The Battle To Shape CyberspaceBook Review: net.wars
By Wendy Grossman
New York University Press, 1997
Reviewed by Christine Lapham
The context is conflict, but the experience is genuine enlightenment: Wendy Grossman's net.wars is a carefully drawn portrait of the emerging landscape of the Internet. Using subtle humor and sophisticated detail, Grossman displays her veteran status in cyberspace, making net.wars a "must read" for those novices -- newly hired webmasters, corporate executives, and the like -- who need to get up to speed quickly about the Internet phenomenon.
As the title suggests, Grossman frames her ideas and vision about the Net as a series of conflicts whose tension is yet to be resolved, if ever. For example, she describes the growing commercialization of the Net as a series of "boundary disputes" that will occur as "we try to define the rules in the gray area where real life and cyberspace intersect." While Grossman's voice is thankfully free of the hype, hysteria and evangelical tone of much writing about the Internet, she is clearly aligned with the old guard and she makes it clear where her allegiance is: "I would like to see the freedom of the old net.culture survive in the face of many competing commercial and regulatory interests that might prefer to limit its reach and openness."
This conflict between commercial and individual interests on the Net has spawned an even larger battle between freedom of information and privacy. Grossman believes that "commercial interests don't want to give their information away: if advertising is going to pay all those costs, then net users must be prepared to give up their demographic secrets. If users want privacy and anonymity, they may have to pay extra for it." In addition to neatly spelling out what might be the quintessential force shaping the future development of the Net, she also spells out a beautifully simple solution...."On the Net, there is no reason why both approaches shouldn't exist simultaneously."
Grossman's voice, predictions, and premises are palpable to us because she is also a superb educator: Her definitions of some of the often cited but greatly misunderstood, ever-evolving Interment terms are some of the best I have encountered. Take the definition of the Internet itself (which is often explained as the world's largest computer network.). To enlighten us, Groomsman recites John Perry Barlow's visionary description: "The Internet is not a mass medium....It is not a broadcast medium, and it is not part of the United States. It is cyberspace, which is an extra-territorial and anti-sovereign condition that may completely eliminate anything but the most ceremonial role for the president of the United States."
Throughout the text, Grossman extends our knowledge and understanding as she shares her complex and historic insights with us. Take her definition of censorship, for example. Moving way beyond First Amendment issues, she tells us "The net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it," and predicts a solution to this conflict: "Once the technology exists and enough people are aware of it, circumvention of censorship will happen and....the net as a collection of human beings perceives censorship as a threat and bonds together against it."
The sheer volume of facts, figures and just plain old information can mask the quality of the writing here. I was particularly impressed with Grossman's carefully constructed metaphor for explaining the massaging of statistical sampling. Her clear, reasoned voice reassures us "If this all sounds too complicated and mathematical, think of it like balancing a tire and applying weights to eliminate small imperfections that are unnoticeable at ten miles per hour but make the car vibrate noisily at fifty-five."
I was hard pressed to find the down side of this text. I must say, however, that I was greatly mislead by the title. I expected a single-minded approach to Net sovereignty, but instead found a well-reasoned and thoughtful analysis of Net culture and the social and economic environment in which this new form of communication will grow and prosper. As I moved through the book, I also wished the chapters were longer and individual topics -- women online, censorship, electronic commerce -- were developed more fully. Perhaps the greatest disappointment is that the book just...ends. After listening to Grossman's wit and wisdom, I wanted a concise and savvy summary of her thoughts and especially her vision.
In all fairness, she does share her ideas and concerns about the key forces that will shape the Net in the future: Citing the Voter Telecom Watch newsletter, Grossman warns "At risk is the actual design of the Internet. Will it continue to be open and available to anyone with a computer and a modem, or will it be stratified by pricing such that it is available to fewer people than are available today?"
Creating a context of conflict to describe the emerging Net works well for Grossman in net.wars because she offers answers to what may seem to be irreconcilable differences: "The best protection for net.freedoms is as much decentralization as possible."
Copyright © 1998 by Christine Lapham. All Rights Reserved.