The Harvard Conference on the Internet and Society.
Random Notes.


After a busy weekend in New York, I arrived in Boston on Tuesday morning, to an absolutely perfect spring day. Sitting on stone steps in Harvard Yard, sandwich in hand, next to a statue of old John Harvard himself ... the perfect prologue.

Visions of the future

Two keynote speeches, one by Bill Gates and one by Scott McNealey of Sun Microsystems, predicted very different scenarios for the future of computing and the Internet.

Gates is counting on the continued predominance of PC's. As one participant put it, "a mainframe on every desktop". With its control of the PC software market, Microsoft expects to integrate the Internet right into its systems. In a sense, the Internet would become another disk-drive for the desktop computer user.

Not surprisingly, Scott McNealey, CEO of Sun Microsystems, sees things very differently. Sun is the producer of Java, a basic programming language that is meant to run on any Web browser, on any "platform", thus acting as a sort of lingua franca or Rosetta stone of the networked computer world. Sun is credited with the phrase "the network is the computer". McNealey (and some others at the conference) believe that the future is not in increasingly powerful desktop computers but in concentrating more computing power in the network itself. This vision sees the future belonging to small, inexpensive devices, each with its own internet address, each able to run Java (or its equivalent) and browse the Web. Obviously, there is much less of a role for Microsoft in this scheme of things.

What about Netscape in all of this? Unfortunately, Jim Clark, the CEO of Netscape who was to have given the first keynote speech, was a no-show. At one of the panels, I asked where Netscape would fit in between the two competing scenarios. The answer was: "Netscape's vision is more like Microsoft's, only it sees itself replacing Microsoft". Laughter from the audience.

Content

I was particularly interested in issues of content provision and intellectual property rights. Who creates, who sponsors, who pays?

In a panel on intellectual property rights, one of the participants gave a very clear view of the issue: the purpose of copyright protection is to promote the creation of new works. Too little and too much protection both stifle creativity. Too little protection doesn't afford authors enough financial incentives to create; too much cuts them off from the raw building blocks of their art. Finding the right balance is the problem. There was much disagreement whether current efforts at applying existing copyright laws to the Net are appropriate or not.

Along these lines, there is fear that the ease with which material can be distributed and copied on the Internet will threaten authors and publishers. On the other hand, an analogy was drawn to the introduction of VCR's. Hollywood "howled" when VCR's were introduced, but VCR's turned out to be its salvation, by spawning a whole industry of made-for-TV movies and creating a secondary market for feature films.

As for the financing of content, Christine Maxwell, co-founder of the McKinley Group (the "Magellan" index on the Web), echoed Esther Dyson's view that most content on the Web will be sponsored or given away for free. In her view, content will be financed more by the provision of unique services than by the ownership of static property rights (since things are so easily copied on the Net). As an example, ownership of the Medline database is less valuable than providing a novel and useful search engine for that database. Service is the name of the game, rather than creating works and then profiting from copyright.

There was general agreement that content is proliferating way out of control, with an urgent need to filter and index. Indexing efforts will, in fact, become a big growth area within the Internet itself.

Communities and culture

Although the title of the conference was the Internet and Society, there was much more about technology, commerce and government regulation than about societal aspects, with a few exceptions. While Larry Tesler of Apple computers, Scott McNealy and Bill Gates spoke mainly about their companies' vision, Steven McGeady from Intel gave a wonderful address that was almost pure philosophy (in fact, his background is in philosophy and physics). He compared the Internet revolution to Gutenberg's work, which was not able to really take hold until Martin Luther translated the Bible into the vernacular during the Reformation, providing content to be widely distributed by the printing press. At its inception, the world wasn't quite ready for the printing press.

By analogy, McGeady argued, the Internet is still being used like the old broadcast media, to blanket us with information, rather than being exploited for its unique potential to allow interaction. Interactivity and community formation were his key points. For now, as he put it, browsing the Web is like "walking through a shopping mall that was neutron-bombed -- lots of merchandise, but there's nobody there". His talk was the high point of the conference.

On the last day, a panel debated Cultural Imperialism on the Net. Mainly about the pervasive influence of English, and the fears that the world will descend into a homogenized, impoverished culture. Some expressed these fears, others felt that the Internet would allow greater exposure to different cultures and would easily accomodate local interests. The former French Minister of Culture, Jacques Atali, gave an interesting perspective: he thinks the influence of the Net is grossly overestimated at present, and is more concerned about the effect of American movies than about the Web. On the other hand, he foresees a future where imperialism will come not from a single country, but from an international ruling elite, all on-line. As he termed it, a nomadic elite, all carrying laptops, a virtual tribe, several million strong.

These were the high points of the conference, for me. There was more, some of which I attended, some of which I couldn't, because panels were held simultaneously (I think this is the first multi-day conference that I sat through without playing hookey). There were only two panels on medicine. One on AIDS and the Internet was so sparsely attended that I left after a few minutes. Another, about the uses of the Net for research and clinical care was excellent, although nothing earth-shaking was presented.

After a rainy Wednesday and Thursday, Friday was another glorious spring day. Harvard was at its most attractive, again, but it was time to get back to New York.


May 31, 1996


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