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Cyberspace and Newtonian dreams.

Intent on writing a new Constitution, the Black Panthers held a convention in Philadelphia just twenty-five years ago. This August I was reminded of my days spent covering that event as I listened to the panelists at "The Aspen Summit: Cyberspace and the American Driam II," arranged by a conservative Washington think tank (the Progress Freedom Foundation, P.F.F., which sponsors Progress Report, the cable TV show featuring Newt Gingrich). The Panthers of 1970 and today's experts on the "information revolution" had an equal disdain for the federal government, quoted the Founding Fathers and the same passage from the Declaration of Independence, extolled free speech and called for decentralization. Each group declared that its objectives were going to change American society--and foresaw disaster if its ideas were ignored by politicians and the public. The Panthers' audience of 6,000 was younger than the foundation's 200, although men with graying ponytails were present on both occasions. Neither gathering satisfied many in attendance; I heard recurring complaints about a dearth of specifics, as well as rambling and arrogant speakers.

Among the twenty-four "discussants" in Aspen were George Gilder, former consultant to the Reagan and Bush administrations, whose books include Wealth and Poverty and Recapturing the Spirit of Enterprise; John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and once a Wyoming rancher and lyricist for the Grateful Dead; Peter Huber, a lawyer and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and author of Orwell's Revenge. The 1984 Palimpsest; Esther Dyson, president of Edventure Holdings and editor of "Release I.O.," a monthly report; Stewart Brand, father of The Whole Earth Catalog ("We are as gods, and might as well get good at it") and co-founder of the WELL (Whole Earth Lectronic Link); and George Keyworth II, science adviser to

Nora Sayre is author of the forthcoming Previous Convictions: A Journey Through the 1950s and Sixties Going on Seventies (revised) (both Rutgers). Reagan and the main architect of Star Wars. Some of the sponsors were Microsoft, AT&T, Bellsouth and Intel.

Snippets of Alvin and Heidi Toffier's Third Wave theories--whereby civilization is transformed by information dispensed through technologies while mass production declines and micromarkets thrive--were often cited. Third Wavers expect retrograde Second Wavers (still wedded to the traditions of the Industrial Revolution) to clamor for more government controls as the marketplace is transfigured by eyberspace. Speakers admitted that they often had trouble with definitions, and there were some lively disagreements about concepts (is the state the enemy? or is it "irrelevant"?) and metaphors (was it fair to compare Microsoft to kudzu?). There were many references to cyberspace as a community: vast clusters of people communicating with one another, unhampered by geography. "Intellectual property rights"--ideas or information of monetary value that must be protected from thieves--increase the need for special copyrights or encryptions. The Exon amendment, a proposal approved by the Senate that is devised to shield children from porn on the Internet, was passionately denounced as a weapon to "crush the Net," and a proposal to abolish the Federal Communications Commission drew a small burst of applause. At moments deregulation seemed like the solution to nearly everything from excess weight to schizophrenia.

There were some uneasy references to "the have-nots": the unwired, if not the unwashed. But they were also called "the want-nots": the unenlightened who refuse to embrace technology, who will be at fault if knowledge and prosperity bypass them. It was acknowledged that many middle-income Americans fear the probable dislocations that would accompany the expansion of cyberspace: the shifts in employment, the failures of banks. But no one really tackled the issue of how millions of blue-collar workers might respond if technology eliminated their jobs. Amid the cataract of optimism, a couple of panelists said "the have-nots" might wax violent if they were excluded from the cyberboom. One panel showed a reluctance to discuss education and how it might be improved; there was a notable distaste for public schools because of their relation to the "regulatory state." There were some chuckles over Gingrich's gaffe about giving laptops to the children of the ghetto. In anticipation of colossal transformations, Lenin's question--"what is to be done?"--was repeated, but nobody uttered his name.

Among the futurists I kept having flashbacks to earlier Amefican icons and experiences. When Ayn Rand was respectfully quoted, I recalled her angry impatience with questioners after her acolyte Nathaniel Branden gave lectures on her philosophy, Objectivism," in 1966: She grew more and more irrational even while she stressed the need for reason and discipline. Rand was a fascinating mess of contradictions, a "Romantic Realist" befuddled by feverish perceptions of this country (which she claimed was being destroyed by altruism and mysticism). Wielding a pen of brass dipped in paranoia, she saw the New Deal as a giant step toward totalitarianism, detected fascism in the New Frontier and prophesied an onslaught of "slavery." Denouncing oppression, she also seemed to recommend an oppressive society. But her allegiance to laissez-faire capitalism and her belief that taxation and welfare were despicable, that getting rich was a form of virtue, charmed conservatives and libertarians alike, and helped to shape the policies of the Reagan Adniinistration after her disciple Alan Greenspan became head of the Federal Reserve.

Reflecting on the current disrespect for government shared by liberals and conservatives, a corporate observer asked if I thought that reflex had developed in the sixties, as a result of Vietnam. Certainly, I said, assailed by another flashback: to the outrage and disgust that erupted when millions learned that Lyndon Johnson had lied to them about the nature and progress of the war. Yet the revulsion inspired by L.B.J.'s regime and then Nixon's had little in common with the anti-Washington sentiments I heard in Aspen.

Most of the speakers displayed a Randian scorn for the federal government, which she and they thought should be limited to the protection of our rights: protection of property and defense against criminals and foreign invasions. (Decentralization used to attract liberals: community control of schools, neighborhoods' decisions about local transportation. Today it's seen by conservatives as liberation from the welfare state. Because the last session of the cyberspace summit was titled "The Role of Government," a lobbyist for a public-interest group predicted a "train wreck": What could these panelists possibly have to say after five minutes? But when it was announced that they were on C-Span, the panelists becaine more tactful about government. The enthusiasm for decentralization was coupled with a desire to "return power" to the states. Most seemed unaware that states rights roused memories of segregated Southern schools, violence against black Americans who tried to register to vote, bombings and police dogs and cattle prods.

The intelligence, energy and immense assurance that sparkled in the dry Aspen air were sometimes hobbled by language. Aside from the predictable cybertripe, there was an unhappy habit of using nouns as verbs: Those who came "to dialogue" with one another spoke of "impacting on" and tended to "digital," "customize," "factor in," "credentialize" and "partisanize." One speaker worried that the discussion had grown too "humancentric." Paradigms were everywhere and profundities were plentiful: Freedom dwells "somewhere beyond control and tyranny," "political revolutions flow from economic revolutions" and "ethics are often destroyed in large bureaucracies:" At breakfast I overheard a fortyish man saying that he did "lots of mentoring. I'm a doer. I don't do deals, I do people. I'm a visionary."

The panels often turned into a series of soundbites; few appeared to listen to one another, and each topic seemed like a ball that bounced once and rolled away. Among the speakers was just one African-American--who said, "Many people of color will be left out of this revolution"--and two women. A visitor from Washington likened parts of this summit to "a bunch of bright guys in a bar talking bullshit."

But it had far more significance than that. The organizers had emphasized that this was to be an apolitical event, and that the terms left and right, like the Democratic and Republican parties, have become obsolete. The names of politicians were largely avoided. But because advisers to Newt Gingrich (including economist Jeffrey Eisenach, president of the P.F.F., and Toffler) were involved, it seemed likely that the subjects examined were those that the House Speaker wanted the public to hear about, and that would be helpful to him in establishing policies on cyberspace. Outside the panels, there were conversations about how to aid Gingrich on his digital agenda. And unquestionably these cybernauts wish to influence Washington at large.

The backgrounds of the panelists and their audience made one think of Fudge Ripple: Neocons commingled with libertarians, some of whom were a bit queasy about their identification. Those I talked with firmly dissociated themselves from the Libertarian Party ("a small 1, please") and several said they were "liberals"--despite their recoil from the New Deal heritage and their wish to "get the government out of everything," to privatize Social Security and the departments of Education and Energy. Libertarians seem more consistent than conservatives, whose loathing of "big government" doesn't prevent them from upholding sodomy laws. At the same time, some libertarians oppose civil rights laws, which they see as a form of government coercion.

"Revolution"--prominent in the pre-conference materials--was frequently evoked in Aspen, but the speakers didn't seem to realize that the word lost some of its force in the late sixties, when it was borrowed from groups like the Panthers to enhance ads for lipsticks, hairstyles and vaginal sprays. To my regret there were few references to the American Dream, which I like to hear described. In 1988, when I was at the national political conventions, I found that the Democrats' dream pertained to holding on to a job or obtaining health insurance, owning a home or a car--necessities or securities, but hardly the stuff of dreams--whereas the Republicans' dream meant making a bundle.

It sounds as though the Net can give some of its users an enormous sense of power, not only because they can reach a huge audience so quickly but also because stellar figures in their fields will learn who they are and what they think. The Net also provides irate citizens with a far bigger public than talk-radio when they want to vent their views. In a way, the Net is egalitarian: Everyone who can afford it can have a voice. But the question of access lingers; a member of the audience asked if technology would create greater class divisions. The panelists proclaimed that they were "rediscovering democracy" through cyberspace. While they hyped "a cyberspace economy" and the wealth that could be acquired in a digital utopia, they didn't really convey the splendors of the Net for users like historians, scientists or linguists, whose research is enriched by the experts they consult.

The P.F.F. had suggested that the summit would refine a new "Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age:" but that was hardly mentioned in Aspen. Many of the visitors were not interested in politics, and though some said they were disappointed in the panels, they told me they had come primarily to "touch powerbases," to seek jobs or to raise funds. And in the midst of both substantial and ephemeral issues, I recalled that certain computers have a magic that can't always be deconstructed: In the seventies I heard about one that could recognize ambiguities and tell the difference between "time flies like an arrow" and "fruit flies like a banana."
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Title Annotation:Progress and Freedom Foundation-sponsored conference, The Aspen Summit: Cyberspace and the American Dream II
Author:Sayre, Nora
Publication:The Nation
Date:Sep 25, 1995
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