``Free as Air, Free As Water, Free As Knowledge''

by Bruce Sterling

Speech to the Library Information Technology Association
June 1992, San Francisco CA

Hi everybody. Well, this is the Library Information Technology Association, so I guess I ought to be talking about libraries, or information, or technology, or at least association. I'm gonna give it a shot, but I want to try this from an unusual perspective. I want to start by talking about money.

You wouldn't guess it sometimes to hear some people talk, but we don't live in a technocratic information society. We live in a highly advanced capitalist society. People talk a lot about the power and glory of specialized knowledge and technical expertise. Knowledge is power --- but if so, why aren't knowledgeable people in power? And it's true there's a Library of Congress. But how many librarians are there in Congress?

The nature of our society strongly affects the nature of our technology.

It doesn't absolutely determine it; a lot of our technology is sheer accident , serendipity, the way the cards happened to fall, who got the lucky breaks, and, of course, the occasional eruption of genius, which tends to be positively unpredictable by its nature. But as a society we don't develop technologies to their ultimate ends. Only engineers are interested in that kind of technical sweetness, and engineers generally have their paychecks signed by CEOs and stockholders. We don't pursue ultimate technologies. Our technologies are actually produced to optimize financial return on investment. There's a big difference.

Of course there are many elements of our lives that exist outside the money economy. There's a lot going on in our lives that's not-for-profit and that can't be denominated in dollars. ``The best things in life are free,'' the old saying goes. Nice old saying. Gets a little older-sounding every day. Sounds about as old and mossy as the wedding vow ``for richer for poorer,'' which in a modern environment is pretty likely to be for-richer-or poorer modulo our prenuptial agreement. Commercialization. Commodification, a favorite buzzword of mine. It's a very powerful phenomenon. It's getting more powerful year by year.

Academia, libraries, cultural institutions are already under protracted commercial siege. This is the MacNeill Lehrer News Hour, brought to you by publicly supported television and, incidentally, AT&T. Welcome students to Large Northeastern University, brought to you by Pepsi-Cola, official drink of Large Northeastern. Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make ye employable. Hi, I'm the head of the microbiology department here at Large Northeastern. I'm also on the board of directors of TransGenic Corporation. The Chancellor says it's okay because a cut of the patent money goes to Large Northeastern.

Welcome to the Library of Congress. Jolt Cola is the official drink of the Library of Congress. This is our distributed electronic data network, brought to you by Prodigy Services, a joint venture of IBM and Sears. You'll notice the banner of bright-red ads that runs by your eyeballs while you're trying to access the electronic full-text of William Wordsworth. Try to pay no attention to that. Incidentally there's a Hypertext link here where you can order our Wordsworth T-shirt and have it billed to your credit card. Did I mention that the Library of Congress is now also a bank? Hey, data is data! Digits are digits! Every pixel in cyberspace is a potential sales opportunity.

Be sure to visit our library coffee-bar, too. You can rent videos here if you want. We do souvenir umbrellas, ashtrays, earrings, the works. We librarians are doing what we can to survive this economically difficult period. After all, the library is a regrettably old-fashioned institution which has not been honed into fighting trim by exposure to healthy market competition. Until now, that is!

The American library system was invented in a different cultural climate. This is how it happened. You're Benjamin Franklin, a printer and your average universal genius, and it's the Year of Our Lord 1731. You have this freewheeling debating club called the Junto, and you decide you're going to pool your books and charge everybody a very small fee to join in and read them. There's about fifty of you. You're not big people, in the Junto. You're not aristocrats or well-born people or even philanthropists. You're mostly apprentices and young people who work with their hands. If you were rich, you wouldn't be so anxious to pool your information in the first place. So you put all your leatherbound books into the old Philadelphia clubhouse, and you charge people forty shillings to join and ten shillings dues per annum....

Now forget 1731. It's 1991. Forget the leatherbound books. You start swopping floppy disks and using a bulletin board system. Public spirited? A benefit to society? Democratic institution, knowledge is power, power to the people? Maybe... or maybe you're an idealistic nut, Mr. Franklin. Not only that, but you're menacing our commercial interests. What about our trade secrets, Mr Franklin? Our trademarks, copyrights, and patents. Our intellectual property rights. Our look-and-feel. Our patented algorithms. Our national security clearances . Our export licenses. Our FBI surveillance policy. Don't copy that floppy, Mr. Franklin! And you're telling me you want us to pay taxes to support your suspicious activities? Hey, if there's a real need here, the market will meet it, Mr Franklin. I really think this ``library'' idea of yours is something better left to the private sector, Mr Franklin. No author could possibly want his books read for free, sir. Are you trying to starve the creative artist?

Let's get real, Mr Franklin. You know what's real, Mr Franklin? Money is real. You seem to be under the misapprehension that information wants to be free and that enabling people to learn and follow their own interests will benefit society as a whole. Well, we no longer believe in society as a whole. We believe in the economy as a whole - a black hole! Why should you be able to think things, and even learn things, without paying somebody for that privilege? Let's get to brass tacks, the bottom line. Money. Money is reality. You see this printed dollar bill? It' s far more real than topsoil or oxygen or the ozone layer or sunlight. You may say that this is just a piece of paper with some symbols on it, but that's sacrilege! This is the Almighty Dollar. Most of the dollars we worship are actually stored in cyberspace. Dollars are just digital ones and zeros in a network of computers, but that doesn't mean they're only virtual reality, and basically one big fantasy. No, dollars are utterly and entirely real, far more real than anything as vague as the public interest. If you're not a commodity, you don't exist!

Can you believe that Melville Dewey once said, ``free as air, free as water, free as knowledge?'' Free as knowledge? Let's get real, this is the modern world --- air and water no longer come cheap! Hey, you want breathable air, you better pay your air conditioner's power-bill, pal. Free as water? Man, if you've got sense you buy the bottled variety or pay for an ionic filter on your tap. And free as knowledge? Well, we don't know what ``knowledge'' is, but we can get you plenty of data, and as soon as we figure out how to download it straight into student skulls we can put all the teachers into the breadline and the librarians as well.

Ladies and gentlemen, there's a problem with showing Mr Franklin the door. The problem is that Mr Franklin was right in 1731 and Mr Franklin is still right! Information is not something you can successfully peddle like Coca-Cola. If it were a genuine commodity, then information would cost nothing when you had a glut of it. God knows we've got enough data! We're drowning in data. Nevertheless we're only gonna make more. Money just does not map the world of information at all well. How much is the Bible worth? You can get a Bible in any hotel room. They're worthless as commodities, but not valueless to humankind. Money and value are not identical.

What's information really about? It seems to me there's something direly wrong with the ``Information Economy.'' It's not about data, it's about attention. In a few years you may be able to carry the Library of Congress around in your hip pocket. So? You're never gonna read the Library of Congress. You'll die long before you access one tenth of one percent of it. What's important --- increasingly important --- is the process by which you figure out what to look at. This is the beginning of the real and true economics of information. Not who owns the books, who prints the books, who has the holdings. The crux here is access, not holdings. And not even access itself, but the signposts that tell you what to access --- what to pay attention to. In the Information Economy everything is plentiful --- except attention.

That's why the spin-doctor is the creature who increasingly rules the information universe. Spin doctors rule our attention. Never mind that man behind the curtain. No, no! Look at my hand! I can make a candidate disappear. Watch me pull a President out of a hat. Look! I can make these starving people disappear in a haze of media noise. Nothing up my sleeve. Presto! The facts don't matter if he can successfully direct our attention.

Spin-doctors are like evil anti-librarians; they're the Dark Side of the Force.

Librarians used to be book-pullers. Book-pullers. I kind of like the humble, workaday sound of that. I like it kind of better than I like the sound of ``information retrieval expert,'' though that's clearly where librarians are headed. Might be the right way to head. That's where the power seems to be. Though I wonder exactly what will be retrieved, and what will be allowed to quietly mummify in the deepest darkest deserts of the dustiest hard-disks.

I like libraries and librarians, I owe my career to libraries and librarians. I respect Mr. Franklin. I hate seeing books turned into a commodity and seeing access to books turned into a commodity. I do like bookstores too, and of course I earn my living by them, but I worry about them more and more. I don't like chainstores and I don't like chain distributors. We already have twelve human beings in the US who buy all the science fiction books for the twelve major American distributors. They're the information filters and the attention filters, and their criterion is the bottom line, and the bottom line is bogus and a fraud. I don't like megapublishers either. Modern publishing is owned by far too few people. They're the people who own the means of production, and worse yet, they own far too much of the means of attention. They determine what we get to pay attention to.

Of course, there are other ways, other methods, of delimiting people's attention besides merely commercial ones. Like aesthetic and cultural means of limiting attention. Librarians used to be very big on this kind of public-spirited filtering. Conceivably, librarians could get this way again with another turn of the cultural wheel. Librarians could become very correct. Holdings must be thinned, and even in electronic media the good old delete key is never far from hand.

Try reading what librarians used to say a hundred years ago Your ancestral librarians were really upset about popular novels. They carried on about novels in a way which would sound very familiar to Dan Quayle. Here's a gentleman named Dr. Isaac Ray in the 1870s. I quote him: ``The specific doctrine I would inculcate is, that the excessive indulgence in novel-reading, which is a characteristic of our times, is chargeable with many of the mental irregularities that prevail upon us to a degree unknown at any former period.''

Here's the superintendent of the State of Michigan in 1869. ``The state swarms with peddlers of the sensational novels of all ages, tales of piracy, murders, and love intrigues --- the yellow-covered literature of the world.'' Librarian James Angell in 1904: ``I think it must be confessed that a great deal of the fiction which is deluging the market is the veriest trash, or worse than trash. Much of it is positively bad in its influence. It awakens morbid passions. It deals in the most exaggerated representations of life. It is vicious in style.''

These worthies are talking about authors who corrupt the values of youth, authors who write about crime and lowlife, authors who drive people nuts, authors who themselves are degraded and untrustworthy and quite possibly insane. I think I know who they're talking about. Basically they're talking about me.

Here's the President of the United States speaking at a library in 1890.

``The boy who greedily devours the vicious tales of imaginary daring and blood-curdling adventure which in these days are far too accessible will have his brain filled with notions of life and standards of manliness which, if they do not make him a menace to peace and good order, will certainly not make him a useful member of society.'' Grover Cleveland hit the nail on the head. I feel very strongly, I feel instinctively, I feel passionately that I am one of those nails. Not only did I start out in libraries as that greedy devouring boy, but thanks to mindwarping science fictional yellow-covered literature, I have become a menace to Grover Cleveland's idea of peace and good order.

Far too accessible, eh Mr President? Too much access. By all means let's not provide our electronic networks with too much access. That might get dangerous. The networks might rot people's minds and corrupt their family values. They might create bad taste. Think this electrical network thing is a new problem? Think again. Listen to prominent litterateur James Russell Lowell speaking in 1885. ``We diligently inform ourselves and cover the continent with speaking wires.... we are getting buried alive under this avalanche of earthly impertinences... we... are willing to become mere sponges saturated from the stagnant goosepond of village gossip.''

The stagnant goosepond of the global village. Marshall MacLuhan's stagnant goosepond. Who are the geese in the stagnant pond? Whoever they are, I'm one of them. You'll find me with the pulp magazines and the bloodcurdling comics and the yellow-covered works of imaginary daring. In the future you'll find me, or my successors, in the electronic pulps. In the electronic zines, in the fanzines, in the digital genres, the digital underground. In whatever medium it is that really bugs Grover Cleveland. He can't make up his mind whether I'm the scum from the gutter or the ``cultural elite'' --- but in either case he doesn't like me. He doesn't like cyberpunks.

He doesn't like cyberpunks. That's not big news to you people I'm sure. But he's not going to like cyberpunk librarians either. I hope you won't deceive yourselves on that score.

Weird ideas are tolerable as long as they remain weird ideas. Once they start challenging the world, there's smoke in the air and blood on the floor. You cybernetic LITA guys are marching toward blood on the floor. It's cultural struggle, political struggle, legal struggle. Extending the public right-to-know into cyberspace will be a mighty battle. It's an old war, a war librarians are used to, and I honor you for the free-expression battles you have won in the past. But the terrain of cyberspace is new terrain. I think that ground will have to be won all over again, megabyte by megabyte.

You've heard some weird ideas today. That's what we're here for --- weird ideas. I like reading Hans Moravec. I respect him, and I pay close attention to what he says. He's a true fount of weird ideas, and in my opinion he's a credit to the basic values of the American republic. I think he even makes a certain amount of sense, technically and rationally, if not politically and socially.

But then again, I don't think the Ayatollahs have read Mind Children yet. If they had, they would recognize it as complete and utter blasphemy, far worse than Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. If Hans actually got around to creating a digital afterlife right here on Earth, I'm pretty sure the Moslem fundamentalists would try to have him killed. They'd surely consider this their moral duty. And they probably wouldn't be first in line, either. A lot of people have seen the science fiction film, Terminator II. They might figure our friend Hans here as the future Architect of Skynet. He wants to make the human race obsolete and let robots rule. Doesn't that mean it'd be a lot more convenient to kill him right now?

Of course we're not going to kill Hans now. I mean, not till he gets hi s own satellite channel and starts his own religious movement and asks for love-offerings. Not till he starts building a posthuman brain in a box. When his technology moves from the rhetorical to the commercial. When Mind Children become MIND CHILDREN (TM) and they're manufactured by Apple and Toshiba and retailed to adventurous aging yuppies. Fifty years to the Singularity? Fifty years to the complete transformation of the human condition? Maybe. Maybe it's just five years till the day the Secret Service raids the basements of MIT and removes all Hans's equipment. As for criminal charges, well, they'll think of something. Maybe they can nail him on an FDA rap.

I do kind of believe in the singularity though. I think some kind of genuine deep transformation in the human condition is in the works. I have no idea what that will be, but I can smell it in the wind. It's no accident that this historic period is producing people like Mr. Moravec here. Right or wrong, he is a cultural avatar. Maybe we're about to radically change the operating system of the human condition. If so, then this would be a really good time to make backups of our civilization.

That's why I want to bring up one last topic today. One last weird, science-fictional idea. I call it Deep Archiving. It's possibly the most uncommercial act possible for the institutions we call libraries. I'd like to see stuff archived for the long term. The very long term. For the successors of our civilization. Possibly for the successors of the human race.

We're already leaving some impressive gifts for the remote future of this planet. Nuclear wastes, for instance. We're going to be neatly archiving this repulsive trash in concrete and salt mines and fused glass canisters, for tens of thousands of years. Imagine the pleasure of discovering one of these nice radioactive time-bombs six thousand years from now. Imagine the joy of selfless, dedicated archaeologists burrowing into one of these twentieth-century pharaoh's tombs and dropping dead, slowly and painfully. Gosh, thanks, ancestors. Thanks, twentieth century! Thanks for thinking of us!

Possible, it is our moral obligation to explain ourselves to these possible people that we might possibly offend? Possibly. Shouldn't we give some thought to leaving them a legacy a little less lethal and offensive than our giant fossilized landfills and the radioactive fallout layer in the polar snows? If we're going to put the Library of Congress in our hip pocket, I'd like to see us put a Library of Congress beside every canister of nuclear waste. Let's airmail the Library of Congress to the year 20,000 AD.

There's absolutely no benefit for us in this action. There's no money in it. That's why I like the idea. That's why I find it appealing. I think it would be good for the soul of consumer society. It's a moral gesture to demonstrate that our sense of values is not entirely selfish, not entirely narrow, not entirely short-term. I hope you'll think about Deep Archiving. As weird ideas go it's one of the less hazardous and more workable ones. If you remember one idea from my visit here, I hope you'll remember that idea.

That's all I have to say, thanks a lot for listening.