A different kind of enlightenment: slightly off topic but relevant for the board.

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The following is the text of an article posted by Jon Katz to the Slashdot forum.

It's not entirely original, but it does seem to echo *some* of the sentiments found on this board.

Apologies if it is off-topic.

A Different Kind of Enlightenment by Jon Katz, Sunday March 21st 1999.


More and more, scholars, academics and scientists are comparing the rise of the Internet and the rise of the Digital Age to periods like the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Comparisons are being made to the discovery of fire and the printing press. And you know what? The parallels hold up amazingly well, from a universal embrace of freedom right down to the fear and hostility that greet new ideas:

It's no accident that one of the subject headings on Slashdot, complete with its own graphic symbol, is "Enlightenment." More and more frequently, academics, scholars and scientists are comparing the rise of the Digital Age and the creation of the Internet to such momentous historic periods as the Renaissance or Enlightenment.

In "The New Renaissance: Computers and the Next Level of Civilization," University of Colorado scientist Douglas Robertson writes that the invention of the computer is a pivotal event in human history, akin to the printing press.

In Richard Rhodes' new book "Visions of Technology," chief Disney "imagineer" Bran Ferren assesses the Internet this way: "?the Net, I guarantee you, really is fire. I think it's more important than the invention of movable type." In "The Age of Spiritual Machines," inventor Ray Kurzweil predicts that computers will evolve so rapidly that in the next century they will surpass humans in basic intelligence.

Heavy stuff. All around the Net, there's a growing sense that something historic, even extraordinary, is occurring. Last week, a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News wrote that that the open source and free software movements was a social revolution as important as any in the last 50 years.

These perceptions are often bitterly controversial. The political scientist and historian Langdon Winner has written that periods of great technological advance often spark reprisals and religious upheavals. Off-line, the rise of the Internet has sparked widespread anxiety, hysteria, "decency" legislation, censorship technology like blocking software, and widespread alarms from journalists, intellectuals, lawmakers, parents, educators, morals czars and the clergy.

Oddly, these ideas can be just as controversial online. Just look at the response to most new ideas posted here or on other open websites or mailing lists. Unconventional ideas not only are disagreed with; they're attacked. It's not enough for an idea to be wrong or ignored; often it's so frightening and enraging that it has to be killed, the source driven off. This is always a reliable barometer : something important is happening; people are threatened by it.

As the dimensions of the Internet and social upheavals like open source and free software become clear, it's all the more important to look to history for clues about what it means, about why so much excitement, hatred, anxiety and confusion surround great leaps forward in human consciousness or development. Looking backwards, for once, may help us rise above our narrow interests and expertise to try to grasp just what's happening.

Like the earlier period of technological and social upheaval called the Enlightenment, this one, as diverse as it is, involves certain central issues and values.

"The men of the Enlightenment united on a vastly ambitious program," writes historian Peter Gay in "The Enlightenment." That program was "secularism, humanity, cosmopolitanism, and freedom, above all, freedom in its many forms - freedom from arbitrary power, freedom of speech, freedom of trade, freedom to realize one's talents, freedom of aesthetic response, freedom, in a word, of moral man to make his own way in the world." Among the Enlightenment's many legacies were the American and French Revolutions, both of which advanced the then-radical idea that individuals had rights, including the right to determine their own personal, cultural, and political histories.

In 1784, as the Enlightenment was peaking, philosopher Immanuel Kant defined it as humankind's emergence from self-imposed tutelage, and suggested a motto: "Sapere aude" Dare to know: take the risk of discovery, exercise the right of unfettered criticism, to accept what Gay called the loneliness of autonomy.

For the past few years, writing for magazines like Rolling Stone and Wired, and for websites like Hotwired, Slashdot and the Freedom Forum's Free!, I've been struggling to track the political values of the younger Netizens building the Internet. I've written about survey findings from researchers like Yankelovich, Peter Hart and Frank Luntz Associates. And, of course, I've exchanged e-mail with thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands, of people online.

Clearly, they are patching together a new kind of culture, with distinct values and politics. Just as clearly, this system isn't really new, but a continuation of something a few hundred years old. Peter Gay described it almost flawlessly, and also presciently. What is new is the linked, networked system of communications that transmit these values, more powerful than any of the institutions that so bitterly opposed the first Enlightenment - monarchies, organized religion, business interests.

Throughout history, people who preached freedom from political, religious or economic dogmas have paid dearly. They've been hanged, drawn and quartered, burned alive, massacred. But the Internet, adopting and transmitting Enlightenment values like freedom, has blown right past politicians, journalists, churches, educators and even -- through movements like free software -- the giant corporations that are as powerful as many governments.

That online culture is too diverse to generalize about. Yet at its core, it has widely-shared values. From hackers to Linux geeks to MP3 downloaders, the central beliefs are freedom and individual rights. Freedom to speak your mind. To acquire the music you want. To share the software you use. To expect access to the information in the world as a right, not a privilege.

Online, there is commitment to freedom from arbitrary power. We don't curb our speech or thoughts to suit the marketing conventions of media companies or corporations. We believe in trading freely. We embrace the freedom to realize one's talents, a core hacker value. We share what we learn. We insist on the freedom of aesthetic expression. Even though we're sometimes too close to our own experiences to see them, these are enormous and powerful ideas. Conscious or not, we are living them online.

We reject dogma, especially from political parties, and journalism's foolish insistence that there are two ways of looking at the world, from the left or the right, and that all discussion be confined to those suffocatingly narrow points of view.

We take the risk of discovery every day by exploring new technologies, developing new programs, struggling with new challenges, and patching together a new kind of culture. We accept unfettered criticism. We dare to know, and in embracing these ideas, we also accept the loneliness of autonomy, the fact that we exist out of the mainstream.

Curiously, if we are freer than ever to experience these values, we still have few forums in which to talk about them. Enlightenment philosophers were exiled or imprisoned. But in many ways, they were freer to talk about their ideas than we are. Online, those who want to talk about ideas share the more benign but nearly universal experience of being assaulted, flamed, or otherwise attacked. It can't kill you, but it can sure keep ideas from developing. Orthodoxy lives, even here. It just takes different forms.

This isn't a new phenomenon either. Enlightenment philosophers were a family, writes Gay, but second only to their pleasure in promoting their common cause was the pleasure in criticizing colleagues and comrades. "They carried on an unending debate with one another, and some of their exchanges wee anything but polite. Many of the charges later leveled against the Enlightenment -- naove optimism, pretentious rationalism, unphilosophical philosophizing - were first made by one philosopher against another."

Anyone who ventures online with ideas and opinions should expect the same, and he or she won't be disappointed: ideas are challenged, as are facts, conclusions, grammar, writing styles, technological expertise, character and integrity. Accepting this is accepting what Gay calls unfettered criticism. Then and now, it's the toll paid for participating in something dramatic and important. And it's cheap at the price.

Still, reading Gay's description of Enlightenment values always hits me like a hammer, because it reflects so completely the experience of going online and discovering this new Enlightenment.

Off-line, many of us are restricted and limited by the realities of life - by bosses, the companies we work for, the social conventions of the places we live. That makes the Net all the more exhilarating. Online, we are free to make our own way, unchecked and unbound.

Sapere aude is as good a motto for us as it was for them.

-- (someone@somewhere.com), March 21, 1999


Thank you Someone,

This medium for further enlightenment is enabling us to seek out the realities of Y2K. Given the knowledge and attitude limitations and vested interests of the "establishment", without this new medium and its' evolving culture, we would all still be in the dark. Hopefully, it will continue to enrich us and enable us to avert other forms of dark ages.

With best wishes,

-- Watchful (seethesea@msn.com), March 21, 1999.

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