24 February 2008

Case Study Two: Parallel Information Frontiers: 1990 Internet and Eastern Europe

Part three of five.

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Internet in the US grew extensively after 1994. The structural similarities between these two key information frontiers of the 1990s are striking. It could almost be the same story: the parallel failures of utopian visions of the world as purely distributed information environments.

First of all, the West heralded both frontiers as rich stores of untapped resource ready for investment. For the most part, the attending policies in early post-Soviet Russia sang the libertarian tune of “don’t regulate or deregulate information as quickly as possible.” Jeffrey Sack’s shock therapy, or the sudden release of price and currency controls in Russia, has proven more disastrous—but only some—than the sort of eager cyber-libertarian belief not to regulate the flow of information online. The followers of Stewart Brand (Brand himself has a more nuanced sense: see Kevin Kelly, etc.) who wanted to believe that information wants to be free and self-organizing remind us of Shannon’s reduced sense of information: all information is similar in form, thus, all information freedoms must be similar—or similarly unrestricted.

The ironic turn follows that the same libertarian philosophy that excited early visionaries (Jeffrey Sacks or Kevin Kelly's satellites) also forged the rhetorical shield of free-market thought behind which established capitalism-savvy actors could enclose and privatize access to the same resources. Libertarianism meant to optimize and distribute profits yet allowed its seizure and centralization. The banner of free markets and the invincible logic of invisible hands came in defense to both the oil oligarchs that privatized state industries for pennies as well as to the copyright-heavy corporations that grabbed the pipes and distributional channels to the Internet.

Unblinking belief in information freedoms is bad news—or so at least goes this story of Lawrence Lessig, a legal scholar who lived in Budapest and Moscow in the early 1990s and who popularized "cyber law" (or the study of information regulation on the Internet). In a recent conversation, he confirmed that the early 1990s debates in Budapest and Moscow explicitly reminded him of the mid and late 1990s debates that sprung up around his work. Eastern European is an understudied inspiration for his work. Further interview with Lessig, Judge Alex Kozinskii, and legal scholar Eugene Volokh may tell more about the parallel bad bargains in both the Internet and their own Eastern European homelands.

Neoclassical economics sees in the world a distributed information environment, one where information is free flowing and uncontrollable—where information content is alike in form, where a dollar is a dollar, and equilibria are perfectly calculable (to at least a probabilistic rigor). Like digital utopianism of online culture creation, neoclassical economics depends on an invisible bulldozer to level the playing field in which all information is alike in form. Like Shannon’s sense of a bit being a bit, the neoclassical libertarian belief that all information is like in form can make us blind to context and content.

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