What Should We Call the Net?


Educom Review table of contents
November/December 1999
This article was published in Educom Review, Volume 34 Number 6 1999. The copyright is copyright is shared by the author(s) and EDUCAUSE. 
An EDUCAUSE publication



What Should We Call the Net?
by Peter Lyman

Political discourse about the Internet is dominated by three metaphors that serve as competing visions of the role of technology in the information society: information superhighways, virtual communities, and digital libraries.1 The information superhighway metaphor marked the transition from the Bush administration's National Research and Education Network (NREN) to the Clinton administration's National Information Infrastructure (NII). NREN, a research program established by the High Performance Computing Act of 1991, focused policy leadership in government research and education agencies, such as the Department of Education, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF).2 In 1993, the Agenda for Action launched the NII, a trade policy focusing leadership in the Department of Commerce, which has the responsibility to regulate interstate commerce.3 As political discourse became dominated by the commercialization of the Net under NII policy, the virtual community and the digital library metaphors emerged as competing visions, in part reflecting federally sponsored university research and development on collaborative work and digital library technologies.

How well do these three metaphors work to guide the transformation of the Net from an invention into an innovation? What new kinds of names might we use to renew the vision of the Net as a medium for education and research? How can we move the debate from an "information policy" that focuses narrowly on digital markets to a more encompassing "innovation policy" that envisions the new roles of the university in a networked society?

To answer these questions, we need to explore a deeper and more interesting question: What kind of innovation is the Net? "Net" and "Web" are good names for inventions because they describe the infrastructure of networked information technologies well, but they are not good names for innovations, the new institutions and social practices that are made possible by these inventions. The rhetoric surrounding innovations is more than just semantics, for it reflects the struggle of economic and political interests to shape or contain the process of change. When electricity was turning from invention to innovation at the turn of this century, for example, Thomas Edison defended his economic interest in direct current by promoting the use of alternating current as a technology for capital punishment.4 This kind of political struggle is reflected in the metaphors we now use to talk about the Net.

The Information Superhighway

Microsoft advertisements invoked the information superhighway metaphor when they asked, "Where do you want to go today?" The information superhighway is a powerful idea, for it frames computer networks as a revolutionary new means of transportation. Transportation technologies have historically determined the scope and modes of control of institutions like the state, markets, and corporations. Thus the near instantaneous global scope of the Net inevitably suggests the possibility that this is a historic innovation. The information superhighway is a useful metaphor because it clearly defines the respective roles of government and business in this innovation process, but it is silent about the role of education and research.

Vice President Al Gore's superhighway metaphor uses the Interstate highway program, sponsored in the Senate by his father, as a model for information policy. The Interstate highway system was a public-works program intended to carry interstate commerce at high speed across the country, to promote economic development by creating a transportation infrastructure for national markets. By extension, the government's role in the information economy is to build network infrastructures -- especially, in this case, tax incentives, laws, regulatory rules, and treaties -- but to leave invention and innovation to private industry.

The superhighway metaphor treats information as a commodity and therefore as private property deserving legal protection. Thus in 1998 the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) amended federal copyright law to protect digital information. Now a second step is being debated -- the revision of section 2B of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), a national model for state laws governing commercial transactions. If adopted by the states, this revision would govern digital information just like other commodities being transported on the highways, by contract law. This illustrates the political power of language. Whereas transportation metaphors treat information like a commodity, governed by contract law, virtual communities treat information like a form of speech, protected by the First Amendment, and digital libraries would have us treat information like print, governed by copyright.


In 1995, the Commerce Department issued a white paper on copyright proposing legislation to protect digital signals as intellectual property.5 The concept of the right to copy, so useful in regulating print, was extended to signals on the Net in the form of a "transmission right," which defined the transmission of a signal as a form of copying requiring payment.

This extension of mechanical copying to include electronic transmission rests on the transportation metaphor -- both highways and networks transport commodities -- but it also conceals key differences between signals and physical commodities. Is digital information really a commodity, one that resembles either print or other kinds of manufactured goods? Commodities are scarce because one person's consumption of them deprives another of their use; ownership of them is easily protected because they are physical things; and they are transparent because the buyer knows about their utility before purchase. None of these characteristics are necessarily true of information commodities.

Like print, digital information is both artifact and idea, but as a commodity, the idea is described in abstract terms, as "content," obscuring the relationship between the use of information and its economic value. As we shall see, the virtual community metaphor reverses this equation, seeing only the use value of ideas, not their commodity aspect, and the digital library metaphor attempts to balance the two.

To make signals behave more like physical commodities, the DMCA promotes the protection of information by encryption, prohibiting the development or distribution of technologies to break encryption. Here technology assumes the enforcement role that law has previously assumed, thus fundamentally changing the nature of political control. Copyright is an ex post facto protection: it is always possible to copy something, but there may be legal consequences if the copy is not legally defensible. This flexibility allows for fair use, the legally defensible use of copying for educational purposes; but encryption would prevent use absolutely. As a consequence, the DMCA has authorized the Library of Congress to study the impact of encryption on fair use in the two years before the law goes into effect.

Thus the DMCA explicitly uses legislation to direct the process of invention. The Net began as the fruit of a federally sponsored research partnership among industry, government, and higher education. The NII has passed the initiative to industry for commercial exploitation. Although a computer scientist may approach "rights management software" or "information security firewalls" as interesting technical problems, these problems are funded -- and equally interesting problems are not -- because the interests of the publishing and entertainment industries have won the political battle to name this innovation. This is not unusual: the Constitution builds the politics of innovation into the fabric of American history. What is unusual here is only the absence of higher education as a full partner in the innovation process.


If copyright law protects the expression of ideas as property, it also treats them as a public good through fair use, which allows for limited copying for ed ucational purposes as long as markets are not caused to fail. Fair use thus balances property rights with First Amendment protection for print and the language of the copyright clause of the Constitution. Print is protected by copyright not simply because it is property but because treating it as property will lead to "progress in the useful Arts and sciences," which is what the eighteenth century called technology and science. This link between science, technology, and progress is the foundation of an innovation policy that, centered on research and the dissemination of knowledge, led to the establishment of land-grant universities in the mid-nineteenth century and the NSF in the mid-twentieth century.

However, the publishing, entertainment, and software industries have successfully argued that digital information should not be treated like print and thus began a revision of UCC section 2B to adapt contract law to protect digital works. If the revision is enacted by a state, information will be protected by shrink-wrap licenses, essentially contracts defining the terms of use, since information itself will be rented, not sold. Since commercial codes are the business of the states, interest groups will pressure state legislatures to adopt the UCC 2B concepts, although copyright will continue to provide the federal framework for information property.

As we shall see, the virtual community and the digital library metaphors raise fundamental questions about the NII, but even within its terms, two very important questions of justice remain unsolved.

  • Equality. "Universal service" was a public good established by the Telecommunications Act of 1934 in recognition of the emergence of the telephone service as a fundamental social innovation. Following this model, the NII proposed that "universal access" to the Net for educational purposes should be a public good, thus the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) implemented an "E-rate" to subsidize the connection of public schools and libraries to the network. But while subsidies for local telephone service had been hidden within long-distance telephone rates, the E-rate appears as a tax on telephone bills, provoking widespread political resistance. Even if the universal access doctrine had succeeded (and an alternative funding strategy may yet emerge), access to the Net would not subsidize the use of intellectual property. As documented by the Commerce Department's recent report on "The Digital Divide," if the use of information is distributed on the basis of wealth, a new kind of information inequality will be created, one that is particularly pernicious in an information society.
  • Privacy. Unlike other forms of reading, the use of networked information is always potentially under surveillance; thus, data about personal use of information is the first genuinely new kind of commodity in the digital marketplace. In response, the European Union issued a "Privacy Directive," defining personal digital information as the property of the individual concerned. In contrast, American policy relies on current privacy laws and industry self-regulation as a solution to the problem. Thus the information highway metaphor constructs information privacy as a trade dispute with Europe rather than as a political issue about the commercialization of private information.

Although the information superhighway metaphor identifies the transportation function of the network, in making the development of electronic commerce markets the primary focus of innovation, it has not yet addressed the economic inequality and privacy issues that it generates. As Newton Minow, the former head of the FCC, has asked, What is the Internet equivalent of public interest broadcasting?

The Virtual Community

Technology predictions are rarely accurate, thus in retrospect it is not surprising that the Agenda for Action's vision of the future missed the most important innovation produced by the Net: the World Wide Web. The European Laboratory for Particle Physics (known as CERN) released Web software in 1991, and Mosaic was released by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) in 1993. Yet it was inevitable that the emergence of the Web could not be predicted by the NII's industrial policy because, in Brian Kahin's words, it implies "a paradigm shift from circuits to tiny packets of information as the organizing unit of telecommunications."6 The NII was based on the model of an industrial distribution technology for mass-produced products, whereas the Web is a participatory technology organized around the collective production of knowledge for which there is no historical precedent.

The virtual community metaphor describes the new modes of social life emerging on the Web, highlighting the communication function of the Net. The term "virtual community" refers to an unanticipated social cohesion that occurs on the Net, even among people who have never actually met face to face, a cohesion based on exchanging gifts of information as a medium for social collaboration. In this sense the word community is apt, even when applied to technology-mediated communication, for communities have always been based on gift-exchange.

And yet the idea of a virtual community is perplexing in a world in which technology is often associated with increasing social isolation. This idea of a network-mediated community was first used to describe the many ways the Net served as a medium for the exchange of information -- the chat groups, lists, electronic mail, and later, Web pages -- that unexpectedly began to build a sense of intimacy and belonging. Electronic communications are in some ways spontaneous and intimate, like speech, even when conducted anonymously. However, and this is a defining characteristic, because the Net is a written medium, the conversation of virtual communities creates archives of written information, giving groups a sense of history and identity. The Web might therefore be described as a gift-exchange economy within which seven million authors (and counting) have collaboratively written the largest text ever compiled.

Distinctive new kinds of virtual social groups now seem to be emerging, strongest when face-to-face relationships are extended by the Net, but possible even without them. Indeed, some of the most important kinds of communities can exist only virtually because their members are socially or geographically isolated, such as disabled senior citizens, gay and lesbian teenagers, people with extremely rare diseases, or members of radical political movements.

In describing the Net as a medium of communication rather than transportation, the virtual community metaphor defines information in terms of the process of using and creating knowledge rather than in terms of the product, intellectual property. This contrast illustrates the ambiguity at the heart of every concept of intellectual property: ideas themselves cannot be owned, yet "expressions of ideas," to use the language of copyright law, are packaged within manufactured artifacts. The great power of the virtual community metaphor is to point out that intellectual property originates in social relationships such as gift cultures, particularly educational and research communities. Good legislation, such as print copyright, helps markets and gift-exchange communities to be complementary by managing the boundary between them.

In exploring innovative new communication modes that create new kinds of knowledge, the virtual community metaphor highlights the way that the superhighway metaphor is rooted in an industrial model. In contrast, the Net is an innovation that may change the very nature of social and economic life, as is illustrated by Manuel Castells's description of the "network enterprise" as a malleable organization that manages global information flows to produce wealth.7 Some bankers believe that money can no longer be treated as a commodity; it is now a global information flow beyond the fiscal control of national banks. If so, new kinds of barter andgift-exchange economies may serve as a model for entirely new modes of non-marke t exchange based on information "currencies" rather than money.

The idea of virtual community has an empirical basis in the beginnings of new kinds of social relations based on gift exchange on the Web, but like all other political metaphors, it derives its rhetorical power from a theory of justice. A gift is given to establish or renew a social relationship, not primarily to gain an economic advantage. Even today, the boundaries of community are defined by gift giving: within the family; among friends; within the scientific community; and as a form of social capital in civil society. Nor does the concept of the gift necessarily exclude self-interest or competition, for in giving away intellectual property on the Net, one expects to receive information in return or perhaps social status in the eyes of the community.

Education and research on the Net have produced two particularly interesting experiments suggesting that innovative gift economies have the potential to sustain cooperative forms of social life in an information society. First, authorship in cyberspace is often communal, not individual, challenging the intellectual foundations of current intellectual property law. And second, networked communities are exploring new concepts of community-owned, public-domain intellectual property called open software.


The idea of intellectual property is founded on the image of an individual author-genius who, in creating the "original expression of an idea," creates value and thereby property rights. Since this description, taken literally, would apply only to Robinson Crusoe, in recent social science the idea of the author is evolving into what has been called a community of practice.8 Communities of practice, often professional groups whose solidarity comes from collaborative research and learning rather than from a shared sense of place, have become an important tool in analyzing knowledge management in the corporation, replacing the idea of the individual worker or author. For example, Walter Powell describes a biotechnology paper that was published with 133 authors, from 85 institutions.9 If the idea of the author changes, everything else about intellectual property must change, notwithstanding the fact that intellectual property law is firmly built on a seventeenth-century description of the production of knowledge.

Open Software

Just as industrialization began with the enclosure of public lands, the NII has begun the information society with the enclosure of public rights to information. And yet at the same time, Linux has emerged as an operating system built by a virtual community of programmers, a community of practice. Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, is this new kind of author, one who organizes a flow of programming tasks to volunteer programmers around the world linked into a community of practice by the Net. Eric S. Raymond calls this the "bazaar style" of software building, in which code placed on the network is subject to peer review and revision by other programmers, in contrast to commercial software, which is built "cathedral style" by corporations.10

Open software is not simply placed in the public domain but is protected by a form of copyright often called GPL, the General Public License, or sometimes, "copyleft." Open software allows for public use but is a form of copyright in order to prevent commercial enclosure by the market. Linux is becoming the standard software among Third World nations that do not want the information age to re-create the domination of the South by the North using technology, rather than colonialism, as the medium of domination.

The virtual community metaphor contrasts the idea of information commodities with a vision of the Net as a medium of social and cultural cooperation. In this sense, the virtual community metaphor restores social context to the concept of information by focusing on the communities that create and consume information. The words information and information content signify the economic value of software and digital copyright in legal discourse but are empty of empirical content, because we know so little about the social contexts within which they have value. But there are also problems with the virtual community metaphor, interesting problems.

  • First, what does the word community mean in the disembodied context of the Net? Virtual communities have been romanticized in the press, but social science has not yet been able to document and analyze these new social phenomena.
  • Second, the lack of structure and quality in the information that is in the public domain makes the gift economy of ideas on the Net problematic. The great virtue of the NII is in creating economic incentives for investment in quality. Thus it might be argued that the idea of virtual community also fails to understand the symbiosis between the market and communities, in ignoring the subsidies and sponsored research that have made the Web possible.

The Digital Library

As a solution to the problem of the public interest in education and research, the digital library metaphor suggests that as a public institution, the public library could serve as a model for mediating between the market economy and the use of information by gift-exchange communities in civil society. The information superhighway metaphor often goes too far, as in some UCC 2B discussions in which each information use in every social context would require payment. The virtual community metaphor often goes too far, as in the claim that "information wants to be free." Intellectual property must sometimes be a public good, particularly for educational purposes and more generally as a means of providing for equality of opportunity in a society in which access to information is increasingly important, but it cannot simply be free. In industrial society, the public library has managed the boundary between markets and communities. Libraries buy information in the marketplace and subsidize the free use of that information by communities, within the limits defined by the fair use doctrine.

Print libraries create a public sense of place by solving the problem of information management through collection development and the catalog, and by offering subsidized access to them. Print collections, of course, can be only a sample of all knowledge, since the total amount of published information has grown beyond the financial and operational ability of any library to collect. Equally important for libraries is the social dimension of information management; the technical problems of collection development and cataloging cannot be solved until it is known how a community uses the collection and why.

The digital library metaphor, then, raises interesting problems of scale. If digital libraries have global scope and encompass all digital information, what is a collection or catalog? Will the concept of the user refer to the individual consumer or to communities of practice? Thus the digital library metaphor has many variants, often separating the technical problem of information management on the Net from the social problem of the definition of the user.

Is It Free?

At the turn of the twentieth century, public libraries and museums were founded to serve as educational public places that were safe for immigrants from farms and boats and that stood next to the city hall as models for civic institutions. And yet in the course of the last fifty years, commercial spaces have begun to perform public functions, beginning with the department store and continuing with the mall. As a consequence, the function of the print library as a subsidized public good is increasingly under political attack, even as it is being used as an information society metaphor.

Is It a Collection?

Taken as a metaphor concerning information management, the digital library often does not necessarily take free public access by citizens as a goal. The term cyberspace originated in William Gibson's science fiction novel Neuromancer and suggests "outer space" or "mathematical space." It is a powerful concept precisely because of the connotation of being free of the constraints of place in searching for information. From this perspective both publishers and libraries, in their exercise of authority in quality control and selectivity, limit the possibility of finding information. The cyberspace metaphor implies a kind of libertarian utopia, a place where individual choice is optimized. In one variant of the digital library metaphor, then, information management might imply a universal search engine optimized for individual choice, not for a community, and not for subsidized public access.

Who Is the User?

If the ideal of information management for individual users or consumers stands at one pole of the digital library metaphor, the idea of knowledge management stands at the other. Knowledge management conceives of the intellectual resources of the corporation not only in terms of the intellectual property it owns but in terms of the knowledge-creating capability of the organization's people acting in concert. In a networked world, knowledge management requires creating a sense of place in cyberspace, to enable groups to create knowledge. Thus Ikujiro Nonaka and Noboru Konno have used the Japanese word Ba to go beyond the sense of place rooted in geography or architecture to explore ways that a virtual sense of place might be created.11 Ba, they say, most often resides in a physical place, such as a library, but also exists in cyberspace, as in a virtual community. Whether located in physical or virtual spaces, Ba reflects a sense of shared values or skills and thus might exist among members of a profession even when, although geographically separated, they are a community of practice linked by the Net. The key point for knowledge management theory is that such a sense of place is the precondition for the intellectual work of any social group, and its design is the ultimate technological innovation. Ba is also a metaphor, perhaps, but one that requires us to think in new ways about the Net and innovation.

The concept of Ba is well illustrated by the virtual community of biotechnology researchers described by Powell, suggesting that knowledge management might be seen as the precondition of community and vice versa. In this sense, the Web and the Net cannot be digital libraries, for libraries reflect communities of practice, not collections of things.

The special value of the digital library metaphor is the lesson that market economies and gift-exchange economies may be symbiotic, but only if pragmatic laws and institutions manage the boundary between private property and public goods. Granted, this may be difficult when regulating the flow of information on a global information network, for no one nation has sufficient jurisdiction to enforce its laws. But it is also useful to remember that the fair use doctrine emerged from a long period of negotiation between publishers and libraries, not from a winner-take-all political struggle.

New Metaphors?

Just as the automobile was first called a "horseless carriage," we are now in a transitional phase in which we interpret the future of the Net using institutional models of the past -- highways, communities, and libraries. Information superhighways, virtual communities, and digital libraries are metaphors within which an indirect dialogue about questions of economic and social justice in an information society is occurring. Each has strengths and weaknesses as metaphors, but fundamentally, discussions of economic and social justice should not be indirect. How can we find a language to talk about the Net as an innovation?

The Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico argued that history changes when "barbarian poets" create new languages and paradigms that have the power to give birth to new cultures and institutions. Inevitably, one generation's poetry becomes the next generation's cliche', words begin to hide partisan interests, and we need to find new barbarian poets. Barbarian poets, by definition, come from outside authoritative institutions; thus, perhaps it would be more useful to listen to the language of those working collaboratively in cyberspace to find new images to take us farther than the noble but tired industrial-society language that we now use. Recent research suggests that although commercial intranets were designed for inventory and personnel management functions, communities of practice have become the primary users. The lesson, as Vico might see it, is that innovation comes from the users, not from the technology. The special power of the virtual community metaphor is that however vague, it leads us back to the way the Net is changing work, communication, and social relationships. That is where new ideas and practices are emerging.

Those of us in higher education are also trapped in metaphors that prevent us from using the Net in innovative ways. "Information" is another dead metaphor, originating in medieval scholastic pedagogy but, as we have seen, now evolving into a container for a commodity vaguely called "content." As administrators, we often think about the Net as infrastructure, but as educators, we might begin by looking at the Net as a place inhabited by new kinds of research and learning communities. And as citizens, we might insist on replacing an information policy that commercializes knowledge in a manner that endangers real research and education. That is, we might develop an innovation policy for the Net that places information technology in service to a vision of a learning society.


1. This article is based on a paper commissioned by the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, for a November 6, 1998, conference on "Technological Visions: Utopian and Dystopian Perspectives." The conference papers are forthcoming in a book of the same name.

2. The High Performance Computing Act states: "Such a program would provide American researchers and educators with the computer and information resources they need, and demonstrate how advanced computers, high-capacity and high-speed networks, and electronic data bases can improve the national information infrastructure for use by all Americans." See "High Performance Computing Act" (1991), (August 1, 1999).

3. "The NII: Agenda for Action" states: "Information is one of the nation's most critical economic resources, for service industries as well as manufacturing, for economic as well as national security. . . . Those technologies will help U.S. businesses remain competitive and create challenging, high-paying jobs." See "The NII: Agenda for Action" (1993), (August 1, 1999).

4. Paul A. David, "Heroes, Herds, and Hysteresis in Technological History," Industrial and Corporate Change 1, no. 1 (1992): 129-80.

5. See report of the Working Group on Intellectual Property Rights of the National Information Infrastructure Task Force, "Intellectual Property and the National Information Infrastructure" (September 1995, modified November 15, 1995), (August 4, 1999).

6. Brian Kahin, "Beyond the National Information Infrastructure Initiative: Technology-Informed Policy and Policy-Enabling Technology," in Investing in Innovation, ed. Lewis M. Branscomb and James Keller (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998).

7. Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society (London: Blackwells, 1996).

8. Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

9. Walter W. Powell, "Learning from Collaboration: Knowledge and Networks in the Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Industries," California Management Review 40, no. 3 (spring 1998): 228-40.

10. Eric S. Raymond, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" (July 29, 1999), (August 4, 1999).

11. Ikujiro Nonaka and Noboru Konno, "The Concept of 'Ba': Building a Foundation for Knowledge Creation," California Management Review 40, no. 3 (spring 1998): 40-54.

Peter Lyman is Professor and Associate Dean at the School of Information Management and Systems, University of California, Berkeley. His research and teaching centers on information policy and the social dimensions of the digital economy, particularly the sociology of networked information and its implications for intellectual property policy. See his Web page at http://sims.berkeley.edu/~plyman/ for papers on the subjects mentioned in this article.




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