It's sometimes hard to spot such consequences; Net culture is not known for carefully dissecting its own implications. In an essay called "The Shape of the Electronic Republic," part of a collecction called Composing Cyberspace, (Richard Holeton, editor), technological historian Langdon Winner wonders whether the computer revolution is committed to any particular set of social ideas. If so, he wonders, what are they? Where are they being proposed and argued?
It's a valid question, even if it assumes the computer revolution was shaped like other revolutions, by a handful of dogmatic leaders advocating specific principles.
There are powerful new political values developing online, and sooner or later, even politicians will begin speaking to them: the hacker ethic of creativity and exploration, which has brought joy back to work; the passion for freely exchanged information exemplified by Open Source and Free software; the individualism released by decentralized software programs and communications systems; and skepticism toward traditional ideas of intellectual property and ownership of culture, to name a few.
And yes, a new strain of rationalist political sensibility is emerging from this tech generation. But Winner is partly right: we have few forums where these ideas can be intelligently debated, and few understandings of common goals, if there even are any. Some of the best minds in cyberspace are setting their preferences so they can block out all that noise and confusion.
Many of the early Net philosophers gathered around the now-corporatized Wired magazine. But the explosion of a many-to-many, distributed information system, from Weblogs to P2P to IM, discourges common gathering spots. Both the volume of data and epidemic hostility have risen. As a result, data is filtered, moderated and refiltered. There are few places where people consider the kind of questions Winner legitimately asks, so the kind of discussion Winner wants poses a conundrum: either somebody has to assert control over public spaces online, or this revolution may become Balkanized, flaming and moderating itself to death.
"To mention revolution also brings to mind the relationships of different social classes," Winner writes. "Will the computer revolution bring about the victory of one class over another? Will it be the occasion for a realignment of class loyalties?" Such questions rarely intrude on the busy, pragmatic world of computer science, engineering and marketing, he cautions.
"Those actively engaged in promoting the transformation -- hardware and software engineers, managers of microelectronics firms, computer salesmen, and the like -- are busy pursuing their own ends ... But the sheer dynamism of technical and economic activity in the computer industry evidently leaves its members little time to ponder the historical significance of their own activity."
While they're not pondering, the consequences they create continue apace. In Virtual States: The Internet and the Boundaries of the Nation-State, Jerry Everard warns that too little thought has been given to the systematic inequalities that globalization engenders. In order to develop a telecommunications structure, for instance, developing countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, and India are forced to turn to multinational corporations to set up and manage their computer networks. This leads to the rapid establishment of infrastructure in profit-generating major urban areas, but it often leaves rural areas to fend for themselves. Thus in India, Everard writes, though there is a thriving software industry, the vast bulk of the subcontinent has yet to gain access even to telephones.
Such realities are almost unknown to this generation of tech workers and enthusiasts. As John Raulston Saul wrote, this is a brilliant, successful and creative culture, but an Unconscious Civilization in many ways, unaware of the political realities spawned by the very technology they are making and using, or by the daunting challenges the unchecked rise of corporatism poses. Sometimes the fallout can be serious. As a consequence, it created an Unconscious Revolution.
In his new book republic.com University of Chicago Law Professor Cass Sunstein warns that the emerging Net culture -- busy creating personalized "me" media -- threatens to undermine one of the basic tenets of democracy -- the willingness of people with diverse viewpoints to speak to and hear one another.
The Net is beginning to endanger a democratic society, Sunstein fears, with its fragmentation, advanced moderation and filtering systems. What makes free expression work, Sunstein asks? His answer: exposure to materials that people might not have chosen in advance. Unplanned, unprogrammed encounters are central to democracy. A culture that offers increasingly customized speech control preferences enables people to eliminate from their screens and minds anything they might not want to see or hear or might disagree with.
Why are people content to have their inputs so restricted? In part, because free speech online has nearly buckled under the onslaught of flamers, fanatics, spammers, and other e-vandals. The Digital Citizen, driven underground, has taken to lurking. (Not Jefferson's idea either. If the Continental Congress had used moderating programs, it's hard to believe they would ever have agreed on a Constitution).
So the Net revolution, as revolutions will, has veered off, slowed down, and confounded expectations.
Next: Is Open Source the New Jerusalem?