But do they exist now? The GVU surveys discussed in chapter 12 suggest that the
political make-up of the Net (or at least, those users willing to sit on the Web and fill
out surveys) is more centrist than anything else. Meanwhile, the particular brand of
libertarianism that infuses at least some parts of the Net and is the predominant
political color of Wired, the magazine of digital record, is being attacked as selfish,
narrow-minded, and ungrateful. (In all fairness to Barlow, his own views as
expressed in his writings are far more egalitarian than is sometimes realized.)
One of the most important critics is long-standing Wired contributor Paulina Borsook, who has described herself as the magazine's token "feminist/humanist/skeptic/Luddite."
In mid-1996, she published several scathing attacks on what she calls cyberlibertarianism, first in an essay in Mother Jones, and then in a two-part interview by writer David Hudson for the Web-based magazine ReWired: Journal of a Strained Net, a mixture of critique of and ballast
for Wired's occasional grandiosity. In both places Borsook argued that the residents
of Silicon Valley failed to recognize the extent to which they were beneficiaries of
"Although the technologists I encountered there [on her arrival in Silicon Valley in
1981] were the liberals on social issues I would have expected (pro-choice, as far
as abortion; pro-diversity, as far as domestic partner benefits; inclined to sanction
the occasional use of recreational drugs), they were violently lacking in
compassion, ravingly anti-government, and tremendously opposed to regulation,"
Borsook writes in her Mother Jones essay. She continues:
These are the inheritors of the greatest government subsidy of
technology and expansion in technical education the planet has
ever seen; and, like the ungrateful adolescent offspring of
immigrants who have made it in the new country, they take for
granted the richness of the environment in which they have
flourished, and resent the hell out of the constraints that bind them.
And, like privileged, spoiled teenagers everywhere, they haven't a
clue what their existence would be like without the bounty
showered on them. These high-tech libertarians believe the private
sector can do everything--but of course, R&D is something that
cannot by any short-term measurement meet the test of the
marketplace, the libertarians' measure of all things. They decry
regulation--except without it, there would be no mechanism to
ensure profit from intellectual property, without which entrepreneurs
would not get their payoffs, nor would there be equitable
marketplaces in which to make their sales.
There is a strong strand of the kind of thinking she describes here, both on the Net
and in many Wired articles. But it's far from universal. Barlow, for example, does
worry that the Net will tend to create a meritocracy that rewards intelligence
disproportionately, and he seems genuinely to care that the Net be opened to as
much of the world's diverse population as possible. His one blind spot as a prophet
for the future of a truly mass medium is that he hates television to the point of
calling it toxic and saying there is no safe level of consumption. Of course, many
intellectuals feel the same way and like to boast about how little television they and
their children watch; but if you're going to make predictions about what people
want, you'd better understand why they like what they like.
If you spend any time writing about technological development, you eventually
come to notice that the people inventing this stuff often make assumptions about
what people want that have nothing to do with reality. Barlow talks about the Net's
leading to the death of the nation-state, a common idea in diplomatic circles, too. Is
this likely to happen tomorrow? Will most people cheer if it does, if it means paying
directly for schools, garbage collection, law enforcement, and emergency services
and removes any safety net that might help people who, for reasons of poverty,
unemployment, or disability, can't pay their way? MIT Media Lab director Nicholas
Negroponte, on the other hand, dreams (or perhaps hallucinates) about a world in
which my house recognizes my touch, news flows from the floor through my body
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