A Tale of Three Cultures

by Doc Searls

Last week started with a missed plane in Denver, so I didn't catch Lawrence Lessig's opening keynote at the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas. But when I showed up on Sunday morning, it was clear that he had set the agenda, not only for the next few days, but for the Net itself and the fight to keep it free. (For more about what Larry is up to, check his home page.)

I was in a fighting mood myself, having just written two hotly worded pieces (“The Choice” and “Bizarre vs. Bazaar”) for LJ. SXSW seemed like just the place to meet the enemy and party hard at the same time—a convenience made possible by the presence of The Enemy in our own heads. More about that in a moment.

By Friday of the same week, I was at the Embedded Systems Conference in San Francisco, which seemed a world away in time. It was a big conference, filling most of both the North and South Halls at the Moscone Center. Linux was huge here. Domination of the embedded world looks no less inevitable, in spite of the huge Microsoft and Wind River booths, which stood out like boulders in the stream of history. And after talking with Inder Singh of the Embedded Linux Consortium (and Lynuxworks) on Thursday, I'm convinced the stream is quickly turning into a river. After awhile, it'll be an ocean.

Yet, except for a few Windows terminals in the halls, the ESC had all the connectivity of a parking garage. Remarkably few of the booths feature a Net connection, and the press room had only a couple of dial-up lines, four Windows boxes and a printer. I brought along a wireless base station that the good folks at KVO, which ran the press room, were happy to see. Unfortunately, the Net was distributed to the boxes by some Microsoft MSN intranet thing, rather than the DHCP one usually finds at venues like this. So here I was, writing this in a parking garage, with live internet access provided by the Starbucks on the ground floor. Knock Starbucks all you like, but somehow they've managed to be more forward-thinking regarding WiFi than the embedded world's leading conference. Go figure.

In fact, that's just what I did. I figured that there are basically three cultures at play in our heads.

One is purely technical. It's pre-Net, pre-UNIX and maybe even pre-cultural. It shows up where raw technology meets the real world, and its concerns are utterly practical. “Here's the problem”, it says. “Let's solve it”. This is a heads-down culture and civilization depends on it. Embedded systems are what run our cash registers and brake systems, our airplane guidance systems, our factory robotics, our flow meters, our stoplights and our heating systems. The Net and Linux are both handy ways to solve countless embedded systems problems—extremely handy, it turns out. One morning at SXSW I read that embedded Linux will soon run in something like 60,000 cash registers at Home Depot. It's a big story, but mostly a technical one. Does Home Depot give a damn about Linux as a cause? Or about the lawmaking that threatens to turn the Net into nothing more than a backbone for industrial-grade commerce, plus a bunch of culverts for moving “content” stamped and sanitized by ubiquitous digital content management? I kind of doubt it.

The other two cultures are the geeks and the entertainment industry, what Larry Lessig and others like to characterize geographically as Silicon Valley and Hollywood.

The geeks built the Net and want to keep it free. Hollywood wants to control it. That's the basic conflict. Since the beginning, the geeks have had resolute faith in the Net's ability to resist control by government and commercial interests. Geeks interpret attempts at control as mere problems the Net will naturally route around. The same goes for Linux, which has proven handy for extending the Net upward into the operating system and outward into the world. That geek philosophy was manifest in John Perry Barlow's “ A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, even six years after it was written in February 1996. The provocations have changed, but the sides remain the same. And, like I said, those sides dwell in our own heads. Tim O'Reilly talks about this in his weblog entry, “Disingenuous Comments from Michael Eisner”:

First, as the CEO of one of the country's largest and most successful computer book publishers, I am in a unique position to see both sides of this issue. My business is content and copyright, just like Disney's, but my subject matter is technology. And I want to go on record as saying unequivocally that the Silicon Valley perspective on this issue has far more substance to it than the Hollywood/Nashville/New York version. The legislation currently being explored in the Senate Judiciary Committee, to require computer makers to build copy-protection into its products, is extremely ill-conceived.

“Conceived” is the operative word here. We conceive things, cognitive scientists tell us, metaphorically. Our conceptual metaphors are almost entirely unconscious, yet they drive entire vocabularies. When we call the Net a “space” or a “place”, with “sites” and “locations” with “addresses” (some of which we call “home”), we are using a vocabulary induced by a conceptual metaphor—the Net is a place. Prepositions are big give-aways for conceptual metaphors. We go on the Net, not through it.

But place isn't the only conceptual metaphor for the Net. We also call it a “pipe”, in which we “load” stuff called “content” that we “deliver” or “stream” to an “end user”, as if the whole thing were a vast container cargo system. That's Hollywood's view, even though geeks use plenty of that same vocabulary.

When Larry Lessig calls the Net a “creative commons”, he's conceiving it as place, not as pipes. By coincidence, the same place metaphor and its vocabulary also describes the business commons we call a marketplace. The geeks who made the Net tend to come from the place-based metaphorical system because they invented it, vocabulary and all.

A couple years back Craig Burton described the Net this way:

I see the Net as a world we might see as a bubble. A sphere. It's growing larger and larger, and yet inside every point in that sphere is visible to every other one. That's the architecture of a sphere. Nothing stands between any two points. That's its virtue: it's empty in the middle. The distance between any two points is functionally zero; and not just because they can see each other, but because nothing interferes with operation between any two points. There's a word I like for what's going on here: terraform. It's the verb for creating a world. That's what we're making here: a new world. Now the question is: what are we going to do to cause planetary existence? How can we terraform this new world in a way that works for the world and not just ourselves? Remember, this thing is in outer space. It's not connected to anything else. If you want to live here, you have to bring your own sustaining structures, foods and the rest of it.

In that same vein, on Tuesday night, Monty of Ogg Vorbis said this to me at Lovejoys, a terrific brewpub in Austin, “It's called cyberspace, not cyberpipes!” So geeks totally understand Larry when he talks about the commons.

But by the metaphorical logic of the second system, the commons is just an intellectual conceit, a way to finesse (Michael Eisner's word) the real issues, which are about who owns what and how it moves from one party to another. Witness “Piracy, or Innovation? It's Hollywood vs. High Tech”, by Amy Harmon in the March 14th edition of The New York Times. Here's one paragraph:

The feud grows out of Hollywood's frustration with the illicit flow of copyrighted works over the Internet. Despite courtroom victories against Napster and others deemed to contribute to Internet piracy, millions of people continue to download free digital copies of everything from Jennifer Lopez's latest hit single to the Disney movie “Monsters, Inc.”

Observe the language: “flow”, “over”, “download”. By this description, the Net is a medium. It is no different, fundamentally, from TV, radio, newspapers and magazines. It differs mostly in its ability to transport larger quantities of digital content and, more importantly, to account for that content. To content producers looking to protect their intellectual property from “theft”, the Net is just a vastly capable freight forwarding system with a rather major inventory shrinkage problem that needs to be fixed. By this thinking, there is no reason not to have digital rights management (DRM) everywhere, keeping track of every stream and every file that moves between producers and consumers and keeping track of every intermediary that adds value along the way.

That's the thinking behind the DRPA, the DMCA and the CARP Report. All three of these instruments have kindly recognized artists' rights to be compensated when their work is performed, and they love the Net's ability to do what old-fashioned broadcasting could not, which is account for everything that happens on it. That's why the CARP Report sees internet broadcasting as nothing more than a way to pipe recorded performances to a known number of individuals and to charge the distributor for the privilege. It imagines a pay-per-view scheme in which the station pays. Presumably the station will make money by marking up the goods they pass along to those final customers we'd rather call “consumers”. That nobody has yet developed the technologies for this is of no concern. What matters is that a business could show up here. If it does, these guys want a piece of the action. And if demanding that piece kills any chance internet radio might ever have of being a business, so what?

Hence, the fight.

SXSW brings together three overlapping communities: Interactive (March 8-13), Music (March 13-17) and Film (March 8-17). I was there for the Interactive portion. So was Don Marti. And so were a hearty assortment of geeks from the Austin Linux Users Group and the Austin Wireless Group, which treated the tradeshow floor to free wall-to-wall wireless access. The AustinLUG folks say theirs is the second-largest LUG in the US. However it ranks, it's hard to beat their enthusiasm and involvement in the show. The same goes for the large coterie of geeks who sat around hacking in the meeting rooms and outside in the hallways. Cory Doctorow and Wes Felter (who lives in Austin) brought along WiFi base stations, which they hooked up to the hubs that were already putting out DHCP for panelists who felt like using laptops in front of the rooms. Cory was also a keynoter, along with Bruce Sterling.

Don was on the “Politics of Open Source”, which was more about Linux than open source. Don did a great job, I thought, especially at educating both the panel and the audience about Linux and its various licensing schemes. I was on the “P2P Journalism” panel, which was mostly about the difference between the “little-j” journalism one finds in weblogs and the “big-J” Journalism one finds in serious publications like Linux Journal. It was all interesting stuff, but the bigger story—to me at least—was the conflict between Hollywood and Silicon Valley, between pipes and place.

After I got to San Francisco on Wednesday, I received an e-mail from a guy who said he enjoyed my panel and added this:

I'm currently still at SXSW and attending the Music festival. There are quite a few panels on the issue of digital music, copyright, file sharing, etc., and more than a few of them seem designed to spread some FUD among artists in the trenches who don't get the Web. One in particular is the “Copyright in the Courts and Congress” panel, which includes a discussion of the recent royalty adjustments against internet radio (which you've been talking about for the past weeks) and whether it goes too far or not far enough.

To me that's like asking if torture goes too far or not far enough. The right answer is neither. But I'm on the geek side of this thing.

As I wrote this, I was back in the press room at ESC, connected over a dial-up line. While I was sitting here wrapping this thing up, Rick Lehrbaum came by. I asked him what he thought the Big Story from the show was. He replied:

Web services. Not the kind where you deliver Microsoft Word on a thin client. I'm talking about where devices are interconnected with each other and enterprise class services collect data, put information into devices, exchange information and do other neat stuff. It's exciting. The Net gives us a great angle on embedded—lots of XML and Java. All this stuff bubbling up. At next year's show I expect to see forty products.

I asked him about WiFi. He said, “Next year you'll see it all over the show. Hey, you go into a restaurant and there's lighting. Why not the same for the Net? It's inevitable.”

But what spectrum of light will we see? Will it be the whole rainbow? Or just the colors Disney wants us to see?

And if we are asked by our employers and our government to replace the people's Net with a corporate digital rights management system, will we go about it as heads-down technologists? Or will we refuse to build it?

Directly over where I was sitting was the Martin Luther King Memorial in Yerba Buena Gardens. Behind the waterfall, quotes by the good doctor are inscripted on glass. One of them seems especially appropriate:

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

Doc Searls (doc@ssc.com) is Senior Editor of Linux Journal and a co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto. The opinions he expresses here are his own.

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