2009.12.09 Have URL, Will Travel

When Geocities offed itself a few weeks ago, taking 32 megs of me with it, my optimism about the internet suffered a hefty, but also healthy, blow. I had learned, often the hard way, about the emphemerality of digital media, but it's one thing to know something and another to do something about it. In this case, I don't think there was anything I could have done about it except transfer my site to another host, which I have now done after the fact, but nothing could have saved the broken links to "geocities.com/mdmorrissey," now as useless as call numbers at the Royal Library of Alexandria. Well, not quite, since the enterprising reader can still find me by googling the last part, but those links are also disappearing rapidly (from 10,500 a couple of weeks ago to 8,070 at last count).

I own my domain name (www.mdmorrissey.info) until 2014, so even if I get whacked again I can regenerate. Still, this incident brings home the stark fact of the matter: everything, absolutely everything, in cyberspace can disappear at any time in a reverse Big Bang that would do much more than send us back to the Paper Age because so much of what used to be on paper is now stored digitally. Lawrence Lessig has warned us that such a catastrophe, which he dubs i9/11, is inevitable:

Whether a single event, or a coordinated event, whether intentional, or accidental, it is simply a matter of time before a catastrophic network event happens. And when it happens -- think of it as a kind of i9/11 event, but the bad guys are not Al-Qaeda -- will we be prepared for the inevitable iPatriot Act response? Are we better prepared than civil libertarians were when we were hit with the USA Patriot Act? Have we even framed the right debate?

I am sure plenty of techies will dispute this, but my gut tells me he is right. It can all die wholly or partially, instantly or a little bit at a time, some of it possibly recoverable and some not, but there is no denying that the internet is much more precarious than the Royal Library of Alexandria, whose precise fate remains mysterious but did manage to survive at least several hundred years. How much of what is now on the internet will be around even one hundred years from now? It seems that the more sophisticated our inventions get, the more short-lived they are. Stone outlives parchment outlives old paper outlives modern paper outlives vinyl outlives tape outlives CDs, and it's a good bet that whatever comes next will follow the same pattern.

It's also a pretty good bet that if there is anything left of me in 2109 it will be made of paper, and I am grateful to Geocities for making this clear. I have reestablished my cybernetic self for the time being, but it is illusory to think it is for anything more than that. The first order of business, then, is to make paper copies, preferably several, of everything I want to keep. The second is to ask myself, yet again, "What am I doing here?" The question deserves an answer. I deserve an answer! Like millions of other people, I have invested a big chunk of my life in cyberspace, and I would not like it to be for nought.

All right. First of all, there is the old saw that teachers use to console themselves for years of ill-rewarded drudgery: If you can influence just one student... The same applies to our work on the net. The downside is that we rarely find out whom we have influenced or how. The idea that by writing down our thoughts we are preserving something of value for our great-great-grandchildren is more comforting, but this has nothing to do with the internet. Those thoughts will be much safer on paper.

The second reason for writing on the internet is quite a bit more abstract and speculative, and probably comes from having watched The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

We do have a lot more choices these days. Education and "tradition" still steer us into the grooves worn by the mass media, but we can jump the tracks much more easily now. "Have URL, Will Travel," as I used to put it in my signature block. I still like this motto because it can be read in two ways. The first way, the meaning I originally intended, is that if you have a website, you have an additional identity. You have an Ars Electronica -- and that is not supposed to be what it sounds like to British ears but rather something noble, a Lebenswerk all the more meaningful because it can be constantly changing. Books are relatively immutable once they are tagged with an ISBN and put on the market. A website can change and grow infinitely. And the convenience of it! You don't have to keep repeating yourself, just refer people to your website. Know me, know my site. Been there, done that, said that, wrote that, then and there. I can go on to other things. I am free -- and in the other sense, free also to travel virtually everywhere, wherever and whenever I like. All I need is an URL.

But Paladin was a loner. What I am working up to is that this new state of "confusion" the internet has brought us may truly change us collectively. I would like to believe this, and in fact I do believe it, but it means we are at war. The potential for great change is there, but the opposition to such change is also great. We need to understand this if we are going to fight effectively.

As an illustration, I recently joined a Facebook group called "We Will Not Pay To Use Facebook. We Are Gone If This Happens" that has 5,375,675 members. That's a lot of people. But it doesn't mean they will get what they want. If Facebook sells out and becomes a pay site, or just vanishes like Geocities, there will be 5.4 milliion disappointed people, period. The strength of numbers does not automatically translate into bucks, which is presumably why Facebook is considering the change, and it doesn't automatically translate into effective political action either. If it did, the world would be a very different place. The Bush/Cheney gang would be behind bars, the troops would come home, the bankers and brokers would have to give back the money, etc. There would be democracy!

Consider what would happen if those 5.4 million people actually put their heads together and figured out a way to turn their opinion into a political act. Suppose they figured out a way to actually force Facebook to stay free? Big Brother might be all for this particular action (FB provides an wonderful database for keeping track of large segments of the population), but what if 5.4 million people figured out a way to propose and elect public officials who would actually represent them instead of the wealthy and powerful? We have to remember that what we see as the promise of the internet is seen as a threat by those who, unlike Thoreau, do not want a government "by which men would fain succeed in letting one another alone" but a government which controls the rabblement and preserves the wealth and power of the upper class. The powerful few will never relinquish power to the many without a fight, and the internet is a major, perhaps the major, battleground. They will do everything they can to make it their tool, not ours. There may be an i9/11, there will be ever-increasing pressure to "monetize" websites and thus put a price tag on accessibility (Internet2), they can flood the net with agents, impose censorship, disseminate spyware and malware, and no doubt do many other things that are cooking in the brains of their techie mercenaries, both military and civilian. It is scary to see that the Air Force, for example, is proud to proclaim cyberspace as its next battlefield, on a par with air and space, but it would be naive to imagine that control of cyberspace, as part of "full spectrum dominance," means anything less than making sure that those millions of people using the internet never succeed in doing precisely what we want to do, which is turn our numbers into political action.

The fight to keep the internet and the fight to keep it free, then, are one and the same. If we allow it to go the way of television and the other mass media, we will have lost. Therefore, come what may, I will keep posting. It is an act of defiance and of faith -- defiance of Big Brother and faith that good will prevail. last night more than anything else. The movie I found sad and depressing, but the conventional notion of being "born again" is glorious, and that is more what I have in mind. William James famously described the world of the baby as a "great blooming, buzzing confusion," and that seems like a good description of the internet as well. If there was a way to measure "confusion," I think we would find it blooming and buzzing much more vigorously today than 20 years ago, thanks entirely to the internet, and we might want to call it something else, like "diversity of thought." If that is what the internet offers us, I'll take it. I like the idea that the internet has allowed us to return, phylogenetically, to a primordial state similar to that of the small child, where reality is up for grabs.