Albion Monitor /Commentary
[Editor's note: This is an abridged version of a longer presentation delivered at a February computer conference in Cannes, France. For a copy of the entire speech, visit the Televisió de Catalunya web site in Barcelona, Spain.]

Defining Cyberspace

by Nicholas Negroponte

The digital homeless run the country, they run companies, they're leaders of their neighborhoods, they run schools

There are a lot of people, like Andrew, Director of Research, who really look at statistics. And one of those statistics is that 50 percent of all PCs, at least in the United States, are being shipped into the home. This figure appears in all the trade press.

One of the things that these people who count the PC's, they do it in such a simplistic way. They go to the retailers, the distributors and they say, "How many of your machines are going to a home address?" And the number is, indeed, 50 percent.

But what they don't take into account are two other huge numbers. One is that in America, 50 percent of the corporations, when they go to an employee and they say, "Update your 386 to a Pentium and, by the way, take the old one home." My best estimate is that 50 percent of American companies do that. So there is a second-order flow into the home. And there is another issue and that is that most, or at least many and perhaps most, companies tell their employees, "Why don't you get a laptop? Because you're peripatetic, you move, you can bring it home, you can take it for weekends, you can take it on trips, and so on." And roughly 40 percent of all PCs are laptops so, again, there is another movement into the home.

If you count those, the computer presence in the American home is absolutely enormous. The flow of machines into the home is probably closer to 80 percent than 50 percent, if you're willing to count second-order effects. So that is point one, to sort of set the stage.

Point two is a very interesting distribution. There is basically no 15-year old American that is digitally illiterate. If I pull Nintendo and Sega out of the equation, I'm still almost right.

Another group is somewhat unknown, and is the largest group in the United States as a percentage of their age group per capita to be going on-line, are 55-years old and up. Very interesting. 30 percent of all 70-year old Americans and up, have a personal computer. It's another bump over there, not as big, but growing rapidly. So you've got these two bumps, and what do you have in the middle? What you have in the middle is what I call the digital homeless.

Now, the digital homeless are that, not because they're stupid, not because they're poor and not even because they're stubborn. They're that because they arrived on the planet too soon. That's they're only mistake. They got here a little too early and now they're busy and so on and so forth. So you get this extraordinary disconnect in the sense that the digital homeless run the country, they run companies, they're leaders of their neighborhoods, they run schools, and the people who are tuned in are almost marginal: it's the very young and the old and the small sliver of people like yourselves who are, obviously, computer-literate as part of your profession. And you just don't realize how big a group there is.

This is one of the explanations, by the way, as to why our countries -- America seemingly at the head of the race to see who can be more stupid about cyberspace -- it's why our various countries are making these ridiculous decisions: Germany with Compuserve and, of course, the United States just a few days ago enacted a telecommunications law which is just beneath contempt.

But, as a parenthesis, I want to tell you about that law which makes it illegal to use certain words on the net. That law is known to be, by all the members of Congress, a violation of the First Amendment. And so what will happen in the very near future is that our judicial system will find it unconstitutional. And since all the Senators and Congressmen knew this, and even made the wording slightly worse to guarantee it to be unconstitutional, they've all voted for it, so it will not go on the record that they voted for something that smelled like encouraging pornography. Isn't that a cute little political Machiavellian arrangement? Now let the courts do the dirty work and remove that from the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which is going to happen relatively shortly. But it's an example of the digital homeless basically being in charge. And it is, I think, a relatively important example.

The invention of the Internet

This is a pretty cool audience; you people are all involved in the Internet in one way or another. Is there anybody in the room who can name the person who invented the Internet? Anybody? Come on, a person. Administrations don't invent anything. Isn't that incredible? Look at this! I don't know how many people there are here. You are the cream of the crop and not one of you knows the name of the person. Who? No, Vinton Cerf has been said six times. He's getting all the credit. Robert Kahn is usually the second, but no, it's not Robert Kahn. But at least these are good answers. One person jumped up the other day and said Al Gore. Amazing!

The man's name is Larry Roberts. He invented it in 1963. He invented the Internet at the peak of the cold war and it took him the next five years. What did Larry invent? I'm going to tell you the story.

It's very important to understand what he invented because the Internet is today unstoppable and uncontrollable -- which is why it's good, by the way. But it's unstoppable and uncontrollable because of it's initial architecture, it's initial concept. And many people don't realize that the initial concept was to create a fail-safe message-passing system from point A to point B during the cold war, at times when we thought of first strikes, multiple warhead missiles -- things that don't enter the vocabulary of people under 25 any more.

Well, what Larry did -- and I'm going to do it in baby talk now, but this is basically what he did -- is he took the message, let's say it had a thousand letters in it, and he broke it up into packets -- let's say he put ten letters in each packet.

Ten letters of this thousand-letter long message, with an address and a sequence number. And then the clever part was that the packet was going, let's say from Boston to Andrew in San Francisco, and so I send my message and the packets go in different directions. They're sort of scattered through this network. So one packet goes to Chicago, then St. Louis, and another packet maybe goes to Washington, D.C. and across to Austin, Texas

They arrive in San Francisco and they line up their sequence numbers and packet six is missing. Now what happened to packet six? Packet six -- I'm just going to make this up -- went through Tucson, Arizona and at that moment there was a blackout or a first strike, or whatever you want to think of, and packet six indeed got lost. So what the packets do in San Francisco, before even talking to Andrew, is they call back to Boston and they say, "Look, packet six is missing. Send packet six back again but, by the way, don't send it the way you sent it the last time -- don't send it through Tucson." So packet six gets sent back to San Francisco, they're all there, they line up and, bingo, they appear on Andrew's screen.

Now, why is that interesting? The reason it's interesting is ask yourself how you would stop a message from getting from Boston to San Francisco. How would you stop it? You're the "enemy." In fact, you don't even know it's coming from Boston and going to San Francisco, because if you knew that in advance, then you could pop off Andrew and you could pop off me, and the message would never go or be received. But in a network where you don't know what point is talking to what point, how would you stop the message?

The answer is you can't stop the message unless you more or less wipe out most of the United States, because all it takes is one packet to make it through Portland, Oregon and go through maybe the tip of Michigan and North Dakota and squeak around and get down there -- just one out of a hundred -- and then it tells the other packets, "this way boys," and they all go the same way and they arrive in San Francisco. So it really is a fail-safe system for delivering messages, and a very clever one at that.

People say, "it's pandemonium, it's anarchy, it's disorder." And the truth is, it's none of those

The reason I've chewed up three or four minutes of your time to tell you this story because the concept of a totally decentralized architecture, where there is no hierarchy whatsoever in the system, is the reason that, as the net grew, it grew into what it is today. It first went to England, then Norway, then it went to Japan, then in 1974 the National Science Foundation took it over. It went to universities, it expanded and expanded. But with the same decentralized architecture, and that's what people don't completely understand.

They say, there's nobody in charge, there's no president, there's no node, there's no head -- and they're right. That's what made the message-passing of Larry Roberts fail-safe. Had there been a head end, you could have sent a rocket to the head end. Had there been somebody in charge, you could have poisoned his food. Had there been a hierarchy, you could clip it off at the top of the tree or someplace in the middle and you'd know all the roots would die. So, the very basic architecture led to this decentralized phenomenon.

It's very hard for people to understand that. It's not in our genes, actually, to understand it. We've grown up with parents, we've always had some sort of authority in our lives. After parents you get school teachers, and then you get your boss, and then maybe the heads of state, so the notion of authority and the fact that all order has to come from an authority is deeply, deeply rooted in every one of us. And you get this thing that has no authority and people say, "'s chaos, it's pandemonium, it's anarchy, it's disorder." And the truth is, it's none of those. It's a perfectly ordered, perfectly non-chaotic, scaling-very-well system.

One way to describe this is by referring you to ducks. I know there has been a lot of EU controversy about ducks flying from Spain to Holland and being shot down in France on the way. So think of those ducks. Those ducks fly in a V-shape. The front duck is not leading. Each of those ducks is behaving as an autonomous process. If, as some of the people south of Bordeaux have been doing, you shoot the front duck, it drops down. All of the other ducks scatter. In a few moments, they'll come back again, they'll make a V-shape and they'll continue flying. And there will be a new front duck. And I promise you, that is not the vice-president duck who became president duck. There are people who think that. That's sort of how the Internet works.

There is nothing local in cyberspace, and that's the root of all problems

Now, that may be fun and good, but we're sort of headed into a few problems and we should talk a little bit about the problems, and at least understand where they come from. One of my favorite stories is, about a year ago, a cleric in Pakistan demanded that the United States extradite Michael Jackson and Madonna, to stand trial in Teheran, actually, for violating fundamentalist Islamic law. I hear one person laughing in the audience, I suspect all the rest of you are laughing inside. It's sort of ridiculous. Even though 50 percent of American parents would have loved to have seen that happen. But we didn't ship them over to stand trial.

In our world -- the laws of our world -- we push laws into the local community, or we bound them around a nation, which could be quite small. Some laws we push so far back into the local community; in the United States, as you probably know, we push the liquor laws right back into the city; a city can decide if that city will sell liquor. The so-called decency laws are all pushed back into the local community. Now I think that's actually a perfectly good way of doing it and rather clever, because when you do push laws back into the community -- and let's take decency laws as an example -- people will actually make a decision: we'll live here versus there because there is this incompatibility between the decency laws and the people. As an aside, I just found out and it was rather impressed that in the United States, if you violate a local decency law, it is a federal offense. Kind of a cute detail.

Well, the reason I tell you that is, whatever we know about cyberspace -- in some sense it's nowhere and in some sense it's everywhere, but whatever and wherever, it is anything but local. There is nothing local in cyberspace, and that's the root of all problems. There is no local. Where is local? I don't like the banking laws in France, I'll set up my computer on the Grand Cayman islands. If I don't like the intellectual property rights treatment in Great Britain, I'll set up my computer in Beijing. In other words, all of a sudden locality is gone. That's the root of every single problem you will read about, have read about and will read about. And we've seen nothing. This is going to be on the front page in one form or another for the next year, at least every other day in one form or another.

The web turned the net inside out

This is growing so fast, the web, at least, is doubling every fifty days or less now. How are we going to make money from it? How is it all going to evolve? Well, the first thing you have to understand is what the web is. Whether you like my description of the Internet is something for you to decide, but one thing that we all know is that the net as we've used it for twenty-some years is changing. Those of us who used it early on and some of us like myself still today, use it primarily to send and receive messages of people.

What the web did was to turn the net inside out. And this is what I'd like you to try and understand. It's never discussed this way. The world-wide web is always discussed as a multimedia add-on of some sort. That is incidental, the multi-media part. What is not incidental is that it was turned inside out.

And what do I mean by that? I mean that before, I sent messages. Now, in the web, I don't send it, I post it, so to speak. And I say, "You want to come and see it, come and visit me. Just come and visit." It reverses the flow.

Instead of hurling my message at a group of known people or maybe even hurling it at a bulletin board, now people come and look. And it turns it much more into a shopping experience, it becomes much more of a browsing -- as the word is actually used -- experience, a very different experience. And it's one that lends itself to a publishing model, it lends itself to an advertising model, it's very different.

Without turning the direction, flipping the direction, or turning inside out the Internet, as the web did, you wouldn't be in this room today. But that happened, and, of course, the rest is history.

Negroponte is director and co-founder of MIT's Medialab, and one of the most respected and influential "cyberthinkers." His latest book is "Being Digital"and is published by Knopf.

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Albion Monitor March 10, 1996 (

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