Rallying behind information technology is one of the few things that
Americans of all political persuasions seem to have in common at the
moment. As the originator of the term “Virtual Reality” and a pioneer in
the area of new media technologies, I am delighted to see ideas from our
field enrich the debate on America’s future.

But I take exception to the various “virtualnesses” being promoted by Newt
Gingrich.

Mr. Gingrich wants two things that can’t go together. On the one hand he
wants a creative information economy. On the other hand he wants an ideal
of “American civilization” to guide everything from our family values to our
educational curricula. These two desires are in contradiction.

The wealth and creativity that spring from the internet, for example, are
completely dependent on the diversity, tolerance, and even the eccentricity
of the community that uses it. Even worse for Mr. Gingrich, the innovators
who create the most wealth and public good tend to be the most eccentric
residents of the network. It is no accident that Silicon Valley is in
Northern California. If America really is going to attempt to create a
defensive culture on a mono-cultural, anti-intellectual model, it will kill
the goose that lays the golden eggs.

This is an issue that matters in the most concrete way. The “information
superhighway” has a troubling property. It will force us to commit some
ideas about culture and democracy into a machine that will be almost
impossible to change. For instance, the future of privacy depends largely
on the technical design of computer highways. So, in a sense, we are
conducting a second constitutional convention when we debate the technical
properties of computer networks.

There is a panic in the land because demographic trends predict an America
without a clear ethnic/cultural majority sometime in the twenty-first
century. If we allow that panic to cripple our thinking about the new
technology we will cut off our wealth at the source. We are used to the
idea of free speech, but we aren’t used to the level of access to free
speech that we are about to experience. If the current content of computer
networks is an indication, we can expect the information superhighway to be
the bearer of extreme cultural diversity, some of it challenging and even
offensive.

To conduct a “cultural war” (as Dan Quayle called it), especially if it were
to involve the use of government, would not only deaden our culture, but
would also kill our new sources of wealth in the coming century. Creativity
is wealth in the information age. This is not an issue of political
allegiance. I will admit to being more liberal than Mr. Gingrich.
However, I don’t think my views on politics in general are relevant to my
understanding of the intrinsic nature of information technology. The
information age loves diversity and Mr. Gingrich should learn to as well.