1995

KILLER APPLICATIONS, THE NET, AND THE WILD, WILD WEST

John V. Lombardi
University of Florida

Florida Government Technology Conference
Tallahassee, October 1995

We are, I am told, in the age of the Internet.

"The net," they say, "is the next killer application: bigger than word processing, bigger than spreadsheets, it will remake the world."

"Pay attention to connectivity and bandwidth, seek market share, speed and power," they say.

It is, indeed, a heady time for all of us committed to technology and computers. Who, in this time of techno-euphoria, can possibly sound a note of dissent without falling into the abyss of obscurantism or worse yet falling out of fashion?

I come to you with impeccable techno-nerd credentials, having been a fellow traveler in the festival of bits, bytes, and CPUs since the hallowed time of punch cards and counter sorters. Smitten early by the bug, I loaded programs by cassette audio tape into my Apple; I learned CP/M to run MicroPro's WordStar; I struggled with FORTRAN and JCL; I programmed in minimalist BASIC; I tried and failed to conquer Forth; I wasted countless hours participating in the underground network to break disk copy-protection schemes. I bought the first IBM PC-1, the first hard disk, the first clone, and the TRS-Model 100 laptop. I dialed in from all over America and Latin America at 300 baud (disassembling phones for my alligator clip modem connections). I signed up early for CompuServe and I have bought almost every Intel microprocessor except the infamous 186. I have lived through MS-DOS from 1.0 through 6.2 or the divorced 7.0 and Windows in every version to NT 3.51 (yes including the Win95 beta). I have tested every word processing program written for the Apple II and IBM-PC clones for InfoWorld for the past fifteen years. I've run most versions of Mosaic and Netscape plus other browsers, and, well, I've surfed the net for endless late night hours. So I'm a devotee, an enthusiast, a nerd, a fan, and I'm totally committed to the magic of the net.

I tell you all this not to curry favor, although that would be satisfying, but to tell you why I don't take all this net-magic too seriously. Underneath the incredible hype, the fantasy of wonderful universal fellowship through the net, lies a real world not much different from the old world that came before. We humans are not so malleable that a lovely technology can change our basic drives. We are who we are, and we use technology to enhance who we are, not to become who we are not.

Of course, the net is a killer application. We cannot doubt that. It will change our world and our behavior in ways perhaps as important as the railroad or the telephone. When we consider how the net will change us, we need to look at our past. The model for American economic change and technological development comes, not from some abstract econometric theory but from our folklore, from the traditions of the Wild West. The icons of this future live forever in the stylized exploits of John Wayne and John Ford, of Clint Eastwood, Sitting Bull and the Cartwrights, in the story of the American frontier mythologized and stereotyped on film.

Cyberspace is the next frontier. Not space, not the undersea world, but cyberspace. Like the stylized world of the American wild west, cyberspace is a vast, unmeasured resource. Like the lands of the American frontier, it exists in an apparently trackless wilderness filled with unknown riches and opportunities, ungoverned and wild, available and unclaimed. Like the wild west, cyberspace exists because the government permits it to exist from the initial creation as ARPAnet through the regulated misuse of telephone bandwidth that slides us into the cyberworld without paying a special tariff. The net, while reminiscent of the glorious space in a west not yet won, shares as well the characteristics of the railroad that made that space useful, valuable, and ultimately, civilized. In the net, we have invented both the space and the regulatory structure in the same virtual architecture. While we think of cyberspace as a territory open for free and creative development, the railroad magnates of our virtual world see it as a vast prairie waiting to be exploited, tamed, owned, and restricted.

Like the wild west, the undefined resources of cyberspace exist in a creative and chaotic state. Mostly unregulated, we still live in the era of trappers and mountain men, pioneers and wagon trains, Indians and settlers, free range branded cattle and the cowboys of the roundup, boom towns and rustlers, bad guys and bar fights. The net has all of this. No one owns it and no one fully regulates it, although lots of people want to. We travel this space freely, stopping at the towns and sites mostly without charge, drinking the water and grazing the common pastures with little thought of cost or responsibility.

Gradually, now with increased speed, we see organized, well-funded interests encroach on this free space in a process familiar to the devotees of Lonesome Dove. In time, we find fenced pastures where once we rode free in cyberspace, fences opened only through the secure transmission of credit card numbers. Entrepreneurs sell our common resources transforming what once was all of ours into a commercial product. What once was Yahoo ending in .edu for free is now Yahoo.com, selling its wares and collecting its rent on what once we saw as a common good. Copyright holders protect their goods from being seen and used on the internet; standards of behavior rise, enforced by the marshals of the internet as raunchy sites disappear overnight. What once was free, like Netscape, now appears in a commercial version, only available for hire. As the entrepreneurs enter this new territory, they, like the settlers before them, fence off the common ground, buy up the leaseholds, and string barbed wire to prevent the free ranging of cyberspace. Now we have gates and permissions and fees. Tomorrow we will have extensive property rights and trespass laws of ever greater severity.

As in the wild west before, the railroad sweeps in as the major vehicle for traversing cyberspace. Safe, powerful, providing the illusion of adventure from the safety of sheltering technology. CompuServe, America OnLine, and of course the much feared Microsoft Network all seek to provide that safe haven for the less hardy souls. We who struggle with Winsocks and FTP, who manage our telnet sessions and navigate with browsers, mailers, newsreaders, and countless other tools of the range rider sneer at the weak souls who observe cyberspace from the cosseted safety of the railroad services. But we do not know our history, for it is the railroad that will own the new space. We who go before will not inherit this space any more than the Indians, trappers and explorers, the cowboys and pioneer families, the gunfighters and settler women of the plains inherited their space. No, we will lose out to the railroads, the banks, the towns' people, the shopkeepers; we will cede ground to the farmers with their machinery, the ranchers with their barbed wire and purebred herds. We will not inherit cyberspace. The powerful and greedy will run us over, leaving us with nothing but our nostalgic dreams of the great cattle drives and the exploits of the Texas Rangers from Lonesome Dove.

We contribute to this self-immolation by our failure to see the past and our willingness to repeat the mistakes of our own history. We cling to the hope that the buffalo will always roam free supporting our life style as we watch the fancy visitors from the East kill off herd after herd. So our faculty, staff, and students, pioneers all, cultivate small backwaters or remote and arcane niches of the Internet, seeking to accommodate themselves to the greedy powers that gobble up our space. Our big organizations, school, college, and university systems, think they can run with the giants and spend what looks to us like huge sums to invent inadequate local railroad spurs. Like the isolated and self-serving towns of yesteryear, we build little local railroads in hopes we too can reap the benefits of the new space. Of course we are fools, for the real railroads have real money and will leave us in the dust, changing the width of the track, the standards for locomotives, rendering our overextended but pathetic investment useless and lost. We get a momentary illusion of participating in the big time. We too have our network, our communications infrastructure with wires to schools and universities, with transceivers and satellite transponders, we too can hold our heads high with the Time Warners, the Baby Bells, the IBMs, the MCIs, the ATTs, we think ourselves big time players.

But we are small time. We know nothing that lets us compete as a railroad against these folks, and like the regional railroads, and the regional telephone companies, we will die in the investment of capital race because we have no capital. Our leaders will be feted and wined and dined, but in the end they will have to sell out at bargain basement prices to the real investors, who are not university or school people.

Instead of the hubris that inspires competition for the sake of status, we must have a school strategy, an educational strategy, a university strategy that takes advantage of what we are and that leverages what we do better than anyone else. Instead of being lightweight and ineffective, if very proud, suppliers of inadequate infrastructure, we should focus on two special niches where we are better than the behemoths: Research and Content.

Research is what we do better than they do. They can put down the cable, wire the world, buy the stuff, make the deals, and buy each other out for exorbitant personal benefit. We can't do that. But they can't make the system work, they can't compress the video and transmit it, they can't bit blit the images to the screen, they can't design the algorithms for true instantaneous multimedia two way audio video interactions. They think they can, but they can't. Every experiment shows that you need to know how to do things, that you need to understand real science that doesn't just involve a bigger wire. The money people talk about the set top box like they had a clue. They don't have a clue, and we have the talent to invent the technology and science that makes set top boxes real. So if we want to invest scarce university money, invest in the science of cyberspace and let the companies do the barbed wire and the gates.

Content is what we are. Universities, colleges, and schools are content. We teach real things that make real people have much better real lives. This isn't cyber baloney, this isn't multimedia games, this isn't home shopping, this is real stuff. This matters to people, this is something people need, want, and don't get enough of. This content is what we have and what we should get onto the net as a commodity, as a product, as a value that makes the cost of organizing and controlling cyberspace worth the trouble. All that bandwidth needs filling with value added. Take all the junk in the world and it fills only a portion of the bandwidth.

"How do we get this done," you ask? I'll tell you.

America's love affair with the Western movie and its many derivatives leaves out one important thing. It fails to mention the funding mechanism. We did the transcontinental railroad by giving away all kinds of land along the railroad right of way to pay the companies for the cost of doing the railroad. But, in addition, we gave each state a hunk of this land as a grant to support higher education and created that greatest of American educational inventions, the land grant university: universities organized for the sole purpose of adding value to the land and the people in each state. Now we have a new resource, cyberspace. Instead of selling our souls to the corporate equivalent of railroad barons, our political leaders in the state and nation should hold cyberspace for ransom, requiring that anyone attempting to fence in and control any part of cyberspace must guarantee that one section of land for education. We don't need land of course, we need free and open access to the net and its resources for all educational institutions in America, we need a tax on the merger and acquisition profits to fund a foundation that supports educational projects to transfer content from schools, colleges and universities into cyberspace. Let our imaginations run wild. Did the inventors of the land grant system have Florida tropical agriculture in mind when they passed the Morrill Act in 1862? Of course not. They thought about cows and corn. Generations later, Lonesome Dove but a memory, we grow tropical fruit in Homestead and citrus all over Florida thanks to the land grant extracted as the price of the railroads taming the American west.

As we celebrate our technological achievements, let's not fall for the patent medicine show, let's not waste our money and our time on building spur railroads, let's not let our pride of association with the moneyed powers fool us into forgetting what it is we do best.

Cyberspace is ours, we invented it, we showed the world how to use it, this is an academic invention. This is ours. We should claim our rights to perpetual access and we should exact a small fee in compensation for the investment we made to bring this new world into the commercial context of American life. Our legislators have the power to replicate the vision of their nineteenth-century predecessors. Let's ask them to invent the Educational Cybergrants program, Cybergrants for the State of Florida. We need not spend our tax dollars on this, we need not extract resources from health and welfare to do this, we only need to require that those who enrich themselves thanks to the intellectual inventions of college and university people reserve some of the cyberspace for our exclusive use. Before the last buffalo dies and the free-range cattle disappear, before the last Indian is driven to the reservation and the final gate closes on a barbed wire pasture, before the powerful barons of the cyber railroads cut their last deal, let's learn from our history and invent our own Educational Cybergrants out of the raw resources of that wonderful cyberspace we invented.

Thanks.

10/10/95

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