TCS Daily


Suits and Geeks

By Arnold Kling - March 13, 2003 12:00 AM

The influential technology writers David Weinberger and Doc Searls recently launched World of Ends, which can be viewed as an attempt to give Suits some clues about the Internet. I agree with most of what Weinberger and Searls have to say. However, I think that on the other side of the digital divide, the Geeks have some stubborn misconceptions of their own. Herewith is an attempt to balance the scales.

To encourage Suits to overcome what Searls and Weinberger call "repetitive mistake syndrome," they list ten propositions to help them learn. In that same spirit, here is a (shorter) list for Geeks.

Five Clues for Geeks

(1). Intermediaries add value.

It is true that traditional intermediaries, such as newspapers and music publishers, employ business models that are incompatible with the Internet and destined to fail. However, the Internet does not mean that the destiny is for producers to launch creative works directly to consumers. On the contrary the low cost of producing on computers and distributing over the Internet means that filtering by intermediaries becomes even more important. See Content is Crap.

(2). Property is not evil.

Searls and Weinberger point out that the Internet works most efficiently when it does not attempt to discriminate among the different types of bits that are carried over it. I describe this nondiscriminatory network as Packet Express.

However, they write as if discrimination is linked to property - that private ownership leads to discrimination. In fact, large parts of the Internet backbone are privately owned without threatening nondiscrimination. Conversely, even where television and telephone systems are not in the private sector, they are administered to limit certain types of content to certain media. It is legacy hardware, not the nature of ownership, that is the impediment to nondiscrimination.

The inefficient allocation of spectrum is due to weakness of property rights rather than the absence of a Commons. My guess is that the regulatory issues involved in creating a spectrum Commons will require years to be sorted out. Strong property rights could lead to more efficient use of spectrum much sooner.
(3). Computer animation is not a killer application.

Searls and Weinberger point out that it is a mistake to think of the Web as "a way to hold eyeballs still while advertisers spray them with messages." The Suits who are still holding their breath waiting for the Internet to morph into interactive television are running low on oxygen, with no relief in sight.

By the same token, the Geeks who impress one another with fancy FlashTM programs and other animated pyrotechnics are kidding themselves if they think that the rest of us care. The typical reaction to animated web sites is to leave as fast as you can click the mouse button.

(4). Bashing Microsoft does not make you smart.

Sometimes, I think that the easiest way to earn Whuffie (reputation) as a Geek is to write "Microsoft is clueless. Microsoft is evil. Nyah nyah-nyah nyah-nyah nyah." That is all that this essay or this interview amounts to, and they both became big hits in Geekdom.

Microsoft makes business mistakes. Microsoft software is imperfect. However, its competitors have made business mistakes that are worse. And competing software has been imperfect in ways that are more significant to many users. Just because you are thrilled with the way that some prized Linux-based app runs on your Mac does not mean that my father would be better off without WindowsTM.

(5). Markets are not exploitative.

In Economic Idiotarianism, I wrote that there are people who tend to see all transactions as either communitarian sharing (good) or authority-ranking exploitation (bad). They do not grasp the concept of arms-length, mutually-beneficial market transactions. It is the challenge of economists to explain how markets work.

The attempt to replace markets with communitarian sharing tends to deprive people of freedom. It also tends to slow the pace of innovation, because markets are more ruthless about letting outmoded companies and processes "fail faster."
Points of Agreement

The purpose of this essay is not to contest Searls and Weinberger. I was not kidding when I said that I agree with most of what they have written.

We agree that it would not be a good idea to prop up incumbent phone companies. We should not provide them with "incentives" to build fiber-to-the-home, because the market seems to be saying that the last mile will be wireless.

We agree that censorship on the Internet is foolish. We agree that the attempt to stop music file-swapping is wasteful and misdirected, and that the music industry will be reconfigured as a software service - however reluctant some current incumbents may be to accept that.

We agree that the nondiscriminatory "packet express" architecture is the cleanest and most efficient. We agree that open interconnection is better than Balkanization, so that instant messaging systems ought to be compatible with one another.

My goal is to see ignorance reduced on both sides of the Suit-Geek divide. Suits who are ignorant of the Internet ultimately do a disservice to the businesses whose outmoded practices they try to protect with misguided legal weapons. Geeks who are ignorant of markets do less harm, because they tend to limit their activities to applauding one another's manifestos. However, if the anti-market prejudice that they promote becomes more widespread, they ultimately will do a disservice to their vision of the future. That vision will arrive soonest if market forces are allowed to operate.
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