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« Andrew Keen: Rescuing 'Luddite' from the Luddites | Main | Spolsky on Blog Comments: Scale matters »

July 10, 2007

"The internet's output is data, but its product is freedom"

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Posted by Clay Shirky

I said that in Andrew Keen: Rescuing ‘Luddite’ from the Luddites, to which Phil, one of the commenters, replied

There are assertions of verifiable fact and then there are invocations of shared values. Don’t mix them up.

I meant this as an assertion of fact, but re-reading it after Tom’s feedback, it comes off as simple flag-waving, since I’d compressed the technical part of the argument out of existence. So here it is again, in slightly longer form:

The internet’s essential operation is to encode and transmit data from sender to receiver. In 1969, this was not a new capability; we’d had networks that did this in since the telegraph, at the day of the internet’s launch, we had a phone network that was nearly a hundred years old, alongside more specialized networks for things like telexes and wire-services for photographs.

Thus the basics of what the internet did (and does) isn’t enough to explain its spread; what is it for has to be accounted for by looking at the difference between it and the other data-transfer networks of the day.

The principal difference between older networks and the internet (ARPAnet, at its birth) is the end-to-end principle, which says, roughly, “The best way to design a network is to allow the sender and receiver to decide what the data means, without asking the intervening network to interpret the data.” The original expression of this idea is from the Saltzer and Clark paper End-to-End Arguments in System Design; the same argument is explained in other terms in Isenberg’s Stupid Network and Searls and Weinberger’s World of Ends.

What the internet is for, in other words, what made it worth adopting in a world already well provisioned with other networks, was that the sender and receiver didn’t have to ask for either help or permission before inventing a new kind of message. The core virtue of the internet was a huge increase in the technical freedom of all of its participating nodes, a freedom that has been translated into productive and intellectual freedoms for its users.

As Scott Bradner put it, the Internet means you don’t have to convince anyone else that something is a good idea before trying it. The upshot is that the internet’s output is data, but its product is freedom.

Comments (7) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


1. ok on July 10, 2007 1:22 PM writes...

It seems like what you are trying to articulate is Marshall McLuhan's aphorism from 50 years ago ... "The Medium is the Message."

The effect or 'message' of a medium is 'the change of scale or pace or pattern' that a new technology introduces into human affairs. Yet all too often we focus on the content of a medium and miss the message.

What a medium is used for (it's content) *is* separate from it's effect. So in the case of the pen, It doesn't matter whether the pen was used to write scribbles, love letters or formulas, it's effect was to make writing portable. Likewise, whether we are downloading music, emailing a friend or building an encyclopedia, the internet has a profound effect on our concept of freedom. Trying to control the content of the internet - 'what it's used for' - will not change it's message.

So maybe a Luddite is someone that reacts against technology by focusing on it's content - rather than it's message.

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2. Phil on July 10, 2007 4:14 PM writes...

Thanks for that - I was going to post a didactic little admonition about how freedom needs to be specified as freedom for X to do Y without interference from Z if it's going to mean anything, but you've saved me the trouble. But the comment was mine, not Tom's.

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3. Jed Harris on July 10, 2007 10:09 PM writes...

I agree with your conclusion but not your path to it. The end to end principle contributes but is not the key piece. For example, if the web had been born without the end-to-end internet, http and related technologies would still have been sufficient to create huge amounts of freedom.

I think your conclusion is tremendously important and deserves more unpacking and backup. So here goes.

What do we mean by "freedom" here? Basically, each individual's access to a very wide range of choices for producing content that can be seen by a large number of other people; choices they can exercised without spending a lot of money, having costly skills, getting permission from others, etc. Of course the immediate implication is that lots of people get to see content from all sorts of new producers.

There are two keys to the internet "producing freedom" in this sense:

  1. It makes data transfer very cheap
  2. It is topologically "neutral" -- that is, it doesn't have distinguished centers (unlike the broadcast world), access to nodes isn't controlled based on location or status, etc.

The second point is weaker than full net neutrality but is I think the root motivation behind most demands for net neutrality.

In this context, we can see that the loss of neutrality (in this sense) would be very attractive to most or all of the current parties that you label "Luddite" in your previous post, as long as they get to control the resulting topology. But this issue is often muddied by arguments about end-to-end issues that wouldn't necessarily affect topological neutrality.

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4. Clay Shirky on July 12, 2007 6:35 AM writes...

Sorry Phil, fixed the attribution, thanks.

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5. Michael Chui on July 13, 2007 3:12 AM writes...

It makes Van Jacobson's Google Tech Talk a bit... sad:

Or perhaps it's a good thing. I still haven't been able to decide.

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6. Tarleton on July 30, 2007 2:40 PM writes...


You might be interested in something I wrote not too long ago for the journal Social Studies of Science, about the way the "end-to-end" idea was crafted as a technical ideal, then a cultural-political ideal.


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7. wai on August 2, 2007 12:00 PM writes...

The end-to-end principle seems like red herring to me. The antecedent networks also satisfied this principle. The telegraph wire doesn't care what your message is.

Jed's comment also misses the mark, I think. Telephones were relatively cheap for data transfer, per se, and also decentralized. So was print media for that matter. Ask Thomas Paine.

What make the internet different is persistence of data and global access. A message, regardless of its form, can be made persistently available for asynchronous retrieval and infinite duplication. This was true for even the earliest emsil systems. What the web added was opportunistic discovery of distributed unknown content and then (with the advent of search engines) directed query of distributed unknown content. The internet is not the descendant of the telephone, nor has it replaced it. It's the descendant of the letter and the newspaper, and is quickly replacing both.

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