The questions are endless: Will online commerce systems support anonymous payment, or will they keep complete records of our transactions? Will our electronic communications systems let users screen out unwanted messages, or will we drown in mass mailings? Will educational systems support new kinds of learning, or merely introduce new forms of rote drill? Will the Internet continue to embody the scientific community’s values of open information, or will it converge with the business models of broadcast media? The answers are not dictated by the basic workings of the machinery. They are matters not for prediction but for choice. The Internet is becoming integrated with institutions, influencing them and being influenced in turn. Society needs institutions, after all, and information technology provides us with a tremendous opportunity to redesign our institutions in ways that express the values of a democratic society. This is not a job for the rebel hacker, who is sworn simply to resist the bad institutions of yore.
That’s why we need a new kind of Internet hero: the public hacker. Whereas the good hacker and the rebel hacker changed the world by changing technology, the public hacker builds bridges between the esoteric world of technical work and the bigger, messier world in which values are argued and chosen. The public hacker is bilingual, translating between technical issues and legal issues, between the dynamics of systems and the dynamics of communities, between technological visions and social visions.
The public hacker still invents technologies when they’re necessary, propagates them when they’re useful, and defends them when they deserve it. But this new hero’s imagination is not entirely driven by the machinery. Some examples: Mitchell Kapor, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, helped catalyze a remarkably broad-based public discussion of the social values at stake as we create the information infrastructure. Peter Neumann edits an Internet forum, the Risks Digest, that has sensitized innumerable computer people to the things that go wrong with computer systems in real institutional settings. And Pamela Samuelson brings technical and legal analysis together in the public sphere, helping policymakers tackle the intellectual property issues that arise in digital media.
If these people don’t seem like traditional heroes, perhaps we need a new conception of heroism. Revolutionary heroes changed the world in a unilateral way. Now we need heroes who can help us imagine our options.