Dreaded Purple Master

Democracy in Cyberspace

(I started this document to tie in to the "24 Hours in Democracy" project. I didn't finish it in time, but I still wanted to say it, so here it is.)

The World Wide Web reminds me of an old Judy Garland / Mickey Rooney musical. "I've got a PC!" "Great, I've got a modem!" "And Uncle AOL has a couple of megabytes of disk space to spare. Let's put on a show!"

I mean, think about this. For a few hundred dollars' worth of computer parts (and you don't even have to own the computer!) and a few dollars a month paid to a service provider, I can reach the world. I'm writing these words in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Where are you?

You downloaded these words from a file server at AOL. (Where exactly that server is, I have no idea, nor do I need to know, nor do you.) Many of you are seeing them a handful of hours (or minutes!) after I write them. All you have to know is the phrase http://home.earthlink.net/~dtaylor404, and they're all yours. I'm not Dan Rather or Bill Clinton, that you should have such timely access to what I say. I'm just a person--no more, no less.

The point is, we exist (I, as I write this, and you, as you read) in a community that could not have existed when we were born. We are not particularly exceptional people, as people go: Yet we share a global forum in which exchanging thoughts with someone on the other side of the planet is no more difficult than ordering out for pizza. (Which, come to think of it, can also be done on the Web in some cities.)


Microsoft has a web site. So do I. Except for the fact that they have a ton of software available for downloading, it's not immediately apparent that they put far more money into their web presence than I put into mine. That's democracy. There's no real difference between their site and mine. Mine is just as "real" as theirs is, whatever that means on the Web.

What we have here is a medium that can sweep across cultural and economic lines like no other medium before it. The average individual can't afford to own a television station, or a radio station, or a newspaper, or a magazine, or anything that can be described as a mass medium. (Feature films have been financed with personal credit cards, but only in unusual cases.) Yet here I am, gently tossing my thoughts into the ether, where they are paradoxically as close as my fingertip and as far away as Moscow, Tokyo, and Sydney.

Or Washington, D.C., which inches us a little closer to the purpose of this page.

Certainly, anybody who has taken the political route to Power has to be intimidated by the Internet, the planet's first and largest functioning libertarian society. Certainly, white racists and black "affirmative action" activists are united in their distrust of a culture in which people really are judged by the content of their minds and not the color of their skins. And people (or organizations) with money are discovering that there is nothing about having money that makes one better able to create HTML code.

The value of a Web page is in the thoughts and ideas it expresses. Imagine that.

And, of course, where there is thought, and a venue in which to express it, there will always be those who seek to minimize its influence, under the guise of "protecting" those too easily manipulated. These "thought police" believe in freedom of speech...for themselves, because they know they are good and pure. The rest of us are free to say what we are supposed to say.

The opposite of progress...

The United States Congress has achieved some dim awareness that the Internet as it currently exists is an outgrowth of the Arpanet, and I think that they think they own it. A quick stop at the Clue Store would quickly dispel the notion, but I don't think they have a branch in the 202 area code. Certainly I've seen little sign of it.

The American mass media have gleefully cooperated in generating a picture of the Internet as the last refuge of the pedophiles. Surely, there must be unsavory types on the Net, as there are anywhere. A cursory glance would indicate that we intend to allow their presence to dictate how the Net may be used, "to protect our children." Hence, the creation of a climate in which it actually looks reasonable to create and pass the Communications Decency Act in full knowledge that it is unconstitutional.

(Let me get this straight. 535 legislative monkeys at typewriters produce laws at will, sensical and non-, and trust to the Supreme Court to throw out the really loony ones? If that's so, where does the real legislative power lie? And, ultimately, why do we need the monkeys?)

I don't think it's that simple. This looks all too familiar; the press generates an atmosphere of fear, and the government exploits that fear to grant itself emergency powers we would never allow it to have under normal circumstances -- and then We The People "get used to it" and forget to ask when those powers expire. It worked with the Internal Revenue Service, it worked with the War On Drugs, it almost worked with nationalized healthcare, and it's about to work in the name of abolishing online pornography. Whatever that is.

If I were really paranoid, I would wonder whether Our Elected Representatives are merely exploiting an existing situation, or engaged in actively creating hysteria, together with the self-appointed Forces of Good in the public sector and in the Mass Media.

I really don't want to think such a -- well, let's use the word "conspiracy" -- is possible on the scale it would require. But darn it, doesn't it explain a lot?

Daniel Taylor: Tuesday, February 13, 1996