What can Thomas Jefferson teach us about the Internet?
What can Thomas Jefferson teach us about the Internet? At first this may seem an absurd question. Who would imagine that a man who died more than a century before the Internet was even considered, could teach us about such a modern concept as cyberspace? Why should we turn to a man who was born before the first successful steamship was built (and at one point believed that Mammoths still roamed on the Ohio) when pondering a technologically advanced engineering project which has existed for only the past 40 years (or less, depending on how/what you count)?
Lucky for all of us, someone did imagine it.
The who is David G. Post, the where is a book titled In Search of Jefferson’s Moose: Notes on the State of Cyberspace and the why is probably best left in his own words:
And like the West of 1787, cyberspace poses some hard questions, and could use some new ideas, about governance, and law, and order, and scale. The engineers have bequeathed to us a remarkable instrument, one that has managed to solve prodigious technical problems associated with communication on a global scale. The problem is one that Jefferson and his contemporaries faced: How do you build “republican” institutions – institutions that respect the equal worth of all individuals and their right to participate in the formation of the rules under which they live – that scale?
Being faced with tough questions pushes the wise to look to those who have already answered similar questions. The Internet is a new world, just as America was once, and once again we have a choice to make: Will we continue to live under the rule of the old world or will we seize this new world as an opportunity to advance our understanding, of governance, of law, of community, of humanity? Do we choose progress or stagnation? Post quotes Jefferson:
I brand as cowardly the idea that the human mind is incapable of further advances. This is precisely the doctrine which present despots of the earth are inculcating, & their friends here re-echoing & applying especially to religion & politics: that it is not probable that any thing better will be discovered than what was known to our fathers. We are to look backwards then & not forwards for the improvement of science, & to find it amidst feudal barbarisms and the fires of Spital-fields!
So it appears that if one believes the Internet poses such questions and requires these new ideas; Thomas Jefferson may just have a thing or two to teach us, about the questions and perhaps even about the answers.
David Post does a remarkable job of tying these two topics together, providing a great amount of detailed information on both. From the inner workings of the IETF and (to a lesser degree) ICANN, to the words that Thomas Jefferson created and the Louisiana purchase which he initiated; the scope of this book is immense – matched only by it’s amazing ability to maintain a cohesive narrative. Whether you agree with the basic premise or not, I think that all will be forced to agree that David G. Post commands a great understanding of the topics and does an excellent job weaving together history, technology, law and code into an amazing framework for the debate of Internet governance.
And that is basically where he leaves it, as a framework – as a basis for future conversation. Post chooses not to answer the specific questions surrounding net-neutrality or copyright or privacy (etc) but instead leaves those up for further discussion. What he does say (and say quite well) with this book is that we can (and should) treat cyberspace as a place, that communities on the Internet are real communities, that it is a new world and it does offer up the same opportunities that Jefferson saw when he looked west some two hundred years ago.
… There are laws of Nature – some that we understand, some that we don’t (yet). Jefferson was surely right about that; he (along with his many, many collaborators in the global scientific enterprise) was getting closer all the time – closer than any of them could possibly have known – to one of the biggest of them all, one of the truly fundamental ones. There are laws of growth, and scale, and organization, reasons why website visits, Internet connectivity, the population of cities, and the frequency of words all follow the same pattern, reasons why the one global network is the one with end-to-end design and distributed routing, though we probably understand those laws about as well as Jefferson and Buffon understood why moose are the way they are – i.e., not very well.
And they do matter – not just for the mouse and the moose, but for the design of human institutions; …
I could not agree more. The Internet, or rather cyberspace, is the current frontier – it is the new world for our age and if we fail to recognize that and treat it accordingly then we do ourselves and our future generations a grave disservice.
But wait… That is what David Post has to teach us about the Internet – so what is it exactly that Thomas Jefferson can teach us about the Internet?
We can start to answer that question by continuing the TJ quote from above:
But thank heaven the American mind is already too much opened, to listen to these impostures. While the art of printing is left to us, science can never be retrograde; what is once acquired of real knowledge can never be lost. To preserve the freedom of the human mind then & the freedom of the press, every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom; for as long as we may think as we will, & speak as we think, the condition of man will proceed in improvement.
I think we can safely replace American with Netizen and assume that electronic publishing would be seen by Jefferson just as noble as the printed press. Netizens do tend to have quite open minds in my experience, and in their colonization of cyberspace we are hard pressed not to see the amazing positive effects of the free spread of knowledge. If we assume that the function of the Internet in the spread of ideas is tantamount to the newspapers of Jefferson’s time; he weighs in quite clearly as to the direction he would advise:
Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
Strong words. Why should he feel this way about government and it’s relationship with the checks upon it’s power?
What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and powers into one body.
Ok, and if we take that to be true, what is our alternative? We find Jefferson’s answer to this question in his own plan for settling the Western US. As Post describes (in the eleventh chapter of In Search of Jefferson’s Moose), this plan combined three principles:
- The settlers of these new western territories possessed the common, natural right to form self-governing communities. They chose their own laws and were subject to no colonial administration whatsoever.
- The government would be built from the bottom up where smaller more local units would actually help govern the larger more distant units. Placing the most power in the hands of many and giving the few at the top the least number of powers.
- The new territories (self-governing units) would be allowed to join “the existing Union as equals.”
What strikes me (and appears to have struck Post) is how similar this plan (which was so crucial in creating the United States that we know today) is to the way in which Engineers overcame the technical problems posed by building a global communications network – the Internet. Even more striking perhaps is how wildly successful both ventures have been. The United States would simply not exist as it does without having colonized the west (a feat which many or most believed to be impossible, especially by Jefferson’s means) and the Internet would not exist at all without the protocols developed on “rough consensus and running code” by the IETF. It appears to me that if the formation of the United States did not prove the scalability, effectiveness and truth of Jefferson’s “mother principle of republicanism” than the IETF certainly has:
…that all power is inherent in the people [and] that they may exercise it by themselves in all cases to which they think themselves competent.
Alright Mr. Jefferson, you have convinced me – self-governing republics work (and scale). What’s more, they appear to do so better than any previous form of government or governance yet known. So where do we go from here?
If we believe that David Post is correct and that cyberspace is a place beholden to natural law – that communities formed there are real communities – and that Jefferson is correct that such communities have an inalienable right to govern themselves as they see fit (and we realize that most if not all of them already are in one form or another, whether it is a largely unspoken etiquette or a posted set of rules and expected behaviors moderated by some form of authority), what do we do next? As it turns out, Jefferson has some thoughts on this topic as well:
The inhabitants of the several States of British America are subject to the laws which they adopted at their first settlement, and to such others as have since been made by their respective Legislatures, duly constituted and appointed with their own consent. No other Legislature whatever can rightly exercise authority over them; and these privileges they hold as the common rights of mankind.
TJ, RESOLUTION OF ALBERMARLE COUNTY (JULY 26, 1774)
We hold these truths to be self-evident,…that governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…The present King of Great Britain…has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws.
TJ, DECLERATION OF INDEPENDANCE (1776)
What do you think? Can cyberspace be treated as a “real” place for the purposes of governance and law? Should it? Are Internet communities subject to the rights which Jefferson believed to be common to realspace communities? How well does the current RIR infrastructure fit into this paradigm, ICANN, the UN? Do you have other thoughts on David G. Post’s beutifully brilliant book?