The Berkman Center for Internet and Society


TechnorealismConference on Technorealism
How should we think about technology?

I T ' S   J U S T   T E C H N O R E A L I S M

One Harvard student's take on all the technorealism hoopla.

by Glenn Otis Brown, HLS

When I first heard of the "technorealists," I was intrigued. They sounded like some sci-fi street gang bent on domination of the information superhighway. Cyber-punks with no illusions. Misfits sporting black clothes and smart wire-rimmed glasses.

And given the media controversy sparked by technorealism, from articles in the New York Times and USA Today to the flame wars on The Well, I expected its founders to be some sort of firebrands.

So when I attended the Technorealism Conference hosted on March 19 by Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, I was a touch disappointed to learn that they’re actually a loose confederation of rather reasonable journalists calling for moderation in public debate over the Internet. The technorealists offered "a more nuanced way to think about . . . computing and communication," an alternative to the sensationalistic treatment the media often give online issues.

The only turf the group seeks, it turns out, is "the fertile middle ground" between "cyber-utopians" and "neo-Luddites"—equally formidable-sounding clans who respectively see the Internet as pure boon and undiluted evil. The technorealists are extreme only in their moderateness.


Before the conference, I studied up on the Eight Principles of Technorealism, a cross between the Ten Commandments and a decree from the Ministry of Truth: "Information is not knowledge" . . . "Technologies are not neutral" . . . "The Internet is revolutionary, not Utopian," etc.

The group’s web site invited converts to sign on to the tract. But I wasn’t convinced; the essence of technorealism still eluded me, and I wasn’t alone.

Harvard Law professor Larry Lessig, who moderated the first of the Technorealism Conference’s two panels, began by examining the eight principles and asking playfully, "What the hell is this stuff about?" Lessig, "special master" in the Microsoft anti-trust litigation, fired questions at the technorealists in an attempt to pin down their views, acting less as moderator than as Socratic interrogator.

Commentators for a wide variety of media, from Wired magazine to National Public Radio, the technorealists appeared more intent on framing the debate over Internet issues than taking part in it. Andrew Shapiro, contributing editor to the Nation and Fellow at the Berkman Center, compared the technorealists’ objective to that of art critics. "It's just trying to inject a more critical perspective into the debate about how new technologies are affecting our lives," he said. "It's not a top-down philosophy; it's not a way of life."

In the second panel discussion, moderator Jonathan Zittrain, Executive Director of the Berkman Center, took a more cooperative approach than Lessig. Despite the technorealists’ reluctance to be pigeonholed, he encouraged them to boil down their many principles into a single motto:
"Be calm. Be reasonable. It’s just cyberspace."


The conference’s best ideas emerged when the moderators pressed the panels to apply the eight principles of technorealism to real-world controversies. Debates over the appropriateness of using ordinary intellectual property and libel law in cyberspace drew the most engaging commentary.

Lessig compared a few of the technorealist principles to an earlier realist school of thought, legal realism. Just as legal realists insisted in the early part of the twentieth century that markets were political, said Lessig, the technorealists were insisting that technologies were political.

Lessig then led the panel in a discussion on the legal doctrine of "fair use," which, among other things, allows critics and journalists to quote copyrighted works without compensating their authors. He and Shapiro expressed concern about "self-help" copyrighting in cyberspace, in which authors privately encrypt their own work rather than rely on the law to protect their intellectual property rights. Left unregulated, the argument went, such a system would sacrifice the social utility of fair use on the altar of individual rights.

In the audience, John Perry Barlow, writer and co-founder of the libertarian Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), retorted that law and government are "naturally inclined to protect publishers, not creative people." He predicted the survival of a kind of voluntary fair use, in which the artist would freely distribute his or her work out of self-interest. He attributed the commercial success of the Grateful Dead—the band for which he wrote lyrics—to their practice of allowing and even encouraging bootleg reproduction of their music. Giving away your art, argued Barlow, "increases the value of what you haven’t done yet."

An otherwise silent panelist, Paulina Borsook, author of the forthcoming Cyberselfish: Technolibertarianism and the True Revenge of the Nerds, passionately (and, it seemed, personally) took issue with Barlow’s voluntary fair use argument. "I believe in fair use," she stated. "It's imperfect but it works okay enough.... Right now, I get compensated; I write something and people pay me. In your ideal universe, five years down the road, how will the system work? I don't see myself fundamentally as a personage...and I'm not going to be licensing lunch boxes."

The second panel focused on online libel law, building on Zittrain’s hypothetical about a government official named "Cindy Grumenthal"—a tongue-in-cheek reference to the recent lawsuit between Internet journalist Matt Drudge and White House communications advisor Sidney Blumenthal. Technorealist David Bennahum, editor of the online magazine Meme, explained that "the problem with libel law is that it’s intended for big magazines who can afford [a legal] defense. How do we define libel law in an era of small publishers like me?"

Zittrain captured the dilemma faced by do-it-yourself publishers: "The operative barrier becomes not the cost of cranking the printing press, but the potential cost of defense in a libel suit."

This sounds like the same problem encountered by old-time pamphleteers or the "alternative" press. But not exactly: the difference is a question of jurisdiction. On the Internet, a minor publication or even an amateur user can easily "publish" in a distant jurisdiction yet be unable to make a court appearance there. Imagine a college newspaper in Massachusetts being subpoenaed in a court in Australia, where its online stories are easily accessed. A protestor distributing handbills, whose circulation rarely reaches past the street corner, has no such concerns.

Unfortunately, the discussion of these issues was infrequent and thin. In all fairness, the three-hour event was more a press conference than a colloquium, leaving little time for thorough development of any issue, and the moderators’ short attention spans didn’t help matters. Still, the irony was palpable as the technorealists, self-billed crusaders against sloganeering and hype-mongering, occasionally fell into those time-worn journalistic traditions. Technorealists are "people who don't want to give sound bites," noted Zittrain. "You want to tell the whole story...[yet] you know it's really hard to do. That's why you coin a phrase, ‘technorealism.’ It's snappy."

This was not news to the technorealists, who, after all, peddle pith for a living. "We took the very media-savvy step of trying to come up with a name for it," said Shapiro. He acknowledged that buzzwords, and not ideas, take center stage.


Likewise, Shapiro said, "Personalities get attention; ideas don’t." Indeed. If anything, the unassuming principles of technorealism set the conference’s personalities in bold relief.

In his introductory remarks, Charles Nesson, Director of the Berkman Center and professor at Harvard Law School, dubbed himself a "technosurrealist" and seemed determined to live up to that title. Sporting his signature black turtleneck, he hovered over the proceedings, acting alternately as moderator, digital-camera operator, pop-quiz proctor, and secretary. His laptop musings, projected onto a large overhead screen, included: "We live in rhetorical space: Technorealists as truth squad" and "Technorealism: Is it a pile of shit?" (prompting Wired’s Steve Silberman to joke with characteristic technorealist circumspection: "Maybe not a single pile").

Barlow matched Nesson’s surrealism with doses of surliness, as if to distance himself from the cheery cyber-romantics targeted by technorealism. From his front-row seat, he served as a kind of ornery seventh panelist, piping up to challenge interpretations of his philosophy.

"People are constantly trying to characterize me as saying that the Internet is going to bring nothing but good," grumbled Barlow at one point. "You use, at the very outset of the [technorealist tract], two media cartoons that I, as the victim of one of these cartoons, have been trying to fight for a long time," he continued. (On the overhead screen, Nesson’s mad-hatter response: "Cartoons: I thought Barlow liked them.") Quoting Twain and reducing copyright law to folksy metaphors, Barlow defied technorealism’s sound-bite embargo with every sentence.

Mitch Kapor, founder and former CEO of Lotus, also lent star-power to the event. Kapor, who co-founded the EFF with Barlow but later broke ranks with the group, described his disaffection with the EFF’s ideological zeal and praised the panelists’ "non-adversarial resistance to...Lessig’s enthusiastic efforts to propel this in a direction of...extreme polarization." Kapor’s and Barlow’s styles differed as much as their ideologies: while Kapor donned a tie and red suspenders, his ex-colleague wore a black scarf and satin softball jacket emblazoned, ironically enough, "Reality Club."


At one point, as I watched a technician fiddle with an internet connection and several hunched-over audience members take notes on their laptops and Palm Pilots, I wondered: Why isn’t this conference being held entirely online? Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to discuss the Internet over the Internet?

Maybe not. In making their debut a traditional, physical conference, the technorealists seemed to choose a format to match their principles. Just as they claim that wiring the schools won’t save them, they imply that teleconferencing may never replace the good old-fashioned town meeting.

Besides, you can’t throw a good post-conference bash in cyberspace. Few attendees and audience members turned down Nesson’s blanket invitation to cocktails, and guests packed his Cambridge home just minutes after the meeting adjourned. Soon the technorealists and other cyber-celebrities separated from the group, like rock musicians at a backstage party.

As a first-year law student, would-be journalist, and technical neophyte, I must admit I was a bit star-struck as I floated among the conversation clusters. There was the Microsoft "special master" talking with the directors of the Berkman Center. The hipster writers continuing their debate over wine. The computer folk speaking in tech tongues.

No, the technorealists weren’t quite a gang, but they were a fairly exclusive bunch. (Most wore black clothes and smart wire-rimmed glasses, it turns out.) I found myself wishing I’d signed their online manifesto. Could I still become a member? There was certainly some kind of buzz in the air.

Or was it the wine? I tried to keep my cool. I remembered that a true technorealist doesn’t get worked up about anything.

With each surge of enthusiasm, I reminded myself:
Be calm. Be reasonable. It’s just technorealism.



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Last modified April 10, 1998, by Wendy Seltzer.