Metcalfe's column: From the ether: Regulating pop culture on the 'net

Maine's Angus King, the independent governor with hair, was asked about government's role in regulating popular culture on the Internet. He stood silent ... until the audience caught on and broke into applause.

Thus began Pop!Tech: Popular Culture in the Digital Age, which is what we ended up calling the third annual Camden (Maine) Technology Conference. Here are some unactionable highlights from www.camcon.org.

First, I must say, after King's silence, that we Internetizens are generally too hard on politicians. We're certainly wrong to think the Internet can evolve in good health without them. After all, as former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently reminded me, the word "politics" comes from two ancient Greek words -- from poli meaning many and from tics meaning ... small blood-sucking insects. Just kidding.

Pre-Internet mass media, especially television, still strongly influence pop culture, but after the Littleton quasi-goths went postal, many politicians blamed guns and the Internet, and not always in that order. I'd sooner blame government schools, but there's no denying Web sites were involved.

Pop!Tech was full of examples of Internet involvements in pop culture. Politicians on the "right" want to ban some content, like porn. Politicians on the "left" want to ban other content, like hate. And inquisitors everywhere want to ban spam. But King and others say banning such four-letter words costs us more than we gain.

Virginia Postrel, editor of Reason Magazine (www.reason.org) and author of The Future and Its Enemies, argues that entrepreneurial discovery ("dynamism") works better than centrally developed plans ("stasism"). On the Internet, we do best to encourage many answers, not try to enforce any "right" one.

Leaping to a current example, I've vowed never to attend Comdex in Las Vegas, this week or ever again, despite its now being all about the Internet. I just don't approve of how sex, gambling, and other vices are exploited there. Does this mean I support laws against Las Vegas? No. I just choose, after 14 degrading trips up Convention Center Boulevard, not to go anymore.

Back at Pop!Tech, futurist Stewart Brand (www.gbn.org) argued from his book, The Clock of the Long Now, that we should be taking a 10,000-year view. What's fast, like the Internet, gets all the attention, he says, while what's slow, like the environment, has all the power.

Brand showed Pop!Tech the Cold War's mushroom cloud and environmentalism's tiny blue island Earth. What pop culture icon is next? The 10,000-year clock? The Internet mesh? The double helix?

Brand says, whoa, infotech is just a warm-up for biotech.

Academicians Sandy Stone, Janet Murray, and Erika Muhammad spoke about our need for new languages with which to discuss the Internet as interactive media. For one thing, identities are fluid -- on the Internet they don't know you're a dog.

Others discussed the Internet in the familiar language of music. They asked, is there something pathological about browsing the Web and using e-mail and chat rooms? Shouldn't our children watch more television, like we did at their age? Shouldn't they play in more piano recitals?

Professor Michael Hawley played some high-culture classics on his hard-to-use baby-grand keyboard. He pointed out that piano recitals were invented only in the last century. They're now in decline and, he said to gasps, good riddance.

Musician Don Lewis played Gospel Beethoven using several keyboards, including one for his feet, on a synthesiser organ. His performance confirmed: Pop culture has nothing to fear from the Internet except freedom, which is bad news only for those who would govern.

Cyberguru John Perry Barlow agreed that government is doomed, but warned that we're locked in a closet with a dying reptile.

Technology pundit Bob Metcalfe favors freedom of choice among competing alternatives. That goes for everything from software through culture. He welcomes your praise of Las Vegas at metcalfe@idg.net.

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