Tuesday, October 23, 2001

Democracy on the Web

Shortly after I first set up my own web page, back in February 1996, I said this (only slightly edited to update cultural/political references and URLs):

The World Wide Web reminds me of an old Judy Garland / Mickey Rooney musical. "I've got a PC!" "Great, I've got a modem!" "And Uncle AOL has a couple of megabytes of disk space to spare. Let's put on a show!"

I mean, think about this. For a few hundred dollars' worth of computer parts (and you don't even have to own the computer!) and a few dollars a month paid to a service provider, I can reach the world. I'm writing these words in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Where are you?

You downloaded these words from a file server. Where exactly that server is, I have no idea, nor do I need to know, nor do you. You may be seeing them minutes or hours after I write them. All you have to know is the phrase dpm.blogspot.com, and they're all yours. I'm not Dan Rather or George W. Bush, that you should have such timely access to what I say. I'm just a person--no more, no less.

The point is, we exist (I, as I write this, and you, as you read) in a community that could not have existed when we were born. We are not particularly exceptional people, as people go: Yet we share a global forum in which exchanging thoughts with someone on the other side of the planet is no more difficult than ordering out for pizza. (Which, come to think of it, can also be done on the Web in some cities.)

Microsoft has a web site. So do I. Except for the fact that they have a ton of software available for downloading, it's not immediately apparent that they put far more money into their web presence than I put into mine. That's democracy. There's no real difference between their site and mine. Mine is just as "real" as theirs is, whatever that means on the Web.

What we have here is a medium that can sweep across cultural and economic lines like no other medium before it. The average individual can't afford to own a television station, or a radio station, or a newspaper, or a magazine, or anything that can be described as a mass medium. (Feature films have been financed with personal credit cards, but only in unusual cases.) Yet here I am, gently tossing my thoughts into the ether, where they are paradoxically as close as my fingertip and as far away as Moscow, Tokyo, and Sydney.

Or Washington, D.C.

Certainly, anybody who has taken any traditional route to Power (political or financial) has to be intimidated by the Internet, the planet's first and largest functioning libertarian society. Certainly, white racists and black affirmative action activists are united in their distrust of a culture in which people really are judged by the content of their minds and not the color of their skins. And people (or organizations) with money are discovering that there is nothing about having money that makes one better able to create HTML code.

The value of a Web page is in the thoughts and ideas it expresses. Imagine that.

Now, I bring it up again to mention a couple of other things, possibly symptomatic of a sea change.

First, something that happened here in the Atlanta area: A couple of weeks ago, some pilot in a private plane thought it would be funny to buzz the Fayette county fair. The FAA got right to work, based on a partial registration number from the plane's tail and a rough description of the type of plane, and within 24 hours or so, had narrowed the suspect plane list down to about 3000 planes. Major Bruce Jordan of the Fayette County Sheriff's Department told them thanks, but local talk show host (and aircraft owner and aficionado) Neal Boortz, with a few minutes' search of public records posted on the internet, had already narrowed the list down to 16.

Yeah, they got their man. An employee at a local flight school.

Second, remember those parts from the helicopter the Taliban are so proudly claiming to have shot down (but refusing to show anyone the rest of the wreckage). CNN was more than happy to cover the Taliban in their moment of triumph -- without asking the kind of questions that come naturally to the readers at Plastic.com. After "three minutes" of research on the internet, Erik Riker-Coleman was able to narrow it down to two possibilities, the Boeing CH-46 Sea Knight or CH-47 Chinook. The Pentagon later confirmed that the parts were from a Chinook, which lost a front landing gear on touchdown in Afghanistan, but which was able to take off at the conclusion of the mission and return to Pakistan, with crew intact. (But I heard about that from Instapundit.com, not CNN.)

Had CNN had the wit to do the same research, they might have been able to ask the Taliban representatives some embarrassing questions. But then, they could always have asked the Army if they were missing a helicopter, and they didn't do that either.

(Or maybe they did, and maybe the Army knows whose side CNN is on. But that isn't really my point here.)

Do employees of CNN and the FAA not have access to the internet? Or are they forbidden to use it, as in so many workplaces?

Or are they too busy playing Bejeweled or downloading porn to pay attention?

The internet is an intensely powerful tool, and I'm glad it's in everybody's hands, not just those of the Rich and Powerful -- since it's obvious that the Rich and Powerful sometimes don't have a clue.

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