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The View from the Brooklyn Bridge

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The View from the Brooklyn Bridge

In response to "The Five Imperatives for Electronic Trade"

John Perry Barlow Co-Founder, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Advisory Board Member, CSC Vanguard

 Last week, I took a Dutch friend on a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and submitted her to an extemporaneous lecture on the parallels between that literal and genuinely religious leap of faith in 19th-century American engineering and the Internet as the current manifestation of the same wild thrust, engendering some of the same popular anxieties.

I told her that I thought the decade in which it was designed and largely built, the 1870s, was a decade which in some ways resembles the present. It was a time of shattering invention and originality. Many of the technologies that would utterly alter us during the intervening century - the telephone, commercial electricity, sound recording, and steel construction - exploded into the world.

It was another time when engineering suddenly endowed us with apparently limitless potential. The prophets of that time - from Marx to Edison to the Roeblings, father and son - were as feverish with the inevitability of their visions as the Tofflers and cypherpunks of the present.. And, as Larry says, many of the ordinary folks were scared to death of a future which they could neither prevent nor understand.

As symbols, there are some important differences between the Brooklyn Bridge and Internet though, many of them related to the sources and advantages of faith. These were brought into sharp focus at the privacy and security conference in Palm Springs, and I've been mulling them over ever since.

Faith in the Known

The Promethean engineers of the 19th century were thrust upward on Toffler's Second Wave at the time of its maximum velocity. They were in a matrix of progressive zeal that spread from the crisp vertices of Descartes to the vanishing points of Manifest Destiny. They believed in Control, and, of course, Almighty God, by whom Control had been ordained and in whose name it was imposed.

The Roeblings' bridge may have terrified the hoi polloi, but to the men who financed it, it was a reasonable statement of faith in physics - the most dramatic of its time perhaps - but well within the confines of a paradigm that had been bearing steadily increasing fruit since Newton and, in many ways, since Moses.

Further, the Brooklyn Bridge undermined none of the institutions of its day. Indeed, it was part of what was building them. Coming out of an era in which the only large institutions had been religious in the classical sense, it represented both the Church and its new siblings, the Corporation and Large Government. It's no mistake that its arches ascend to an ecclesiastical point.

If you walk across the bridge today, you feel its blunt simplicity. In addition to stone and steel, it was made of physics. And physics, at least Newtonian physics, is a lot simpler than biology. Once you've done the math, you can trust the trajectory.

It was also, as Larry suggests, made of faith, but it was a very different kind of faith than the present asks of us. Where the Brooklyn Bridge was built on faith in what was known and controllable, we are now required to place our trust in what can neither be known nor controlled.

Faith in the Unknown

We have left the Machine Age and are plunging into the fogbank of something completely different, the Era of the Organism. The new masterworks of humanity,  of which the Net is very likely the most important, are of such complexity that they can no longer be designed and built. Instead they must be grown. It isn't physics. It's biology. It's nature.

There are no smooth, catenary curves in nature. The trajectories of biology are forky and unpredictable as lightning. There is a new mathematics to describe them, but what these numbers tell you is only that you can't know where things are headed. It's hard to imagine the Brooklyn Bridge would have been funded had it been designed according to fractal geometry rather than calculus.

The current hurdle of civilization into cyberspace has required, like the bridge, the assembled acts of the existing institutions, but it hardly reaffirms them. For one thing, large collective enterprise loves certainty above all other things, including profit.

In the pursuit of certainty, almost any established corporation will follow the Devil It Knows, whether buggy-whips or minicomputers, straight to doom. Nothing is certain in cyberspace but accelerating change. The curves we can plot - processor speed, Internet growth, Web use, bandwidth - are all increasing logarithmically or faster. Furthermore, there is reason to think many of them will become irrelevant in this new environment, devoted as they are to distributing centralized goods and services.

For this reason, it is hardly surprising that many of the corporations that were putting us up at the corner of Dinah Shore Drive and Bob Hope Way resist going into Cyberspace. In some deep, organic recognition of their own, they know there be dragons there. They have a sense of nameless dread.

Of course, dread hates to be nameless so, in this instance, it finds its focus in the Nightmare Hacker, bent on lobotomizing corporations for the hell of it. Never mind that there is no evidence with which I'm familiar that this beast actually exists. He is a creature of the unfamiliar. The premise that he could exist is sufficient reason to stay out of this mysterious realm.

If corporations must go into Cyberspace, they insist on doing so with certainty and control assured. They want the government to send in troops first and ferret out such guerrillas as Kevin Mitnick and his kind. They want to establish the predictable rule of law. But this isn't Panama. It's more like Vietnam but worse, since the threat is largely imaginary (and thus impossible to contain). It's also worse because this jungle is infinitely expansible, and worse still, it's not even clear whose troops should go in or whose law should reign.

Faith in Openness

This relates to another of Larry's statements that I found telepathic: "What if Cyberspace isn't in the United States, or any country at all, but rather exists as its own, sovereign, virtual nation? Worse, what if cyberspace is in fact the home country of all global businesses?" When I read these lines, I was fresh from giving a speech at the TED conference in Monterey in which I had proposed precisely that.

In the created world that arose from Newton, power was derived from closed architectures of one sort or another. Creating wealth was a matter of skillfully managing scarcity and maintaining clear boundaries. But the natural world favors open systems. Indeed, it requires them, since the energy exchange processes upon which it builds its increasing layers of complexity must be interoperable in the deepest sense of the word. The Net is no different.

As I listened to Bill Cheswick, I realized that he was describing a system of such perfected security as to be fundamentally incompatible with the requirements of both the Internet and the World Wide Web, both of which need highly permeable membranes in the systems that make them up. The only way they can interact properly with their environment and maintain the security of their contents is through the internal use of cryptography, but this is another technology that existing institutions find threatening.

Then there are the threats to the control of intellectual "property" upon which many existing institutions have based their sense of well-being. If they cannot assure their ability to "own content," and there is no longer a business to be had in putting their intellectual property into objects and shipping it around in trucks, then what will they do for a living? Hard questions.

But can anyone not explicitly involved in the local manufacture of physical goods expect to be successful without entering this great region of ambiguity? I don't think so. We are at one of the great watersheds of history, a more momentous moment than the Brooklyn Bridge. All of us, whether individuals or institutions, will be required to make enormous acts of faith and leave our old beliefs at the border. Those who can't will be left behind.

But where the Brooklyn Bridge required of its builders faith in their ability to control technology, going into cyberspace demands a much purer form of faith: faith without control. Faith in nature. Faith in human nature. Faith that what goes around really does come around. Groundless faith.

But I have often suspected that groundless faith, like unconditional love, is the only kind there is.

 Pinedale, Wyoming Tuesday, March 21, 1995

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