Tricycle Interview

This interview originally appeared in the Summer 1994 issue of "TRICYCLE: The Buddhist Review" under the title "Mitchell Kapor on Dharma, Democracy, and the Information Superhighway".

Tricycle: If there was a key senator who was in a position to influence a major change in government policy about the information superhighway, and you had five minutes to brief him or her about issues surrounding the Internet, what could you say to underscore the enormity of what it is all about?

Kapor: One way to start would be to talk about democracy as a kind of self-determination and how we are on the brink of being able to achieve a democratic revolution in media. Instead of a small number of groups having privileged positions as speakers–broadcast networks and powerful newspapers–we are entering an era of communication of the many to the many. And while there will still be editors and intermediaries and people who will be looked to for their wisdom or attractiveness, the nature of the technology itself has opened up a space of much greater democratic possibility. We must not lose the opportunity in this country to run that great experiment.

Tricycle: And it’s up to the government to assure that?

Kapor: Yes. Everybody has to be able to get on the system. Nobody can be denied the right to connect. Just because you own one of these communication conduits should not mean that you can have exclusive control over what crosses over it. There needs to be open access for people, for creative artists, for entrepreneurs, for teachers and community groups. If you have something to say or do or make that is going to run over this interconnected set of networks, you have a right to be heard. That doesn’t mean that it is free. That doesn’t mean that people have to listen to you. But it means that you cannot legally be denied access for purposes of creating information or content. Next, you have to respect privacy on this network because that is a fundamental right of the individual. We could wind up building something that is a five-hundred-channel nightmare in which all you would have is movies-on-demand and home-shopping channels and mass-market entertainment or we could have an open, decentralized system that is faithful to a democratic principle which is going to have plenty of big business and big entertainment and Hollywood, but which will also be a place for the more marginal to participate and find their voice and talk to each other–to communicate. People really do want to communicate: they do not like to be couch potatoes; they do not like being alienated. On-line networks offer a medium to find other kindred spirits. We can use the opportunity well or we can use it poorly. We are at the crossroads.

Tricycle: You are implying that the information superhighway has the possibility to take democracy to a new level. But sometimes we get the feeling–particularly in the twelve years prior to the Clinton/Gore administration–that the people in Washington don’t necessarily have democracy as a goal.

Kapor: Personally, I worry as much about hindrance from big business as from Congress. The failures of government, which are numerous, arise less out of malice than out of incompetence. At the same time, the value system prevalent in large business is often such that it rewards advancing one’s own cause independent of the consequences on everybody else to an extreme degree. It glorifies a buccaneer mentality and permits without reproach the kinds of amoral behavior so often seen by very powerful and aggressive corporate forces. We need government to act as a check on the corrosive influence of large private sector institutions.

Tricycle: We need some kind of check on government control too?

Kapor: Government must not be permitted to get in the way of its citizens. There is a middle way between a laissez-faire conservatism, which is morally irresponsible because it does not take a stand to protect public interests, and a total government approach in which the government tries to take responsibility to be the provider, the caregiver, the rule-maker in a way that undercuts peoples’ initiative and responsibility. We are finally waking up to that in this country.

Tricycle: Freedom has been a big concern with you from the time that you were a kid. No matter what you did, whether it was being a disc jockey, teaching Transcendental Meditation or founding Lotus–you were involved in two ideas about freedom: one is an American version of freedom from constraint and the other is some idea about liberation. What is the relationship of your preoccupation with freedom of expression and your work–the EFF computers, technology, free-access, open airways–and a more internal idea about freedom?

Kapor: There is a more intimate connection between internal and external freedom than one might suspect. I am increasingly coming to realize that internal freedom does not take place in some sphere separate from the world in which we live in each moment. In fact if "internal freedom" has any real meaning, it’s something that would be manifest at each and every moment. So the work that I’m doing now in the intersection of computers and social policy is about trying to create a world which makes it easier for people to realize states of freedom, starting on the outside but for the benefit of the inside as well.

Tricycle: How does cyberspace offer a place to attain internal liberation?

Kapor: If you think about how a book or a conversation can stimulate an interest or aid a decision, or how sacred writing can sometimes induce a special state of experience, you’re on the right track. But I don’t think we know how to tell the story about the relationship between cyberspace and liberation yet. It is kind of a theater or an arena in which human experience takes place–so I expect the full panoply of good and evil. To be more specific, I don’t know what people are doing in cyberspace now that is leading to liberation. I can envision that when the technology gets a little bit more mature it will be possible to bring people together as a group of co-participants, even though people are not sitting in the same physical space. For instance, it might be possible to have a session without sitting together in a meditation hall. People could actually come together at a particular time without being in the same place.

Tricycle: Which might signal the end of the spiritual teacher?

Kapor: No, I think it adds a new dimension. It might transform the teacher-student relationship, but wouldn’t eliminate the teacher. Though I do think it would be possible to develop a whole new form of groups coming together and, through individual action or meditation, creating some greater collective whole. Is it your experience, for instance, that there is something different about meditating in a group?

Tricycle: If a fly lands on my nose and I’m sitting alone at home, I’m more likely to scratch. Suzuki Roshi said, and I paraphrase, "Zazen is all about sitting still and not scratching"–not scratching physically or mentally. When you sit with others the silence can get very loud.

Kapor: I wonder whether it would be possible to amplify the quality of silence in individual meditation if people were linked up through cyberspace. That’s my intuition. But there were some experiments done with a video link between two distinct facilities in which you could engage people in conversation. But it was still lacking something. And the shorthand explanation of one of the researchers of this video conference thing is that what was missing was the prana. Now the question is, was that due to the way that this experiment was set up or is it something inherent in the nature of the medium? And my sense is that it is the former and that there would be ways of actually having a real exchange of subtle energy, if you will, whatever quality that needs to pass through from point to point in order to make a very loud silence.

Tricycle: One of the images that I use to try to understand cyberspace is to see it as conduits that encapsulate a dynamic already in existence. If we look at physics, the dynamic is that we can be connected at enormous distances through the physics of space and sound and vibration, so maybe these cyberspace conduits can channel what is already there.

Kapor: Yes, in fact it would be fascinating to do some experiments. Suppose people could wear unobtrusive sensors that would monitor certain aspects of breathing or the degree of stillness or motion, and then transmit that. What I notice in groups, live groups, is that there is an enormous amount of completely nonverbal subtle communication. We do not yet have a scientific vocabulary for this phenomenon, but the things that happen in groups are very real. So here is yet another dimension of the electronic frontier that is a spiritual dimension, which is to say, how can you create a space, in cyberspace, for these types of collective experiences, because they do really bear on awareness.

Tricycle: If we are talking about the creation of spiritual community in terms of "virtual community" then we are talking about the absence of a particularized teacher/student relationship, or the wisdom of an evolved mind understanding the specificity of any one particular disciple. Can cyberspace include that?

Kapor: Even in cyberspace that one-to-one relationship is still crucial to teacher/student relationships of all kinds–from elementary school to Zen. Where cyberspace can make a difference is what happens after the teacher leaves town. It’s not a replacement for the face-to-face but, rather, a supplement to it. It is a way of leveraging a scarce resource: the time and attention of the teacher. But, of course, not everybody will share this vision and some people will tend to substitute technology for human contact.

Tricycle: Is this a problem?

Kapor: Yes. It was a problem in Transcendental Meditation (TM), for example, because they were trying to train teachers on a mass scale, to turn out hundreds and then thousands of them, far more than could be done with any amount of individual attention. And if you have a more powerful technology, it will be used as a substitute. I continue to see more and more of these bio-feedback helmets that put you in an alpha state and they’re becoming a whole sort of pseudo substitute for meditation.

Tricycle: Is this the natural response to technology?

Kapor: Very typically, when a lot of technology comes on the scene, people bring with it a lot of mental baggage such as the impulse to quantify. Because so much of building the technology itself requires quantification, that technique becomes very prominent and exerts this influence that tries to reduce other phenomena to measurements.

Kapor: For me there is a very compelling central theme in Buddhist texts: most of us are prisoners of our own minds and no set of changes in material conditions which is unaccompanied by changes in consciousness is going to achieve real freedom. That sort of story is told over and over again with extraordinary subtlety in the texts of Buddhism. It has been a traditional failing of a lot of progressive politics to take into account this issue of mental imprisonment and, consequently, there has been an over-emphasis on just altering material conditions and on the redistribution of wealth. All we have to do is to look to the great American middle class which enjoys a standard of living higher than any people of any time anywhere in the history of the planet, including royalty, of past ages and see the peculiar new forms of spiritual and psychic disease and alienation and nihilism and substance abuse to see that material circumstance alone won’t do it. If everybody were poor and starving and dying of diseases, you could say well what we really need to do is just to cure diseases and give people a place to live and food to eat, but we have done it in a way that doesn’t make the majority of middle class people genuinely at peace. And we have also done it in a way that continues to exclude very large numbers of people and our success rides on their backs.

Tricycle: Can that suffering be addressed by the outside?

Kapor: Yes, in part. The nature of reality is suffering, and reality is a pretty big place, so there is a lot that can be said and done about suffering. If you have a broad view of suffering, in its internal and external varieties, it creates a pretty big field of opportunity. for action I like the idea of engaged Buddhism, the notion that one builds one’s life around a commitment to relieving suffering wherever and whenever possible.

Tricycle: It seems that the material you’ve been involved with has addressed internal and external freedom and an entrenched wariness of authoritarian rule. Is this perspective influenced or affirmed by your experience with the Maharishi? [His full name is Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.]

Kapor: My dislike for authoritarian structures goes back as far as I can remember in my childhood. If I could remember past lives, I’m sure my memories would extend there too. But my experiences in Transcendental Meditation ultimately really deepened my commitment to anti-authoritarianism.

Tricycle: How did you get involved in TM?

Kapor: Well, my experience was typical for my generation. I had gotten to college in the 60’s and started experimenting with marijuana and psychedelics, fairly heavily. I had some distressing experiences with LSD. Bad trips. So I stopped doing drugs and then started getting acid flashbacks. I decided to give meditation a serious try to see if that could have some calming effect. I got hooked in to TM and eventually made the decision to go through advanced training to become an initiator, an instructor.

Tricycle: How long did you stay involved with TM?

Kapor: I was involved for seven years. It all ultimately came to a head in 1976. The movement went into a new phase and Maharishi started talking about siddhis, powers, and techniques for doing levitation and other things. This created so much cognitive dissonance in me that I didn’t know what to do. I had to find out if it was real or not, and I wanted to believe that it was real, but something in me said that it couldn’t possibly be real. People weren’t really going to levitate. So I went to Switzerland for the sixth-month course on "powers." I went and I fell apart. They were using us as experimental subjects. There was fasting involved and various austerities that come out of Hindu traditions, enemas and various bizarre food combining rituals. A lot of madness got released. After five months of this I said whatever problems I might or might not have, TM is not making them better, it is making them worse and I decided to leave. This was like leaving everything, because I had severed all of my other ties and relations: no job, no career, no marriage and no prospects. I got up in the middle of the night and walked to the train station. I felt like I was crossing from slavery into freedom, from one intolerable situation into the great unknown. By the way, no one really levitates. I fully satisfied myself as to that.

Tricycle: How did you go about founding Lotus?

Kapor: I was on my way to get a doctorate in psychology when personal computers first came out. I had had sporadic run-ins with computers in high school and in college, but that was in mainframe computer days, big boxes that sat in their own room with a raised floor, tended by a priesthood of systems programmers. As a user of computers one was of low caste and one had to deal with the priestly intermediaries to get anything done. There was no direct communion between the user and the computer. The computer was in the ark and only the priests could open the ark. But I had the intuition, as a lot of others had, that if that ever changed, it would be really cool. Finally by the mid-seventies personal computers (PCs) came out; these were things that you could buy, that you could play with–that you could relate to on an intimate level. In between the time I decided to go back to graduate school in ’78 and when I was supposed to go, the fall of 1979, I started doing consulting work for personal computers, hiring myself out at five dollars an hour. I wrote little programs and I parlayed one thing into another.< /p>

Tricycle: What a grand understatement.

Kapor: Nobody had any idea that it was going to amount to something this big. All I knew was that this was fun and I finally found something to do that I was good at. So what I did for the next three and a half years was learn as much about personal computers, software, and PCs as anybody on the planet. I got that if you could put one of these on a desk-top, hundreds of millions of people would want them. I went out to MIT Business School and they thought I was nuts. I wrote a business plan for a course in entrepreneurship I got a B in the course because it wasn’t a very good business plan, as they go. But I said, We should just do it! Just do it.

Tricycle: Where did Lotus 1-2-3 come in?

Kapor: There had been a spreadsheet programs before ours; 1-2-3 was really a second-generation spread sheet. It made a number of fundamental improvements on the basic model which then sparked a massive adoption of the personal computer as a tool by the business community. It added a graphic component directly in the program so that you could see a graph or chart of what your numbers said over a five-year period. It also added a simple facility by which users, who were not computer programmers, could automate repetitive functions in the spread sheet and do simple programming. In essence, it let you extend the set of commands the program understood by defining new commands.

Tricycle: How big did Lotus become?

Kapor: We thought in our first year we might do three to four million dollars in sales, and that would have been a big success. We did 53 million. And then 156 million the next year and 225 million the year after that and the year after that I burnt out. I was miserable. I felt like I was a prisoner of the spreadsheet.

Tricycle: Did the ideas that have informed the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the concerns with democracy and free speech–figure prominently in your work at Lotus?

Kapor: Not on the surface, but as we were building the business, I started getting involved with some of the public policy issues that arose in the software business. The first one was copyright problems. I found that I got a tingle from working on issues where my knowledge of technology made a material difference, but that were about something besides the technology itself, that somehow reached out and had an impact on peoples lives in a broader way.

Tricycle: Were there discussions in those days about the possibility of free access or democracy in terms of information highway technology?

Kapor: Only to a very limited extent. The first wide area computer network was started in 1969 by the Defense Department called the ARPAnet, which eventually evolved into the Internet. But in the seventies, the number of people using that was very small–a dozen campuses at most. In the late seventies computer networks started to expand; computer bulletin boards began to appear and the first on-line services like Compuserve and The Source started out. I had a sense of great possibility but in fact, I had a lot of disdain for the ARPAnet. I thought it was very elitist. You couldn’t just get an account on it at that time. You had to prove that you were worthy to get on it. When I was at MIT, I said, Oh cool, I’m an MIT student, I can get on the Internet now. MIT had open access, so open that local high school students used to pass around the phone numbers to dial in and get access. But I said, I am not going to do that. That is cheating. That’s not what the policy is. And to make people cheat to get access sends the wrong message. So I went to MIT and said, I want an account on the Internet. And they said,
Why? And I said, I just want to play around and explore. I told the truth. And they said, That’s not one of the qualifying reasons on this list. You can’t have that account. So I left, got mad, and stayed mad for a long time. That’s the kind of bureaucratic closed-mindedness we’re trying to get rid of. It was only after I’d left Lotus and several more years had gone by that these issues were on the center of my plate because of some personal experiences that I had.

Tricycle: Such as?

Kapor: Four years ago last December I spent two weeks exploring an on-line system called the Well, which is in Sausalito, California, and which was started by Stewart Brand. I fell in love all over again, just like I fell in love with the Apple II in 1978. It was a transforming experience. Here was a place, a virtual place. What I was reading was the record of conversations between groups of people on a very wide range of topics that had been collected over a period of time about everything from politics to media to current events. But it was also about the whole phenomenon of "virtual communities". That’s the first place I ever heard that phrase and where I heard about cyberspace. I said, Hey, these are interesting people, these are people I would like to get to know in the real world. Unlike all the other time over the past decade when I’d done things on-line where I’d said this is an interesting curiosity, with this, I said I’d actually like to meet these people, I want to communicate with them. They’re smart; they’re interested in the things that I’m interested in; they care about those things. I got hooked.

Tricycle: The idea of a "virtual community" was new?

Kapor: Yes. I got onto the Well [Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link], which was one of the few places where it was taken seriously. Until then, people who had been on networks had been more purely technical and interested in technical topics only; or hobbyists, like ham radio people. Some people relate to computers the way hams relate to ham radio; all they want to do is talk about their equipment, which is a perfectly nice hobby, but my appetite for that was limited. On the Well you had a set of people who were interested not in the technology in and of itself, but in what it meant.

Tricycle: Was there a specific situation that prompted you to found the EFF?

Kapor: I met a person on the Well named John Perry Barlow who is an integral part of this story, a sometimes Wyoming cattle rancher, a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, a former Republican county chairman, and a self-confessed acid head and amateur Buddhist. Later we met in physical space when he came to interview me for a computer publication: one of the other hats that he wears sometimes is journalist. We hit it off. He knew some of these kids, some hackers; he’d met them on-line and gotten to know them. He formed a picture that they were not spawn of the devil, they were teenagers who were doing what teenagers had always done which is to cross lines that people have drawn. They were misunderstood, and those people, the ones that he knew, were relatively harmless.

Tricycle: These were the kids who were getting busted because they were breaking into government files?

Kapor: Yes. They were alleged to be undermining national security–and were facing lifetime jail sentences! There was a demonology at work. What the press and the Secret Service were saying and what we thought was the case amounted to the difference between day and night. John [Barlow] and I both had our personal taste of this because we had been interviewed, separately, by the FBI in a matter related to the same case, the theft of some source code for Apple’s operating system–the instructions that makes the Macintosh what it is. The problem was, at that time, the FBI didn’t know a microchip from a cow chip. When I had my interview, I wound up feeling sorry for these guys, and gave them a computer tutorial. John, when his time came, actually wrote a piece about this called "Crime and Puzzlement," which is a classic in the field. He started framing the issues, talking about how it just wouldn’t do very well for society to have a technology racing out ahead of people’s ability to understand it. It was clear that the legal system didn’t have a clue what to do with these hackers. And then there were these kids whose lives were getting caught in the gears and were about to be chewed up.

Tricycle: So you identified with the kids?

Kapor: Yes. If I’d had a chance to be a hacker when I was a kid, I would have gone for it. And maybe I would have needed somebody to take me back behind the woodshed or slap me on the wrist, but felony charges and long jail terms, no way! Not for what they did. So John came to me because Lotus had left me with a lot of money. Our initial construction of this was as a civil liberties issue, saying computers represent a new medium of information and the specific problems were violations of the first and Fourth Amendment: seizures of equipment, unreasonable searches and seizures, and interference with the rights of free expression–cases involving Steve Jackson Games, who was a game manufacturer in Austin, Texas who wasn’t a hacker at all but got confused for one. They virtually shut down his business. So we thought we would have a sort of legal defense fund and hire some sharp New York civil liberties attorneys.

Tricycle: You saw that these weren’t isolated instances.

Kapor: We understood that these cases were symptomatic, the tip of a much bigger iceberg. We felt that it would be a good idea to create an organization that would try to help civilize cyberspace, to raise issues before they get to be problems, to seek to help society understand what kinds of policies we ought to have–public policies on the law side but also the broad issues of ethics and morals and civil liberties, and thus was born the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Tricycle: But your motivation was more complex than just to protect a few individuals?

Kapor: It was an issue of the destruction of community. This new good thing that was developing in cyberspace, communities of people on-line, was in danger of being disrupted and ruined. I think that that was something we were not very clear about and because of that, we were cast into the role of pure civil libertarians, which I found to be an uncomfortable suit of clothing. While free expression issues matter enormously, they are not the only issues that matter.

Tricycle: For example?

Kapor: Well, for instance, it seems a very poor species of liberalism that is only interested in protecting the right of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie. That is certainly important, but the real question is how do we have a society in which those evil seeds cannot take root? You cannot achieve that simply by enforcing the First Amendment. If you have a hundred units of resources to spend, how many of them do you spend on getting them their permit, and how many of them do you spend on building the kind of society that makes it less likely that such a thing would ever emerge? Some people want to spend a hundred units just on getting the permit. We wanted to have a kind of balance expenditure, but the problem was that we had a very specific program for half of it–for the civil liberties piece–which was hire some lawyers, defend rights in these cases, so we could immediately engage in the specific programs; hire a staff attorney to help educate BBS system operators and users of BBS in the law enforcement community on the nature of these legal issues.

Tricycle: And you won your first case?

Kapor: We won a big case, but even more importantly we were able to establish a dialogue with law-enforcement and found out that efforts were being made within the law-enforcement community to get educated about it, and that a lot of the problems we solved were the egregious extremes of one particular set of people. But we found that there were these very large and broad issues. For instance, if we hook everybody up in an inter-active broadband network who is going to determine its uses? Are you going to be able to use this in the way that you see fit in your life and say what you want to say, or is some large impersonal and uncaring mega-conglomerate going to view it as a channel for delivering more and more least common denominator entertainment? We started an organization that could be responsive in a number of ways through doing public policy work, some lobbying, some evangelism in the sense of educating people to new ideas. A lot of what we do is actually bringing together disparate groups of people who aren’t talking to each other but who should be, or people who are talking to each other but are using different languages and don’t understand that their inability to get along derives in large part from the fact that they just don’t understand each other–you have a convergence going on between computers and consumer electronics and telephones and cable television, each of which has its own practiced traditions, its own discourse. So we give a lot of parties, as it were.

Tricycle: Why have you been called the Thomas Jefferson of the Internet?

Kapor: Well he was a decentralist, that’s my term; he was suspicious in the extreme of the power of large institutions to oppress and he came to believe that the proper form of government would be a ward and council system at the local level. He thought that individuals and communities ought to control themselves, not some abstract, distant, remote, uncaring inefficient entity. He said, "If we had to depend on Washington to defend our crops we would never harvest anything." The view that prevailed however was a Federalist view that emphasized a stronger central government. He would have been opposed to big companies- on the grounds that larger powerful institutions would dampen and demean the human spirit. So what is Jeffersonian about my view on cyberspace is that there will be similar battles for control of it: will the rules be made centrally? will the use of the resources and accesses to it and the determination of who can say what or can you say anything at all? Is that going to be made by some centralized authority, whether private or public? You need to decentralize technology and decentr
alize the set of policies and that is very Jeffersonian.

Tricycle: And that is at the heart of the EFF?

Kapor: The broad concern is to decentralize a lot of the power in this society. To have more of a balance and to have individuals in small groups to be less disadvantaged vis-a- vis large institutions, whether they be private or public. What makes EFF what it is politically is not that it’s particularly left or right but that it’s decentralist, as opposed to authoritarian.

Tricycle: And you have to be in Washington physically–not virtually–to defend this position?

Kapor: That’s where the action is, like it or not. You can stick your head in the sand, you can be cynical but what goes on in Washington affects your life in major ways, and not to participate in that is to abandon responsibility for your own future so you have to get out of denial. We are wiring together two poles that are normally very distinct, and a lot of energy flows back and forth on that circuit. And that is between the Net–the culture of cyberspace, the pioneers, the hackers–and people inside the Beltway.

Tricycle: So you started the EFF in Cambridge and then moved offices to DC because of the public policy aspects?

Kapor: John [Perry Barlow] and I went to Washington to get educated in 1990. We saw that it was a nexus of activity, that it as much as we believed in discussion by electronic mail, much of the important things happen face-to-face and in meetings and we needed to establish a Washington presence. Many people on the Internet thought that by relocating entirely to Washington which we did a year ago, we were selling out our constituents. We went through an identity crises and decided that we didn’t have constituents in the formal sense. We were not trying to set ourselves up as the provisional or territorial government of cyberspace. Some people assumed that we were doing that!

Tricycle: The "government" of cyberspace seems to contradict the very quality that cyberspace is about.

Kapor: It’s only an apparent contradiction. We were grappling all along with the fact that you couldn’t keep cyberspace in a "state of nature." Willy-nilly, it would be civilized after some fashion, because large and established interests would come in and seek to establish claims: "We own this piece" or "We will make the rules on this network." That courts would make interpretations for cyberspace to remain extraterritorial for the long term was actually a foolish and romantic wish. So the notion of a government in cyberspace is not as completely peculiar as it first sounds.

Tricycle: And you were supposed to be elected officials of cyberspace?

Kapor: Some network users did look at us their representatives, that somehow we had established a moral obligation to represent their interests. We ultimately decided that we wanted to be part of the democratic process, but we didn’t want to be the process itself. We wanted to be able to disagree with people, to stand up for what we thought was right, to find other people to work with and affiliate on issues. But we didn’t want to become a representative body pushed in that direction. And people felt we had sold out, that we had been captured by the lure of playing power politics inside the Beltway.

Tricycle: I gather that Gore understands the policy dilemmas, but I also understand that there are many senators who don’t even understand what being on-line means.

Kapor: Out of the 535 senators and representatives, a handful get it. Congresspersons tend to look for simple ways to understand complex problems and they try to support approaches which are consistent with their general approach to political life. It would be easier and better for us in a sense if there were the time and ability to really get everybody to understand all the issues–that would be like heaven. But as it is you have to market your ideas. That introduces the possibility, if you are an interest group, whether commercial or public, of the risk of falsification, of the advertising pitch taking over from the substance. So it introduces an additional risk and problem of how do you stay faithful to your own principles and truth when the people that you need to persuade are actually not dealing with things at the level of the truth.

Tricycle: Is the level of truth obscured by information overload?

Kapor: Yes. Data shock. The information highways are in reality still mostly unpaved. The cost of acquisition of information is really high. Information is not well organized. The Internet is like a gigantic library whose card catalogue has been spilled on the floor. A lot of that is a function of its immaturity and that it will evolve over time to become simpler. But there is a larger ontological problem lurking behind it; it has been reported to me that Marvin Minsky, one of the gurus of artificial intelligence, has said that he prefers virtual sunsets to real sunsets–a virtual sunset meaning a representational image done in a computer graphics–because it’s perfect, and you can have it whenever you want it. I would say that if we lose our ability to prefer the real over the virtual, we have a sickness of the soul that will be far greater than anything that has been previously imagined. Reality–and I’m just talking about the physical world–the part of isness that’s manifests itself–is deep. It is mysterious. It is complex. It is always changing. And a real sunset or a real anything, is always going to be real in a way that any representation of it is not, and the representation is going to lose something. We really are in danger of losing that distinction to the point where people are not even aware that there is a distinction to be made, and that would be terribly dangerous. It requires a kind of higher wisdom to know both at the social level and at the individual level, how to use the tools of technology and to use these new digital media appropriately.

Tricycle: Can the new technology itself be used to cultivate that higher wisdom?

Kapor: There is no guarantee and we can’t rely on the technology itself to do that and we can’t escape from the necessity of making choices and living with the consequences of those choices. I can see a fork in the road, two different kinds of outcomes and uses, which will no doubt be mixed up together, but I worry about which will predominate: you can learn to use the technology in a way that enhances your human contact such that your interactions with people on-line have the same character and take place in the same moral universe as your actions with people in the real world. And the great thing about it is that you can leverage a modest amount of face-to-face contact with a lot of electronically mediated contact if you go about it in this spirit. So there are people that I have met with whom I am in correspondence, they’re part of my universe, we share information, we do things together. But it is in the spirit of the notion that we are all kind of connected in the real world. If you go about this as some play universe in which it doesn’t matter what you do ultimately, in which there is no connection to it, in which it is kind of an escape, then it’s a sort of addiction to not dealing with things. That potential is clearly there, and it’s there in spades. So we make one set of choices now about whether we build a system that is biased toward that or not. I don’t think we should build a system that is biased towards turning people into interactive, virtual reality couch potatoes. We have choices.

Tricycle: How does the two-way system in itself function as a corrective to the human inclination toward delusion?

Kapor: A system that is a two-way interactive lets people be their own originators and creators, and that is necessary but not sufficient. Ultimately, we have to look outside the technology and outside its possibilities and ask ourselves a more fundamental set of questions like: what is the purpose of existence? How are we trying to reduce suffering?

Tricycle: That sounds very optimistic. What sounds more plausible is that a lot of people who go on-line will prefer an artificial sunset.

Kapor: Historically, it has often been the case that elites have underestimated the ability of the mass of people to respond positively and favorably to some kind of change. There are lots of people who said that American democracy would never work. I come from a background where the impossible happened more than once, so I can’t help but be an incurable optimist. But part two, suppose you’re right, what are our options? To roll back the technology? Not a chance. So what we have to do is pretty much what we are trying to do, which is to re-embed the technology in a broader moral and spiritual universe because that’s the only hope. Let us have the kind of society which, when we think about the choices that we are making in these regards, is informed by a moral and spiritual sense.

Tricycle: How are we going to go about this?

Kapor: We can build a system that is decentralized, that is not highly controlled, that enables individuals and groups with very marginal ideas to have ready access to it.

Tricycle: Why do you think that’s a good thing?

Kapor: Because if you look at history, things that we now take for granted, like women’s suffrage, started out as very radical, totally marginal ideas. There is a process by which the surviving ideas work their way towards the center over a period of time.

Tricycle: What is your life’s work about at this moment?

Kapor: I feel that I am in the early stages of reinventing myself to play on a larger public stage. I can tell you that the people I admire the most are people who have been very principled, who have adhered to a very high and uncompromising set of moral standards, who come from a commitment to truth, and who have also been very committed to social justice.

Tricycle: Who are they?

Kapor: Martin Luther King, Gandhi. Cornel West is somebody who has those qualities, an intellectual and philosopher, someone coming out of an spiritual tradition, a very hard-headed thinker, and very committed to social justice. He’s a kind of a public intellectual in the pragmatist tradition of John Dewey, which is a style of being in society which has rather fallen out of fashion and deserves a renewal. I expect the work with EFF and achieving a democratic potential of new communications technologies to remain in the foreground for me for quite some time, but I can also already kind of see the next phase, the next wave starting. It’s like an ocean–you have a bunch of waves coming in and before the wave that’s closest to the shore breaks, the next swell is mounting up.

Tricycle: I don’t know what to make of your optimism.

Kapor: It’s a chronic disposition, and therefore something to be worked with and refined. Used poorly, it blinds one to suffering, but used well, it inspires, gives hope, and sees possibilities.

To make progress on something in society, to get answers, you have to frame questions. I think that the time is really ripe for a general moral and spiritual revival or renewal. I think that people increasingly sense that something is missing and are prepared to look seriously at what that might mean in their individual lives and their family or community. I think this new medium could be a wonderful channel for that exploration and discussion because it is open and democratic and it does not depend on the buy-in of any elites to sanction it. A very specific example: I thought that the trashing the Clinton administration got on "the politics of meaning" from the mainstream media delegitimized it in an unfortunate and unnecessary way. The way the mass media, and here I am thinking of an article in the New York Times magazine took its privileged position as an arbiter of what is important (which is its right to do under our current system) was to me deeply offensive.

Tricycle: And what about the groups that preach hate and separation?

Kapor: It should be almost equally available to the Skinheads and the Nazis, and purveyors of "filth". While there ought to be limits on speech, such as on child pornography, they should be very narrowly drawn.

Tricycle: It "should be" because it has to be.

Kapor: Right. Because all of the other arrangements that we know about are far worse in their consequences. By the way, The Net is an obvious win for free speech, but its value as a seedbed for community is more problematic. I think we are fundamentally stuck as a society grappling with questions about happiness and suffering and we’ve gotten deeply off on the wrong track. So deeply that it has become illegitimate in many quarters to talk about that.

Tricycle: Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night and feel that there is a possibility that you’re like a member of the Manhattan Project, working on something that you think is really wonderful only to discover years later that you have contributed to a monster?

Kapor: Sometimes. And I try to confront that as best as I know how. Being human and being fallible, there is always a distinct possibility of coming to conclude that one’s actions were in error. Even if our vision is not really correct, it’s better than the five-hundred-channel nightmare. But sure, I may likely decide that there was too much misplaced optimism and hope on my part on the ability of the technology itself to have social value and what was really going on was simply my own excitement about new things operating in this domain and then the sort of the lack of discipline and judgment. Being aware of that I try to think critically about this. The automobile radically transformed the American landscape in unpredictable ways, but it did not make us better people. It made certain things possible, it made certain things more difficult. It created new opportunities just as it marked the demise of other opportunities. Everything is constantly changing, and to me that is not the beginning and ending of what to say about cyberspace but it’s the beginning. I think that it’s important to be well grounded precisely because it is easy, within the American spirit, to get carried away with a new enthusiasm. From the first waves of religious revival in pre-revolutionary America to the millennial impulse, enthusiasm is chronic in American history. I think there is now another wave of this in cyberspace; people see it as some omega point of development and that’s a very ahistorical view. But that aside, it does pay for us to look into the creative possibilities inherent in the new medium, to look for what it can help contribute to the liberation of the human spirit. That’s the whole point. Why else would one be interested in it?

Suggested reading:

Wired magazine.
Ithiel de Sola Pool, Technologies of Freedom.
Howard Rheingold, Virtual Community, Addison-Wesley, 1993.
Kevin Kelly, Out of Control, Addison-Wesley, 1994.
Electronic Frontier Foundation, Everybody’s Guide to the Net, MIT Press, 1994.