The hazards of fretting about info haves and have-nots
Gutenberg's invention of the printing press cut the cost of copying information one thousand-fold, ultimately unleashing the scientific progress that created the Industrial Age and culminated some 400 years later as man landed on the moon. Since the invention of the microprocessor in 1971, by contrast, the cost of copying coded information already has dropped 10 million-fold.
If the looming changes brought forth from a technological innovation four orders of magnitude more powerful than the printing press leave you a bit confused, don't worry. Al Gore has the answer: the National Information Infrastructure, or NII. The administration's "Agenda for Action" begins with the promise of "a device that combine[s] a telephone, a TV, a camcorder, and a personal computer" that would bring "the best schools...vast resources of art, literature and science... health care...fulfilling employment...the latest movies...government benefits" and more. In sum, "whatever you need."
By promising so much, Gore et al. create an expectation that quickly tilts toward entitlement. If, as they suggest, the government must guarantee universal access to essential services, then who but the government can determine what constitutes "access," and what is "essential"? National Public Radio head Dell Lewis was among those named to advise the administration on what type of chicken belongs in every pot.
A major justification for government "guidance" in this $400 billion investment is fairness. Who among us, indeed, would want a society of "information haves and have-nots?" But the call for universal service is a red herring. It masks a fundamental mistrust of a process that will deeply reshape society and yet is almost entirely beyond government control. A process that is chaotic and self-organizing, utterly without a central plan. In other words, a market.
That this should cause some cognitive dissonance among the social engineering crowd is no surprise. David S. Bennahum, author of a forthcoming book on cyberspace, notes in The New York Times that the Internet was created "mostly by accident" and worries about what kind of cyberspace we will get "if we surrender it to the vagaries of the market." The New Republic even goes so far as to castigate Wired, the magazine of the Information Age cognoscenti, for its "taint of contempt for the poor" and its "willful rootlessness and hyper-individualism" which "do little to minimize the class polarization and segregation that have always plagued the United States."
With the title "Anarchy, Chaos on the Internet Must. End," an op-ed in the San Francisco...