Mr. Gingrich's Cyber-Revolution

The New York Times, January 17, 1995, Tuesday, Late Edition

Last week, Newt Gingrich unveiled an electronic archive that will contain every bill submitted to Congress and every speech uttered in the House and Senate. The archive -- called "Thomas" (as in Jefferson) and accessible through the Internet computer network -- is, according to Mr. Gingrich, just one part of an ambitious plan to take power away from the elite and give it back to the people. The goal is a return to a Jeffersonian past with a 21st- century twist -- the agrarian community, the glue that held 18th-century America together, is to be replaced by cyberspace.

For all the talk about the information superhighway and rise of cyberculture, cyberpunks, cyber this and cyber that, the social, economic and political importance of this new order remains undefined. Into the void steps Mr. Gingrich, who from his new position of power could well undo the very things that make cyberspace an inspiration to him and other Americans.

To understand what the Gingrich revolution is all about, it's important to understand his unique brand of libertarian futurism. Mr. Gingrich has close ties to an organization called the Progress and Freedom Foundation, which produced his teaching video "Renewing American Civilization" and this fall published a manifesto called "A Magna Carta for the Information Age." One of its co-authors is Alvin Toffler, who wrote "Future Shock" and has been advising Mr. Gingrich on how to bring Congress into the modern world.

The "Magna Carta" outlines a vision of national transformation through information access. America, the theory goes, is entering the Knowledge Age, as part of the "third wave" of history. The third wave is one where knowledge replaces matter -- natural resources, say -- as a source of power. And that power will flow through cyberspace (best defined as the space between computers connected by telephone lines). The central role of Government is to repeal "second wave" laws based on outdated concepts, making it possible to shift information from institutions to individual citizens.

Sort through the jargon and it's clear what this historical synthesis is: the rationale for a gold rush in cyberspace. That becomes clear at the end of the "Magna Carta," when Government is advised to remove "second wave" regulations from the telecommunications and computer industries by, for instance, removing the barriers that stop telephone and cable television companies from combining their networks. Mr. Gingrich seems to believe sincerely that these policies will return power to self-reliant citizens. As someone who came of age in cyberspace, I can understand his excitement. I spend several hours a day on line and take for granted the ways people interact in cyberspace; it's a communal enterprise where people tend to cooperate rather than compete. In part, this collaborative spirit reflects the newness of cyberspace and the need for guidance in navigating through it.

It is this communal self-governance that inspires Mr. Gingrich, and the reason he thinks the Internet is related to the pastoral values of Jeffersonian America. There is a good reason for this; it is the only part of cyberspace (which includes things like banking and equity trading) that isn't run for profit. Most people pay only a tiny fraction of the real cost of supporting the network of high-speed switches, computing facilities, storage devices and maintenance that keep the Internet up and running.

Broadly speaking, cyberspace is divided between two kinds of networks -- those devoted to processing data and those for communication. It is the latter, embodied by the Internet, that has captured America's attention. Since the 1960's, cyberspace has evolved along these two separate lines. Commercial data-processing networks charged very high fees; the Internet, which was started in 1969 by the Government to test how computer networks might survive nuclear attack, had no such brakes. So it was soon hijacked by its users for an altogether unexpected use: social communication.

These early users enjoyed an unprecedented luxury: free computers, free access to networks and free assistance from other users. The bills were paid by a variety of Government institutions -- first the Pentagon, then the National Science Foundation and now a mixture of Government agencies, universities, corporations and users like me.

Today, Government financing is winding down and subsidized access is being replaced by a billing system that matches cost to actual use -- meaning that spending lots of time on line will become more expensive. By April, management of the high-speed lines at the heart of the Internet will be handled entirely by companies like Sprint, MCI and I.B.M.

The day Mr. Gingrich unveiled "Thomas," he also presented what he called a "nutty" idea. A tax credit should be given to the poorest Americans, he said, to buy laptop computers (although desktop computers are cheaper), meant to be used to connect with cyberspace. But I spend $400 in connection fees a year for access to the Internet, not to mention $350 in telephone charges. Assuming everyone gets a tax credit for a computer, what about these costs? Telecommunications deregulation is supposed to drive down those fees eventually. But deregulation may have other consequences. What kind of cyberspace will we get if we surrender it to the vagaries of the market? Today we have electronic communities, places where people share information, make friends, make enemies, gossip -- recreating much of the stuff of life in cyberspace. This kind of content is not created by a media conglomerate; it is built by individual users over time.

Mr. Gingrich envisions high-speed fiber-optic cables running to every home, which will make possible what Alvin Toffler calls the "interactive media culture." But it's unlikely that this will lead to an expansion of the Jeffersonian model in cyberspace. Instead, it is a recipe for widening the gap between information haves and have-nots. To justify the cost of installing the new cables in low-income communities, places with little to spend, it will only make sense to offer them mass-produced entertainment rather than civic information that might be of use.

This kind of strategy has already created a vast information gap -- the poor subsist on television, the elite reap information from databases with names like Nexis, Dialog and Dow Jones. Instead of talking about tax credits for laptops, Mr. Gingrich would do better to see that Congress gives adequate financing to schools and libraries, which could offer access to the Internet and to databases through relatively inexpensive PC's. (In Manhattan, for instance, the only free Nexis service is available at the main branch of the New York Public Library.) That was a major reason the Internet took off in the first place -- it was cheap enough and accessible enough that people felt capable of organizing and governing it themselves. Such incentives are what spurred Americans across older frontiers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Cyberspace is worth nurturing and saving; it is a national asset created mostly by accident. If it is meant to open up unlimited horizons for entertainment, then we can all get as excited as the new Speaker about the coming revolution. But if cyberspace is meant to live up to the example set by the Internet, as he professes, then he's on the wrong track.

by David S. Bennahum