"And I saw the Holy City, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God ... its radiance like a most rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal ... By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it." --
The Book of Revelations
So the history of revolutions, just like the philosopher said, is in fact sad and strange. They never last long, inevitably grow corrupted by private interests, and often wind up failing the very people who worked so hard to make them. They veer off in unanticipated directions, have unforeseen consequences, cause casualties among the innocent. They can also do incalculable good while they last, advancing noble ideals, improving lives, giving people a powerful sense of freedom and creation. Sometimes, their effects can't be seen or measured for years.
Yet the goals of revolutions often remain unattainable, at least during the lifetimes of their creators.
It's too soon to say for sure, but the state of this revolution, the Net Revolution, can't ultimately be judged by the ups and downs of the stock market, by the fleeting passions of venture capitalists, by the willingness of traditional institutions to embrace it, by the hysterical judgments of the popular media, by the revenue it generates, by the narrow perspectives of techo-elites who created it, or the people who misuse, abuse or exploit it.
Those drawn into this particular revolution for reasons other than gain and profit will have to accept, as others have over the centuries, that they may never get to enjoy watching the rest of society come around. Nor will they necessarily get to rest and enjoy the fruits of their labors. They may get a taste of immortality, by leaving sites, archives, and plenty of code behind. But they may never get to the New Jerusalem.
Once established, free institutions always have to defend and re-assert themselves against the profit motive of capital, the tenacious power of entrenched political elites, and what Hannah Arendt called the "authoritarian" logic of bureaucratic systems. (In our time, she might have added the monopolistic logic of "corporatist" systems as well.)
These are, historically, powerful forces, and they tend to win conflicts, since they have money, law and leaders on their side. Since the Net has no institutions of freedom, only vast, networked collectives of individuals, this particular kind of freedom -- the search for free space beyond conventional media and politics -- may end up a personal choice, even a lonely struggle.
Some of the most powerful ideas coming from any revolution are works-in-progress, beacons, places we want to reach but possibly never will. Perhaps the trip itself, more than the destination, is the point.
For those who believe they are involved in a struggle to liberate and re-distribute information, to create and problem-solve for the joy of it, to learn for the love of it, to share the labors of their work generously with others, the revolution is more than worth its challenges and disappointments. For those whose primary interest is to gather data, play games, chat or amuse themselves, many of these issues are irrelevant. Party on.
This revolution -- a convergence of programming, computing, and coding with the Net and the Web -- isn't over, so much as it's reeling from the harsh realities of contemporary life. Everybody likely has his own nominees for the most enduring ideas and movements of the unfinished Net Revolution. My two are the hacker and the Open Source movement, the two most inherently political, idealistic and powerful ideas, the two most likely to leave marks on the world. Open source software, whose explosive growth grew directly out of the Net, has turned out to be a viral transmitter of openness. It is hard to imagine how it could ever be shut down.
The hackers brought joy, freedom, exploration and enterprise back to work, and more than any other single group, sparked the computer and Net revolutions. They led one of history's great outpourings of freedom and innovation. Someday, there will be statues of Phiber Optic and the like in front of important public buildings.
Open Source and it's offspring, open media and an open society, may well prove the most enduring legacies of the technological revolution still underway. They challenge the rest of society to be more honest, open, autonomous, self-critical and generous -- worthy goals for any social movement. They're both intensely political, and capture the spirit of being free and making something new. These things will ultimately drive enormous change in the way society and culture work. The spirit of Open Source has probably liberated more information for good than any other single ethos, and created an enormous, cohesive, and intrinsically political sub-culture, one of the biggest and most powerful of the Net Revolution. Proprietary instititions, from education to media, will have no choice but to open up the processes by which they operate. From Napster to Freenet, the movement towards open information culture has exposed countless people to culture, information and innovation they would previously have been unable to see.
Last month, a programmer named Andrew Steele e-mailed me a message about the Biblical parable in which Jesus blesses a mere two loaves of bread and five fish and then distributes the food to a large, hungry crowd. After everyone has eaten, a large amount of food remains. Christians know this story well.
"Being one who tries to hold the tension between my faith and my scientific understanding of this world, I have long ago interpreted this passage as one where the generosity of the boy leads others to be generous with the food they had." Still a miracle, wrote Steele, but not one which violates physics. "Is generosity the raw material of miracles?" Steele wondered.
I don't know, but it might be the raw material of revolution. The generous nature of Open Source has advanced technology, humbled the world's most powerful corporation, returned some control of media and information to individual human beings, and established a new kind of freedom beyond censorship; it threatens the very foundations of an intrinsically closed culture. But Open Source may very well mean that the institutions that run the world will have to come out into the sunlight where everybody can see them. Isn't that one of the core ideas?
In the end, Open Source isn't about software code, of course. As author Glyn Moody says in Rebel Code, it's about "creation, beauty and what hackers call 'fun' -- though 'joy' would be nearer the mark. They are about the code within that is at the root of all that is best in us, that rebels against the worst, and that will exist as long as humans endure."
It may be that this revolution is, like the spiritual city, an idea more than a reality. This revolution is another "bubble," writes Bill Bumgarner of Codefab, another revolutionary new technology -- railroads, gold mines, steam engines -- that promised to bring the whole world closer together and unify everyone under one single God, but ultimately burst to some degree because very few people really understand the way technology or markets really work. New techologies are revolutionary, says Bumgarner, just not quite to the degree their adherents sometimes expect.
"Hey! Calm down," urged Amir Karger, a student at Yale. The information revolution is inevitable, he says. "Once the genie's out of the bottle, it won't go back in." Karger says he's confident that in 50 years the world will be a better place because of the Net. "Maybe not in exactly the ways we expect, but better. Spreading information may not be the 100 percent good some people say it is, but in general, it'll be more a force for good than evil."
Richard Akerman wrote that he too was somewhat disappointed by the Net Revolution, but is still optimistic. "What has happened in reality is in line with all of the technological upheavals of the 20th cenbtury -- increased democratization, which I think ultimately has to be good." Many of the early promises of digital empowerment have, in fact, come to pass, says Akerman. Individuals by the millions are now content providers.
Good points, and true.
So the New Jerusalem of this Revolution is still unclear, the crystal city shrouded in fog. But the hackers did in fact, pull off one revolution within another: they saved the Net and the Web from corporate and political domination, and created an energetic, creative and passionately involved community that creates its own corner of the information world.