A Philosophy for Living Online

2001-02-09

It's been just about five years that I've been building my website. Late in 1995 I discovered the web, and immediately I found the idea of self-publishing in this new medium to be damn exciting. I'd been involved in online discussions since early 1993 (mostly on the old MDOP list run by Jimmy Wales), so I knew the value of the give-and-take that could happen there. But the rise of the web introduced a new element for me: the opportunity to explore, connect, and present my own ideas in ways that were not bound by the forms and costs of traditional media. As early as the late 1980s I'd been fascinated by hypertext, playing with HyperCard on my Macintosh to collect and connect ideas I had. When I wrote the first version of The Ism Book in 1990, I was basically writing it in hypertext. So although several years went by before I discovered the web, I took to it immediately and immersed myself in the experience.

Putting The Ism Book online was, naturally, one of my first projects. Once that was finished, I turned my attention to the Monadnock Review, which I'd thought of publishing a few years earlier but had never pursued strongly because of the cost of putting ink on paper and sending it all over the globe. Now, however, the web made publishing (and finding contributors) relatively easy, so again I made use of the web to explore ideas in ways I'd never been able to do before.

Over the past five years the web has become more and more integral to the way I live and, especially, the way I think. I've learned first-hand the wisdom of something Jon Katz said in an article for Wired back in 1997: "Ideas almost never remain static on the Web." Katz's observation grew out of the role of the Internet in the 1996 U.S. election (in which I was heavily involved as a member, and briefly as a candidate, of the Libertarian Party), but I feel now that it applies to me in a more personal way, too. Katz argued that there are certain core values that guide life on the Internet: respect both for facts as well as for clear reasoning, pursuit of individual fulfillment rather than social conformity, a premium on human dignity (even in the midst of flame wars!), and a pragmatic kind of libertarianism. Obviously these are all values I agree with enthusiastially, since they have formed much of the core of my own thinking for over 20 years.

Yet as I have delved ever more deeply into the technological wellsprings of the Internet, I have learned of a value that has colored my perception of those core ideas, and changed my ways of working and thinking in significant and subtle ways. That value is best captured by the word openness. Perhaps my early exposure to all those closed-minded true believers who blindly follow Ayn Rand has made me more appreciative of openness than most. To me, the Internet and many of the technologies that have built it together comprise an open system of thought -- not philosophical thought, but living breathing intellectual insights connected together and applied to the problem of presenting and organizing information. The best of these technologies are not closed systems but are open to innovation and experiment. It is these technologies that we collect under the heading of "open source". Over time I've come to be part of open-source culture, first as a user of Linux and all the amazing applications that make use of the GNU/Linux framework, and more recently as a contributor to the Jabber project.

The attitude of openness I've discovered here has infected my own thinking deeply. More and more, I explore my ideas out in the open, for instance through this journal. My intellectual life is an open book, here for others to discover but more fundamentally here for me to explore and work out. I've come to understand and apply that watchword from the early days of the net: "Information wants to be free." I certainly find that my information, knowledge, and wisdom want to be free, which is why I share it with all comers. I'm continually amazed by organizations and individuals who jealously guard their intellectual property behind the walls of subscriptions and memberships and such. To me, the most natural thing is to make what I write and think available as quickly as possible. When, for example, I write a poem, my first impulse is to upload it to the Monadnock Review, not send it to some literary magazine who might put it on paper in a few years' time only to have it be sent to some small list of subscribers and libraries. Why cage a thought like that? Information wants to be free.

There is a connection between this core Internet culture and the scientific revolution that I would like to explore at some point. Ayn Rand made much of the industrial revolution, but she never touted the scientific revolution, which I find to be the more radical of the two. The scientific revolution is all about openness, about experiment, about learning, about the pursuit of truth, about recognizing that absolute certainty is neither an option nor a goal, about the process and the journey rather than reaching some final resting place.

Something to think about....


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