behaved citizen today, like the well-behaved peasant in feudal times, is thoroughly encouraged, if not hypnotized by television, into passively accepting others' notions about what's important to know. In each case, it is clear that the small number of people with the power to control information do not have in mind the best interests of society as a whole, no matter how much they might rationalize their behaviors.

The Internet, in stark contrast, is dominated by a "pull" information paradigm appropriate to science and academia, where active truth-seeking is revered above all. Internet users explore for information that they believe they want, using increasingly sophisticated search tools to cope with the huge amounts of information available. The Internet community reacts with profound anger and resentment toward pushy Anti-net behavior on the Internet -- in net-speak, "spamming" advertising messages into hundreds of discussions. Internet users aren't alone in their feelings toward pushy advertising. Nearly everyone who watches television thinks it is stupid, offering a homogenized, sensationalized point of view that serves advertising interests above all others. Other mass media, perhaps in an effort to be competitive, are little better. The Internet's users will continue to pull; the mass media's users, the advertisers, will continue to push. One is not better than the other; a strong society maintains a balance between the anarchy of information "pullers" and the tyranny of information "pushers."

The Anti-net should grow out of the mass communications industries, especially cable and broadcast, using technology closely related to that of the Internet. The Anti-net will rely on advertising revenue to recoup the cost of the infrastructure for inexpensive, high-speed bandwidth, which is necessary to create the kind of high-touch, Hollywood-style multimedia that makes "push" advertising work. This should be allowed to happen, despite the good intentions of some who would derail it.

Idealistic defenders of the Internet's purity believe they are waging a humanitarian or even a holy war that pits a democracy of ideas against the mass media's empty promises and indulgences. They view television and its kin as cheap hawkers of false idols and false communities of soaps, sitcoms and sports. Internet idealists question the U.S. administration's unclear proposal of an "information superhighway," suspecting that the masses will be taxed only to further expand the Anti-net's stranglehold on information.

Historical parallels -- Martin Luther's flame war

The same kind of stage was set 500 years ago. The convergence of inexpensive printing and inexpensive paper began to loosen the Catholic church's centuries-old stranglehold on information. Ironically, the church quickly became the best customer of many of the early printer-publishers. The earliest dated publication of Johann Gutenberg was a "papal indulgence" to raise money for the church's defense against Turk invasions. Indulgences were papers sold to the common folk to pay the Pope for remission of their sins, a sort of insurance against the wrath of God. The church was selling salvation, little different from television ads today that promise health, wealth, popularity and other blessings and temptations. Indulgence revenue was shared with government officials, becoming almost a form of state and holy taxation. The money financed the church's holy wars, as well as church officials' luxurious lifestyles.

Jumping on the new technology for corrupt purposes, the church had sown the seeds of its own undoing. The spark for the 15th-century "flame war," in net-speak, was a monk, Martin Luther. Outraged by the depth of the church's corruption, Luther wrote a series of short theses in 1517, questioning indulgences, papal infallibility (the ultimate "push" message), Latin-only Bibles and services, and other authoritarian, self-serving practices. Although Luther had previously written similar theses, something different happened to the 95 that he nailed to the church door in Wittenburg. Printers -- the "hackers" of their day, poking about the network of church doors and libraries -- found Luther's theses.

As an academic, Luther enjoyed a certain amount of freedom to raise potentially heretical arguments against church practice. Nailing his theses to the Wittenburg door was a standard way to distribute information to his academic community for discussion, much like putting a research paper on an Internet server today. In Luther's time, intellectual property laws hadn't even been contemplated, so his papers were fair game for publication (as today's Internet postings often seem to be, to the dismay of many). Luther's ideas quickly became the talk of Europe. No surprise there -- heresy sells, especially when it questions corrupt authority. But the speed of printing technology caught many by surprise. Even Luther, defending himself before the pope, was at a loss to explain how so many had been influenced so fast.

Luther's initial goal was to reform the church. He imagined at first that there could be a single church that could continue to be the light of the world. But his ideas were rejected and he was excommunicated by his order. Accepting Biblical teachings that evil is inevitable, Luther focused on teaching and preaching what he believed was true Christianity, instead of trying to win the church over to his beliefs. Although it was not his original intent, Luther sparked the creation of an alternative to Catholicism that has survived 500 years, a church whose fundamental ideas have come to be accepted by the Catholic church itself, restoring a balance that had been lost during its reign of power over flow of information.

Present and future history

Today we are at a turning point. We are leaving behind a world dominated by easy, audiovisual, sensational, advertising-based media. We are beginning a future in which the mass media's power will be diluted by the low cost of distribution of many other points of view. Using the Internet is still something like trying to learn from the pre-Gutenberg libraries, in which manuscripts were chained to tables and there were no standards for organization and structure. But like the mendicant scholars of those days, today's "mendicant sysops," especially on the Internet, are doing much of the work of organization in exchange for free access to information.

Luther's pragmatic philosophy -- accepting the existence of good and evil rather insisting on a single pure church -- would serve well those who believe that the Internet's current values must "win" over the mass media's Anti-net ideas. If the utopians succeed in derailing or co-opting efforts to build a separate internetwork, then surely the one remaining internetwork -- the Internet -- will be corrupted by information "pushers" with nowhere else to go.

Despite the promise, it remains entirely possible that commercial interests could conspire, knowingly or not, with government officials to destroy, or worse, to take over the Internet by political and economic means. Future historians, instead of comparing the Internet to the U.S. Interstate highway system's success, may compare it with the near-destruction of the nation's railroad and trolley infrastructure. The trolley tracks were torn up by corrupt businesses with interests in automobiles and trucking, who were excused and even encouraged in the name of progress, but the nation was left largely without mass transit. Information superhighway "progress" to some will mean getting rid of the Internet so that the "push" model can continue to dominate.

The truly influential and successful early publishers, such as Aldus Manutius, were merchant technologists who formed collaborations with the scientific/academic community and even the church, especially those who dissented against Rome. Out of business needs for economies of scale, they brought together people with diverse points of view and created books that appealed to diverse communities. The Renaissance was propelled in part by books that allowed intellectual giants such as Copernicus to easily compare and contrast the many points of view of their predecessors. Today, the most interesting new ventures may also arise from three-way collaborations; skills of technologists, scientists and academics, and media professionals all are essential to creating and delivering network-based information products and services.

Today, the great opportunity is not to make copies of theses on the digital church doors. It is to build electronic magazines, newspapers, books, newsletters, libraries and other collections that organize and package the writings, photos, videos, sounds and other multimedia information from diverse points of view on the networks. The Internet, with one foot in technology and the other in science and academia, needs only a bit of help from the mass media in order to show the Anti-net how it's done.

Nick Arnett [] is the World-Wide Web product manager at Verity Inc., Mountain View, California. From 1988 through August of 1994, Arnett was president of Multimedia Computing Corp., the leading market research and consulting firm tracking multimedia technologies and markets. He previously was a journalist with publications including InfoWorld and American City Business Journals.