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The Next Internet Hero

The technologically adventurous folk who planted the sees for the Web have done their job. Now it’s time for a new breed–the public hacker–to take over.
November 1, 1997

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.

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.

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