Where this essay talks about concrete policy, it makes sense. To be
in favor of the phone and cable companies collaborating and against
the government’s getting in their way, in favor of immediate, careful
grappling with the crucial problem of property rights in cyberspace,
in favor of tax policies that don’t discriminate against industries
like semiconductors — that’s all eminently reasonable. But when they
talk about abstractions and big historical trends, the authors wind up
in trouble. As I understand it, there are two big ideas here: an
“affirmation of freedom” having to do with popular ownership of
cyberspace, and a claim that “we constitute the final generation of an
old civilization” and the “first generation of a new one.” The first
idea strikes me as meaningless and the second as overblown at best,
more likely wrong. The authors have damaged and diminished some good
arguments by framing them in hype.

A procedural note — the “commentary” is a form that heavily favors a
disgruntled attacker over the original authors. An unhappy
commentator can snipe and wisecrack exactly where he pleases and
ignore those parts of the text with which he agrees; and he is freed
of the main responsibility of authorship — assembling a cogent
argument that makes sense from start to finish. But, that said…

There is much I admire in this document. I like most of the concrete
policy suggestions, and when the authors condemn “command-and-control
regulators” I agree entirely. I’m a big believer in the wonders of
cyberspace myself. In my 1991 book Mirror Worlds I laid out a
cyberspace scenario that strikes me as somewhat more radical than
anything the authors describe here — a society whose institutions
have been reduced to software, captured inside the nation’s computers
and thrown open to the citizenry. But I began that book by
contrasting the technological conservatism of a John Ruskin with the
breathless enthusiasm of a London actress who rode beside George
Stephenson on England’s first commercial railroad run. If you ignore
the past you lack standing, it seems to me, to prognosticate about
the future.

It’s natural for Newt Gingrich to be a big fan of these authors and
this sort of document. Gingrich after all is a progressive — a
person who looks around, doesn’t like what he sees and proposes to do
better. It’s traditional for progressives to be attracted to the
latest technology. In the 20s and 30s, for example, socialists were
the progressives; George Orwell derided their fascination with
“machine-civilisation” and their endless talk about “the Dnieper dam,
tractors, etc., etc.” I am a progressive myself and a big fan of
Gingrich. When I look at his opponents I see complacent people who
deny that this country is in a lot of trouble, or admit that it is and
propose that we fix things by continuing and redoubling all those
great programs that have succeeded so magnificently over the last
three decades. It’s a group I don’t care to join. But I urge
Gingrich and the four authors of this document not to let their
first-rate ideas and first-rate minds bog down in cant.


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