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Letters to the editor

Hippie Values Really Did Build the Internet


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The arrival in my physical mailbox of Communications (July 2018) with Moshe Y. Vardi's column "How the Hippies Destroyed the Internet" sent me to my computer in shock where I was relieved to find that nobody has actually yet destroyed the Internet. But if Vardi is unhappy with the abuse of advertising in the modern Internet, he should have included a headline something more like "How the Suits Destroyed the Internet." The things he detests are pathologies of capitalism, not of utopian hippie ideology. It was only with the rise of major corporate sites that such things began to happen. They did not occur at all in the early Internet, which consisted mainly of personal and nonprofit sites.

Funny he should trace Internet history back to Stewart Brand at the 1984 Hackers Conference. I [Lieberman] was actually there, and my view of that history is in a review of a biography of Brand I wrote for Science magazine.2 The hacker values of personal expression, sharing, and community that made the Internet so inviting and successful, came straight outta the counterculture.

The core of Vardi's argument rests on the Tragedy of the Commons. But since giving away information is not the cause of the scarcity of physical resources that leads to the Tragedy, that argument does not work. The Tragedy is actually a corollary of the Prisoner's Dilemma. In our 2018 book,1 we showed how this more general mathematical principle actually argues for, not against, a digital commons. The Internet is indeed the world's largest commune.

Vardi promoted the false dichotomy that we must choose between an advertising-supported Internet or (what seems like his preference) a fee-for-service Internet. We have collectively tried both approaches for at least 30 years. Vardi is probably in the same age bracket as we are, so he should have the same dusty memories as we do of pre-Internet fee-for-service networks like Compuserve and The Source, which never won mass worldwide user interest or support. Subscription models? Cable TV is hardly a fountain of innovation, and users continue to abandon it in favor of Internet-based alternatives.

What could possibly motivate content authors to publish, if not a compensation-based business model? The hippie-hacker values—personal expression, sharing, and community—still give us the answer. Making a living? Again, ask the hackers. Next-generation 3D printing will make hardware as reproducible as software, ending the Tragedy of the Commons for physical objects, too. We will make whatever we need, get AI to do what we would rather not do ourselves, and use our free time to develop websites, among other things.3

If we had collectively taken the fee-for-service route, we would never have moved beyond the Compuserve days. The prosperity of the future will be built by the network effects of cooperation—exactly the same "hippie values" that built, and continue to build, the Internet.

Henry Lieberman, Cambridge, MA, USA, and Christopher Fry, Sudbury, MA, USA

Moshe Y. Vardi's column (July 2018) was wrong about both the cause of and the solution to what he sees as a serious problem with the Internet. He complained the "hippie" slogan "information wants to be free" led to an information "commons" and invoked "the Tragedy of the Commons," but the only concrete harm he could cite is the emergence of advertiser-supported information services. He called for an information market instead. Advertiser-supported services emerged because of market forces. If an "information market" means direct user payment for information, the value of the Internet would indeed be greatly diminished by it.

Vardi was wrong about the problem and its remedy because information is a "network good," or a good that becomes more valuable to each individual user as the number of users increases. All types of information share this characteristic. For example, programmers fluent in widely used languages like C++ have a much wider range of job opportunities than programmers who restrict themselves to a less-popular language like, say, Ada.

Markets work differently for network goods than for other types of goods, strongly favoring whatever supplier is first to achieve a large enough market for the network effects to become economically important. Such a supplier then grows rapidly and achieves an effective monopoly, making it very difficult for others to compete. This fact favors market tactics that promote rapid, early growth and is why advertiser-supported services dominate the Internet today.

Facebook is a living example of how this works in practice, providing a network good, as one needs to be on Facebook because all of one's friends are on Facebook. This means when Facebook started out (with few users), it offered little value to each of them and needed to grow rapidly to truly be useful. To attract a large number of users to try such a low-value service, it had to be "free" to the user, meaning it had to be advertiser-supported.

The effects of an information market in which users pay directly for the information they want would be worse for everyone than today's advertiser-supported model. Charging users for information limits the number able to access that information. The network effect means the value of the information for each user is reduced as a direct result, in turn reducing the number of users willing to pay the price being demanded even further, in a downward spiral. This greatly reduces the size of the market for existing information, as well as the size of the potential market for new information. Moreover, the reduced potential market reduces the incentive to produce new information. Instead of providing what Vardi called "a mechanism for determining the value of information," a direct-payment market inherently provides a mechanism for decreasing the value of information.

Whatever problems it may cause, the advertising-based model for information services is the result of market forces, not some "hippie" philosophy. If all Internet services switched to a direct-payment model, those same market forces would diminish both the availability of existing information and the creation of new information.

George A. Rappolt, Needham, MA, USA

For decades it seemed the Internet could do no wrong.

Despite the clear warning presented by dystopian cyberpunk science fiction in the 1980s, in the mid-1990s a self-righteous group of digital entrepreneurs prevailed upon the U.S. government to leave the Internet unregulated. Their politics coalesced in a digital libertarian manifesto published in 1996 in Wired Magazine by Republican Wyoming cattle rancher John Perry Barlow.

Today, with the election of Donald Trump and Brexit there is suddenly broad interest in the second-order effects of information technologies. Indeed, overnight the Zeitgeist has swung to the perception that the Internet can do no right. Facebook, Google, Twitter, and their social media fellow-travelers have gone from being the nation's darlings to being castigated as enablers of Russian subversion of American democracy.

The rich irony is that the very power of the Internet as a global transmission medium for core American values (such as democracy and individual freedom) proved to be a two-way street. In 2016, an unregulated Internet became an instrument for the distribution of a vast array of disinformation by enemies of open society.

Moshe Y. Vardi has now joined the hunt for the guilty parties and in his July 2018 column, he pointed his accusing finger squarely at the 1960s counterculture.

Really?


The advertising-based model for information services is the result of market forces, not some "hippie" philosophy."


His villains seem to be a loose conspiracy, including hippies, communists, Stewart Brand, and The Well. What is not clear in his attack is how this cabal actually conspired to make digital information free. Nonetheless, Vardi argued that they are behind the scourge of free-riders on the Internet who have undermined the market economy.

He seems to want to accuse Brand in particular of spreading the digital "information wants to be free" virus.

Here is what Brand actually said: "On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other."

So for Vardi to tar Brand with "information wants to be free" and then use it as the lynchpin for his argument is unfair and distorts what Brand actually said, particularly in the context of an argument about information markets.

It is helpful to be clear about what the Internet actually is. It is a software protocol that enables any-to-any connectivity. That is, of course, a big deal, but it has little to do with the cyberculture Vardi attacked. It was, however, very efficient in spreading an online culture that already existed globally. There is also zero evidence that The Well or for that matter the "hippies" played a significant role in the creation of this cyberculture.

I should know, I was a member of The Well when it was first created.

If you want to hunt for the roots of the now-ostracized cyberculture, I would look to the ARPAnet, Usenet, Compuserve, The Source, and the thousands of dial-up BBSs that emerged beginning in the 1970s.

In contrast, The Well was a small online community that had out-of-scale visibility in the world. That was because of a brilliant marketing move that Brand made by offering The Well to technology writers like me for free. We all hung out there and as a result The Well got a tremendous amount of free publicity.

What Vardi misses about Brand in particular is that within two years after founding The Well, Brand came to see it as a failed experiment. Although the Well outlawed anonymity, it permitted pseudonymity, and that gave rise to antisocial online behavior that drove Brand away from the virtual community he had created.

Vardi also attacked Google and Facebook for their advertising-supported business models, which seems particularly beside the point, since they were simply copying something that had been pioneered by radio and television more than a half-century earlier. The reality is that Google's "free" strategy was all about defeating Microsoft's monopoly; it had nothing to do with idealistic principles or a sharing economy. It did, however, make it possible to create a more powerful monopoly and break Microsoft's control of the young commercial Internet.

Where Vardi got it right is his final point focusing on the design flaws of the original Internet. One thing I have learned from covering Silicon Valley for four decades is that the visionaries are always wrong. In this "change the world" culture, if an entrepreneur says X will be the consequence of some new technology, you can almost bet the real consequence will be Y. That is true whether we are talking about the societal impact of computer networks or of self-driving cars.

Still, there may be some cause for hope. While the "human-centered design" fad that has recently swept the Valley is almost certainly in part marketing hype, active rebellions (such as the Google-employee revolt against the Pentagon-funded Project Maven AI) suggest that at least some people in Silicon Valley are serious about the consequences of what they are building.

John Markoff, Stanford, CA, USA

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Author Responds:

My July 2018 column seems to have touched a nerve with some readers. Lieberman and Fry take issue with the provocative phrase "destroyed the Internet," which Markoff defines as a "software protocol." But the column specifically broadened the definition to "not only to the global system of interconnected computer networks but also to the set of applications that utilize this network, including email, the Web, search engines, social media, and the like." Tim Berners-Lee, who received the 2016 ACM A.M. Turing Award for his development of the World-Wide Web, described himself in a recent Vanity Fair interview3 as devastated to see his creation debased by everything from fake news to mass surveillance. As Noah Kulwin's article "The Internet Apologizes ..."4 (in New York Magazine, cited in my column) demonstrated, Berners-Lee and I are not the only ones who believe today's Internet is quite different from how its developers imagined it and expected it would be.

Lieberman's and Fry's attempt to exonerate the "hackers" by blaming the "suits" is reminiscent of those who argue after the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the early 1990s that the problem was not with communism per se but with its Soviet implementation. The suits are of course responsible for today's commercial Internet, but that does not absolve from responsibility those who have been insisting that "information wants to be free." Rappolt argues that today's advertising-based Internet is a genuine information market, but that market arose only because advertising was the only way to monetize free information. When it comes to their own intellectual property, the Internet companies are fierce proprietors.

Markoff rises to the defense of Brand and The Well. But the column explicitly acknowledged that the quote attributed to Brand was taken out of context and The Well was used in the column merely to illustrate the prevailing countercultural Zeitgeist.

Beyond the historical analysis, on which the same facts may lead to different conclusions, the punchline of the column is the question of whether it is not too late to ditch the advertising-based business model and build a better Internet. In the Vanity Fair interview Berners-Lee described his efforts in that direction. I hope very much to see him succeed.

Moshe Y. Vardi, Houston, TX, USA

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Editor-in-Chief Responds:

This is a worthy topic for debate in Communications, so I am glad to see the heat and passion triggered by Moshe Y. Vardi's July 2018 column. A key question is whether we view the Internet as a set of pioneering protocols for interoperation, a science or engineering accomplishment, or the larger conglomerate of applications, including the likes of Google, Facebook, and Netflix, with expansive business and social effects. Evidence suggests the economic structure of the Internet is driven by powerful business forces that cannot be restrained through technology alone. Google has looked for an alternate business model for nearly four years and found none that could match the advertising potential.

What can be more powerful than these business forces? Perhaps only government regulation ... As computing professionals, we must thus educate both the public and the government about technology risks, enabling responsible and effective regulation. The contrast between the U.S. could not be more striking, with little or no data regulation in the U.S. and the E.U's recently adopted General Data Protection Regulation. As The Guardian's Carole Cadwalladr pointed out in an interview on "Fresh Air"5 Facebooks conduct with Cambridge Analytica was illegal in the U.K. and punished. The same conduct was only "irresponsible" in the U.S. with no legal consequences, and nothing to prevent it happening again.

Andrew A. Chien, Editor-in-Chief, Communications of the ACM

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References

1. Fry, C. and Lieberman, H. Why Can't We All Just Get Along? Self-published book, Cambridge, MA, 2018; http://www.whycantwe.org

2. Lieberman, H. From Whole Earth to the Whole Web (review of Fred Turner's book From Counterculture to Cyberculture. Science Magazine (Mar. 8, 2007); http://www.media.mit.edu/~lieber/Publications/Counter-Cyber.pdf

3. Brooker, K. 'I was devastated': Tim Berners-Lee, the man who created the World Wide Web, has some regrets. Vanity Fair (Aug. 2018).

4. Kulwin, N. The Internet apologizes ... New York Magazine (Apr. 13, 2018).

5. Gross, T. Reporter shows the links between the men behind Brexit and the Trump campaign. NPR Fresh Air (July 19, 2018); https://www.npr.org/2018/07/19/630443485/reporter-shows-the-links-between-the-men-behind-brexit-and-the-trump-campaign

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Footnotes

Communications welcomes your opinion. To submit a Letter to the Editor, please limit yourself to 500 words or less, and send to [email protected].


©2018 ACM  0001-0782/18/9

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Article Contents:
  • Introduction
  • Author Responds:
  • Editor-in-Chief Responds:
  • References
  • Footnotes
  • ACM Resources