"24 Hours of Democracy" [Prev| Next| Index]

2/18/96, Kate Davey, Salinas, CA, USA
Democracy, the Internet, and the Father of Our Country

I've been online since 1993, which is practically yesterday, for
diehard compter types, but I think I've made the most of the last
couple years.

I met my husband online in 1994. In 1995, I sold my car online,
and I found a new job online. All in all, the Internet's been
the land of opportunity for me.

But I'm an opportunist--if I'd been around 100 years ago, I probably
would have tried to take a train west on my 18th birthday to start
looking for silver or oil or some other frontier pot of gold.

The push west defined the US for its first 150 years, but today our
frontiers are in more amorphous regions. I think we're incredibly
lucky to have found this new outlet for our national character--one
evening spent wandering an online MUSE can give you a glimpse of
how creative and boundless our homesteading could be in cyberspace,
this most recent frontier.

But great expansions are not easily managed, and how to patrol the
frontier has been a problem for great nations since the Roman Empire.

The need to patrol, it seems, is always rooted in some perceived
threat to the authorities--the same sort of danger to civilization
posed by the Vandals has evolved into, in the case of cyberspace,
the availability of bomb recipes or the congregating of survivalist
skinhead militia types. The Wild West always turns out to be a
refuge for outlaws, and good sheriffs are needed to keep the place
safe for us schoolmarms and homesteaders.

These may be real dangers--but we need to avoid making these dangers
the stuff of legend. We have to stop populating our frontier with
imaginary evils--building straw men, such as pornography and
child molestation, to become our Billy the Kids and Jesse
Jameses--they only alarm us into accepting surveillance that
violates our Constitution.

Like most of our worst nightmares, these online bombmakers
and racists are all people or organizations we can't see. We don't
know what they're plotting online, because they hide in the
anonymity we've been permitting online. People are always
afraid of the dark.

I think the only workable long-term solution is not to hide
some parts of the Internet, but to make all parts of the Internet
as honest as possible. Instead of censoring topics, we should
wipe out anonymity--let's try to get every user to
be him or herself, as much of the time as possible, except in
designated playareas devoted to personality exploration.

I am kate@well.com on all my email, and in all transactions. I can be
fingered on the WELL, and my real name is there, along with a bio.
Heck, I'm even listed in the phone book. I am who I am, and, if
everyone were, no one would need to hide. It'd be just like the real

I don't want everyone reading my mail. But I am willing to put my
return address on the outside of everything I send, and to stand by
what I write, and to apologize in person if it offends somebody.

Sure, being your real self online won't be something that'll catch on
overnight--but we should start now and make it happen. What if I go
to the ultimate anonymous refuge--a chat room-- and give out my
real first name? What if then I ask for other peoples' real names?
Would anyone go along with me? If they did, wouldn't we all feel
like something groundbreaking had happened? Wouldn't we all feel
like we actually knew each other? Maybe even as though we'd made
actual friends?

Even if the rest of the world went on with cyber-anonymity, how truly
American it would be for us to try this national experiment--to be
ourselves, to stand by what we do online. After all, in a country
that still insists George Washington came clean about a cherry tree,
in the land of the free and the home of the brave, no one should
be afraid to be himself.

-- Kate Davey, February 18, 1996.

Links from this page updated 2/9/00.