The Ghosts of Internet Time

by Andy Oram
December 17, 1999

In the murky light of dawn I was bestirred by a sound I had not heard for a long, long time. Groggily stumbling toward the piercing beep, I exclaimed, “Why, it’s the old Unix talk program! That strange little full screen utility—discussed by Douglas Hofstadter in Metamagical Themas—that prefigured chat and instant messaging.” In response to the letters flashing on the green monitor, I quickly entered talk ghost and pressed the RETURN key.

“This is the Ghost of Internet Past,” wrote my mysterious correspondent. “NSA, poppy, Castro. I shall show you the Internet in its glorious early days. Tools were clunky back then, but we all studied a bit and learned to understand the medium we were using; and such a wonderful community we built online!”

I remembered what the ghost was talking about. True, 99% of all newsgroups degenerated into philosophical spats between leftists and libertarians, and three-quarters of all the alerts circulated had been hoaxes, but we still exploited the incredible power of instant worldwide diffusion to carry out some impressive campaigns. Lotus was a pretty big company when an Internet protest made it withdraw its database product on consumer spending.

“Look, Andy, you were more idealistic then too,” admonished the ghost. “It’s been years since you contributed to free software projects. Look at the dates on these files.” A stream of file names, dates, and sizes dribbled down my screen.

I squinted at the vaguely familiar output format. “Yeah, those dates are old. Where did you dig up that list?”

“Archie,” typed the ghost.

“Oh, Ghost,” I hammered out. “What has happened to the flame of Internet community? Why do so few of the new users understand it?”

“What do you expect once ANS took over the backbone?” spat out the ghost. “Canter and Siegel, eye candy, streaming media.”

“But mere commercial usage isn’t bad,” I replied. “When people trust a medium enough to put the very stuff of which life is made there, it has come of age. Non-profit organizations can be self-seeking information hoarders just as much as for-profit organizations.”

“Damned private-sector hegemonism—”

“Humbug. I’ve heard that all before; you’re putting me to sleep,” I typed, and as if to lend credence to that statement fell into unconsciousness once again.

Next I was awakened to a furious rush of talk. It was as if someone had started several dozen RealPlayer streams at once. The babble of many contributors crowded out all hope of understanding. “Can anyone make sense of this!” I cried.

Coming to my rescue, a voice rose above the rest. “Welcome to the debates over Internet policy. As the Ghost of Internet Present, I have to follow them all.”

“What on earth are they talking about?” I demanded.

“Do you mean: what do they claim to be talking about, or what are they really talking about?”

“Both, I guess,” I answered, non-plussed.

“Well,” explained the ghost, “they think they are talking about which of the old regulatory models to apply to a revolutionary new space.”

“Sounds pretty pointless.”

“And that’s why so few bother to listen. But really what they’re talking about is bandwidth.”

“Yeah, I heard of that—won’t dark fiber solve everything?”

“That’s a 90s panacea,” interrupted the ghost scornfully. “The current fad is packet radio. But I was not talking about physical bandwidth at all. I was referring to control. Who has the power to use the Internet? Will it have job postings for the underprivileged or only stock quotes for the affluent? Can communities grow up spontaneously around great works of creative art or must they pay a middleman? Should taxpayer-funded research be sold for hundreds of dollars a document or made freely available to all? Who can be reached simply by requesting a name—big corporations or small voices?”

“For goodness’s sake,” I exclaimed, “why don’t people talk about the issues that way!”

“A few try,” replied the ghost, “but as soon as you start looking closely at the legal, social, and implementation implications, the answers get so—well, technical.”

I wanted to ask more, but my ghost said, “The present is fleeting. I must depart; the Ghost of Internet Future will be here in my stead.”

Excitement seized me. “Oh Ghost of Internet Future,” I cried, “show me what glories the medium has still to offer!”

Someone grasped my arm and dragged me running through mazes of clattering streets under gray skies, where no creature tread and no breeze stirred. “Where is the Internet Future?” I yelled. “Where did everybody go?”

“The Internet is gone,” said my companion, stooped and hoary.

“How could that be—what could replace its bounty?”

“The international financial institutions have a proprietary satellite-based network, imposing and impenetrable. The entertainment companies put out 6500 programs a week, all strictly metered by kilobyte and filtered to isolate controversial content. The electric companies—which always controlled the ultimate pipe, and therefore ended up controlling the medium—run the network that activates devices in the home. Everything the vendors want is built into powerful circuits costing a thousandth of a penny, making software and the culture that accompanied it obsolete. So there are many separate networks, each specialized and tightly controlled.”

“But what about democracy? What about a public space? Is there no forum for the average citizen?”

The old Ghost’s wrinkled face cracked in a sputtering, hollow laugh. “Forum? You want a forum? I’ll give you a million of ’em. Every time Consolidated Services, Inc. or Skanditek puts up a new item on their media outlets, they leave a space for viewers to post reactions. And they post, and post, and post. Nobody can track the debates…”

“They forgot,” I sighed. “People forgot that the Internet enables discussion and community; they acquiesced to an overly pragmatic and impersonal approach that fragmented protocols and media in such a way as to remove the human element. What can I do to prevent this, Ghost? Tell me what to do when I return to my present life!”

But mists swept over the scene and the hand of the Ghost of the Internet Future slipped invisibly from mine. “I am fading,” it whispered. “The Internet is gone…”

And so I awoke, but I lay with eyes closed and addressed my three Ghosts in my thoughts: “I promise I will learn the lessons you taught tonight!

“Ghost of Internet Past, I promise I will learn about the technologies that affect my life so that I can control them.

“Ghost of Internet Present, I will talk to ordinary people about the everyday issues that are affected by Internet politics. And I’ll use it to fight real problems: racism, the income gap, war, ecological devastation.

“Finally, Ghost of Internet Future, I will always insist that the Internet is more than a means of transmitting data—it is a place for building community.”

And the day was still just dawning.


Andy Oram is an editor at O’Reilly Media. This article represents his views only.

The article was originally published in the online magazine Web Review.

A Ukrainian translation is available.