Sometimes it seems the the faster technology moves, the farther back in history you have to go to find people who can explain what it means. In an 1963 essay called The Revolutionary Tradition and its Lost Treasure philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote that two things are necessary for true revolutions to occur: the sudden experience --the spirit -- of being free, and the sense of creating something new. The Net qualifies on both counts. Halfway through this misunderstood, leaderless, bottom-up, anti-hierarchical revolution, there's the sense -- only partly true -- of being stalled, threatened, and at a crossroads. (Read more)
However nobly intended, revolutions begin when masses of people share particular, idealistic interests, Arendt wrote. And they tend to get derailed when private interests invade the public domain, diluting and corrupting the agenda of the people seeking change, creating innovations, or making the revolutions.
That has been the fate of every great revolution in modern history, from the American to the French to the Russian. They spring from virtuous ideals, but it's difficult to keep citizens involved and motivated. When the revolutions fall out of the hands of their leaders and followers, and into the hands of elites and special interests, the participants lose heart and interest. The revolutions lose steam.
It's hard to miss the parallels. Unlike the others, the Net is an accidental revolution, by Arendt's or almost any other standard. Both those elements of revolution -- being free, creating something new -- are hallmarks of the Net, and of the cultures which conceived and built it. And recently, there's been a poignant sense of hesitation and melancholy, of a Lost Treasure.
People have been drawn to computing and to the Net Revolution for all sorts of reasons: technical, social, financial, high-minded and mundane. Perhaps what is most revolutionary about this revolution is the effort of millions with shared ideas to establish a place of freedom in which people could take part of their lives into their own hands, a place beyond conventional media and politics.
That struggle and the sense of being free remains very much alive online, despite the furious efforts of many intellectuals, lawyers, business interests, politicians and many teachers and parents to curb it. And the sense of creating something new also persists, especially in distinct precincts like Open Source and P2P.
That these impulses have survived so long represents something of a miracle. The Net Revolution has been under siege -- from corporations, adolescent flamers, lawyers, phobic moralists and politicians -- almost from the moment of its inception.
The United States, though created in revolutionary furor, has become one of the toughest environments in the world to maintain one. Those private interests Arendt wrote have nearly overwhelmed the Net revolution. Profoundly significant social issues -- privacy, intellectual property, the distribution of culture and entertainment -- are barely addressed, let alone resolved. Utopian fantasies about supercomputers, AI, gene mapping and nano-technologies abound, but few have yet delivered to make the world different or better.
Despite its challenges, the Net and the computer revolution have mushroomed. But no revolution goes on forever, and this one is definitely at a turning point. A year ago, the popular media was stampeding online, herading the death of books and print. Now they're shrieking about the death of content and profit on the Web. Both of these ideas are false. There have never been more people and information online, or more creative and interesting works underway.
The viscerally anti-hierarchical Net is a leaderless revolution, without any central ideology, philosophy or set of goals -- a significant difference from past revolutions. It isn't from a lack of visionaries -- Postel, Licklider, Gates, Stallman, Pike, Kernighan, Berners-Lee, and many others to name are nothing if not visionaries. But they aren't leaders; this revolution doesn't really want any.
This one was concocted by a disparate collection of Defense Department war planners, hackers and cyber-hippies. The Web -- created by a new programming class -- broadened the impact of the Net and turned it into something well beyond a communications network -- a truly radical force for hyper-linked textual, cultural and other kinds of change.
Armies of techno-savvy kids with broadband joined the movement and pushed it further. Now, it's under relentless assault from the private interests Arendt writes about, its future uncertain. It faces rampant corporate encroachment and government regulation. Some of this is necessary, some fearfully wrong-headed. Instead of encouraging a common movement or agenda, the Net is increasingly Balkanized by an explosion in individualistic sites, weblogs, P2P systems, filtering and moderation programs.
So far, we've seen a mostly informational and technological revolution with some political overtones, rather than an explicitly political or social revolution. By and large, the Net has revolutionalized personal communications and the movement of data more than it has altered people's consciousness or advanced any particular set of goals and ideals. That makes it an especially tough revolution for the off-line world to grasp, with no Lenin, Jefferson or Robespierre to interview or study. Open Source may be the biggest single revolutionary idea to come out of the Net Revolution, but it isn't clear where that movement is heading. (More about that later.)
This fluid, leaderless revolutionary movement has driven Congress, academics, journalists and parents nearly mad. They are rattled by the hordes of the digital unwashed; they are particularly rattled by the revolution's unpredictability and enthusiasm. But do they have to worry about that much longer? Is the revolution stalled?
Next: Backlash -- The Internet Predicament