Commentary: The Newtniks Have Seen The Future...

The name of the conference was Cyberspace and the American Dream, and the setting was ideal. Aspen, Colo., long the winter headquarters for Hollywood glitterati, is an increasingly popular haven for digerati, too. Here amid the Rockies, a growing cadre of high-end knowledge workers lives full-time--zipping manuscripts, contracts, and business plans across the Internet from million-dollar chalets.

Maybe it was inevitable that from this vantage point the 24-member panel corralled by the Newt Gingrich-affiliated Progress & Freedom Foundation would veer off the track. Or perhaps it was the composition of the group: a few computer-industry executives, some techno-pundits, several outspoken right-wing think-tankers, and one lonely government official. Whatever the reason, the view of America in the 21st century put forth by these (mainly) Friends of Newt had about as much to do with the American Dream of most ordinary citizens as Aspen has to do with Peoria.

SECOND WAVE. The most frequently invoked vision of the future was a society composed of yeoman information workers, trading skills and intellectual property across the Net, forming electronic communities, educating their kids on-line, and presumably getting as far as possible from the sights and smells of the decaying industrial world--what Newt and other fans of futurist Alvin Toffler call the "second-wave" society.

This simplistic view of cybersociety wouldn't matter much if not for the Gingrich connection. Although the Speaker wasn't there, he was the unseen star of the show. Gingrich helped host the PFF's first Cyberspace and the American Dream conference in Atlanta in August, 1994. And working with a smaller group of cyberthinkers, he helped draw up A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age. This libertarian manifesto for postindustrial America was published with great fanfare as Gingrich took over the Speaker's office--and the cyber-agenda. Given half a chance, these are the folks who might wind up writing a Constitution for the Knowledge Age.

Before they do, the rest of America--business in particular--should wake up and speak up. There was a central fallacy running through the two days of discussion: that the Information Revolution and the political revolution Gingrich leads in Washington are indistinguishable and inevitable. Just as the mainframe seems anachronistic in an era when networks of amazingly powerful desktop computers dominate, so, too, all sorts of large, centralized organizations--up to and including the federal government--are doomed to extinction. Or so the theory goes.

The father of this line of thinking is Toffler, an Aspen panelist and an influential Friend of Newt for 20 years. In the 1970s he put forth the notion of "demassification," which basically predicted that second-wave, Industrial Age institutions that mirrored the centralized control structures of a 19th century factory would collapse in the Third Wave--then heralded as the Information Age.

CONSPIRACY THEORISTS. The microcomputer revolution and the wildfire growth of the Internet have certainly made Toffler look more prescient than he has in years. And his many disciples at Aspen were quick to draw fresh corollaries. Panelist John Perry Barlow, vice-chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a cyberspace interest group, extrapolated that the federal government ("a second-wave institution") must die off as the second-wave industrial society does. No stranger to conspiracy theories, Barlow went on to predict that, fearing its imminent demise, the federal bureaucracy (in collaboration with other second-wave institutions such as the mass media) would try to suppress the cyberspace revolution. The only thing that drew a bigger response from the libertarian-leaning audience were repeated attacks on the National Education Assn. (a corrupt second-wave monopoly that has single-handedly ruined America's educational system) and calls to abolish the Federal Communications Commission.

Whether Toffler's basic vision is right is open to debate. What's clearly wrong is the assertion that the decentralization now ruling high technology should be the guiding principle for every human endeavor. Thankfully, panelist Arno A. Penzias, the former head of AT&T Bell Labs and the only Nobel laureate in the bunch, periodically yanked the gathering back to earth. Contrary to one audience member's assertion that "we have overthrown the economic value of matter," Penzias reminded everyone that the cyber realm is and will remain a subset of the physical world. "Let's understand that there's a real world out there," said Penzias. "I know we don't like to talk about it. But the industrial economy will last as long as people get hungry when they come back from cyberspace and look for something to eat."

What's more, there's a very real risk that if policies for cyberspace are made from a narrow, doctrinaire perspective, business and society in general may lose a golden opportunity. If vast swaths of the populace find the Net remains as beyond their reach as a trip to Aspen, the backlash could make the Luddites look like visionaries. And if government does not play a substantial role to ensure the safety of cyberspace and mediate among competing interests (balancing the desire to disseminate information freely with intellectual-property rights, for example), then the new frontier will remain a wilderness. John Gage, Director of the Science Office at Sun Microsystems and an Aspen panelist, pointed out why government--and a powerful federal government at that--will still be needed. Only a federal government could protect national security in the Industrial Age. In the Information Age, when an assault on the Internet could wreak economic havoc, the same will hold true. "When the devastating attack comes, then we'll want every resource of the government brought to bear," says Gage.

COP ON THE CORNER. The profound importance of the technology that cybernauts celebrate is not in question. Nor is there much doubt that the absence of regulatory interference has left hackers and entrepreneurs free to experiment--in short order converting the Internet from an E-mail system for academics into a rich stew of news, electronic communities, cyberzines, and Web sites.

The next phase, however, will involve converting the Net from a voluntary barter economy into a true commercial space where millions of ordinary Americans will head for entertainment and shopping--and where businesses may hope for a productivity explosion by creating friction-free electronic markets. Corporations are eager to make the jump, but many will hesitate until they can be sure that their assets will be safe and that there's a cop on the corner to run down electronic counterfeiters, scam artists, and thieves. And if it turns out that the market isn't delivering the blessings of the Net to all its citizens, then the people may want the government to step in to help. In short, to succeed in the cyber era, the U.S. needs to begin crafting wise public policy--through vigorous public dialogue among business, government, and citizens.

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