Every new technology is accompanied by a grand narrative. The Internet’s narratives have focused on heroes: people who are leading the transition to a more information-intensive society. The Internet has produced two generations of hero figures. Now it’s time for a third.
The first hero was the good hacker. The Internet originated in a special setting - the community funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). These earliest hackers were establishment revolutionaries. Their guiding narrative was that information technology and human beings are symbiotic elements of a larger system. They owned the biggest computers and they defined the technologies that became the Internet.
The next Internet hero was the rebel hacker. This second generation viewed hacking as something that happened outside of established institutions. Electronic mail, for example, symbolized and sometimes aided resistance to hierarchy. Rebel hackers include the “cypherpunks,” who resist authority by propagating robust encryption software. But rebel hackers can be found in practically any organization; they were the folks who spent their evenings and weekends creating the first million or so Web pages during the early-to-mid 1990s. More social movement than business practice, these Web projects were rarely integrated into organizational procedures or strategies.
The rebel hacker is guided by the notion of cyberspace, a digital ether that transcends the obsolete constraints of the physical world. This is a religious idea, and it inherits a long millenarian tradition. It promises to level hierarchies, erase borders, confound the powers of the earth, and institute a perpetual utopia of peace and plenty for all. A belief in cyberspace is the twentieth century’s last revolutionary ideology.
The grand narrative of cyberspace, however, no longer tells us what we need to know. The rebel hackers derived their revolutionary edge from the continuing rapid growth in microprocessor power, telecommunications bandwidth, and data storage capacity. Dramatic improvements in information technology, they said, would surely turn society inside out. But this argument is misleading. We can indeed be confident that the basic building blocks of computers and networks will continue to improve. But we cannot predict what will be built from them-the architecture of the many-layered information infrastructure that is rapidly emerging around the world.