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He’s Got Mail

Roughly half the book is a constitutional and political analysis supporting this view of free expression, and it is convincing and clear. The first kind of exposure, to information one has not chosen in advance, is important because otherwise one’s views would never change. The second kind of exposure, to common experiences, is especially important in a big, racially and economically diverse nation in which citizens may have very few assumptions in common. America’s “shared experiences” of the last generation have largely been spectacles: entertainment (the Oscars, Survivor); sports (the Super Bowl); “public” events that attracted more attention for their melodramatic rather than their political meaning: the O.J. Simpson trial, the death of Princess Diana, the Gary Condit affair, even the sex drama that became the occasion for a presidential impeachment. The reaction to the September 11 attacks was the most truly consequential shared experience in at least a generation.

There was another half to republic .com, and a less convincing one. Having defined the kind of free expression that was necessary for democracy, Sunstein went on to identify a major threat to it: namely, the Internet. In particular, he was concerned about the “filtering” and the personalizing technology of the Internet, which would in principle allow people to define in advance exactly the information they did—and did not—want to see. The more efficient the filter, the less chance that a citizen would be exposed to healthy surprise—or share experiences with the rest of society. As technology evolved, democracy would deteriorate. The “Daily Me” was Sunstein’s name for the news publication of the future. It would destroy the underpinnings of the “us” that is democracy.

His book began with a “thought experiment” about the nature of this new world:

It is some time in the future. Technology has greatly increased people’s ability to “filter” what they want to read, see, and hear…. With the aid of a television or computer screen, and the Internet, you are able to design your own newspapers and magazines….

You need not come across topics and views that you have not sought out. Without any difficulty, you are able to see exactly what you want to see, no more and no less.

In reality, we are not so very far from complete personalization of the system of communications,” he concludes. “The changes now being produced by new communications technologies are understated, not overstated, by the thought experiment with which I began.”

This line of reasoning, which warns against the Internet as an impediment to democracy, has two problems: one involves the Internet, and the other involves the nonelectronic ways in which citizens interact.

Sunstein’s warnings last spring about the ominously perfect info-filtering technology did not, to put it mildly, have the easy authority shown in his discussions of the First Amendment. They were more like suburban fretting about the bad things that must be happening on the other side of town. After his opening “thought experiment,” Sunstein proceeded with a list of Internet companies whose advanced filtering technologies were leading to the “Daily Me.” Several of these companies had gone out of business by the time Sunstein’s book appeared, and several more have since. Sunstein can’t have spent much time using any of these sites if he thinks their filtering is effective enough to pose a threat. To see for yourself, go to one of the main news sites that offers a personalized compendium of information, such as CNN.com, MSNBC.com, or Go.com, and see how “me”-like you can make it. You can set it to display your city’s weather, and the stock quotes you care about, and the movie listings in your neighborhood, and the scores for the local teams. But the rest of the information you see has a high chance of being “unexpected.”

The filtering available on Internet sites is primitive compared to the filters, cushions, and blinders that surround us the rest of the time. The patterns Sunstein warns about—a lack of shared experience and the balkanization of Americans according to class, region, religion, and ethnicity—are real and worrisome enough. But the Internet is a trivial source of the problem—let’s say one thousandth as important as the educational system, from school districts with their unequal funding to the faulty system of college admissions. Or residential patterns. Or who marries whom. Or tax policy. Or the existing broadcast media, which let you drive coast to coast listening to nothing but right-wing talk radio or NPR. Or cable TV, with one channel showing only bass fishermen and another showing only success-motivation seminars. Or patterns of commuting, which have evolved from buses to cars, and remove people from accidental contact with others. You could un-invent the Internet and still have every problem Sunstein fears.

The discussion of Sunstein’s book since it was published has itself been telling. In its summer issue last year, the Boston Review printed comments on republic.com from seven scholars and writers. All sympathized with Sunstein’s concern about ensuring healthy, democratic discussion. Most were skeptical about the Internet as a source of the problem.3

Michael Schudson, of the University of California–San Diego, said, “The Internet may very well reduce our common media fare, as Sunstein fears, but even in our mass-mediated era we do not live very much of our lives through the media.” He mentioned the evidence that the Internet may actually encourage more civic engagement—through means as simple as e-mailed community newsletters—rather than less.

Ronald Jacobs, of SUNY–Albany, argued persuasively that major portals like yahoo.com and aol.com, with their search engines, links to news stories, chat and message board services, and advertising, “function precisely like the general interest intermediaries that Sunstein thinks are so important. That is, they provide unanticipated encounters as well as common experiences.” Shanto Iyengar, of Stanford, said there was no “serious ground for concern that online sources will only attract users who already share their points of view. The available evidence suggests the contrary.” Henry Jenkins, of MIT, offered a sarcastic “thought experiment” of his own:

Some years ago, a local bank announced plans to discontinue its “Time and Temperature” service, prompting me to whimsical speculation about how this decision could lead to total anarchy. Without a means of synchronization, our clocks would gain or lose time until we drifted out of sync with each other. Workers would arrive late or leave early; teachers wouldn’t know when to end classes; participants in social and professional gatherings would stomp off impatiently when the expected party failed to arrive. Some groups of friends might create their own time zones and ignore everyone else.

Running through all these comments is an appreciation of something that Sunstein may not have wasted enough time in front of a computer to share. Compared with most other indoor activities, time with the Internet is less filtered, more open-ended, more likely to lead to surprises. If you read a book or magazine, you usually keep reading. If you watch a video, you watch. But if you start looking up information on Web sites, you almost never end up where you expected. There’s a link to something you’d never heard of before, some news you hadn’t known was interesting. It’s not the same as walking to a new part of town, but it’s a lot more surprising than listening to the radio. The feeling is similar to that of going through library stacks—if there were no dust and you could instantly zoom from floor to floor.

In a forthcoming book, Small Pieces, Loosely Joined,4 David Weinberger, who runs the Web site “Journal of the Hyperelinked Organization” at www .hyperorg.com, elaborates this theme of the chaotic, always surprising nature of the Internet. Without mentioning Sunstein’s book, he refutes its central claim that the Internet has a narrowing effect on people’s minds. With the World Wide Web’s ceaseless growth, he says,

there is more and more to distract us—more sites to visit, more arguments to jump into, more dirty pictures to download, more pure wastes of time. The fact that the Web is distracting is not an accident. It is the Web’s hyperlinked nature to pull our attention here and there. But it is not clear that this represents a weakening of our culture’s intellectual powers, a lack of focus…. Maybe set free in a field of abundance, our hunger moves us from three meals a day to day-long grazing…. Perhaps the Web isn’t shortening our attention span. Perhaps the world is just getting more interesting.

I suppose I shouldn’t say that the Boston Review exchange illustrates the give-and-take of the Internet, since it originally appeared in the printed magazine. But the seven responses, and Sunstein’s reply, are now available on line along with two dozen other Boston Review exchanges.5 The very ease of reading through them that way, and comparing them with comments in other exchanges on other topics posted months or years earlier, creates a kind of discovery and linkage that would be harder to equal in any other way. What it could lead to politically is as unpredictable as ever.

Sunstein responded to the Boston Review replies with an intriguing shift of position. He began his response, which also serves as an afterword to the forthcoming paperback edition of his book, with this restatement of his two main contentions:

  1. A democracy requires both a range of common experiences and unanticipated, unchosen exposures to diverse topics and ideas. For those who accept this claim, democracy might well be jeopardized by a system in which each person decides, in advance, what to see and what not to see….

  2. The Internet is bad for democracy, because it is reducing common experiences and producing a situation in which people live in echo chambers of their own design. For those who accept this second claim, the current communications system is inferior to one in which general interest intermediaries dominated the scene.

I endorse the first claim…. But I do not endorse the second claim. I believe that the second claim is basically wrong, because the Internet is allowing millions of people to expand their horizons and to encounter new worlds of topics and ideas.

You have to admire the panache of this statement. Apparently the Boston Review panel was lulled, as I was, into misunderstanding Sunstein’s true intent, by sentences in the book such as “For countless people, the Internet is producing a substantial decrease in unanticipated, unchosen encounters,” or “There can be no assurance of freedom in a system committed to the ‘Daily Me.’” But I also take his revised view as a sign of the collective effort underway to improve and revise our understanding of this new technology—and the likelihood that whatever we think now may soon prove wrong.

An E-mail from Bill Gates

Denying he ever said “640K should be enough for anyone,” Bill Gates wrote me recently as follows. Some technical expressions are explained in brackets:

This is one of those “quotes” that won’t seem to go away.

I’ve explained that it’s wrong when it’s come up every few years, including in a newspaper column and in interviews.

There is a lot of irony to this one. Lou Eggebrecht (who really designed the IBM PC original hardware) and I wanted to convince IBM to have a 32-bit address space, but the 68000 [a Motorola-designed processing chip, eventually used in the Apple Macintosh] just wasn’t ready. Lew had an early prototype but it would have delayed things at least a year.

The 8086/8088 [the Intel-designed chip used in early personal computers] architecture has a 20-bit address bus [the mechanism used by the microprocessor to access memory; each additional “bit” in the address bus doubles the amount of memory that can be used], and the instruction set [the basic set of commands that the microprocessor understands] only generates 20-bit addresses.

I and many others have said the industry “uses” an extra address bit every two years, as hardware and software become more powerful, so going from 16-bit to 20-bit was clearly not going to last us very long. The extra silicon to do 32-bit addressing is trivial, but it wasn’t there. The VAX was around and all the 68000 people did was look at the VAX! 2 to the 20th is 1 megabyte (1024K), so you might ask why the difference between 640K and 1024K—where did the last 384K go?

The answer is that in that 1M of address space we had to accommodate RAM [random access memory], ROM [read-only memory], and I/O addresses [Input/Output addresses used for “peripherals” like keyboards, disk drives, and hard drives], and IBM laid it out so those other things started at 640K and used all the memory space up to 1M. If they had been a bit more careful we could have had 800K instead of 640K available.

In fact, we had 800K on the Sirius machine, which I got to have a lot of input on (designed by Chuck Peddle, who did the Commodore Pet and the 6502, too). The key problem though is not getting to use only 640K of the 1M of address space that was available. It’s the 1M limit, which comes from having only 20 bits of address space, which is all that chip can handle!

So, this limit has nothing to do with any Microsoft software.

Although people talk about previous computing as 8-bit, it was 16-bit addressing in the 8080/Z80/6800/6502 [all early processing chips]. So we had only 64K of addressability.

Amazingly people like Bob Harp (Vector Graphics—remember them?) went around the industry saying we should stick with that and just use bank switching techniques. Bank switching comes up whenever an address space is at the end of its life. It’s a hack where you have more physical memory than logical memory. Fortunately we got enough applications moved to the 8086/8 machines to get the industry off of 16-bit addressing, but it was clear from the start the extra 4 bits wouldn’t be sufficient for long.

Now you MIGHT think that the next time around the chip guys would get it right.

But NO, instead of going from 20 bits to 32 bits, we got the 286 chip next. Intel had its A team working on the 432 (remember that? Fortune had a silly article about how it was so far ahead of everyone, but it was a dead end even though its address space was fine). The 286’s address space wasn’t fine. It only had 24 bits. It used segments instead of pages and the segments were limited to 24 bits.

When Intel produced the 32-bit 386 chip, IBM delayed doing a 386 machine because they had a special version of the 286 that only they could get, and they ordered way too many of them.

It’s hard to remember, but companies were chicken to do a 386 machine before IBM. I went down to Compaq five times and they decided to be brave and do it. They came out with a 386 machine! So finally the PC industry had a 32-bit address space.

We have just recently passed through the 32-bit limit and are going to 64-bit. This is another complex story. Itanium is 64-bit. Meanwhile, AMD on its own has extended the x86 to 64-bit.

Even 64-bit architecture won’t last forever, but it will last for quite a while since only servers and scientific stuff have run out of 32-bit space right now. In three or four years the industry will have moved over to 64-bit architecture, and it looks like it will suffice for more than a decade.

Apollo actually did 128-bit architecture really early, as did some IBM architectures. But there are tradeoffs that made those not ever become mainstream.

A long answer to just say “no.” I don’t want anyone thinking that the address limits of the PC had something to do with software or me or a lack of understanding of the history of address spaces.

My first address space was the PDP-8. That was a 12-bit address space!

Even the 8008, at 14 bits, was a step up from that.

  1. 3

    I also wrote an article questioning some of Sunstein’s claims about the Internet when the book first came out. It was published in the Industry Standard, a magazine covering the Internet economy, which in the year 2000 sold 7,558 advertising pages, more than any other magazine in history, and in 2001 went out of business. See www.thestandard.com/article/0,1902,23229,00.html.

  2. 4

    David Weinberger, Small Pieces, Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web (Perseus, May 2002).

  3. 5

    See bostonreview.mit.edu/ndf.html.

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