David Weinberger is a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Institute for Internet & Society. Co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto and Small Pieces Loosely Joined, he writes about technology, philosophy, and marketing. His closing presentation at Freedom to Connect recast the concept of connection in a critical yet inspiring way. What follows is a partial transcript of his remarks:
Unfortunately, I don’t know anything about the topic of the session, so I want to talk about why I’m confused. This is up the semantic stack. I want to make a suggestion about phraseology. On one hand, I’m as pessimistic as Larry Lessig. Although there are occasional victories, It seems to me that things are going really, really badly. There’s also this Tony Robbins in me, because I’m really optimistic. I’m really hopeful. I’m overstimulated every day in the good sense. This is an amazing time. And I have trouble containing these violent emotions.
I’m optimistic about human nature. We have evidence on the Internet of how surprisingly good people are. It’s all over the Internet. Wikipedia works because human nature is so f’ing good! But is the rock rolling back down the hill on us? Man, it’s just bad news after bad news. The world views are totally out of synch here. It’s not just that the people making the decisions for us don’t understand packets, it’s that they don’t understand the world we live in.
They think it’s about file sharing. It’s not about file sharing. It’s about undermining everything that’s come before. My social world includes my family, an analog family, and then a huge portion is digital. There’s a blind spot in the educational system because they do their homework online. They’ve got six IM sessions up. Three of them are about answer number 3. This is not individual homework, yet the testing systems assume it is.
There’s a world shift going on. And the disconnect is so complete. I was talking to John Perry Barlow at lunch, wondering why it is that not only do we not have legalized marijuana, it’s medically criminal. My generation all smoked pot. Now we’re in power, and we can’t do anything about it. Our children might grow up and be able to sneak in and make the changes we need because it’s not pot and you can smell it, it’s the Internet.
I want to suggest that rather than thinking about this in terms of freedom to connect, we talk about rights instead. Rights have some things going on that freedom doesn’t. Freedom is something you’re given. Rights are something that you have.
When we started, we had God and kings to whom we owed duties. It was a one-way relationship. There were some duties, but no rights. Now if you Google the word “person,” this is what you get: a man and then the government. Let’s say we have the right to free cheese from the government. Rights are things you claim. If they exist, they place obligations on other bodies.
It’s interesting to shift from freedom to rights. Locke talks about natural rights in terms of life, liberty, and happiness — or property, as it’s been transmogrified. Then we have the UN, we have rights just by virtue of being human, like healthcare. What all these things have in common is that they assume connection. It’s so commonsensical that it’s buried in the language.
Human rights require and assume connection. We are insanely social. Are there degrees of sociality? Yes, but we can’t conceive of human beings without of thinking about the social context. Now let’s move way up the stack.
What is connection? The basics are awareness of others, being able to have some sort of exchange with them, caring about them, seeing what they see. I want to offer that connection means turning to a shared world together. Not all connection is good. We know terrorists want to kill us. We know the government has secrets they need to protect from us.
Connection as a right means connection as the default. We can’t be human without being connected. Philadelphia is an amazing experience because they’re going to switch the default. Yes, ubiquitous Wi-Fi is exciting, but we don’t know what’s going to happen because they’re switching the default.
Joi Ito was at the Doors of Perception conference in Delhi. In his blog, he told a story about Gandhi. There are times and places in which meeting someone halfway betrays something. This may be one of those times.
I want to propose three truths that are self-evident — they’re not really, but they’re worth stating flat out. The first is that free music is fantastic. The world is so much better with access to that music. This is not to say that all music ought to be free. But it is to say that we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that having access to all the world’s music, fact, and fiction is awesome.
The second thing is that rules are exceptions. We are not AI-based creatures. We don’t have a set of rules that we consult. The only time we apply rules is when something is broken. Even when applying rules, we try to leave leeway. We need leeway. We need forgiveness, and we need leeway. Rules are bad. We use them only when we need to.
Anonymity is liberating. There are lots of problems with anonymity, but anonymity protects people. If you believe in the spread of democracy, you should believe in the spread of anonymity. Anonymity lets us play with ourselves, so to speak. We should not lose it. On the other side, if accountability is good, it’s a fallacy that maximum accountability is really good. Too much accountability results in accountabalism.
Let’s go back to the first three things: awareness, caring, and seeing. What are the enemies of connection? Ignorance, selfishness, and [lack of seeing]. There are simple remedies: education, emotion, and art. I’ve got this little crisis in my life, and it’s really worth getting those things aligned. But it’s more important than my own sleeping regime.
Rather than hear about the spread of democracy, I want to hear about the spread of connection. There is no freedom without connection. There is no peace without connection. There is no joy without connection. That doesn’t mean that this is about getting the protocol stack right, but it kind of is. We need to speak truth. More, louder, more directly, and in terms that are technical — and not.