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Keep the Internet Open: The Value of the Unfinished “Design” of the Web

This past Sunday New York Times has an article about security and the Internet. This is not too strange. More and more, about it people use the Internet for commerce and commercial transactions. People pay bills, buy everything from books and DVDs to automobiles and T-shirts bearing crowdsourced designs. People worry, though less and less it seems to me, that something bad will happen: their credit card information will be stolen and abused, their computer will fall prey to a virus costing them their family photos or, worse yet, that a massive cyber-attack will bring down major financial institutions (though clearly that can be done by something far more insidious and low-tech).

What surprised me in this piece were not the general concerns, but the paranoid and misguided view of “one alternative [that] would, in effect, create a ‘gated community’ where users would give up their anonymity and certain freedoms in return for safety.”

I think that the comforts offered by closed systems, whether the gated communities the wealthy use to keep out the riff-raff or the ones that AOL, once upon a time, used to create a sort of Disneyland of the web, offer us the trade of safety in exchange for our freedom.

As it turns out, the sacrifice we make in that exchange is as much epistemic (about what we can know) as it is about freedom of expression or privacy. David Weinberger has eloquently made the case that the Internet has been able to scale precisely because it has formed what he calls a “Permission-free zone.” The Internet as a space without rules and managers forms a kind of digital Wild West.

If the Wild West parallel is a strong one, some argue, then a day is coming when we need to start thinking about putting a Sheriff or two in place to makes sure the townsfolk are safe from the stray bullets of lawless gunfighters. The RIAA and MPAA and countless others who find their “property” (though really it is their business model they are tying to shield from market and technological innovation) under threat, have tried to introduces electronic deadbolts and security systems through Digital Rights Management. But it almost exclusively the music publishers and movie producer/distributors who care about this. Users (the audience) have never asked for or benefited this “security”. Increasingly artists and creators see these things as bogeymen that companies are using to maintain their relevance and control.

I suggested earlier that a walled garden model of the Internet will require that we make sacrifices about what and how we know. The untamed Internet has upended convention models of authority in the production and distribution of knowledge. The press (which we now call mainstream media), has finally been seen for what it is, commercial and partisan, and no longer has exclusive control of the news. The “objectivity” of journalism has been revealed as a sham, and the qualities that make journalism great, courage, thorough research and good writing, turn out not to be the exclusive possession of people with either journalism degrees or jobs at an “approved” media outlet.

From citizen journalism to blogging, free individuals have been contributing knowledge and information of incredible scope and value. Some of this is organized through structures like Wikipedia, some of it, like weeds, spreads anywhere and everywhere. But it is a myth that all weeds are by definition destructive, many if not most are weeded out to satisfy an aesthetic of control or a particular conception of beauty, not because they are inferior or malicious forms of life.

The argument is not that everything created in an open system has equal or even any value. That has never been the strong program for either freedom or openness. It is rather to recognize the corollary to the old “dumb” system view: Garbage in garbage out. In closed systems, everything is so well protected that nothing new can get in. And if something should slip past the guards, then it is sure never to get back out: All your base are belong to us now.

The Internet existed for some time before it was public and during that time it was useful and enabled just the (but also only) thing that it had been designed for: collaboration and exchange within a specialized (and authorized) knowledge community. The public Internet, what we call the Web, has no design, no purpose, no single order, but like the systems from which its makers and users have emerged and on which they depend, it has created not only complexity and diversity, but even beauty, truth, and dare I say, life.

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