What is a market? And what does it have to do with the Internet? The fashion right now, one I follow, is to think of the Internet as a living environment, a place for societies, communities, and institutions to grow--rather than as something constructed, a superhighway, for example. That leads to appropriate metaphors, looking at the Net as something to be cultivated and nurtured rather than built or engineered. (Only its rules need to be designed so that it can grow in good health.) The structure has to emerge from individual action rather than from some central authority or government. The guiding metaphor is evolution. Evolution is natural, the thinking goes. And markets are just a faster form of evolution.
But I'd like to disagree--or take the metaphor a step further. First, markets are not just a form of evolution, commonly considered survival of the fittest. Markets have rules and enforcement mechanisms agreed on (more or less) by all players. And second, what does the survival rule apply to: Is it people? Is it firms? Is ti the products or concepts the firms sell or operate on? And is it really the fittest? Or the best nurtured?
For starters, evolution is blind. Call it self-unaware. Its processes operate without visibility. Animals and plants live or die as a whole, eventually resulting in the evolution--creation or modification or dying out--of entire species. "Good" genes live on, fostering the survival features--whether wings or eyes or intelligence. And industrial analogy to such surviving features is the technology that runs motors--V-8 or diesel, for example. The technology lives on and spreads even as the individual cars and the brands and models that contain the engines disappear.
Markets are different. They are self-aware. We can see what is successful and what is not. What is the same is the decentralized approach, and tolerance for the destruction of bad ideas. Businesses and communities can adopt good ideas (or "memes") that they weren't born with. "Memes" act more like viruses than like genes. Whole firms do not need to live or die for the best memes to spread and the worst to die off. The market is more Lamarckian than Darwinian. In business, my favorite examples are how the concept of having a single fast-moving line feed several teller stations replaced the concept of several lines moving at different, unpredictable speeds spread through the bank lobbies of America in a matter of months. Likewise, the hub-and-spokes idea has "infected" the airline industry. Analogies for the Net will be rules in a community, business models, and the like. Some Net businesses and communities come and go, but others will be able to learn and acquire memes from those around them.
Ironically, for all its free-market libertarianism, the Internet was a creation of the U.S. Government. The government still owned most of it in the early '90s, although and increasing proportion of hte equipment over which it ran sat in computer centers in universities, research organizations, and private companies. The Internet, after all, runs over existing phone lines as well as over its own high-speed, high-bandwidth telecommunications "backbones." Although it appears to be free to its users, most of its operating costs were borne first by the government and then increasingly by private computer centers, whose computers are being used to hold the content of the Internet--newsgroups, Websites, e-mail archives, and the like--and to forward messages from one node to another.
The NIIAC was a well-meaning attempt to collect a diversity of opinion to make sure the emerging "NII" was useful to all Americans, and it probably did more good than I suspected at the time ... The members included the usual suspects: a librarian; a grade school teacher; a communications workers' union official; the head of BMI, a copyright agency; several telecom executives; several "content" people, including a legal publisher and a music-company executive; and old lawyer fried of the Clintons from Arkansas; a state senator and several other local government officials; my old friend John Sculley, former CEO of Apple (and another friend of the Clintons). The co-chairs were Ed McCracken, CEO of Silicon Graphics, and Del Lewis, CEO of National Public Radio. There were a good representation of women and sprinkling of African Americans and ethnic Americans--but no kids, who might have had a lot to teach us. It's amazing that we came to agreement on anything, but we did.
Communities often have a culture, but there is an important distinction between culture and community. Culture is a set of rules, perceptions, language, history, and the like. It is embodied in books and songs, people's minds, and Websites. Culture can be learned, even though there are some communities that believe you need to be born into them to be a member (as in Germany and many Asian countries, as well as certain Jewish groups).
By contrast, a community is a set of relationships. You oould (in principle) take a culture and revive it: You could teach people the history, the manners, and the rules, and they could live by them. But you could never revive a particular community, because a community depends on the people in it. Just like education, a community is not a passive thing. Its members need to invest in it for it to exist. An individual can be familiar with any number of cultures simply by studying them. But to be a member of a community he has to be present in it, contribute to it, and be known to other members. Thus, a television channel or an Internet "channel" can create or reflect a culture, but in order for it to become a community its members have to communicate with one another--ideally in context of some goal. That goal may be only homage to a star, but it could also be political action, a business plan or a school.
A community is a shared asset, created by the investment of its members. The more you put in, the more you take out.
"The love you take is equal to the love you make." -The Beatles
Clearly, some things do not foster community. You do not need a real identity, but you need some identity. You need to have a voice, a reputation, a presence to be part of a community, because it is (at least) a two-way propositions. Thus "lurkers," people who only read or listen, are not really part of a community. They may fancy themselves to be, but no one would miss them if they left. They are fans, not friends. Lurkers may latch on to a culture, but they do not contribute to it. (That's why fandom is so eerie: There's usually no real communication between the fans and the stars, just lurkers and fantasies on one side and a PR machine on the other.)
It may be fun to surf the Net and follow things randomly, but there's value in structure. The Net is a playground of entropy--the structurelessness that occurs when energy dissipates from a system. Yes, the Net also fosters self-organization, when individuals apply their energy, selectng and filtering information for others (aided by search and filtering tools). But there's rarely uch internal structure to what's selected; the structures created by links are usually webs of cross-references rather than a clarifying analytical framework. The Net is good at showing that things are related, but not how. Does this item support that one, or refute it? What was de Gaulle's role in history? What mistakes did he make that we can learn from?
There's much more logical power to an argument about abortion than to a set of pictures of fetuses, on the one hand, or interviews with women whose lives were ruined by unwanted children or with those unhappy children themselves. Yes, the latter can make us feel, but can they make us think rationally? Pictures can give us texture, but they can't expose the logic of the arguments or the trade-offs implied. What is the cost of raising all those unwanted children, in money and in blighted lives? What would have been the alternatives? How can you show a hypothesis?
The world "mother," with all its resonance, is far more powerful and meaningful than pictures of a single mother or of several. Moreover, a picture may have unintended side effects, as when the picture looks like a particular person rather than the reader's own mother--which is presumably what the creator intended the recipient to think of. Often, you want teh universality of a symbol rather than the particulars of an example
While terrestrial governments are natural monopolies in their own territories, cyberspace governments compete. Terrestrial governments get overthrown when things get too bad; cyberspace governments simply lose citizens, much as a business loses customers. Former members may even go into competition with their old communities. The terrestrial government game is all-or-nothing (despite the possibility of loyal opposition), whereas Net governments an coexist. "Citizenship" is voluntary.
A Net-based government can operate only by consent of the governed. Any Net government must therefore provide its citizens with real benefits if it wants them to stick around. Those benefits may not be just personal goods or services, but rather the broader benefits of a regulatory regime: a clean, transparent marketplace with defined rules and consequences, or a supervised community where children can trust the people they encounter or individuals' privacy is protected.
The closest analogy to how ISPs operate on the Net is how banks operate on the terrestrial plane today. In most countries, banks are highly regulated, and they have a duty (in most countries) to know their customers. Although their primary mission is to serve their customers, to some extent they operate as (sometimes reluctant) arms of government. They are supposed to report not just illegal transaction, but also questionable ones--whenever someone shows up with more than $10,000 in cash, for example. Banks do not particularly like this duty to oversee their customers, but it is a function they fulfill in exchange for their banking license. Now, I would not want to require ISPs to get a license from their local governments, but they do get equivalent, decentralized authority from the willingness of other ISPs to exchange traffic with them. In effect, they are guarantors of their customers' behavior. (Likewise, there are rogue banks that law-abiding banks refuse to do business with today.)
...governments and communities have to establish and enforce strong antitrust laws--which is basically fighting any group that gets too large and usurps power. Antitrust fosters decentralization of power, whether from government or business hands. Right now, antitrust authorities are already cooperating across borders in a number of cases, including worldwide companies such as Microsoft and Beoing. But it's hard for any establishment--including governments-to enforce antitrust with enthusiasm, since antitrust is inherently antiestablishement. Moreover, large organization often control considerable resources that they can wield to gain government favor--or favors. In the end, any large organziation is a threat; all we can hope for is balance or power and continuing turnover so that no single organization--government, corporation, trade association or even regulatory agency--gets too entrenched.
The result of the new economics is that people are often paid for their attention, implicitly or explicitly. They get to see television free in return for watching commercials. Their magazines and newspapers are subsidized or supplied free by advertisers. Nowadays bus shelters, baseball stadiums, and even those little refresher towelettes on airlines such as Lufthansa are supported by advertisers eager for your attention.
You are also rewarded with content according to the "quality" of attention you can provide. That is, advertisers want to know who you are and how likely you are to buy the products or services that your attention is being drawn to. That's why they ask you to fill in those little forms with everything from household income to ZIP code (which tells a lot more about you than you might suspect). Alternatively, if you can influence other people who might buy, or if you're a visible opinion-maker in politics, you're also a promising target for everything from magazines t ofree produce samples. (If you're a sports-clothes maker, just think of the value of having Bill Clinton appear in your brand of jogging shorts.)
Marketers glibly say that the consumer is king, but in practice he's not. In the real world, experienced marketing and consumer-affairs hands will tell you, consumers aren't very good at protecting their own interests. They're too busy consuming, or working, or just living regular lives. The groups that claim to protect their interests often end up with their own agendas, which may have more to do with Washington power battles and fund-raising than with genuine consumer interests.
If you forget this rule, the visibility you will have on the Net is likely to remind you. (Too often, people get into ridiculous flame wars that are embarrasing to all who watch.) In general, it is easier to walk away from conflicts on the Net than it may be in real life. You can refuse to read someone's mail and refuse to let him provoke you once you've left an argument. Just don't let public postings lure you back in.
If something or someone is holding you back or annoying you, you don't need to take on the system as a whole. In many cases, you can bypass the offending person or entity. You don't need to overcome it; maybe, you can compete with it.
Always make new mistakes!
This is my all-time favorite rule for living. I like it so much that I use it as my sig file--the little quote that gets inserted along with my address and other coordinates at the end of each of my e-mails. I still have new mistakes to make. The challenge is not to avoid mistakes, but to learn from them. And then to go forward and make new ones and learn again. There's no shame in making new mistakes if you acknowledge and benefit from them.