In the spring of 1996, at an annual conference organized under the name "Computers, Freedom, and Privacy" (CFP), two science-fiction writers told stories about cyberspace's future. Vernor Vinge spoke about "ubiquitous law enforcement," made possible by "fine-grained distributed systems"; through computer chips linked by the Net to every part of social life, a portion dedicated to the government's use. This architecture was already being built—it was the Internet—and technologists were already describing its extensions. As this network of control became woven into every part of social life, it would be just a matter of time, Vinge said, before the government claimed its fair share of control. Each new generation of code would increase this power of government. The future would be a world of perfect regulation, and the architecture of distributed computing—the Internet and its attachments— would make that perfection possible.
Tom Maddox followed Vinge. His vision was very similar, though the source of control, different. The government's power would not come just from chips. The real source of power, Maddox argued, was an alliance between government and commerce. Commerce, like government, fares better in a better regulated world. Property is more secure, data are more easily captured, and disruption is less of a risk. The future would be a pact between these two forces of social order.
Code and commerce.
When these two authors spoke, the future they described was not yet present. Cyberspace was increasingly everywhere, but it was hard to imagine it tamed to serve the ends of government. And commerce was certainly interested, though credit card companies were still warning customers to stay far away from the Net. The Net was an exploding social space of something. But it was hard to see it as an exploding space of social control.
I didn't see either speech. I listened to them through my computer, three years after they spoke. Their words had been recorded; they now sit archived on a server at MIT. 1 It takes a second to tune in and launch a replay of their speeches about a perfectly ordered network of control. The very act of listening to these lectures given several years before—served on a reliable and indexed platform that no doubt recorded the fact that I had listened, across high-speed, commercial Internet lines that feed my apartment both the Net and ABC News—confirmed something of their account. One can hear in the audience's reaction a recognition both that these authors were talking fiction—they were science-fiction writers, after all—and that the fiction they spoke terrified.