The world we live in today is made of computers. We don’t have cars any more, we have computers we ride in. – Cory Doctorow (transcript)
Is the Internet a communication technology or a transportation technology? What does the answer to this question imply about Internet governance and the future of online liberty?
One thing technology does well is take multiple functions that were previously bound into the same physical process or object and split them into separate objects/subroutines, each of which does its own job so efficiently that the overall object/process works better than it did before. These chunks can also be recombined in new ways to do things that were not previously feasible.
An example is ebooks. Previously the storage, display, and transportation functions of a book were all combined into a single physical unit. The display of one book (its pages and ink) could be repurposed into another only by cutting it up, ransom-note style, or through a lengthy process of recycling. The display was also inseparable from the storage: if the display got wet, the data was marred forever. Transporting the information in the book could only be done by moving its entire bundle of atoms from one place to another
Enter the ebook. A single display can be used for a virtually infinite number of books. Storage is extensible, expandable, and expendable. If you want more, get it. If it breaks, replace it. And when you are ready to add a new edition to your collection it only takes a matter of seconds to transfer the bits.
Actually, the process goes back much further to when the written word disembodied message from messenger. Before this, shooting the messenger was the only primitive backspace key available. Burning books Fahrenheit 451-style can be tragic, but it is quite an improvement over burning bodies.
Is the Internet a simple continuation of this separation-optimization-recombination trend, or is it something more? The Internet is more similar to the spoken/written word jump than it is to the printed book/ebook development, because it allows the separation of consciousness from body. My body can be in almost any physical locations while my consciousness is bound up in a conversation, collaborative project, or game with almost anyone else from almost anywhere else.
In this way, the Internet is more like a transportation technology than it is a communications technology. Governing the roads was a nontrivial task for the early modern state. Then came air travel, which existed for a brief unregulated period before governments learned to exercise their control there. For more on the tension between innovation and regulation in transportation, see here, here, and here.
These early periods are open to rapid innovation, which also means that they permit risk-taking. This risk/opportunity trade-off chosen by state-avoidant peoples. States and their peoples see the opportunity but do not want the risk. Risk can be reduced or it can be hidden; the latter is cheaper and states are better at it, so it is often on that margin that they work to bring their peoples into new avenues of opportunity without fear. But by reducing the downside risk they also take away the upside of innovation.
The Internet is nearing this inflection point, if it has not already passed. It is a dangerous but promising frontier. Would you rather have pioneers as your guide, or big brother watching out for you?