Shelley “BurningBird” Powers asks:

Question to the thousands who saw the World of Ends as a new definitive answer for the foolish masses who don’t ‘know’ the Internet: Exactly what will you do differently, today, after reading this essay, then you did yesterday before reading this essay? Just curious, is all.

Well, I’ve spent part of two days translating WoE, and alerting friends and the press to it. Obviously, I think it’s an important piece of work; not that I agree 100% with it, but its most important function – reawakening discussion of what the Internet is all about – is being well-exercised. I wish I had something like WoE in 1993/4, when I built one of Brazil’s first ISPs, and tried to:

1) Convince the academics that there was a place for the commercial Internet:

Me: I’d like to operate a commercial Internet provider.

They: The Internet is tuned to research and education! Commercial messages will sully its sacred purpose!

2) Convince Embratel – the state company which at the time had a monopoly on international communications, with two 9600 bps lines coming into São Paulo and one 64K bps line into Rio de Janeiro – that the Internet wouldn’t be just a TELEX replacement:

Me: I want a data line to my office.

They: OK. It’s US$500/month for a 2400-baud line, plus US$0.01 per 64-byte data packet.

Me (scraping my jaw off the floor): But what if a client wants to download a 1-megabyte file???

They: Don’t worry, this will never happen.

3) Convince companies that they should have an Internet connection:

They: Install a trial connection on this computer here, please.

Me: It will need a modem and a phone line.

They: What? That’s impossible. We pay enough phone charges already!

4) Convince companies that they should have a web page:

Me: So people can just read you page and see your product catalog.

They: And how will our salesman know who they are, so he can visit them?

Me: You won’t need traveling salesmen anymore; and you’ll get customers from all over the country!

They: Why would we want to?

5) Convince people (people over 18, that is) that they need an e-mail address:

Me: You’ll be able to write to anybody in the world; in Japan or the USA, for example, and get a response on the same day!

They: But I don’t know anybody in Japan or the USA!

The reactions to WoE on the Web have been very interesting. Obviously there’s been a lot of mindless, me-too on-the-bandwagon jumping, which can be discounted. Equally discountable are the kneejerk reactions against “technohippie” ravings, and the worldweary bullshit-business-as-usual dismissals.

Although I’m proud to consider myself a technohippie – in the sense that I believe that in the long run, and with proper caution, the Internet and technology in general will be a positive force – I don’t think that WoE is all naïvely idealistic and therefore impractical. Perhaps this part is the most naïve:

The government types who have confused the value of the Internet with the value of its contents could realize that in tinkering with the Internet’s core, they’re actually driving down its value. In fact, they maybe could see that having a system that transports all bits equally, without government or industry censorship, is the single most powerful force for democracy and open markets in history.

In my experience, only politicians campaigning for reelection praise democracy and open markets. Any other “government type”, down to the lowliest clerk, is usually deathly afraid of both democracy and open markets, and making these people aware of the Internet’s power in this regard may well have the opposite effect of what WoE intends.

Technical people seem to mostly take issue with specific points: disagreeing with calling the Internet’s complex infrastructure ‘stupid’, arguing for priority mechanisms for audio/video streaming, pointing out exceptions for mechanisms that can’t be end-point implementations, calling attention to non-discussed issues like spam and virii, and so forth. Many of these objections are valid, but such concepts have to simplified (perhaps even oversimplified) so non-technical people don’t stop reading too soon. It’s telling that many a tech’s comments considered WoE both obvious and unnecessary.

I take some issue with WoE’s form while understanding somewhat why they wrote it that way. Using short words, short sentences, trying to make each sentence quotable, making lists of 10 points, making the same point repeatedly; these are well-known techniques to write for the great unwashed public. At the same time, this often comes off superficial and patronizing for people who do have more than two neurons to knock together. Personally, I wish the piece were longer and went more into philosophical points. Perhaps we need different versions for journalist, record company executives, politicians and techies? Hmm…