"The Nerds Have Won"
Information Wants To Be Free!
Having large corporations hold the deed to a major tract of cyberspace cannot help but change the nature of the Internet. But cultural change was already under way when America Online arrived.
Histories of the early Internet and Usenet describe a community suffused by a distinctive ethos—an improbable mixture of the Wild West and the Peace Corps. On the one hand, the people who built the Net were fiercely competitive; these were gunslinger programmers who wanted to notch up a reputation for writing the best code on the planet. At the same time, the whole enterprise depended on cooperation and a spirit of volunteerism. The supreme achievement, and the way to win your colleagues' admiration, was to build something that others found useful. The community was held together by shared goals and values; for example, network bandwidth was treated as a public trust to be conserved. And even though many of the ARPANET pioneers were subject to the Pentagon's chain of command, there was a powerful streak of antiauthoritarian sentiment. The group's governance was based on "rough consensus and working code." (It remains to be seen whether the same model of government will work for the larger, international bodies that now control parts of the Internet.)
Hacker culture is not extinct. Code-slingers still exist. No doubt some of them work for America Online. A good place to find them in large numbers is at meetings of the North American Network Operators Group, the only trade convention I know where the seats in the auditorium are wired for Ethernet, so that attendees can plug in their laptops and remain online throughout the proceedings. But this inner circle of Net intelligentsia is unknown and invisible to most of us. Far more conspicuous are the new barons of e-commerce, the dot-com billionaires.
Ironically, in the ancien régime of the Net, the one forbidden activity was free enterprise. Politics and sex were never much of a problem. Even though the wires belonged to the Pentagon, you could post antiwar rants and no one would murmur disapproval. Advertising a Tupperware party, on the other hand, would elicit a torrent of abuse. Ten years ago, my own Net access came with a stern warning that the network "shall not be used for commercial purposes.... Advertising of commercial offerings is forbidden." What a difference a decade makes! (The company imposing this policy was Advanced Network Systems, since acquired by America Online.)
That commerce has finally come to the Internet is no great surprise. Why should this one corner of modern life be any more fastidious than college athletics, electoral politics or public television? But the pace of the transformation has been breathtaking. As recently as 1994 the most populous domain of the Internet was still edu, the area reserved for universities and other institutions of higher education. Today com sites outnumber edu hosts by four to one. A survey of Web servers, conducted by the Inktomi Corporation and the NEC Research Center, shows an even stronger commercial presence. Almost 55 percent of all Web servers are in the com domain, with fewer than 7 percent in edu.
Yet even as business has come to dominate the Net, the Net has put its own curious twist on the practice of making money. "Information wants to be free" is a slogan that will not go away; in any case, information is something that few will pay for on the Internet. So entrepreneurs have embraced the idea of giving things away for nothing, and they've turned it into a business plan. Netscape was the leader here, when it decided not to charge for its Web-browser software. Other companies have taken the principle much further. They will give you free Internet access or free e-mail or even a free computer if you will agree to look at a stream of advertisements. Some of the ads may promote other products you can have for free if you're willing to look at still more ads. Where does it end? Where does actual money change hands? Perhaps in the stock market, where you can buy the shares of prosperous companies that have no source of revenue.