You’re Paying For It, Sucker

  1. Cybercash
  2. The Kinder Gap
  3. The Generation Gap

“Size, how we worship size! Believe me, if there were a turd big as a mountain, its summit hidden in the clouds, we would bend the knee and do it reverence.”--Stanislaw Lem, Memoirs found in a Bathtub

Many writers (myself included) use words like “Internet”, “Information Highway”, “Information Superhighway”, and “infobahn” interchangeably. They are not the same thing. The Internet is what exists now and existed a year ago. It is the collection of millions of educational, business, and individual computers all using the “Internet Protocol” (!) to communicate with each other in what will soon be seen as a very primitive era.

The Information Highway is also the Internet, but it is the Internet in a different role: it is the Internet as a way of getting something that you want, usually information. Various commercial services provide “on ramps” to the Information Highway, and the Highway allows you to travel to the various services that exist “off of” the Highway. An easy way to think about it, which is wrong and for which I will receive lots of angry letters from people who know better but didn’t write this book, is that the Internet is the network of computers that are hooked to the Internet and speak the ‘Internet Protocol’. The Information Highway is the road you use to get to the services that these computers offer--Usenet, Gopher, FTP, Web, MOO, and others.

The Information Superhighway is what Al Gore wanted to take your money and build back in 1993, and Newt Gingrich wanted to take somebody’s money and build in 1995. The United States federal government paid for ARPANET, the Internet’s precursor, on Labor Day, 1969, and promptly ignored it for the next quarter of a century. To their horror, they’ve looked at it again and they’ve realized they actually built something that works--for the people instead of themselves. Now they’ve decided it needs to be fixed, and fast, preferably for lots of money (your money, not theirs, come on, do you think the future is free?).

Don’t worry, though. It won’t take more than twice the estimated time or ten times the estimated budget. And in the upkeep and policing necessary, it’ll provide work for congressional relatives until the Union falls, and probably beyond.

The government says that the Information Superhighway will be faster and better than the Information Highway. Faster and better at doing what, they’re not very clear about. The government also says that allowing them to read all of your mail, listen to your telephone messages (and, in the future, watch your videophone) will guarantee your privacy. What they really want is for you to render unto Caesar. They want your money, your knowledge, and the hearts and minds of your sons and daughters.

Oh, and infobahn is just a cool way of saying “Information Highway”. The German ‘bahn’ makes it sound international, which it is, and makes me sound cool, which I am. If you want to sound cool, you’ll say “infobahn” too. Bahn is German for road. The autobahn, for example, is the no-man’s land that inspired many an apocalyptic road movie. It, also, is cool. Driving fast is a cool thing in today’s world. So is destruction.

In 1817 here in America we had a similar dilemma over normal highways, and many people today are comparing the need for an information infrastructure to the need for physical highways in the 1800s. We paid for that with our taxes (on interstate sales, mostly liquor, and through state taxes, because there was no federal income tax at the time).

The argument then was that the entire government--I mean, country, benefited. Perhaps it did. But do we really want government monopolies on the infobahn? Real potholes wear down our tires. Information potholes could derail our entire life’s savings, or crash a fleet of passenger jets. Centralized planning may have been necessary for our highway system, but the infobahn has been designed around decentralization and it doesn’t seem to have hurt the Internet at all.

In fact, many networks have been started since the dawn of the computer modem. Most have been centralized, and they have remained regional and limited in size. The owners of Compuserve presumably get more money from their jobs than the volunteer planners on the infobahn get for their services, but it hasn’t given Compuserve twenty million members, nor does Compuserve (or any of the other commercial services) have anywhere near the flexibility necessary to support that many members. When German authorities threatened to prosecute Compuserve for carrying discussions about sex over the Internet, Compuserve didn’t let any members access those discussions, no matter what country those members were in. Compuserve claimed that they didn’t have the ability to shut off access for the German members and still let everyone else read those discussions. It took them a month to figure out how to do what the Internet’s been doing for years.

Internet services are created by Internet members, rather than moving into a queue for management to take care of when they have the time. The Internet follows the maxim that “freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.” Anyone who has a computer can hook up to the Internet, and they pay their own way.

The Information Superhighway will be run into every home. You’ll pay your own way for that, whether you want to or not. And everybody else’s way, too. My personal feeling is that the best way to let the net grow into something everybody wants is to get out of its way. Make sure that the very basic necessities are there and let the netizens decide what’s so important that they need to pay for it. The only real basic need on the net is for Internet addresses; they look like names, but they’re really numbers, and, like telephone numbers, there is only a limited supply.

There’s the old adage, as espoused by Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley, that the government isn’t here to break things, but to make sure that something broken stays that way. (?) Whenever something really important looks like it’s having a little trouble and may cost us a bit of money, we all clamor for the government to rush in and make sure it has lots of trouble and costs a lot of money.

In 1817 the federal government started thinking about taking over the road system and building highways. Nearly two hundred years later and they’re almost done. They didn’t even know what they were building at the time: the automobile wouldn’t become popular for another seventy years. They weren’t building something for individuals, they were building for themselves, and to a lesser extent for businesses. In 1817 our national situation was similar to the one we find ourselves in today--in deep shit because we’re at peace.

The war with our chief adversary, Great Britain, was over, and it had been a very divisive time for the country. Some of the northern states had even threatened to secede from the Union over that war, and there were many in power who worried about the prospects for future unity. The federal government needed to exert some strength or it might lose its power over the states forever. A national highway seemed the perfect way to start collecting power. It gave the feds a great excuse for taking lots of money away from the states, and then doling it back into the states, in the form of highway projects, as rewards.

They cried out that our future depended on highways for military defense, for trade, and for information. The country even then was so large that it threatened to spread apart into many separate countries (hell, that’s why they’re called states--they’re each supposed to have separate governments). “Let us then bind the Republic together,” said John C. Calhoun, expounding his solution to the House of Representatives,

with a perfect system of roads and canals. Let us conquer space. It is thus the most distant parts of the Republic will be brought within a few days travel of the center; it is thus that a citizen of the West will read the news of Boston still moist from the press. The mail and the press are the nerves of the body politic. (?)

Is there any better argument for an American infobahn? “In fact,” he said, “if we look into the nature of wealth, we will find that nothing can be more favorable to its growth than good roads and canals.” He was talking about more than just getting pork bellies from Boston to California. He was talking about getting news about pork bellies from Boston to California. Bringing the country to one mind, rather than the two minds of North and South, or East and West, or Northeast, Southeast, Northwest, Southwest... until the United States were united no longer.

He also worried about the ability of America to defend itself without a good transportation system in place allowing our troops to move from one part of the country to the other quickly. We’ve already seen how the Internet was created out of a need for a communications network that would survive a devastating war, the kind of war feared during the cold war era. It was the modern transportation system that allowed Ulysses S. Grant to fight “a 20th century” (!) battle, piling up bodies like no other war until the Great One. It was also in that great War Between the States that the telegraph played a role, for the first time in war. The 18th century superhighway helped make the difference for the industrial north, possibly leaving John C. Calhoun wondering what he had wrought. Calhoun was a South Carolina man, and by the un-Civil War had become “the most prominent advocate of states’ rights.” (?)

Revolutionaries don’t always understand what they’re doing, as people such as Gorbachev and Yeltsin have discovered more recently, much to the chagrin of their bank accounts and power fantasies.

At the time, businessmen were probably eyeing all the new land west of the Appalachians, wondering how they’d take advantage of anyone who lived there or moved there. We also see businesses eyeing the net nervously today, some venturing aboard, others worried that they’re missing out by not getting in quick. A lot of people on the Internet don’t watch television! I don’t even watch the news except for once a year when I visit my parents in Michigan. This last June, their newspaper noted that Internet service had just arrived to Muskegon. I have no doubt that it’ll soon be into Hesperia. That has to scare a lot of ad execs. They have to be worried about how they’re going to sell to the pioneers across the electronic mountain.

In 1817, We had suddenly been thrust into peace, and Calhoun was asking, what can we do in our free time to best improve our condition? Today’s question seems more along the lines of what can we do in our free time to halt our precipitous slide into third world status, but the answer is the same: we need to spend money to increase the flow of information across the country.

Building a better horse

There is a lot more to the parallel than the building of highways: The Internet, like our original highways, byways, and canals, wasn’t designed for the average person. It was designed for the military and for University research. The avalanche of people piling onto the infobahn is like the rush of people onto the roads with their new cars.

The motor car has been with us now for over a century--little more than the span of a human life--yet it’s impossible nowadays to imagine a world without it. Certainly those pioneers whose patient experiments coaxed the first crude automobiles into reluctant life had no idea of the revolution they were unleashing. They were just trying to provide a better alternative to the horse. Experiments soon gave way to entrepreneurs as the potential of this new means of locomotion was realised. Legislators, on the other hand, took an early dislike to motor vehicles, which gave the individual citizen unprecedented freedom to travel, and hedged its use round with new restrictions and taxes. (David Burgess Wise)

Wise could as well have been writing about the Internet, with its first crude attempts at electronic mail, the rush of entrepreneurs that only now is becoming apparent, and the rush to legislate and contain the vast freedom that the net represents.

Politicians look at the net and they see something that they have no control over. Henry Ford’s Model T put the world on wheels; 16.5 million were produced by 1927, approximately the number of people on the Internet today. Suddenly 16.5 million people could practically travel the breadth of the land at a moment’s notice.

Twenty million people--more by the time you read this--are on the Internet. These twenty million people can talk to each other for any purpose, at any time. They can freely associate like no one has freely associated before. The governments of the world have to be in a quandary. They need these networks to survive economically in the next century. But they form a danger to state control over the flow of information about different parts of the land. How can they reconcile the opposing need for more information in commerce and the desire for less information in politics?

To Serve and Protect

Singapore has recognized the problem. They’ve hooked their entire country into a single network. They’ve been hampered by a nearly fascist need to control every bit of information that comes from the minds of their workers, but they are still hailed as one of the “models” of information age nations. Could Singapore’s model work here? One would hope not, really. Singapore is a model of conflict between government and citizen, presumably saved only by their standard of living. In Singapore it is illegal to criticize the government; they’ve already started blocking web sites that do so, and one citizen is in exile for criticizing the Singapore Supreme Court. Who tries him for such criticism? The Singapore Supreme Court. Gotcha.

The following message was circulated on the Singapore newsgroup, three days after the United States celebrated the fourth of July: (?)

From: [t--nw--e] at [] (Tan Tin Wee)
Subject: Electronic Pornography
Date: 7 Jul 1994 15:17:32 GMT
Organization: Technet, Singapore

TECHNET USERS: please read this circular carefully and calmly

Technet Circular on


Please be reminded that our Acceptable Usage Policy does not allow subscribers of Technet to engage in activities relating to the above.

Until such time as the relevant authorities provide definitive guidelines as to what constitutes pornography, we will take the commonsense criteria.

We have had opportunity this afternoon to carry out a spotcheck on all solomon /tmp, /tmp2, /var/tmp, /home and /home1 directories. This arose from a request made by a high-ranking authority to Technet Unit to investigate this phenomenon. As this was a spotcheck, staff of Technet Unit reserve the right not to announce this beforehand.

In an attempt to regulate this spotchecking activity so that misuse and abuse of superuser rights do not ever take place, and to ensure that such spotchecking activity does not constitute arbitray invasion of privacy, the spotcheck was carried out in the presence of several senior Technet staff. Owing the urgent nature of the above-mentioned request, we were unable to engage an independent party to witness and ensure that proper spotchecking procedures (which may include double-blind procedures to protect the privacy of users) were strictly adhered to. For this we apologise to all users who may consider this a temporary breach of privacy. In future, we will endeavour to have an independent party to be present at all manual spotchecking sessions which may or may not be announced in advance.

All decent Technet users of blameless personal integrity should be happy to note that of the 80,000 or so files we screened, we were only able to detect 5 picture files containing pornographic material using the commonsense definition. The method of detection was primitive but we assure Technet subscribers that we will do our best to improve the efficiency of our detection procedure.

No doubt the “staff of Technet” and the “senior Technet staff” were less happy than “all decent Technet users” at the lack of pleasant viewing material. The very idea of privacy obviously means something different, when having another person present while ransacking your “home” somehow safeguards privacy. And if you’re not happy that they ransacked through your personal writings and mail, then you are not “decent” and you are not “blameless”. Hey, it’s your fault we had to rifle through your files looking for icky pictures.

In future, we hope to semi-automate the process and invite the relevant authorities who specialise in assessing pornographic material to carry out the judgement as Technet’s upright staff do not wish to be unduly affected personally by too frequent spotchecks.

Hopefully spotchecks of private directories will not need to be frequent, as we at Technet do not wish to play the role of “Big Brother”, but spotchecks of files in the temporary or public domain will be as frequent as is necessary to ensure that public avenues of our electronic superhighways remain clean and free from socially unacceptable material, and that the laws of the land are upheld and enforced in the electronic realm.

Now, unless Technet uses a different nomenclature than the rest of the Internet, ‘home’ directories, which you can see mentioned above, are not part of the “public avenues of the electronic superhighways”, any more than your home is part of Interstate 80. While Technet may not “wish” to play Big Brother, what definition is there other than regular, automated inspection of electronic homes? Hey, if it works on the Internet, why not bring it into the real world too? Random police visits to every bathroom. Keep cookies and milk out at night.

Thank you for your attention and we thank you for your cooperation and forbearance as we carry out our duty to preserve and protect Singapore’s information superhighway.

Tan Tin Wee
Technet Unit

There are people who argue that only Revolutionary-War era guns are protected by the Constitution; there may be an argument in the future that only Revolutionary-War era speech is protected as well.

If we have videophones on the infobahn, it will at least not cost the government: you’ll be paying for your surveillance yourself.

  1. A Protocol is a way for computers to talk to each other. You’ve got big protocols like “Internet Protocol“, which defines how Internet computers talk to each other. Then you’ve got little ones like ‘File Transfer Protocol” which explains how Internet computers exchange (transfer) files. Somewhere hidden away you’ll also find the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But I’m not saying where.
  2. As Mayor Daley said it, “The police are not here to create disorder. The police are here to preserve disorder.”
  3. John C. Calhoun, quoted in Morton Borden’s Voices of the American Past: Readings in American History, p. 119.
  4. “After 80,000 perished in one especially long battle, General Lee realized that he was facing a 20th century General in the 19th century, while defending an 18th century institution. Lacking a time machine, Lee surrendered, and the war was over.”--Larry Gonick, The Cartoon History of the United States .
  5. John C. Calhoun, quoted in Morton Borden, Voices of the American Past: Readings in American History, p. 117. When he’d made the first speech, however, he was probably a member of the House of Representatives, a federal institution. Just before the War Between the States, he was a member of the Senate, which at the time was a state institution. Most likely, Calhoun simply knew which side his bread was buttered on. (Or thought he did; most ‘collaborators’ weren’t allowed back into office after the War)
  6. David Burgess Wise, The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Automobiles, p. 6.
  7. As posted by Foo Say How on , July 10, 1994, under the subject Privacy on Internet .
  1. Cybercash
  2. The Kinder Gap
  3. The Generation Gap