False Assumptions

Dale Amon

This article explores and expands upon some of the concepts underlying the MIT Press online published book Space, Place and the Infobahn: City of Bits written by William J Mitchell.

I found many areas of agreement with the author, some of minor disagreement and a few assumptions which I think were incorrect.

One of the most major of these is brought about by a too literal application of the frontier model. Frontiers appear when new land is opened, and they "end" when the lands are settled, subdivided and governed.

This does not apply to the Internet.

Why? Because the model leads one to assume that at some time in the future cyberspace will become settled. But how can that be true? The new lands are not fixed. They are in fact growing faster than is the number of settlers. If I don't like the way some portion of the "settled" network is being run, I can vote with my cyberfeet and go "elsewhere" at the flick of a mouse. Or at worst, invest from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of wealth-units in the creation of new lands that are outside the settled ones. I can do this by myself or in co-operation with any number of others. We can use encrypted tunnels between physical systems and thus "drop out" of the settled spaces as entirely as we choose. We can place firewall gateways between our Universe and other Universes and govern ourselves inside that firewall in anyway whatsoever we choose. And if any of our Universe's citizens come to dislike it, they can in turn form their own parallel universe.

It is highly likely that this will happen. I fully expect us to see a Libertarian Universe for example. Perhaps you will be required to sign the libertarian pledge of noncoercion to enter and be ejected if you attempt acts of coercion (ie taxation, regulation and other things that will be considered criminal acts within that Universe).

Others will have different preferences and will organize themselves into 21st Century Paris Communes. There may still be a "hyper" public space between them. The richness of it will be much determined by how intrusive State(s) are into that realm. The more intrusive, the more people will find it in their interests to withdraw behind the privacy of a Universe defended by PGP encrypted links.

One can replicate the entire domain name structure and even TCP/4 addressing with such links. Only the firewall need recognize or be recognized by the outside. So you could LITERALLY have parallel internets of any size, like bubble Space-Time Universes with wormhole passages between them.

It isn't even difficult to do.

So I basically don't believe that we'll reach a time when there is no Wild West available on the net to those who want it.

It is not inconcievable that we might see these cybernations form some sort of contractual relation with physical space. If your citizenship were of Cyberverse10, then some agreement might be required as to provision of those services you require. It might be that all your social services and taxes go to your Cyberverse and that a bill for the upkeep of x number of Cyberverse citizens resident in the middle portion of the North American continent would be sent to the elected cyber-authorities of yourself and those persons.

A suggestion for something that might be seen as a precursor to this may be found in Northern Ireland: Out of the Trap. So there are places and forces which may push in this direction.

I believe that it will be tried and that we will see the power of the physical nation decline over that of the cybernations during the next few centuries. If not on Terra, it will happen out in the space settlements and be reimported, much as democracy was tried in America and then, in a matter of decades, swept the god-king from the world stage.

The next assumption that I see is that the world and other technologies will remain comparatively static. I will not claim that any particular other technology will cause massive effects; but even without assuming a full blown nanotechnological productivity revolution, it is safe to predict that the speeds, storage densities and bandwidths will continue to increase at as drastic rates as their costs continue to decrease.

This makes points about the poor, and the disadvantaged a very, very relative matter. How many poor don't have access to a transistor radio today? How many won't have access to multimedia portable connections via spreadspectrum radio links in 2040? Disadvantaged is always a relative, not an absolute term. The poor of 2040 will have less access than the rich, but they will have access. Much as the poor of today have access to news - but not as high a quality of news as those who can afford expensive newsletters and journals and the time to read them. The poor will even have access to agent software that will be the best that future organizations like FSF can turn out. And that will be none too shabby.

The author also misses some other forces that may soon hasten the dismemberment of the centralized city:


Any resource or infrastructure that exists in a compact area and that can cause mass disruption, economic loss or heavy loss of life will be a superconducting magnet to the terrorist of the 21st.

I would predict that we will begin to see a massive dispersion of economic resources and people shortly after the first city centre goes up in a mushroom cloud. Let's not kid ourselves. Nuclear technology is old technology. Small dirty fission bombs are not that difficult if one knows they can be built. Consider the primitive resources available to the Los Alamos bomb makers of 1945. Their tools, their production technology, their science and their computing capabilities were like unto the stone axe by 1996 standards.

The world is a very big place and a laser diffusion can be done in a small warehouse. Not to mention that there are a couple tacticals missing from Russia and presumed in Iran; not to mention a massive and utterly ruthless russian mafia that will get anyone anything they wish.

Somewhere, sometime, some city is going to go up. And that will be the end of the city as we have known it. If not for cyberspace, people would attempt to muddle through and live with the fear because they would have to. But they aren't going to have to, so they won't.

We can expect cities to become much smaller (or be made much smaller via a rapid form of 21st century urban disdevelopment), more dispersed in land area and more tuned to social functions than economic or governmental. Cities will be a place for artists and theatres and not much else.

Any form of control that the existing states attempt to put up will be rapidly and almost joyfully bypassed by the efforts of tens or hundreds of thousands of volunteer programmers. Whatever resources the classical state can bring to bear within the limitations of budgetary constraints can be overwhelmed by a world of individuals who can create flash-organizations and efforts.

A very early taste of this on the purely political front was the overweekend creation of Scientist's For a Manned Space Station in circa 1984. This effort spiked a DC insider attempt that might well have made the space station die at birth. A handful of people Outside The Belt triggered and aimed the cyberwrath.

A similar but more drawn out and sophisticated effort is the one that has ripped encryption out of the hands of rightwing militarists and put it firmly in the hands of free citizens. Organizations like the NSA attempted blackmail against US companies or organizations that attempted to make the use of PGP in mail and other areas easy. Among the organizations they made "choices you can't refuse" to were:

Of these Philip Zimmerman refused to be cowed, and with the help of thousands world wide, (and within the US often anonymous for fear of the State apparat) he defeated the nascent Ministry of Truth. His effort would not have been possible without the net, and with the net now firmly in place it is unlikely that such control attempts in the future will be as successful. Without it there would be no PGP; Philip Zimmerman would be an anonymous number in an american prison; and 1984 would be quietly extending it's somewhat behind schedule tendrils into every facet of the life of every individual on the planet.

Even the CDA can have only limited impact. It can only enlarge the already massive numbers of people who have been placed outside the US law already. There comes a point when it will be easier to build a prison wall around the few who still fit the least common denominator than it is to enforce laws on people who share a physical juxtaposition and an alien philosophy.

More likely, the many illegalized minorities will at some point band together and end the tyranny. One way or the other, such regulatory efforts are doomed to failure. The only question will be:

"How damaging will the side effects of that failure be to society?"