The Internet and the Anti-net

Nick Arnett (
Tue, 2 Aug 1994 02:08:51 +0200

Note: I'm posting this essay to a number of listservs and Usenet
discussions in order to encourage comments, which will be posted to the
World-Wide Web (see below). -- N.A. 8/1/94


Two public internetworks are better than one

by Nick Arnett

Networking policy debates tend to paint a future monolithic
internetwork that will follow consistent policies despite a number of
independent operators. Although that's how the interstate highway and
telephone systems -- favorite metaphors for network futurists -- operate,
historical comparisons suggest that it is probably not what the future
holds. Two distinct, interconnected publicly accessible digital
internetworks are likely to emerge, which is surely better than just one.

One of the future internetworks will grow out of today's Internet,
whose roots are in the technology and scientific/academic communities,
funded by government, institutions and increasingly, corporate and
individual users. Although the Internet will support commercial services,
they rarely will depend on advertising. The other great internetwork will
grow out of the technology and mass communications industries, especially
cable and broadcast industries. The "Anti-net" will rely on advertising
revenue to recoup the cost of the infrastructure necessary to create cheap,
high-speed bandwidth. (I call this second network the Anti-net not to be a
demagogue but to make a historical allusion, explained shortly.) All three
communities -- technology, science and academia, and mass media -- will
participate in many joint projects. The most successful new ventures often
will arise from three-way collaborations; skills of each are essential to
create and deliver network-based information products and services.

The Internet community reacts with profound anger and resentment at
Anti-net behavior on the Internet -- in net-speak, "spamming" advertising
messages into hundreds of discussions. The outrage is based in part on the
idealistic traditions of academic and scientific freedom of thought and
debate, but there's more behind it. Anger and resentment fueled by the
world's love-hate relationship with the mass media, particularly
television, surface in many other contexts. Nearly everyone in the modern
world and large segments of the third world watches television; nearly all
think broadcast television is stupid, offering a homogenized,
sensationalized point of view that serves advertising interests above all
others. In competition with television's hypnotic powers, or perhaps
simply due to the high cost of distribution, other mass media have followed

Idealistic defenders of the Internet's purity believe they are waging
a humanitarian or even a holy war that pits a democracy of ideas against
the mass media's empty promises and indulgences. Television and its kin
offer the false idols and communities of soaps, sitcoms and sports. The
mass media tantalize with suggestions of healing, wealth, popularity and
advertising's other blessings and temptations. Internet idealists even
question the U.S. administration's unclear proposal of an "information
superhighway," suspecting that the masses will be taxed only to further
expand the Anti-net's stranglehold on information.

The same kind of stage was set 500 years ago. The convergence of
inexpensive printing and inexpensive paper began to loosen the Roman
Catholic church's centuries-old stranglehold on cultural information. The
church's rise to power centuries earlier had followed the arrival of the
Dark Ages, caused in Marshall McLuhan's analysis by the loss of papyrus
supplies. The church quickly became the best customer of many of the early
printer-publishers, but not to disseminate information, only to make money.
The earliest dated publication of Johann Gutenberg himself was a "papal
indulgence" to raise money for the church's defense against the Turk
invasions. Indulgences were papers sold to the common folk to pay for the
Pope's remission of their sins, a sort of insurance against the wrath of
God. Indulgences had been sold by the church since the 11th century, but
shortly after the arrival of printing, the pope expanded the market
considerably by extending indulgences to include souls in purgatory.
Indulgence revenue was shared with government officials, becoming almost a
form of state and holy taxation. The money financed the church's holy
wars, as well as church officials' luxurious lifestyles.

Jumping on the new technology for corrupt purposes, the church had
sown the seeds of its own undoing. The church had the same sort of
love-hate relationship with common people and government that the mass
media have today. The spark for the 15th-century "flame war," in
net-speak, was a monk, Martin Luther. Outraged by the depth of the
church's corruption, Luther wrote a series of short theses in 1517,
questioning indulgences, papal infallibility, Latin-only Bibles and
services, and other authoritarian, self-serving church practices. Although
Luther had previously written similar theses, something different happened
to the 95 that he nailed to the church door in Wittenburg. Printers -- the
"hackers" of their day, poking about the geographic network of church doors
and libraries -- found Luther's theses.

As an academic, Luther enjoyed a certain amount of freedom to raise
potentially heretical arguments against church practice. Nailing his
theses to the Wittenburg door was a standard way to distribute information
to his academic community for discussion, much like putting a research
paper on an Internet server today. In Luther's time, intellectual property
laws hadn't even been contemplated, so his papers were fair game for
publication (as today's Internet postings often seem to be, to the dismay
of many). Luther's ideas quickly became the talk of Europe. Heresy sells,
especially when the questioned authority is corrupt. But the speed of
printing technology caught many by surprise. Even Luther, defending
himself before the pope, was at a loss to explain how so many had been
influenced so fast.

Luther's initial goal was to reform the church. But his ideas were
rejected and he was excommunicated by his order, the pope and the emperor,
convincing Luther that the Antichrist was in charge in Rome. Abandoning
attempts at reform, but accepting Biblical prophecy, Luther resisted the
utopian goal of removing the Antichrist from the papacy. Instead, as a
pacifist, he focused on teaching and preaching his views of true
Christianity. Luther believed that he could make the world a better place
by countering the angst and insecurity caused by the Antichrist, not that
he could save it by his own powers.

Luther's philosophy would serve the Internet's utopians well,
especially those who believe that the Internet's economy of ideas untainted
by advertising must "win" over the mass media's Anti-net ideas. The
Internet's incredibly low cost of distribution almost assures that it will
remain free of advertising-based commerce. Nonetheless, if lobbying by
network idealists succeeds in derailing or co-opting efforts to build an
advertising-based internetwork, then surely commercial interests will
conspire with government officials to destroy or perhaps worse, to take
over the Internet by political and economic means. Historians, instead of
comparing the Internet to the U.S. Interstate highway system's success, may
compare it with the near-destruction of the nation's railroad and trolley
infrastructure by corrupt businesses with interests in automobiles and

The printing press and cheap paper did not lead to widespread literacy
in Europe; that event awaited the wealth created by the Industrial
Revolution and the need for educated factory workers. Printing
technology's immediate and profound effect was the destruction of the
self-serving, homogenized point of view of a single institution. Although
today's mass media don't claim divine inspiration, they are no less
homogenized and at least as self-serving. The people drown in information
overload, but one point of view is barely discernable from another,
ironically encouraging polarization of issues.

Richard Butler, Australia's ambassador to the United Nations, draws
the most disturbing analogy of all. Butler, a leader in disarmament,
compares the church's actions to the nuclear weapons industry's
unwillingness to come under public scrutiny. Like the church and its
Bible, physicists argued that their subject was too difficult for lay
people. Medieval popes sold salvation; physicists sold destruction.
Neither was questioned until information began to move more freely. The
political power of nuclear weapons has begun to fall in part due to the
role of the Internet and fax communications in the dissolution of the
Soviet Union.

The truly influential and successful early publishers, such as Aldus
Manutius, were merchant technologists who formed collaborations with the
scientific/academic community and even the church, especially those who
dissented against Rome. Out of business needs for economies of scale, they
brought together people with diverse points of view and created books that
appealed to diverse communities. The Renaissance was propelled in part by
books that allowed geniuses such as Copernicus to easily compare and
contrast the many points of view of his predecessors, reaching
world-changing conclusions.

Today we are at a turning point. We are leaving behind a world
dominated by easy, audiovisual, sensational, advertising-based media,
beginning a future in which the mass media's power will be diluted by the
low cost of distribution of many other points of view. Using the Internet
is still something like trying to learn from the pre-Gutenberg libraries,
in which manuscripts were chained to tables and there were no standards for
organization and structure. But like the mendicant scholars of those days,
today's "mendicant sysops," especially on the Internet, are doing much of
the work of organization in exchange for free access to information.

Today, the great opportunity is not to make copies of theses on the
digital church doors. It is to build electronic magazines, newspapers,
books, newsletters, libraries and other collections that organize and
package the writings, photos, videos, sounds and other multimedia
information from diverse points of view on the networks. The Internet,
with one foot in technology and the other in science and academia, needs
only a bit of help from the mass media in order to show the Anti-net how
it's done.


Nick Arnett [] is president of Multimedia Computing
Corporation, a strategic consulting and publishing company established in

Comments about this article e-mailed to [] will be
linked to a copy of this essay on Multimedia Computing Corp.'s World-Wide
Web server <URL:>.

Recommended reading: "The printing press as an agent of change:
Communications and cultural transformation in early-modern Europe," Vols. I
and II. Elizabeth Eisenstein. Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Copyright (c) 1994, Multimedia Computing Corp., Campbell, Calif.,
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