Elon University

Special Session: ‘Cluetrain’ Co-author Doc Searls Shares His Foresight

An interview about the future of the Internet hosted by Lee Rainie, Pew Internet

Brief description: Doc Searls a co-author of “The Cluetrain Manifesto,” senior editor for Linux Journal, and fellow at the Berkman Center at Harvard and at the Center for Information Technology & Society at the University of California at Santa Barbara, shares his thoughts about the influence of the Web in an interview session led by Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. The event includes a public question-and-answer session.

Details of the session

In the last session of the second day, Lee Rainie sat down with Doc Searls, the Linux Journal senior editor and fellow at Harvard’s Berkman center. Rainie noted that Searls has been part of the Pew Internet Project’s network of supporters since its earliest days.

Smiling easily and sharing a good dose of his characteristic relaxed charm, he told Rainie, “I’m not geeky by nature; the only code I know is Morse… and that tells you how old I am.”

Searls briefly discussed how he got into the Linux community, and said the appeal came from his observation that the Internet empowers individuals as much as it empowers larger organizations. He also talked of the connection between the Internet and traditional building. “The language of code is the language of construction,” he said, “and the interesting thing about construction is that anybody can participate in it. And I think that is happening with code. It’s become like working with 2×4’s. If you are a serious geek you know how to do it.”

He mentioned Stewart Brand’s book “How Buildings Learn.” “One great line is ‘Form follows funding,'” he said. “There’s no urge that’s more human than to … alter space. That’s not easy to do. That ethos is present in all the devices that we are using and it is present in the net itself. The net is a simple thing. It’s a bunch of protocols. It’s not a static thing. If someone figures out a way to improve it, then they can.

“We are profoundly original and what we did with the net, well we invented a thing that isn’t a thing that allows us to participate, that isn’t a threat,” he said. “The ‘sell’ side has been in charge. We have lived inside the walled gardens of large companies. There were things that only large companies could do. Now all of us have access to capital. All of us can blog or tweet worldwide. These are no longer only the provinces of large corporations.

“Along with this comes an increase in responsibility on the part of the individual. How does that person participate with the ‘sell’ side? This, to me, is the big, interesting question. As consumers become participants in the economic ecosystem and as relationship starts to play in here we’re inevitably going to see new tools come into play.”

Throughout the interview, Searls continued to relate the Net to construction as well as geology. He said he sees the Internet as the ‘foundation’ for something greater, but also something temporary. “Buildings come and go, but the geology doesn’t, and the geology is the Net,” Searls said.

As a “correctly-labeled ‘Techno-uptopian,’” Searls maintained his optimism for the future of the Internet throughout the majority of the talk. When Rainie asked what he believes threatens innovation, Searls responded by saying that the originality of human beings could be endless. He elaborated by discussing some of his exciting initiatives, such as the Listen Log, which allows users to log what they listen to. In terms of public radio and other radio, Searls said he loves the idea of “giving people a way to see what it is they value.”

He had few kind words for the telecommunications companies that operate as Internet Service Providers, asking, “Can we liberate the ability to install the Internet from the phone and cable companies?” And he spoke confidently about Bob Frankston’s prediction that we will have “ambient connectivity.”

Rainie then moved to a question about the notion of property, and what the current world has wrong with its very definition.

“Intellectual property is absolutely an oxymoron,” Searls said. “Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin had a dialogue about this. [Jefferson wrote: ‘He who receives an idea from me receives [it] without lessening [me], as he who lights his [candle] at mine receives light without darkening me.’] Ideas spred like fire. You can’t ‘own’ fire.

“We would not have the Internet now if people had asserted intellectual property control. We’d have a better phone system. JP Rangaswami of British Telecom, a good friend of mine, calls it the ‘because effect.’ You make money because of the Internet, not with the Internet. Google makes money because of search, not with search. Google gets it. They call it the second- and third-order effects – I think we’re lucky to have them out there, actually. But most people don’t have this down yet. We’re stuck in this industrial-age space.”

Searls explained value beyond the physical realm, and how morality can play a role in the creation of this value. He contrasted two morality principles: the exchange, where one item is traded for another; and the relationship, where there is no transaction taking place, and there is no price put on love.

According to Searls, the Internet falls in the second category, where it is something so inherently generous, yet no physical exchange or transaction is taking place.

Rainie challenged the generosity, and asked the normally optimistic Searls what worries him for the future. He discussed global warming prospects, and the notion of running out of Earth’s vital elements.

He compared our state to the condition of ants with a hill on the sidewalk – eventually someone will step on it.

“I hope the Internet will help us see that,” he said.

-By Rachel Cieri and Janna Anderson, Imagining the Internet

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