The Nature of Freedom

Overseas friends of America sometimes point out that the U.S. Constitution
is unique–because it states explicitly that power resides with the people,
who delegate it to the government, rather than the other way around.

This idea–central to our free society–was the result of more than 150
years of intellectual and political ferment, from the Mayflower Compact to
the U.S. Constitution, as explorers struggled to establish the terms under
which they would tame a new frontier.

And as America continued to explore new frontiers–from the Northwest
Territory to the Oklahoma land-rush–it consistently returned to this
fundamental principle of rights, reaffirming, time after time, that power
resides with the people.

Cyberspace is the latest American frontier. As this and other societies
make ever deeper forays into it, the proposition that ownership of this
frontier resides first with the people is central to achieving its true
potential.

To some people, that statement will seem melodramatic. America, after all,
remains a land of individual freedom, and this freedom clearly extends to
cyberspace. How else to explain the uniquely American phenomenon of the
hacker, who ignored every social pressure and violated every rule to
develop a set of skills through an early and intense exposure to low-cost,
ubiquitous computing.

Those skills eventually made him or her highly marketable, whether in
developing applications-software or implementing networks. The hacker
became a technician, an inventor and, in case after case, a creator of new
wealth in the form of the baby businesses that have given America the lead
in cyberspatial exploration and settlement.

It is hard to imagine hackers surviving, let alone thriving, in the more
formalized and regulated democracies of Europe and Japan. In America,
they’ve become vital for economic growth and trade leadership. Why? Because
Americans still celebrate individuality over conformity, reward achievement
over consensus and militantly protect the right to be different.

But the need to affirm the basic principles of freedom is real. Such an
affirmation is needed in part because we are entering new territory, where
there are as yet no rules–just as there were no rules on the American
continent in 1620, or in the Northwest Territory in 1787.

Centuries later, an affirmation of freedom–by this document and similar
efforts–is needed for a second reason: We are at the end of a century
dominated by the mass institutions of the industrial age. The industrial
age encouraged conformity and relied on standardization. And the
institutions of the day–corporate and government bureaucracies, huge
civilian and military administrations, schools of all types–reflected
these priorities. Individual liberty suffered–sometimes only a little,
sometimes a lot:

1. In a Second Wave world, it might make sense for government to insist on
the right to peer into every computer by requiring that each contain a
special “clipper chip.”

2. In a Second Wave world, it might make sense for government to assume
ownership over the broadcast spectrum and demand massive payments from
citizens for the right to use it.

3. In a Second Wave world, it might make sense for government to prohibit
entrepreneurs from entering new markets and providing new services.

4. And, in a Second Wave world, dominated by a few old-fashioned, one-way
media “networks,” it might even make sense for government to influence
which political viewpoints would be carried over the airwaves.

All of these interventions might have made sense in a Second Wave world,
where standardization dominated and where it was assumed that the scarcity
of knowledge (plus a scarcity of telecommunications capacity) made
bureaucracies and other elites better able to make decisions than the
average person.

But, whether they made sense before or not, these and literally thousands
of other infringements on individual rights now taken for granted make no
sense at all in the Third Wave.

For a century, those who lean ideologically in favor of freedom have found
themselves at war not only with their ideological opponents, but with a
time in history when the value of conformity was at its peak. However
desirable as an ideal, individual freedom often seemed impractical. The
mass institutions of the Second Wave required us to give up freedom in
order for the system to “work.”

The coming of the Third Wave turns that equation inside-out. The complexity
of Third Wave society is too great for any centrally planned bureaucracy to
manage. Demassification, customization, individuality, freedom–these are
the keys to success for Third Wave civilization.