Cyberlibertarian myths and the prospects for community


O ne of the changes in our world that characterizes the I late twentieth century is the digital transformation of an astonishingly wide range of material artifacts interwoven with social practices. In one location after another, people are saying in effect: Let us take what exists nowand restructure or replace it in digital format. Let's take the bank teller, the person sitting behind the counter with little scraps of paper and an adding machine and replace it with an ATM accessible 24 hours a day. Let's take analog recording and the vinyl LP and replace it with the compact disc in which music is encoded as a stream of digital bits. Or let's take the classroom with the teacher, blackboard, books, and verbal interchange and replace it with materials presented in computer hardware and software and call it "interactive learning". In case after case, the move to computerize and digitize means that many preexisting cultural forms have suddenly gone liquid, losing their former shape as they are retailored for computerized expression. As new patterns solidify, both useful artifacts and the texture of human relations that surrounds them are often much different from what existed previously. This process amounts to a vast, ongoing experiment whose long term ramifications no one fully comprehends. As they ponder astonishing transformations associated with the new electronics, thoughtful people need to ask: What kinds of personal practices, social relations, legal and political norms, and lasting institutions will emerge from this upheaval? More importantly, what kinds of practices, relations, rules, and institutions do we want to emerge in these settings. As I understand it, one purpose of this conference is to examine philosophical issues of this kind. But before we forge ahead with our inquiries, it is worth noting that, in fact, a philosophy of sorts has already taken shape in this domain, a widely popular ideology that dominates much of today's discussion on networked computing. A suitable name for this philosophy is cyberlibertarianism, a collection of ideas that links ecstatic enthusiasm for electronically mediated forms of living with radical, right wing libertarian ideas about the proper definition of freedom, social life, economics, and politics in the years to come. Any attempt to philosophize about computers and society must somehow come to terms with the wide appeal of this widespread perspective, its challenges and shortcomings. The ideology is announced in a great many places these days. It is the coin of the realm in a great many popular computer magazines, Wired magazine most notably. It can also be found in countless books on cyberspace, the Internet, and interactive media; Nicolas Negroponte's Being Digital and George Glider's Microcosm are especially vivid examples. Writers in this strand include Alvin Toffler, Esther Dyson, Stewart Brand, John Perry Barlow, Kevin Kelly, and a host of others that some have called the digerati. As a political ideology, the cyberlibertarian vision is perhaps most clearly enunciated in a publication first released by the Progress and Freedom Foundation in the summer of 1994, a manifesto entitled "Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age" by Esther Dyson, George Gilder, George Keyworth, and Alvin Toffler. For my purposes here I will referto this document as simply the "Magna Carta." From such writings and the musings of countless on-line chat groups there emerges a set of shared themes and a vision of what the world of networked computing holds in store.

DOI: 10.1145/270858.270864

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@article{Winner1997CyberlibertarianMA, title={Cyberlibertarian myths and the prospects for community}, author={Langdon Winner}, journal={SIGCAS Computers and Society}, year={1997}, volume={27}, pages={14-19} }