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The Internet and the Social, or: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Progress

by Steve Jones

I want to talk with you about the internet, and also about history and about a bit of local history. You’ll notice that the title of my talk contains some big ideas — life, liberty, the pursuit of progress — ideas that seem only slightly less big now that I’m in Texas and away from its suburb to the north, Oklahoma. Texas, as we know it, was born of these ideas and thrives on them, and no place may be more symbolic of that than San Angelo.

I risk telling you some things you already know, but they bear repeating. Although I study and teach communication, I will begin by talking about transportation. There’s a reason our metaphor for the internet is an “information superhighway.” Like the highway, the internet is supposed to “take you somewhere.” The problem is, no one knows where. You know Microsoft’s ad campaign: “Where do you want to go today?” I recall back in college sitting around on a Saturday night with my roommates playing a never-ending game — well, it seems like a game now, but it was life-or-death then — and it was based on two questions: “What do you want to do tonight,” followed by, “I don’t know, what do you want to do?”

That’s part of what we’ve come to know as progress — we want to go somewhere, and the where almost doesn’t matter. How often have you hopped in a car to go for a drive? Have you ever been stuck in traffic and taken an alternate route that you know is further and will take longer than if you had stayed in traffic — the point is simply to keep moving? Is that progress? It depends on your definition, I suppose. I mean, you are “progressing” in the sense of moving, but what are you achieving?

Nearly 500 years ago when Cabeza de Vaca traced a route in this very area from the Gulf to New Mexico, a route Coronado would also criss-cross, one might have asked the same question — what was being achieved? Discovery, exploration, danger, survival? Maybe modern internet explorers, Mark Andreesen and Bill Gates, are doing the same, but I’m not sure where they’re exploring. I do know that Cabeza de Vaca, Coronado, and those who followed them 300 years later along the Pecos River toward California for the Gold Rush did have an idea where they were going. There was a reason for going this way, and that reason was water — the Nueces River, the Concho River, the Pecos River. Where there’s water, there’s life. There were no pipelines then, no canals, no water towers, no faucets. Where is the water of the internet?

The meeting of waterways is like a highway junction — this river takes you one way, that river another. The trails used by the earliest Indians were ones the Spanish followed, and later the ones the stage coaches followed, then the ones the railroad followed. Hence, San Angelo’s own prominence when it was first settled as a Spanish mission to the Indians. It was at the confluence of the Concho Rivers, and that confluence made it a central meeting place for people. In the 1800s, the El Paso stage line ended in San Angelo, as did the Texas and Pacific Railway, on a spur from Fort Worth. What followed the rivers and waterways was the trails and rails and wires. As James Carey has pointed out, communication and transportation are inextricably linked: “It is not an infrequent experience to be driving along an interstate highway and to become aware that the highway is paralleled by a river, a canal, a railroad track, or telegraph and telephone wires.”

A place like San Angelo, close to a waterway — sometimes uncomfortably close, as in times of flooding — can rely on a reserve of water so that it isn’t a place one just passes through, and as it begins to become populated, its own roads are built and form independently of that waterway, to link people and buildings within the town. Eventually, the roads form a grid, and that grid has haunted American history for well over a hundred years. Even our underground system of cables. wires and pipes largely follows our above-ground system of roads. The grid system of streets and highways is itself a form of organization, and any form of organization is inherently value-laden, that is, it requires a decision that this thing go in front or in back of that one.

The grid that most American cities have used for roads extends to other systems — to power and electrical grids, and to communication networks. Not coincidentally, the first telephone customer in San Angelo was the Santa Fe Railroad — what better device for keeping tabs on a train back then! It also extends to culture — the grid system in the U.S. has made American cities look nothing like their counterparts in other countries. If you’ve grown up here and become used to finding your way by using addresses — 3800 North 7th Street — good luck in, say, London. More importantly, the grid has given rise to what we might call, Generica, that vast stretch of America that is America, that looks like every other place in this enormous country — the strip mall that many believe has become our lives. Still, the strip mall is useful because it’s organized.

What does organization mean, in human terms? To some extent it means less interaction — if I know where something is, I don’t have to ask for it, and, as my wife tells me, men hate asking for directions. The grid also extends to social relations — our communities are made up of “blocks” — groups of people occupying spaces designed not to maximize interaction but to maximize transportation and efficiency. We organize ourselves into these units, in part, so that we, and others, can get in and out of them faster, and so that others know where to find us. For the most part we leave them and go elsewhere, to places like church, bowling alleys, bars, and so on, when we want to be with others we consider like us.

Problems of organization plagued San Angelo in its earliest days, as they did the rest of Texas and the U.S. As I was reading up on this area, I ran across an interesting character; Gus T. Jones — no relation to me — a Texas Ranger. His buddies called him “Buster.” I’d never heard of him before. The facts of his life: he was born at Fort Concho, and one book called him “the antithesis of slackers.” He was a night marshal in San Angelo by age 21, and had to preside over a town that found its evenings over-run with strangers — cowboys from distant ranches. railroad men killing time, and sometimes people, in San Angelo, the end of the line. Buster Jones went on to great prominence working for the FBI, capturing several of its “most wanted.” Now, it’s not hard to argue that Buster Jones’ main job was that of organization — social organization. To borrow from my past as a journalist, the “who, what, where, when, how and why” of living together in a community is still of vital importance. That’s why we have laws — they tell us what is and is not socially acceptable, and some, like Buster are entrusted with keeping those laws in force.

In fact, what we’re struggling with the internet and communication technology generally is what Buster was struggling with in frontier days. How do we organize this thing? How do we make it what we want? It’s hard not to notice that the images of the frontier that was once San Angelo are part of the frontier mythology that dominates the internet, in names of organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or in the fiction of William Gibson, or in the icon John Perry Barlow has become. More importantly, we’re in the middle of organizing this frontier, laying out the laws, the rules, that will govern our activities. We’ve not yet figured out who’s going to enforce those rules — there’s no Buster Jones out there, at least not yet — but we’re also a long way from figuring out what we want this “place” we know as the internet to become. The question is, where is this “where”? That, I think, is the key issue that makes other ones — privacy, copyright, commerce, community, access — so difficult. How do we deal with real issues in an abstract space?

The abstract nature of this space gives us a unique opportunity. We can participate in the planning of this place, this new grid, or what William Gibson might call “the Matrix.” We must not succumb to a narrow view of what it is we are up to. John Brinckerhoff Jackson asks us to look at the grid, not only in terms of that which has been built, or its content so to speak, but in terms of the landscape, its context. Jackson finds that the highway “is merely a symbol of how we have learned to organize space and movement.” The spatial organization it creates that is of greatest importance.

Before the modern highway, there was the railroad which, in America, as Jackson wrote:

“… represented an important development in our whole landscape. Railroads and the new farms surrounding them were not, even in theory, part of a pattern of independent social spaces: they were integrated from the beginning into a well-designed economic process, into a linear system vividly symbolized by the lines of track and their accompanying telegraph wires.”

This also holds true for the internet — it has its own boundaries. Does anyone not know what it means to be “from the other side of the tracks?” Well, that’s what it means these days to have an America Online account. These boundaries — in some cases railroad tracks, in others networks — have sweeping consequences for social life, and they are formed by our grids, by our organization of space.

The internet’s development also relies on an existing grid, the communication infrastructure, and it is integrated into the economics of the telecommunications industries. Is it any surprise that most people use the telephone system to access the internet via modem, or that the promise of high-speed internet connections comes via existing cable television installations? Like the telegraph wires that accompanied the railroad tracks, and the roads that followed the railroad tracks, the internet follows paths we already know, ones we take for granted. Think, for instance, of the telephone. In a word, it works — almost all the time, but what happens when it doesn’t? At the least, impatience. We are, simply put, used to technology working, and we’re used to technology getting better. This is not a new attitude; to wit, the following quote from a 1929 magazine article:

“The average human being of today is not impressed by miracles … He reads in a newspaper that plans are being made to connect New York with Tokyo by telephone. I doubt that it’s practical, he may remark. But the next day he discovers that the thing has actually been accomplished. The day after that he himself calls up Tokyo and, if there happens to be a few minutes’ delay in putting the call through, he complains bitterly about the service.”

That’s from 1929. It’s likely you’ve had similar experiences. Once we see that something functions as it should, we believe it should function even better. Woe be it if does not function properly, as when a videocassette recorder mysteriously does not record a program for which we have set its timer, when we lose a connection while talking on our cell phone, or when our computer freezes and crashes. Our attention at that instant is absolutely riveted on the technology that has done the unexpected. It’s a bump on the road of progress, right? So we just restart the computer, but we don’t much think of how it shapes and defines our activities.

Shape them it does — and that’s why I want to talk about Progress, and combine it with Life and Liberty. There’s a joke making the rounds these days:

“How can you tell when a (fill-in-the-blank-with-your-favorite-stereotype, where I live we use Texan, sorry) has been using your word processor? Look for eraser marks on the screen.”

That’s telling — it tells us about someone whose not moved ahead, isn’t a part of the times; someone who, in a word, hasn’t “progressed.” Keeping up is hard work. Many of our everyday activities are dependent on the smooth functioning of our communication technologies. We are required to learn about them or be left behind. The modern businessperson, for instance, once needed stationery and pen, but now has need of fax, cell phone, e-mail, or else!

That’s the deal with the internet — use it, or lose. There’s some backlash toward these technologies already. Some say there’s a loss of personality that accompanies communication via computer; others worry about the amount of time taken away from face-to-face interaction by technologies that require expertise, undivided attention, or even appear addictive. Clifford Stoll summarized the backlash best when he wrote, “bit by bit, my days dribble away, trickling out my modem.”

In traditional American terms, one might think that Stoll’s problem is that his life is but dribbling away and not speeding along his modem’s connection. It may also be that Stoll’s problem is that his days go by virtually without him, time passes through his modem without him noticing it. In either case we are caused to ask, what is progress? Are we any happier from having these technologies? Have we, in fact, replaced the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of progress? Or are these the same?

Of course, it’s not easy to determine what happiness is, or what makes anyone “happy,” just as it is hard to explain our love/hate relationship with progress. I do think we can generalize from ideas we hold so dear we’ve codified them in our founding documents — Life and Liberty. Life — that’s a given. Liberty — that’s tougher to define. We could call it freedom, but freedom from, or for, what? Asking about liberty in Texas is like asking for cheese in Wisconsin — it’s like a birthright. We take it, for instance, that we have a right to unrestricted motion. We can go where we please — we can’t, of course, but we think we can, or at least think we should be able to. We also believe we have a right to things like friendship, community, interaction and public life. Are these rights, privileges, or the very basis of our humanity?

What happens to us if we don’t get these things? To a great extent we wither, like plants that don’t get enough water and light. If we don’t get them, we seem very willing to blame anything but ourselves, and particularly to blame technology. Why don’t people go out anymore to hear live music? Must be the CD player. Why don’t people go to the movies anymore? Must be the videocassette. Why don’t people go bowling, go to church, go to sporting events, get involved in politics? Must be television.

Then, ironically enough, we look to technology to solve the problems for which it is blamed. We’ll make the technology better — I know, let’s make TV interactive! That’ll solve our problems! The interactivity the internet is going to deliver to us is supposed to fulfill basic needs — community, communication, these human things — it’ll make us a participatory democracy in ways we’ve only been able to imagine, ways we think the ancient Greeks had. In fact, ours will be better, bigger, new and improved! In this new “wired” democracy, we’ll all be able to have our say, to have our voice heard, to overcome the frustration of participating in a one-way binary political system.

Although I study communication, in this instance I’m less interested in what we’ll have to say to each other, if and when we’re all wired, and more interested in whether or not it’ll matter. We certainly seem to believe that we can overcome most any problem — political, moral and social — if we improve communication. The Cold War, “Detente,” phrases like “let’s talk it over,” the dreaded relationship-breaker, “We have to talk…,” all these point to a belief in communication as problem-solver. We communicate, then, to achieve particular goals. We seem to define democracy itself as problem-solving, but look at our country. Democracy doesn’t solve anything; it’s a way of life, not a blueprint. It is a set of values, not a means to an end.

Yet, democracy and communication have become our primary “if only.” They evoke a sense of lost opportunities that need to be again made available, if only we would work harder, if only we communicate more, if only we have more information, if only we had more time. Our sense of “lived” time (the time that passes according to our senses, the time of “being”) and our sense of “social” or “functional” time (the time we sense as a form of obligation, or as time for “doing”) have greatly diverged. This is, I think, what Cliff Stoll feels is being “dribbled away” against his wishes — his experience of time.

We know that different cultures measure, know and experience time differently, and our own sense of time has changed. Either it feels like it’s speeding along or it’s filled up. Computer makers continually speed up their machines, but few people I know find that accelerated CPUs save them much time — or better, minimize their time for “doing” toward time for “being.” I usually spend more time with faster computers, rather than less time. If my new CPU is twice as fast as my old one, shouldn’t I be spending half the time I used to at my computer?

All too often we find ourselves in what I’d call a “give up, try harder” cycle, in which it seems that no matter what we do, it’s never “enough.” It used to be enough, or at least it feels like it did by comparison to “the way things are” now, and hence, nostalgia. We seem to recall these glorious, lazy days when we would sit out on the porch, sip lemonade, and chat with our neighbors. Those were the days!

Those were also the days that never were. We all require repose, intermission without action and activity, the time that allows for restoration and rejuvenation. As one of my favorite thinkers, Lewis Mumford, pointedly illustrates, the development of the clock and subsequent industrialization of life has meant that even at moments when we may feel we have “time on our hands,” we find activities with which to use that time, or we feel guilty for “wasting” it.

So we feel time “filling up” or “speeding up.” We think time needs to be filled, for its passage is precious and to waste it is sinful. Once filled, how do we make space for more of it? One way is to use our time for action and activity. There is little doubt that such activity can have positive, practical rewards, but what happens when one is done? Are we to simply move on to another “project,” as if life were simply a series of them? To do so is to submit to the industrialization of which Mumford speaks, and it’s a sure way to narrow the options the internet and new communication technologies may bring for society.

The question isn’t, as Microsoft suggests, “where do you want to go today?” More to the point is, “what do we want the internet to be?” What do we want life to be, what does it mean to live a valuable life? Even as I speak, efforts are under way to push the internet in one direction or another, to make it more useful for business and commerce, to make it more of a playground, or, and I shudder to think about this, to make it more like TV. How will we organize it? Who are the Buster Jones’s out there, and do they work in our trust? How will it, in turn, organize our lives? Like the clock?

I ask this because I often think we haven’t learned from our past experiences with the media of mass communication. Each time we develop a new one, we don’t question it. We believe it’ll do all the things the previous ones promised, but didn’t deliver. The phonograph, the telephone, film, radio, television, all were supposed to bring us into a golden age of democracy and communication, but none did.

Is the internet, and the related communications-based technologies it’s bringing with it, different than those media? Somewhat, yes. Unlike with some other media, when on-line, we are often struck by the sense that there are others out there like us. There’s a news group or web page for everyone. At the same time our use of other media increases the feeling that the world “out there” is growing ever-stranger, and is less likely to resemble us as time goes on. The news just seems to get more and more weird. The internet often counters that weirdness, as it brings to us, in our homes and offices, a sense of connectedness, but it is an aimless connectedness. It reassures that between “us” and “them” there may be some common ground, but, once reassured, anything more brings us too close to going “out there.” “Out there” isn’t safe, so it’s much better to stay in front of the screen.

This aimless connectedness may make life on-line no better or worse than off-line, but it does make it different. As Benedict Anderson noted in Imagined Communities, “Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity or genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.” The internet’s communities are forged from the sense that they exist, but we rarely directly apprehend them, and we see them only out of the corner of our eye. They are at once real and ephemeral. In many instances they can be of great significance to people. Of course the popular press is fond of publishing reports of people whose personal lives crumble as a consequence of their life on-line — and again, like with other media, we are warned about the dangers of “internet addiction.”

On the other hand, there are those who are finding at least some, if not all, of the community interaction and belonging that they are looking for in the interactions they experience on-line. In fact, the internet does have its own “everyday” — its customs, rituals, and manners — and those need to be understood. As John Pauly entreats, we are:

“… situated between the private experiences of consumer culture and the public structures of multinational power, between the proximate communities of everyday life and the everywhere communities of popular culture, haunted by the echoes of our pre-industrial past, mesmerized by the images of our post-industrial future.”

These polarities are a reflection of some of the most compelling debates in social theory, ones that arise from what Joli Jensen terms “the community/society dichotomy.” They are part and parcel of the hopes and desires of internet users and, really, all of us, to achieve community and connection:

“Communities are defined as shared, close and intimate, while societies are defined as separate, distanced, and anonymous. ‘Atomized’ is the most common descriptor of relations in mass society — each individual operating separately, connected loosely if at all … What is at stake in this dichotomy … is the issue of connection — how we are to link up with each other … Do the ties of family, religion, ethnicity, or geography bind us … what does connect us? Can patriotism or civic life flourish in a mobile, multicultural society? What kind of self is cultivated in an impersonal society? What kinds of loyalties, morals and character can exist if one is born without communal values and experiences?”

These are the questions we should all ask; they are not ones just for internet users. We must look first to ourselves, and later to our technologies, for the fulfillment of our social imperative, for what are essentially human needs and desires. What matters is not how we fulfill those needs. What matters is that we know what they are and that we do so. The internet can provide us with the means, but it can also make us more needy, and unless we are critical and careful, the latter is more likely than the former.

When Microsoft asks, “Where do you want to go today,” they’re answering for you. I urge you to answer for yourself. I’m not advocating a Microsoft boycott. I’m advocating that you do your own answering. To close with a paraphrase — ask not what technology can do for you, ask what you can do with your life!