Karma Vertigo: or Considering The Excessive Responsibilities Placed On Us By The Dawn Of The Information Infrastructure

For Comment Only! Copyright 1994, Jaron Lanier

The sometimes lemming-like contest between corporate giants for prizes they cannot comprehend is a sideshow that is distracting us from our responsibilities to the future.

Are we ready to recognize that we are in the midst of a formative historical moment? Or are we going to shun our responsibility and pretend that we don't know what is happening?

I've been observing the progress of debate on the "information highway" and somehow a great many people who know better are pretending that it is just another grand venture like the interstates or the space program, when it is actually something of much greater consequence for two simple reasons: it will change everything and it is irreversible.

There is already one battle line that is well drawn by the likes of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The line separates a future of democracy from a future of compromised freedom. But looming beyond that clear conflict is another one of equal importance and even more challenging subtlety. It is the question of how to achieve quality, beauty, and other imponderably subjective things once there is the capacity for democracy on the network.

Mitch Kapor came up with the marvelously compact slogan "Architecture is Politics." (Architecture signifies the technical structure of a computer network.)

We would be fortunate, in a way, if the significance of architecture was to be limited to what we think of as politics. For in a democracy, politics serves us best when it serves us least. Architecture, alas, is so much more than politics, that it is almost impossible to capture its importance. Architecture will also be a foundation for the language, society, and culture of the future. At first, the design of the network will seem less important than the content that is moved over it. This will be true only for the first generation or two of users. After that it will become apparent that the network's design is like genetic material out of which our culture unfolds, an intimate and pervasive presence, a thing, like the structure of our spoken language, whose influence is too great to be isolated or measured.

The influence of network architecture will re-cast every human endeavor that involves communication across distance or time. We are about to create the material with which our civilization will be largely woven for generations to come. The design of the information infrastructure will form the weave and the flow of its contents, which will be most of what we what we create together and pass on as a legacy.

Unlike the conduct of government, the structural elements of the network will be facts, not laws subject to interpretation and refinement. Most importantly, however, the choices we make will largely be irreversible.

There are principles that must be built into the network resources that are created in the next ten years that are not likely to change for generations, if ever. One reason for this is that it would be hard for us to agree on how to change a network, just as it is hard to agree on how to change a law. The main reason, however, is a technical problem: Software and network architectures are built in a lock-step, puzzle-like way on foundation assumptions that are almost impossible to undo once a system has become large.

For a start, here is a simple example of the cultural consequences of architecture that will not show up as a coloration of human experiance for perhaps decades, but when it does show up, it could appear as a cultural time bomb. I work in Virtual Reality, a medium in which many activities are typically going on at once in a continuous way, the way objects and people move in the physical world, or the way dancers move in a ballet. In contrast, most conventional computer and network designs have been based on discreet events, such as the pressing of a mouse button. These are two different universes. Will the information superhighway inspire continuous, ballet like interaction between people, or will human communication be defined as a series of discreet transaction moments? The answer to this question and many others might be effectively pre-determined years before the public experiences the results. And this is a rather esoteric example. There are similar structural issues that will, for example, define what truth is in the future, how we value beauty, what privacy means, what money is, and what democracy is.

I think of civilization as a grand experiment to see if anything systemic can be done to promote kindness and sanity in human affairs. The network infrastructure developments of the next decade should essentially codify what can thus far be learned from this experiment.

The difference between the idealistic political struggles of the past and the present and future struggle for cyber-democracy (eek- let's not ever use that term again) is that there is more freedom possible in cyber-democracy. This actually makes things harder, because the inconveniences of "pre-cyber" communication served as a smothering cushion that maintained a moot status for a whole range of issues.

The worst failing of communism, in my opinion, is that it did not acknowledge the existence of human experience beyond the scope of its own ideas. The most stifling threat to freedom is to bind people within the limits of ideas, since we, just like the rest of nature, are always a step ahead of our best interpretations. Thus, under communism we saw an attempt to destroy spirituality, sentimentality, identity, and tradition.

In another context, while discussing Virtual Reality, I came up with the slogan "Information is Alienated Experience." This phrase came to me in part in response to theorists of politics, art, and computer design, who have the disgusting tendency to pretend that ideas or words can contain people.

The discipline of science is to only respect falsifiable theories. When you create a boundary for yourself or others by believing in a theory of what you or they are, you create a conunndrum of scientific method in which you never know what might have been, and therefore never have the opportunity to test the theory.

Part of the beauty of the American idea of government is in its self-limiting charter. For instance, the phrase "the pursuit of happiness" in an instant identifies an indefinable territory beyond the reach of law, or even language, that constitutes a critical part of "freedom." What a marvelously sophisticated idea, and how much more compact a statement than those of later thinkers, like Wittgenstein, who could courageously define the limits of their thought. Unfortunately, the information infrastructure of the future must, in some cases, by its very nature, transgress into this wild territory, to make theories of politics and culture into mandatory and invisible fixtures.

Our constitution was designed to be to be adjustable once it was set in motion. While it is not easy to change, it has been changed, and I'm sure most citizens are happy with the changes, embodied in amendments such as the bill of rights and the abolition of slavery. The constitution is a living text, subject to a legacy of interpretation in the law. It breathes and grows as its principles are applied to new situations.

Network architecture, on the other hand, is deposited like sediment. Ideas that were once provisional, such as the existence of separate files (instead of a big connected sea of information), are now so entrenched as to be like physical laws. I shudder when I realize that in one thousand years, our descendants will still probably be stuck with MS DOS and UNIX.

I woke up at four in the morning one day in early 1994, and wrote the first draft of this text in the form of a prayer. Just before dawn the Sausalito seals started to bark in a bizarre way and then we had a little earthquake. (This was before the LA quake.) I prayed for the network of the future to be democratic and beautiful and spiritual. I usually wouldn't even think of the word "pray" in connection with information technology, but I am really at a loss for what else to do when faced with a task of such importance, such wonderful potential, something so inevitable and yet something which cannot be undone for generations, if we don't get it right.

The stakes are so high that they inspire vertigo. And yet this adventure is entirely worhwhile because the potential rewards are so lovely. But can we do it? Is it possible to plan for the serendipity of a deep creative culture? Let's start with a simpler thought experiment: What if we had to come up with the constitution of the United States today? Would we do as well as the folks in Philadelphia did 200 years ago? Could we do better? I believe that the design of the information infrastructure taking place in this decade is of greater consequence to the long term future of our nation and our world than the constitution was.

This moment is indeed reminiscent of the creation of the American constitution in Philadelphia. Well meaning and brilliant people with nasty conflicting interests somehow created a collective product that was better than any of them could have understood at the time. A similar miracle must occur in the coming years.

It is fortunate that there are some unusually brilliant people with influence over the future of the network at this critical moment. Both in Government and industry, there are some truly competent, informed, and well intentioned instigators. Yet, as in Philadelphia two hundred years ago, a collective product has to emerge that is better than any of them, or any of us, could achieve singly.

The struggle for a democratic communication network in the future will follow a two step pattern, repeated with each issue confronted: The first step is insuring the raw technical principle, such as "open access," and the second step is creating some usefulness and meaning for that principle by establishing institutions which rest on more subjective foundations than technology and law.

This is analogous to problems faced prior to the advent of the net. The establishment of civil rights isn't fully meaningful in practice to someone trapped in hopeless, violent poverty. In a similar way, the seeds being planted by the EFF and others can only bear fruit if there is cultural and economic follow through.

What is different in the case of the network is that this second step which is "softer" in the physical world, must be implemented in part in an explicit "hard" way in the network.

We need to calibrate our idealism for what is possible. So, I do not propose that corruption, confusion, or deception can be eliminated, but merely that they can be controlled so that they aren't catastrophic. Lincoln expressed this margin between the possible and the horrible with the phrase "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time." So long as the network allows Mr. Lincoln's statement to remain true, we will be OK.

In the book length version of this essay, which is under construction, I examine a number of instances where net architecture will influence culture, politics, commerce, and even softer, touchier areas like spirituality.

As an example, let's look more carefully at the idea of access to the network. The following are excerpts from the full-length discussion of this issue:

There are a set of collective responsibilities that have always gone hand in hand with our freedoms in the United States, though theyUve been less popular lately. These include public libraries, a free and varied press, and most importantly, public education.

In the same way, access is not just the availability of equipment and time on a wire. It must also mean, for instance, the creation of brilliant user interfaces. Even more importantly, it must also inlcude the creation of wonderful authoring tools and a new definition of basic literacy that includes proficiency in using them. Using the network without being able to program it, at least a little bit, isn't real access, just as reading a book without any ability to write is not an acceptable form of reading.

There are architectural design issues that determine from the start who can be a creator of material. Older generations of people tend to think of RcontentS, like text and pictures, as being distinct from the interactive components that provide access to them. Younger people, especially those who are now under ten, tend to think of the interactive quality as being the content. Alas, the design of the interactive component might be predetermined, to varying degrees, in various visions of where networks are going.

But the architecture of a network also directly relates to traditional RcontentS. While the network will likely increase the total amount of material available, it could reduce the amount that is effectively marketed and made conveniently available. Convenience is absolutely as essential to accessing political and other ideas as their mere existence. In New York City, Time Warner operates a cable service and was forced to provide a number of public access channels. Hypothetically they provide a balance to commercial channels. In fact, because there is no incentive to market these channels, their content is virtually unpredictable, and they might as well not exist. Alas, these channels have also attained stupendously low quality, such as I could not have imagined.

This brings us to another point: We must also find a way to create bodies of quality material in the face of unlimited public access. While you can find some of the best information in the world on-line, you can also find the very worst. There are silly, paranoid, or generally unbalanced bulletin boards and newsgroups in great profusion.

The usual solution proposed to this problem is to imagine professional human editors or automated programs selling their services to find and present the best quality content. This solution (at least the human version) will undoubtedly come to pass, but it is also clear that it does not address the dream of open community that network users were seeking in the first place.

A new democratic institution, expressed in a COMBINATION of technical design and law, can and should be created that tends to create quality and truth without creating a privileged editorial position. Such an institution might be inspired by institutions that already achieve this effect to some degree, such as the judiciary or an academic community.

(I am working on a proposal along these lines called Truth Circles.)

Technical design can't help but implement what would normally be considered industrial policy on the network, such as the relationship between public and private resources. The Internet, by its very design, creates an open, consensus community of unknowable extent, in which no one party can fully dominate. It is a truly beautiful thing, a technical embodiment of ideas that are undeniably political. But remember that the ends of the network that people actually connect to are usually privately owned businesses. So Prodigy was able to censor criticisms of itself for a time and America On Line was able to force a gay group to become private instead of being generally posted. Consider the recent exploits of Silvio Berlusconi, who, without needing to outlaw the opposition, essentially bought his way into political office by acquiring key properties in the Italian mass media. We have seen that all the people can't be fooled all the time by a Ross Perot or a Michael Huffington, but the mechanisms that came into play with their campaigns, specifically the remnants of fairness principles in broadcast media and the independence of a legitimate press, are not yet in place for computer networks. We must find a balance between public and private interests. I hope something like the patent system will come into being, in which private interests are motivated and rewarded to create value of all kinds on the network, but also eventually to contribute to an ever growing public asset.

So the issue here is more subtle than it might first appear. The assurance of free and equal access to information and expression must be supported not merely in the traditional way by law, but by a three-part strategy of laws, architecture, and user-interface design. The mere existence of access is not enough. The economic forces of the marketplace for information in the future must be aligned with our values.

I'm afraid I might be sounding too much like an anti-market liberal, so I need to make a point here about markets. Of course government intervention screws up a market, but at the same time it is the existence of government that creates markets in the first place. Otherwise people would resort to violence instead of money to get things. So government, along with other limiting factors, like the availability of natural resources, forms the vessel within which the fluid of the market place sloshes about, seeking the most efficient resting place. There is absolutely nothing Ranti-marketS about creating a market, and a market must be created that rewards free expression and democracy.

Ted Nelsons original ideas from the dawn of networking are still the best. A hyper-pay-per-view economy in which anyone can be a producer, and even minor appropriations can be tracked, will promote quality materials and reward individual initiative. (And yes, it will also open up a can of worms because this vision of maximum creativity might conflict with other desirable visions, such as the desire for privacy, but that will be covered later.)

It is striking that some of the corporate giants anxious to wire up America are more interested in being able to charge more for television than in being rewarded for building this new idea market, which would be much larger.

The greatest rewards for corporations are to come from helping people communicate with each other. Take the case of CDs. The introduction of CDs might serve as a precedent for the business opportunity sought by companies entering the network marketplace. Essentially CDs gave record companies a way to enormously increase the margins and profits of selling recorded music. Likewise, to a big corporation like Time/Warner, the network essentially looks like a way to charge a lot more for TV.

Ironically, however, it turned out that the public was served by the increased margin in CDs. It now is economically feasible for less popular music to be published, and this has lead to an increase in musical diversity. There is no longer a monolithic style that must dominate. (Yes, there are other important factors that influence this Rpost-modernS atomization of style, and I will address them elsewhere.) In the same way, the video rental market, by establishing more channels to profit from a film, lead to an increase in the diversity of feature films being made.

There is an artificially low margin available from television investments at this point. That is now made up for by advertising, and that must change. At any rate, there is an architectural decision to be made about whether the network of the future looks more like a content delivery system or a shared virtual library/playground/lab etc. This amounts to placing a bet on how much pent up creativity there is out there. The fact that Mosaic spread like wildfire, as much of a hassle as it is, should serve as a clue. The content delivery systems, like America On-Line, have not seen a similar growth rate. (Not that Mosaic is nearly enough! But that is also another story.) There is a moral obligation, I feel, to be optimistic about the human imagination, even while you must be pessimistic about human behavior. Here is another quality of the American Constitution that can serve as an inspiration to network architecture design.

Onward to some more specific architecture questions: Let us assume a scenario where there is one primary wire or wireless service coming into your house that carries TV, newspaper, etc. Now of course there will still be independent phone networks, radio stations, and newspapers. But over time it is possible that more and more communication will travel over this service for the simple reason that you won't want to learn how to use more than one, and with increased volume it will become a substantially better and cheaper means to move information than its traditional alternatives. It might also be impractical for more than one new high bandwidth system to be built to reach all homes. Multiple vendors might reach an agreement on access to customers through this service, as if it were a dial tone. So one reasonable scenario has us eventually receiving the bulk of our information through one monolithic service.

While business might think of it as a mere dial tone, it must, by its nature, be a content-rich dial tone with an attitude. It is inconceivable to "channel surf" in such a medium, because there is too much to search through. The first thing you will contact when you turn your communication widget on will be some kind of user-interface; a navigator or "agent" or whatever. The first seconds with this thing are critical, like the first moments on a blind date. Beyond the ultimate content of the network, it is these first moments that must be considered to be in the public's vital interest.

I should take a moment here to say that I am repulsed by the notion that an artificially intelligent agent will sort out your access to the network for you. The disgust I have toward communism's appaling history of cultural destruction is similar to the problem I have with artificial intelligence. People are flexible enough to make any theory look good for a while. What is impossible to be sure of, though, is how much the theory might have limited what people could have become. So it is impossible to discern, in a given situation, whether machines are getting smarter or people are making themselves stupid in order to make the machines look smarter. My devil's dictionary definition for an Intelligent Agent is a query program with a user interface that is so obscure that you must anthropomorphize it in order to account for its behavior. In other words, behind every so-called "intelligent agent" is a good user interface that should have been built instead. The agent renders no new capability or service whatsoever that the user interface would not, and certainly does not represent a savings in time. What is offered is a fantasy which results in a limitation of autonomy for the person.

The self-congratulatory fallacies of artificial intelligence are similar to the ways in which communists fooled themselves into believing that they had found the key to paradise, while actually they had only blinded themselves to their own humanity for a time.

In fact, the fantasy object of the intelligent agent is a popular idea in the user interface designs of grand-scale commercial network infrastructure projects. There is a distinct possibility that the idea of agents will be built deep into the network infrastructure, meaning that future culture would have to develop around the art of indirection; fooling or even evading agent programs.

Not all indirection is necessarily bad. One function of politics is to impose a low-pass filter on the urges of the public before they turn into action. The network should not function to remove this filter, but rather should function to make it's operation more visible.

The old ideas from the left about the public interest are not adequate in understanding the moral issues of network design, but neither are the free market ideas of the right. The very definition, and perhaps even the existence, of free markets could be changed by architectural choices. (This possibility is considered later.)

This brings us back to the traditional idea of advertising, which is an example of a linkage between content and conduit. One problem with advertising in an interactive network is that it could distract companies from the real money.

This is a little like the problem with infrastructure investment in the eighties under Reagan. There were so many ways to make money on savings and loans and junk bonds and so forth, that investors were distracted from the kinds of capital investments the Japanese were making. If a market is a fluid in a vessel made of government, what occured was that a pit was dug in the bottom of the vessel, where government should have been. That created an illusion of wealth creation, but actually lowered the level of wealth for the market as a whole.

In a similar way advertising as it is now known could create an illusion of wealth while actually dragging down the market potential of the network as a whole. If customers actually want to be creative, then forcing them into a television model does not realize the full potential for commerce in the situation.

Advertisers could turn out to be heroes, however. They could become the guru facilitators of the future of virtual commerce, perhaps working for the buyer rather than the seller. There are a world of creative, lucrative opportunities. But only if the network architecture allows it.