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The Best of Times, The Worst of Times


There’s no better time to contemplate the differences between the East Coat and West Coast than today, the second anniversary of the World Trade Center bombings. Most of us didn’t wake up until it was, for the most horrible part, over and done with.
For much of the time, what should be an honest-to-God look at the two different Americas we’re living in gets bogged down in conversations about the weather, cultural patter, or the laid-back v. intense lifestyle debates. They pass for intellectual conversations at a time when, more and more, people don’t seem to know how to talk about the widening gap between the nation’s elites and the people who work for them, or, perhaps more accurately, the people they think work for them.
In a long and thought-provoking essay in today’s New York Times, Robert Wright, talks about the network and how terrorist are using it to wage war on our society. Wright’s thinking probably comes as a revelation to many of his readers. But to someone sitting in San Francisco, where the network is the computer, it seemed obvious. And that obviousness was disturbing.
There’s long been a paranoid streak among the computer community. Most good coders are loners prone toward a kind of adolescent mischievous. But coders, the good ones in particularly — guys like Bill Joy and John Gilmore — understand that the network is unbelievably powerful. The more people on that network, the more powerful it becomes. That’s why Gilmore guards his privacy so carefully. It’s why Bill Joy thinks the future doesn’t need us. It’s why essays like yesterday’s piece by Adm. John Poindexter send chills down our spines.
They, we, know that what you send out can get sent back, often in a form that you don’t recognize, quickly and sometimes disastrously. If you don’t mind those mutations, you’re fine; the network can be a lot of fun. There is nothing like reporting and writing about Geeks if you want a constant thread of back-talk in your in-box. But if you want is control because control is power, you’re horrified by the network.
That’s why the Geek community has called so strenuously for on-line privacy rules. It’s why guys like Gilmore guard their identities so carefully. It’s why hackers like Adrian Lamo tell people what they’re doing loudly and publicly. They want everyone to see just and feel the power of the network. The horror that was visited on New York, the place Edward Said calls the “capital of our time,” wasn’t exactly what anyone who understands the network might have feared. But it was pretty close.
It is a pat truism to say that the Internet changes everything. East Coasters role their eyes. You Californians, you Silicon Valley believers, you dot.con artists think it’s all about computers.
No, it’s all about the network of computers and the people sitting in front of them. Think about it: the network is in the process of destroying the record business as we know it. It is well on its way to helping Howard Dean change our political process. The network has desiccated the newspaper and TV business, opening up their decision-making process to the general public. Ebay has made the neighborhood flea market, not to mention the local used car lot, a nostalgic memory. And we’re only at the beginning.
Mickey Kaus smartly observed earlier this week that a growing number of people who once had little jobs at big companies or big jobs at huge companies are now self-employed. It’s by choice, he speculates. He’s right. The network makes it possible to work in a small law firm and compete for clients against the big guys. It makes it easier for your sister to sell her crochet hat and your dog breeder to find homes for puppies. The network also makes it possible for many good jobs — jobs held by skilled people — to leave this country, a migration that’s only going to accelerate and for which no one is really prepared.
Large corporations will be with us for a while but the institutions we’ve come to take for granted are being changed, every day, by the power of the network. The nut cases who used to run Wired, the ones who told you about the joys of disintermediation? They were right. We’re just living through the painful results.
The U.S. Government’s response to the Trade Center bombing was not, as Wright hints, the response of a entity that understands or, more importantly, likes the network. It was the corporate response, the big threat from the big guy on the block, no different in its psychology than suing teenagers for boosting music or making fun of ‘disenfranchised’ voters volunteering to help a short, angry presidential candidate from a small northeastern state.
It’s the last gasp of the old order. We live in interesting times. And that’s not necessarily a curse.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 5:57 PM | Permalink

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