Geert Lovink on Wed, 5 Mar 97 10:23 MET

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nettime: Civilizing Cyberspace/Interview with Steven E. Miller

Civilizing Cyberspace
An Interview with Steven E. Miller
by Geert Lovink

Steven Miller's 'Civilizing Cyberspace' looks like an official manual
for net politics, published by big daddy Addison-Wesley. It covers all
non-technical aspects, like democracy and free speech, online ethics,
universal service, privacy and encryption, creating communities,
intellectual property and citizen action. It is written for a broad
audience - no academic obscurities here. Each section is illustrated by
a interview with leading figures in the field. The book centers around
the relationship between the government's agenda, the marketplace and
the interest of the industries and the public interest. The state,
capital and the public all have their own visions on the
'domestication' of cyber space (that's how I read the title at first).
An Internet culture needs to be established, it's wild aspects have to
be tamed. But Miller is no sociologist, rather a pragmatic activist,
who sees that there is an urgent need to act. No gambling here with
problematic notions like 'civilization' or 'the public'. It's time for
positive models and getting our hands dirty.

Needless to say that this book only deals with the situation in the
USA. However, it has a different agenda than the techno-utopian cyber
visionaries that most Europeans associate with USA publications such
as Wired. Steven Miller is currently on the board of Computer
Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) which researches and
presents a public interest perspective on the societal impacts and
implications of computer technology. Organizations like these are
still widely unknown throughout Europe, which is a good reason to push
for broad Euro-American dialogue and direct contacts beyond the Wired
circle. The interview was conducted in Munich, during the 'Internet &
Politics' conference, on February 19, 1997.

GL: How did your analysis of the net evolve after you finished your
book in November 1995, and what have you been doing ever since?

SM: The basic political analysis that I laid out in the book still
holds. However, things change so quickly in this field that I'd like
to update whole chapters to deal with the Telecommunications Reform
Act, corporate mergers and some of the new technologies.

I am still living in the tension between the humanistically possible
and the terrifyingly probable. I still find too many people falling
into the techno utopian fantasy that the technology itself will
automatically make things happen for the good. But there is nothing
inherent with the Internet that automatically leads to democracy. The
Chinese are finding ways to harness the Internet by turning the entire
nation into a closed system, an Intranet. Giving people online access
may turn out to be a boobytrap for the Chinese government, but it is
going to take a while. So the key is not trusting that the technology
will give us the gift of a positive future, but to think about a
political strategy detailing how to build organizations that begin to
embody the positive future we want.

After spending two years living with the abstractions in the book, I
felt a real need to get very concrete, particularly about universal
service. How do we spread access, training and meaningful purpose,
outside of the elite colleges and homes of the rich? I picked up on an
idea that came out of California, from a guy named John Gage, called
NetDay. I started an organization in Massachusetts, called
MassNetworks, getting businesses to support volunteers who work with
schools to build networks. My interest in focusing on schools partly
comes from my belief that the consumerist model of a computer in very
household will never happen. You've got to worth through mass
organizations, local institutions, churches, girls and boys clubs,
soccer teams or schools.

We worked with 400 schools in October 1996. Across our state, over
5000 volunteers came to the schools to help pull wires and set up
computer sys tems. To get 5 computers in every class room, just in
Massachusetts, could cost nearly a billion dollars. I don't see it
happening, but I want at least make sure that kids whose families
can't afford computers at home will at least have some access at
We worked with the trade unions -- the Electrical Workers Union pulled
30 miles of wires for schools in the inner-city of Boston, including
some very low income areas. We created a partnership with 3COM, SUN,
Lotus and IBM, another with the Bank of Boston. We got the teachers
involved -- if they don't feel ownership of the whole effort they will
say 'Thanks' and never use it. 

Part of our goal was to help schools reconnect to their tax payers, to
their community. We have to rebuild public trust in our public
institutio ns. The conservatives have been successful in convincing
people that the government can't do anything well and the only
solution is to rid of the government. It's true that the public sector
does lot of things wrong, but it is one of the few collective tools we
have available. If we give up on it, we are all left as individual
consumers. As a citizen I want to work through collective
institutions, because only in that manner do I have a chance of helpi
ng shape the economy and the marketplace in ways that serve all of us
for the good.

GL: In 'Civilizing Cyberspace' you refer frequently to the National
Infor mation Infrastructure (NII), Al Gore's plan from 1992. What
happened with those plans? Have they been implemented or did they just

SM: In a certain way it is still there. Gore originally spoke about an
updated Internet, which he called the NREN, the National Research and
Education Network. However, as the election of 1992 came closer, his
vision became more and more grandiose. So from a small academic network
he started talking about a transformative technology that would be a
motor for economic development. At some point it started to include
television and telephone and cable television and wireless. It was to
be a public infrastructure: just as the highways were build by the
government, the information highway would be build by the government.

However, soon after Clinton and Gore got elected, they started calling
it the National Information Infrastructure. But within months, as
their political weakness became more apparent, they ran out of
political steam. Essentially, the Republicans hijacked the vision and
started pushing the ir argument about privatization and the market as
the savior of everything. The vision of the NII, which I call
cyberspace, turned out to be a series of strategies about unleashing
the private sector. But what is a national infrastructure in that,
besides a bunch of subsidies and deregulatory laws?

Ironically, they've now turned back to the original idea and
appropriated funding to build that original, high speed education
network, six or eight different universities that are connecting. The
current idea is to build the NREN for the academic community, but as
soon as the technology is shown to work they will spin it off into the
private sector.

GL: There is this notion of the public sphere within cyberspace as a
third space, in-between state owned networks on the one side and
commercial zones on the other. One could think of community networks,
public terminals, bringing libraries on-line, free content and a
reincarnation of public broadcasting. How is the current debate in the
US about this idea of the public?

SM: The problem in the US is that on the national government level
there really isn't much discussion anymore about public space. While
the rhetoric proclaims boundless benefits for everyone, the actual
policy is simply 'let the market go'. But in Europe you do have a
chance to have the public sector either build or powerfully shape the
infrastructure. Part of what you miss in Europe is the entrepreneurial
part of the market. The US has lot of entrepreneurialism but no solid
public core. What we both have to come to is a meeting ground. The
role for the public sector is to shape the market so that the
transmission system, the wires and the wireless, is solid and
broadband, accessible and affordable for all. Where you want to have
open competition is in the equipment and the switching protocols you
use at either end.

The public sector should also subsidize and pay for noncommercial
content. You can't leave the content sector up the private sector,
because all they will give you is commercial manipulation. At the same
time you can't leave it up to the state, because all that will give you
is boring burea ucracy and safe conservatism. You need to figure out a
funding mechanism, either through the tax system or through the
commercial system, that diverts a steady revenue stream into
independent community content creation. We cannot relate to this as
individual consumerism, you need community organizations. So the
challenge for all of us how to create a revenue flow that creates
non-commercial content.
Creating a positive future is going to require a combination of
different strategies, a hybrid. It is not private sector, it is not
public sector, not community networks. We are going to have our hands
very dirty and start struggling. Because experience has already shown
that any pure method fails.

GL: The inherent, pragmatic and radical net criticism we are trying
develop deals with the ideological premises within the software and
tries to understand the underlying political and cultural patterns.
Could you tell us something about net criticism in the US from your
point of view?

SM: There is a fine line you have to walk. In the US, net idealism is
the dominant flavor. 'Let the market go and it will bring us the
future. And the future will be wonderful.' When you critique that, you
got to be careful not to let yourself become associated with the
people saying that technology is all bad. What I try to do is imbed my
criticism in positive formulations, how it can be a tool for community
building, small scale economic development, democratic movements. It is
not enough to say that Wired magazine is wrong. We should not cut
ourselves off from the future. There are many people who critique
without rejecting the possibilities the net culture brings. Think of
Gary Chapman, who used to work for the Computer Professionals for
Social Responsibility and now works with the 21st Century Project out
of Austin, Texas. Or a guy named Dick Sclove, who works for the Loka
Institute in Amherst, Massachusetts. They both talk about
democratizing the technology development process. Phil Agree, working
out of the University of California at San Diego, has some of the most
incisive critiques of how the conservative movement is using
telecommunication as a tool for public relation and building a cult
ural movement. I think we have to do the same. There isn't a magazine
set up to serve that and maybe there should be.

GL: We found out that a net critique should also come with some
ingredients for a political economy of the telecom business. Did you
have the same experience?

SM: There are some many layers to the business. One layer is about the
organization of production and we tend to forget this one, how giant
corporations use computer networks to rationalize and restructure
their productive methodology internally, so that they can have a
greater span of control for their top managers, so that they can get
rid of the middle layer of managers and push decision making down,
without letting go of control . Or how they can transform their
production processes, with parts in Malaysia, Japan, Brazil or the UK.
It is also a mechanism of coordination between corporations. EDI --
Elect ronic Data Interchange -- where they order and pay and talk to
each other about buying and selling electronically. This is a driving
force behind the industry. Ignoring this is a myopic short sightedness
of the Internet community.

Instead, we are entranced by another layer. Telecommunications is also
about culture. It is a culture industry, with movie stars. It's sexy
and we like that. If we are doing a political economy of the culture
industry we have to understand that it is not a product in the usual
sense. It is about people's understanding of the world: what is real
and what is desirable, what is possible and what is important.
Similarly, telecommunications is about human communication and
sociability. Who do we talk to, how often, about what. The technology
impacts this, too.
There is something strange about the nature of information. You don't
use it up. If I have an idea, you can have the same idea, but if I have
a hamburger, you can't eat it also. How do you get unique profit out
of the same information -- by creating barriers to usage through
intellectual property. But at the same time there is what has been
called the law of increasing returns. In heavy industry, profit
margins of pioneering firm s tend to drop over time as other firms
develop their own technological expertise. In the information economy,
the people who first establish a powerful and secure niche continue to
enjoy high and growing competitiv e advantage. Those who are ahead
become further ahead and their profit margins increase. This has
profound implications for the international impact of the inform ation
economy and how Africa, South America and Asia are going to fit in.

The good news is that this field is evolving so fast that no one is
quite sure how to put together a winning strategy that trumps everyone
else. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being wasted on projects
that are abandoned. The obvious one is the Microsoft Network, where
they spent a lot of money and threw it all out. AT&T set up a whole
network system, it's dead. And the company that bought it has just
closed it. Business leaders aren't sure what to do, but they are
scared to be left out. They are investing in everything that comes
along. One might work and if they are not there first, they are lost.

I think that the underlying driver is the desire to create vertically
and horizontally integrated marketing machine. Vertically, the idea is
for one company to own the entire profit chain from idea to production,
from distribution to sale, and even the reception of the product by the
consumer. A model for that would be the cable television industry. The
cable company controls the pipe to your house and because of this
monopoly they have been able to extend their power back into the
creating of content. So now they own the channels that they then carry.
They also own the box that goes on your TV so that you can't get a
signal from any place else. That's vertical control, from creation to

There are two types of horizontal integration: one is within a
particular medium. You have the cable giant TCI buying out dozens of
dozens of othe r cable companies. This means that anyone who wants to
have access to America has to go to them. Until recent, people thought
that the cable industry would be so desperate for content that they
would pay money to content providers of every type. Diversity would
reign. What happened is the exact opposite, because the cable firms
still control the gateway into the home, content producers now have to
pay them for the privilege of being carried.
The second horizontal integration would be the merging of different
indus tries, where you have cable buying out telephone companies, or TV
networks buying out movi e studios. The diving force is to gather
together all various methods of transmitting images to the consumer.

GL: We are now thinking how an update of the majordomo software for
mailing lists should look like. A combination perhaps of the web with
elements of the BBS in order to make threads and more complex forms of
discussion visible. How does this compare with recent developments in
the 'free' software branch in the US?

SM: There is not a long story to tell. Netscape and Internet Explorer
have dominated people's visualization of what the web is. The people
who tried to come up with alternatives have been marginalized. Allen
Shaw from MIT, who works at the AI-lab, has been working with low
income communit ies in the housing projects, trying to build an
interface that allows women on welfare to run a local server. There is
a group called TERC in Cambridge (Massachusetts) that has been putting
together it's own version of interfaces that is mostly for school use.
But I have not seen too many alternative approaches reach the mass
market. This defeat has to do with our success. When the net started it
was a very small community. Hackers knew how to produce an interface
for that community and it evolved and it grew. But now we want to
expand to have non-hacker communitie s be part of the discussion. Most
the hackers have been seduced by all the money to be made by going into
business. But even the ones who want to do good... how do we support
them and integrate them into the new communities? You can't come up
with an interface just out of your mind. An interface is a social
interaction. It is not a gift, it is a joint creaton.

Steven E. Miller, Exec. Dir., Mass NetDay:
Steven E. Miller, Civilizing Cyberspace, Policy, Power and the
Infromation Superhighway, ACM Press/Addison-Wesley, New York, 1996.
ISBN 0-201-84760-4

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