Sunday, November 10, 2002

From my file, this e-mail exchange with Virginia Postrel:

Some of the rhetoric from the early 90s about the promise of the Internet borders on the utopian. What were these promises of digital technology, and what were the flaws of the rhetoric?

At its most extreme, the rhetoric promised a complete transformation of the
relation between citizens and government, businesses and customers, media
and readers, and so on. The general idea was that somehow intermediate
institutions would melt away and everyone would use the Internet to be

As I discussed in this 1994 speech on media (with some reference to
government),, these proclamations
tended to misunderstand why we have such intermediate institutions in the
first place. Time and knowledge are limited.

Intellectuals hate specialization, but it is--as Adam Smith observed in the
economic sphere--the key to progress.

We then went through a period when just the opposite idea became prominent,
particularly in discussions of media: A few large entities like AOL-Time
Warner were going to control everything. Both of these fallacies were
informed by a sort of naïve 19th-century leftism (with dollops of
anti-authority libertarianism and plenty of hippie inclinations) that
assumed that big is both bad and profitable.

Throughout all this period, there were always voices of moderation,
including people who were building businesses and other institutions

A number of my Forbes ASAP columns,, tried
to offer a more sensible alternative to the all-or-nothing approach to
thinking about how the Internet changes the relation between large
institutions (including commercial websites) and individuals or small
entities. See, for instance,,,,

How much more reserved now is futuristictalk about the Internet, and should it be? What is the greatest promise of the Internet in a supposedly wiser age?

The promise of the Internet is what it has always been. It lowers the cost
of information. It lowers the cost of any venture that primarily deals in
bits--from producing music to producing political commentary. (Witness all
the recent attention to blogs and, notably, Glenn Reynolds's Instapundit
site ability to become a major information hub in a matter of months.) It
makes it possible for people with specialized tastes or interests to find
each other. It reduces the disadvantages of geographical distance. It saves
research time.

I'm also interested in the political element of the Internet in the early 90s. Early on, the Wired culture seemed to be libertarian and yet socially progressive. Is that right, if so why was that, and has it changed?

Wired specifically reflected its founders and their friends, who could be
rightly characterized as libertarian and socially progressive. That culture
still exists, but the Internet is like the telephone now. It doesn¹t belong
to any particular group. Everybody uses it.

I'll note, however, that even back in 1996, Pat Buchanan had by far the best
website of any presidential candidate, apparently because there was some
Buchanan enthusiast who set it up and knew what she (I think it was a woman)
was doing. it wasn't slick and commercial the way political sites are today,
but it was right for the times and right for Buchanan's grassroots appeal.

Finally, how can the digital technology build community/communities now and in the future, and how does it fall short of facilitating true community and relationships?

First of all, the Internet duplicates some of the advantages of a large
(very large) city, by making it possible for people to find others who share
their narrower interests. These may be hobbies, political interests, pop
culture enthusiasms, or medical problems. In some cases, these relationships
are very casual. In others, such as struggling with particular medical
problems, they may be quite close.

Along similar lines, the Internet reduces some of the barriers of geography.
If you're the only geeky kids in some tiny town in Idaho (or wherever Jon
Katz wrote GEEKS about), you can find people elsewhere who don't think
you're incredibly weird, and your horizons may widen. The kids in GEEKS
decided to go to college in, I believe, Chicago.

By reducing the barriers of geography, the Internet changes the relative
costs of living in the place that's best for your family and the place
that's best for your career. As editor of Reason, I had several employees
living in remote locations because of a spouse's job or other familial
obligations. In some cases, those places were good for editorial work--for
instance, Washington--but distant from our headquarters in L.A. In others,
such as Huntsville, Texas, or Oxford, Ohio, they weren't particularly good
for the magazine, but keeping a valuable employee was worth it. For that
matter, I now live in Dallas because my husband teaches at SMU. Dallas is a
large city, which helps, but I would certainly never live here for my career
(or, off the record, pretty much any other reason). I find the Internet
essential to my work in all its dimensions.

The Internet isn't a substitute for face-to-face friendships, but neither is
the phone. But by making communication at a distance easier, the Internet
allows people to maintain and develop relationships that wouldn't be
otherwise possible.

My experience around September 11 illustrates some of the power of the
Internet. My website became a hub for all sorts of people to communicate
with a virtual community. Email allowed me to communicate easily with
friends and family even in the New York area. The most unusual interactions
were those I had with a guy in Pakistan who knows my brother in Portland,
Oregon, via an email list for Jeep enthusiasts. The Jeep club members had
many frank exchanges with their fellow enthusiast in Pakistan. I got
involved to bring my expertise to bear on the rumors about CNN's supposedly
old tape of Palestinians celebrating the attacks and about 4,000 Jews being
warned not to show up at the WTC. The Internet helped spread those rumors,
but without it I certainly wouldn't have been debunking the Pakistani rumor
Virginia Postrel (
Author, The Future and Its Enemies
"Economic Scene" columnist, The New York Times
Contributing editor and "Spaces" columnist, D Magazine | (The Scene)

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