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Addendum (continued)

Who is in Charge?

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
mere anarchy is loosed upon the world."

William Butler Yeats
"The Second Coming" (1922)

     There is an often-told story about a group of officials from a communist country who visited the United States several years ago in search of "the person in charge of the Internet." Apparently, they wanted to make arrangements to restrict Internet access in their country to only the information they thought would be politically correct from a communistic point of view. According to this urban legend, they gave up their search after six months, returned home, and reported that apparently no one was in charge of the Internet.

     While I seriously doubt the veracity of this tale, like many urban legends it contains a kernel of truth. The reality is that no single person or organization is actually "in charge" of the Internet. In fact, the governance of the Net could be called an anarchy. While there isn't a total absence of governmental regulation, no single nation has absolute control over the Internet. The U.S. government sometimes thinks it runs the show, and often tries to act as if it does, but the technicians and engineers who keep things working generally don't accept directions from anyone but their peers. Of course, the bureaucrats don't want to hear this, for it is their belief that anarchy always results in chaos.

     Nietzsche once said, "Only a man with chaos in his soul can give birth to a dancing star." (For the purposes of this chapter, we will assume that Nietzsche was using the word "chaos" in its modern sense to denote disorder. It is possible, however, that he was using the word as it was originally coined, to symbolize the creative force.) Political correctness insists that Nietzsche's quote be revised by replacing the word "man" with the word "person." But let's take it a step further and replace "man" with "network." The quote then reads, "Only a network with chaos in its soul can give birth to a dancing star." (Warning: Slippery slope ahead, unless you have already read the main body of this book. If so, you know what is coming!)

     Newcomers to the Internet sometimes have the feeling that there is a lot of chaos, or disorder, on the Web, but a soul? Does this dancing star we are creating have a soul? Is it conceivable to think of the Internet as being in part physical and in part spiritual? Perhaps this is not so far-fetched. For example, if we consider the wires, the fiber, the routers, the computers, the software, and all the other physical parts of the Net as representing a nervous system, why not think of the Internet's soul as being made up of the collective souls, or the collective consciousness, of the people whose minds are interconnected in this global web of thoughts and information? (These ideas are more fully developed in the body of this book.) Note that the phrase "collective consciousness" is used here to specifically denote a counterpoint to what is called the collective unconscious.

     Since Jung first popularized the concept of the collective unconscious, the verity of this idea has been much debated. One reason for the debates, of course, is that it is quite difficult to scientifically prove the existence of a global mind lying just beneath the surface of our waking awareness. Yet even without absolute scientific proof, it appears that many people already hold a belief in the collective unconscious.

     What about collective consciousness, though? Why don't we hear more about that concept? It certainly isn't anything new. For example, in his book, The Future of Man, Teilhard de Chardin said,

In the passage of time a state of collective human consciousness has been progressively evolved which is inherited by each succeeding generation of conscious individuals, and to which each generation adds something. Sustained, certainly, by the individual, but at the same time embracing and shaping the successive multitude of individuals, a sort of generalised human personality is visibly in the process of formation upon the earth. (3)

     From the smallest group of two, husband and wife for example, to the group-think of political parties and religious movements, we see evidence of collective consciousness all around us. An intriguing aspect of most forms of collective consciousness is that although a group may have an overall vision or direction in which it is heading, the people who comprise the group remain individual thinkers in other areas of their lives. It is as if we tap into a group's collective consciousness when necessary or convenient, but go our own way when it suits us better. Will this change if we fuse millions of small groups of collective consciousness into a single, global collective consciousness? Are we creating an Earthly version of the Borg? In the final analysis, what the Internet is really all about is connections. Specifically, it is about connecting machines, which in turn are the physical extensions of the minds of the people who own and control them.

     It seems to me that our ultimate goal should be to provide an Internet connection for every child, woman, and man on this planet. I believe all sentient beings should be afforded the opportunity to interact with each other, instantly, any time, any place. Yet where, or to what, will this lead? What will happen when all of our minds, figuratively speaking, meet at a single point? Can we then simply tap some cosmic tuning fork against the side of our computers and watch as all of humankind snaps into a Tesla-like resonance, sending harmonic waves out into the universe, announcing our evolutionary leap to a higher state of consciousness? (4) Or, as some predict, will we only have built some monstrous new form of television? The choice is actually up to us. Frankly, either outcome seems preferable to what we have been doing on this planet for the past few thousand years.

     If you accept the premise of a collective consciousness evolving on, or in, the Internet, as discussed in the main body of this book, it then becomes imperative to ask the question with which we began this section, "Who is in charge?" If you are a control freak you are not going to like the answer, for the Net is very close to a worldwide "free for all." Sure, it can get a little rough, and there is a lot of misleading and outright incorrect information on the Internet. So what? Aren't things the same everywhere? Just think of the Internet as a global town square where the free and unfettered exchange of ideas is allowed to take place without any significant governmental interference, at least at this point in time. (5)

     I have been involved in many late night discussions about the role governments should or should not play in regulating the Net, and my position hasn't changed: the less government interference the better. Most government initiatives to censor and control the Internet are couched in terms leading one to believe that the proponents of stricter control are only trying to protect our children. Do the proponents of Internet regulation really think that people do not see through their transparent attempts to control any thinking that is not in line with their own? As Alvin Toffler said in Power Shift, "And as knowledge is redistributed, so, too, is the power based on it." (6)

     What is wrong with requiring parents to take back some of the child-raising responsibilities they have already given away to government? The spirit of the Internet community is one of personal responsibility. Given the chance to cooperate in a global dialogue, free from all but the most basic controls, netizens have, overall, acted very responsibly. This spirit of mutual responsibility and cooperation may best be seen in the way decisions are made about core Internet technology. Here is how it works.

Requests for Comment-RFC

     Rather than ask the governments of the world to hold meetings and agree to a new protocol for moving packets from router to router, for example, the Internet community uses RFC, Requests For Comment. In the case of an addition to or modification of a protocol, an RFC is initiated by the person or persons who want to propose the change. It is then made available on the Internet and a period for comments takes place during which the proposed RFC is widely debated by anyone and everyone who wishes to join in the discussion. These discussions are often conducted through a series of e-mail exchanges. After the period for debate has ended, a vote to accept or reject the proposed protocol is taken among the members of the Internet Engineering Task Force (which is described in the next section). If the vote is to implement the new protocol, then the technicians make the necessary changes to their hardware and software. This process began in April of 1969 when Steve Crocker, an engineer at UCLA asked the small group of other pioneers who were building the ARPANET, forerunner of today's Internet, to comment on some unresolved issues dealing with routing software. At the time, there were only a few dozen people involved in what we now call the Internet. Yet, today the process retains its original air of friendly cooperation.

     To give you an idea of just how informal the RFC process is, here are a few paragraphs from RFC-3 which set out the initial guidelines for Requests For Comment:

The Network Working Group [NWG] seems to consist of Steve Carr of Utah, Jeff Rulifson and Bill Duvall at SRI, and Steve Crocker and Gerard Deloche at UCLA. Membership is not closed.

. . .

The content of a NWG note may be any thought, suggestion, etc. related to the HOST software or other aspect of the network. Notes are encouraged to be timely rather than polished. Philosophical positions without examples or other specifics, specific suggestions or implementation techniques without introductory or background explication, and explicit questions without any attempted answers are all acceptable. The minimum length for a NWG note is one sentence.

These standards (or lack of them) are stated explicitly for two reasons. First, there is a tendency to view a written statement as ipso facto authoritative, and we hope to promote the exchange and discussion of considerably less than authoritative ideas. Second, there is a natural hesitancy to publish something unpolished, and we hope to ease this inhibition. (7)

     So how does the RFC process work today? In much the same way, actually. Anyone, including you, can initiate an RFC. The process is quite simple and is explained in detail on numerous web sites. If you are interested in this process, even from an historical perspective, I encourage you to browse the RFC files. (8) While the majority of the Requests For Comment have to do with technical protocols, you will also find other topics relating to computer communications as well as a scattering of humor.

The Internet Engineering Task Force

     Another interesting aspect of the control of the Internet is the Internet Engineering Task Force, the IETF. The IETF is a somewhat loosely organized group of people who make technical contributions to the Net. They meet three times a year at different locations throughout the world to identify pressing technical issues and present recommended solutions to fix problems and improve the technology.

     When I first learned that there was such a group, I wondered how a person goes about becoming a member of this task force. If no one is in charge of the Internet, then who appoints the members of the IETF? When I discovered the answer, I had trouble believing it at first. Are you ready for this? To participate in the work of the Internet Engineering Task Force all that is required is to show up at their next meeting! Now if that doesn't demonstrate that the spirit of anarchy is alive and well in the Internet community, I don't know what does. Of course, just as in other technical organizations, one must establish one's credentials before others will pay much attention to what you are saying. Most often this is accomplished by volunteering to work on one of the IETF ad hoc committees that spring up to deal with specific Requests For Comment. (9)

     This process works so well that the governments of the world are actively concerned about it. (10) After all, how are they going to tax Internet transactions when the technical community can always find ways around it? How are they going to impose their religious and moral beliefs on the world community? How are they going to prevent people from gaining direct, unfettered, access to information? And, of course, how are they going to control people who have direct access to any information they want? These are all very real, and very serious, issues facing the Internet community and the world at large today. How these questions are answered during the next ten years may well seal the fate of human communications for generations to come.

    So, there you have it. For now, no one is in charge of the Internet, and everyone is in charge of the Internet. It is an anarchy that is working beautifully. Yet, there are a lot of powerful people who are very threatened by all of this. So, if you want to ensure the continuation of an Internet where information remains readily available, you may want to become more involved in the ongoing debates about its regulation. (11)

Connecting

"Connectivity is the precondition for love."
Terence McKenna

     It is a common misconception that the Internet is isolating people by "forcing" them to spend too much time alone, sitting in front of their computers. While time spent using the Internet may be time that our bodies are sitting in front of our computer screens, it is not time spent alone. You see, an Internet experience is a true out-of-body experience, for what it means to be "on the Internet" is that one's mind is in cyberspace, and you are never alone in cyberspace.

     We all have different approaches to using the Internet. While my personal computer is primarily used as a writing instrument, I also leave it connected to the Net as I work. When an e-mail message arrives I hear a soothing chime, which usually prompts me to go check my e-mail. My e-mail application automatically filters out the majority of junk e-mail I receive, so my messages are primarily from friends and business associates. I treat the arrival of these messages as if they were being delivered in person by someone walking into my office. If I want to, I can put a "Do Not Disturb" sign out by simply disconnecting from the Internet or by shutting down my e-mail program. Since I work alone, however, it is nice to have a few interruptions from time to time. It gives me a delightful feeling of being connected when an e-mail message arrives, because I know that the person who sent it is probably still online and has just thought of me. If I want to, I can send him or her an immediate reply or begin a private chat with them. Even though no one is physically in the room with me as I work, I no longer feel alone when that little e-mail chime alerts me to an incoming message.

Chat Rooms and Instant Messaging

     If you are looking for a way to spend a lot of time on the Internet, then you may want to check out some of the thousands of chat rooms that have proliferated since Internet Relay Chat (IRC) was first developed by Jarkko Oikarinen in 1988. Originally intended to improve communications among contributors to his electronic bulletin board, the public release of Oikarinen's new program spawned a huge following of IRC devotees. It was during the U. S. attack on Iraq during the Gulf War, however, that IRC came into its own with on-the-scene reports being fed over the Internet in real-time. Even professional news organizations were scooped by IRC transmissions over the Internet. Practically every major world event that has occurred since then has also been reported over IRC as it was taking place.

     One of the early drawbacks to using IRC was that the software was very command-line intensive. In other words, one had to learn many textual commands to effectively carry on an IRC discussion. However, the basic commands are quite easy to learn. As a result of the amount of typing required to carry on a conversation, the IRC community was among the first to come up with many of the now common shorthand notations for frequently used phrases. Some of these cryptic acronyms have found there way into everyday e-mail usage, for example:

IMHO-in my humble opinion

TTYL-talk to you later

LOL-laughing out loud

NP-no problem

J/K-just kidding

BRB-be right back

TTFN-ta ta for now

ROTFL-rolling on the floor laughing

     It was also on the IRC channels that the use of emoticons first began. You have the pioneers of online chat to thank for the hundreds of versions of smiley faces that often show up in your e-mail … (Hint: tilt your head to the left if you are having trouble seeing them.)

Classic smiley face :-)

Frown :-(

Wink ;-)

Crying :'-(

Shocked or amazed :-o

Kiss :-*

     Today, there are literally thousands of "channels" operating on IRC networks, which, in turn make up a part of the larger Internet. As you may recall, the Internet is a network of networks. Some of those networks are devoted solely to IRC. One way to visualize a channel is to think of it as one of the old party lines that telephone companies once used. Channels are used to segregate conversations into specific topics. A typical search for operating channels on one of the IRC networks will bring up thousands of listings. The better networks allow one to search for channels by topic, number of users, etc. A recent search of one such network revealed over 22,000 channels operating, however, over half of them were private-that is one had to be invited to participate in the conversation. Private IRC channels may be established by persons who want the convenience of real-time communications without the expense of a long distance telephone call. By giving up the convienience of voice communications for typed communications, IRC users are able to use the Internet for many of their day-to-day conversations.

     Since its early days, online chat has become an important feature of the Internet. Many web sites now offer chat rooms that do not require users to install special purpose software. Through the magic of Java™ technology and other new software techniques, chat is now much easier to use. Something parents of online children should be aware of is that the overwhelming majority of young people online are regular participants in online chat sessions. Don Tapscott estimates that 85-90% of what he terms the "N-generation," or Net-generation, view online chat as an important part of their daily lives. (12) As one 17-year-old woman from Australia says, "To me the Net is a completely different multicultural world where almost everybody gets along." A 15-year-old woman from Florida says, "When a user joins a chat session, they are not judged based on their looks or skin color, but on their personality. The Internet provides an alternative, a place not of racial issues or prejudice." (13) These are insightful observations, and they are coming from the hearts and minds of the people who will soon be taking over the reins of power from current generations.

      If you intend to spend time in some of the Internet's chat rooms, you would be well-served to learn some of the acronyms (like those shown above) used in IRC conversations, for they have carried over to many of the Web-based chat rooms. When one considers the fact that at any given moment there are quite literally tens of thousands of people all around the globe who are engaged in regular conversations over the Internet, it is difficult to see what the popular media is talking about when they claim the Net is isolating people. The next time you can't sleep, log on to the Internet, look up a chat room topic that interests you, and meet some new friends online. No one ever sleeps in cyberspace, and it is always filled with interesting people.

     There are also many opportunities for one to have a chat with world leaders and celebrities. President Clinton and other public figures have been known to participate in scheduled chat sessions on many occasions. Some leaders have actually used this technology to hold meetings between themselves. For example, on January 17, 1996, the Malaysian Prime Minister, the President of the Philippines, and the head of the PLO met for ten minutes in cyberspace!

     Another popular feature of the Internet that many people now use is "instant messaging." At its most basic level, instant messaging is just another form of chat program. Depending upon how you configure an instant messaging program, however, you can let other users of the software know when you are online. For example, you can set your profile to notify only certain friends that you are currently logged onto the Net, you can let anyone who knows your User ID know you are online, or you can just lurk behind the scenes without telling anyone you are there. Upon seeing that a friend is on the Net, if you want to, you can set up a private chat room with them. Some instant messaging software also provides the ability to store the text generated during a chat session as well as to send voice messages over the Internet.

Electronic Mailing Lists and Newsgroups

      Another way virtual communities come into being on the Internet is through the use of electronic mailing lists. In essence, a mailing list is a service where like-minded people can exchange thoughts and information with others who share the same interest. For example, there are mailing lists that cover dieting, children, seniors, medical research, environmental health, pets, and thousands of other topics. The number of electronic mailing lists already exceeds 300,000 and is growing daily.

     Like IRC, electronic mailing lists were in use long before the World Wide Web was deployed on the Net. There are many forms these mailing lists can take. Some are unmoderated, which means that when anyone on the list posts a message it is immediately sent to everyone on the list. In contrast, a moderated list is governed by someone who screens all postings and only passes along the ones that are pertinent to the ongoing discussion. There are also lists that provide a digested version, which means that at certain times during the day all postings are gathered and sent in a single e-mail message to those on the list that have requested this method of delivery. The digested list option is extremely useful whenever there is a lot of activity, for it keeps incoming e-mail to a minimum. When you join a mailing list there is usually no obligation to send messages to the group yourself. If you want to just read what others have to say about the subject of the list, you can simply be a lurker.

     The concept of a lurker originated with the newsgroups. Like the first stirrings of life on this planet, the genesis of newsgroups is open to debate. Suffice it to say that a great number of people and organizations were involved in the evolution of this form of online communication. Basically, a newsgroup is a public bulletin board dedicated to specific topics, such as activism, books, music, celebrities, censorship, etc. It is difficult to determine the total number of newsgroups available on the Internet, for it is up to the individual Internet Service Providers to determine which groups they will provide access to. The last time I checked, the ISP that I am now using provides access to over 40,000 different newsgroups.

     Newsgroups and electronic mailing lists each have their own advantages and disadvantages. For example, sometime around 1990 I subscribed to an extremely active mailing list. It was one of the first lists I subscribed to. Little did I realize that this was an unmoderated list with a lot of activity. It was common to find over 100 e-mail messages from other list members waiting for me every time I logged onto the Net. Needless to say, I quickly removed my name from that list. I simply couldn't keep up with all the e-mail. A different newsgroup dedicated to the same topic, however, provided similar information without the massive amount of incoming e-mail pouring into my mailbox. Another advantage of newsgroups is that one can search for keywords in the subject lines of the messages. If you are looking for a specific topic this makes the work of sorting through a massive amount of information much easier.

     You will most likely find a place for both newsgroups and mailing lists as you sift through the endless sands of information available on the Internet. I use a mixture of both. There are some mailing lists I belong to that provide concise, to-the-point discussions of topics in which I am interested, and there are newsgroups I visit that have thousands of postings each week for me to sort through. The only way for you to discover the right balance between these two services is to do some experimentation. Subscribe to several lists, browse some newsgroups, and then join the communities to which you are most strongly attracted.


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