Introduction: Why I wrote this book
You can find dozens of books on the digital world for consumers, and hundreds more on how to make a million bucks on the Net. I've even contributed to that literature myself, with my computer/software industry newsletter Release 1.0. But there's little out there to help us think about the Internet and our roles as citizens, rule-makers, and community members.
Like the American frontier of old, the Internet is being built by its members. Formally speaking, the Internet is a technical medium, a set of telecommunication lines and switches all linked by the so-called Internet protocol. In terms of design or architecture, call it a house. The Net, by contrast, is a potential home for all of us. It includes both the formal Internet and other networks and computers linked in through proprietary systems such as America Online, corporate intranets, and the free Juno e-mail service that my stepmother uses to communicate with relatives here and in Germany. More than that, the Net includes all the people, cultures, and communities that live in it. Like any home, it has rules, but it also has ways we should behave even if no one forces us to.
The Net offers us a chance to take charge of our own lives and to redefine our role as citizens of local communities and of a global society. It also hands us the responsibility to govern ourselves, to think for ourselves, to educate our children, to do business honestly, and to work with fellow citizens to design rules we want to live by. I won't presume to tell you precisely what all those rules should be. Some are local; some are global. Indeed, the Net is not a single home. Rather, it's an environment where thousands of small homes and communities can form and define and design themselves.
A design for living
My goal in this book is to pass on a little of my sense of the richness and potential of the Net. I want to take away the mystery and the technical mumbo jumbo, so that you can see the Net for what it is: a place where people meet, talk, do business, find out things, form committees, and pass on rumors. . . . Some of the capabilities are different from the so-called real world. Anyone can go online and publish something that can be read anywhere in the world; a child can write to a president; a Hungarian merchant can find a Chinese customer. Above all, the Net is a home for people.
Our common task is to do a better job with the Net than we have done so far in the physical world. The Net has some unique advantages. It takes away many of the logistical difficulties of space and time; information flows faster; markets are more efficient. The question is: How can we use these features to design a world that is more open, more accessible to everyone, and just a nicer place to live in?
What could be, what should be
Much of what I'm writing about is just starting to happen. Some of it is inevitable; some of it is not. Some of it could come true. But we need to do more than close our eyes and wish. To make it seem real, I've written a lot about what it will feel like to live on the Net and the kinds of communities and institutions we'll build: some real examples, and some only possible. The scenarios I describe are both predictionsif we do things rightand goals. (I've taken care to point out which is which.)
I'm describing how it could be if we do pay attention to the underlying rules: freedom of choice, freedom of speech, honesty, and disclosure. Markets will do a lot of the design if we let them, but we need a foundation of both traditional, or terrestrial, and Net-based rules to make the markets work properly. We also need habits of honesty and generosity.
In addition, we need the good guysyouto be active in designing this new world. No system in the world is so well designed that it can't grow stale, rigid, or corrupted by those who benefit most from it. The only guarantee of continued freedom is the presence of pesky people who keep asking those in power to account for their actions. By its very nature, the system can't do that for itself. It's up to you.
You know more than you think you do
I do a lot on the Net. It's the medium I use to communicate with many of my friends and colleagues and arrange face-to-face meetings. I also depend on it professionally: It's the primary subject about which I write, talk, and consult, and the basis of most of the companies I invest in, both in the United States and in Eastern Europe. But I never studied it formally; I just started using it and discovered its capabilities as I needed them.
You will use the Net in your own way; maybe you already do. My goal is to help you interpret and shape this new world, rather than merely visit or live in it. You can join existing communities, or you can help to form new ones of your own.
As long as the world contains people, it will have conflicts. We need both vision and common sense to handle these conflicts: between one person's privacy and another's right to know, between cultures, between an employer's goals and an employee's priorities. But we can't resolve most conflicts with abstract principles in advance. That's why even now, with all our legal expertise and social experience, we need judges and juries, new laws and amendments to old laws, and free and open media to find out what's going on and to spread new ideas and opinions. We'll never get it quite right, but that's okay so long as we learn from our mistakes.
Today's Internet has a distinctly American flavorone that will gradually diminish as more people in different countries get online. One central mystery is the delicate interplay of American culture and Internet culture. How much will the Net change the people who join it, and how much will the new people change the Net? Is the Net's free-spiritedness American, or is it inherent in the Net itself?
Whatever the answer, I'm trying to speak not as an American but as a member of multiple communities, many of them outside the United Statesmost notably the Russian computer marketplace. (One advantage of the Net is that it allows you to be a member of several different communities, not all of them geographical, at the same time.) So even though I'm Americanand I have that typical American blend of pragmatism, idealism, goodwill, and bluntnessI hope my message will be intelligible to people worldwide. The Net belongs to no particular country or group. The Net is not a global village, but an environment in which many different villages will flourish.
Why the Net matters
The Net has no independent existence. It matters because people use it as a place to communicate, conduct business, and share ideas, not as a mystical entity in itself. It's a powerful tool for integrating local economies into the global economy and for establishing their presence in the world. Its impactthe widespread availability of two-way electronic communicationswill change all of our lives. It will suck power away from central governments, mass media, and big business. Even now, the Net extends across and transcends traditional national borders and overcomes distance. It operates in real time, but lets people in different time zones communicate easily. It avoids the communications glitches that arise with missed or garbled phone messages, illegible or misdelivered faxes. But it must coexist with national regimes, cultural and language differences, and the realities of physical infrastructure that impinge on its theoretical spacelessness.
This digital world is a new terrain that can be a source of untold productivityor a medium for terrorists, con artists, and untrammeled lies and viciousness. It is almost impossible for traditional governments to regulate, yet it does need to be governed from withinthe cries of free-spirited Net citizens notwithstanding.
The Net gives awesome power to individualsthe ability to be heard across the world, the ability to find information about almost anything ... along with the ability to spread lies worldwide, to discover secrets about friends or strangers, and to find potential victims of fraud, child abuse, or other harassment. With greater ability to exercise their rights or to abuse them, individuals will need to assume greater responsibility for their own actions and for the world they are creating.
Indeed, I believe individuals should be responsible for the basic rule of cyberspace, which is disclosure. Rather than having central authorities set global rules for disclosure, which could never fit all circumstances, we need to leave that up to individuals, too. The golden rule is not "Disclose yourself," but rather a two-way command: "Do ask. Don't lie."
The idea is to create a culture that expects disclosure, rather than a legal regime that requires it. People can decide how much they want to play, and others can decide whether to play with them. But for a healthy society, there has to be an overall high level of buy-in.
It drives the responsibility for requiring disclosure down to where it belongsto those most likely to be affected by the disclosure. It decentralizes the requirement and the enforcement to everyone, instead of leaving it in the hands of a few at the top. (If that's an awkward use of "requirement," it's because we don't even have a word for "decentralized command.")
And note that "do ask" doesn't mean to ask only of the person disclosing; it can also mean asking third parties. "Is Juan trustworthy?" "Is Alice objective, or does she have some vested interest in the products she's recommending?"
As an individual, you are not commanded to answer; you may want to protect your own privacy or someone else's. But if you do answer, you must do so truthfully.
Then it's up to the people involved to decide whether to engagein conversation, in a transaction, in whatever kind of interaction they might be contemplating. The magic of "do ask, don't lie" is that the parties to any particular interaction can make a specific, local decision about what level of disclosure is appropriate.
Not just for commerce
"The Internet is friction-free," Bill Gates has said, referring to the opportunities it presents for efficient markets. As he well knows, businesses such as Netscape can pop into view by distributing their products over the Net free of charge to customers and almost cost-free to their producer. But "friction-free" means more than just efficient markets and efficient business: It means the absence of the friction we're accustomed to in daily life. Friction keeps neighborhood gossip from following a person from one town to another. Friction keeps junk mail from overwhelming us, and it keeps most of the people we don't want to see out of our lives. It keeps cultures localized and it keeps people attached to their reputations. It provides texture to daily life and people's perceptions of one another. It separates the close and the distant with a fuzzy border that can be crossed, but only with effort.
The absence of friction online means that we can't rely on traditional means to resolve conflicts over the rights of individuals by simply damping them out. Once a person's privacy is breached, it may be breached worldwide. Anyone can check out what you said last week in the intimacy of the Provincetown PTA discussion group or the Friendly Felines chat room. "Free speech" is not restricted to a street corner audience, a locker room, or a limited-circulation publication, but travels the globe. A con artist can reach victims all over the world, finding people who may not have heard of each new trick and may not be familiar with scams or even direct mail. ( I still get occasional personal notes from East Europeans in response to bulk-mailed invitations to my annual forums.)
Moreover, people can make the close seem distant by filtering out information. Those who have distorted views of the world can avoid evidence that might contradict their beliefs; they don't face the "friction" of running into reality every time they cross the street or open a newspaper.
Decentralization vs. fragmentation
The greatest structural impact of the Net is decentralization; things and people no longer depend on a center to be connected. People often confuse this with democracy, but democracy is where the majority rules (even if it elects a Communist president or a dictator), whereas decentralization is where the masses separate into small groups. In some of these smaller groups, the majority may rule; in others, consensus may reign; and in still others, a commercial provider or a dictator may set the rules. On the Net at least, people who don't like the rules can leave.
It's worth stressing that although the Net can be used for good and bad (like most powerful tools), it is asymmetrical in the way it gives personal power to the powerless. That is, it undermines central authorities whether they are good or bad, and it helps dispersed forces to act together, whether they are good or bad. In other words, it's a feeble tool for propaganda, but it's perfect for conspiracy.
Indeed, decentralization is a profound and destabilizing force. It affects not just governments, but businesses, media, health care, organized religion, and all other establishments. It changes the balance of power between large/rich and small/poor countries, in part by offering their citizens and companies a level playing field without regard to traditional borders.
Likewise, the Net changes the balance of power among companies by removing many economies of scale and valuing diversity over uniformity. Analysts and investors wonder who will replace Microsoft the way Microsoft replaced IBM as the information industry's standard-setter. The answer is that no one will: The model of an industry revolving around a central leader will give way to a new, decentralized market.
The Net also changes the balance of power between employers and employees, who are better able to find new jobs in a fluid market, and between mass media and their audiences, who can now not only talk back, but talk among themselves. It changes the balance of power between merchants and customers. It even gives individuals the tools to become small-scale producers themselves.
Yet the belief common among Net citizens (and increasingly in business) that decentralized systems automatically self-organize is not always valid. It's true only if the local rules are good and the individual agents/players honest. Many systems composed of smaller independent agents do not self-organize; they fall into chaos and die. The components need an environment where they can interact effectively and there's enough nourishment to keep them going; otherwise, you get a dead-end market/community that fails. Just compare the three stock markets in the Czech Republic (none of which has enough openness or critical mass to attract healthy commercial activity) with the Warsaw Stock Exchange, a model of openness and disclosure that is flourishing and attracting new investors for its li