Who was to have been George Orwell’s Big Brother – Breznev or Mao?

by Tom_Lowenhaupt

My first encounter with the web occurred in 1978. (Yes, I know there was no web at the time. And I can’t point to a BBS or other near-involvement; indeed, I’d never touched a keyboard, couldn’t even type. My OneWebDay story, actually 3 of them, is about the ways interactive technologies – the broader web – have changed my life.) OK, back to 1978.

I was strolling to lunch with a Greenwich Village neighbor that I’d met a few months earlier. At the time I was vacationing, having departed from a city government job after 8 years with several months accrued vacation and overtime to my credit. Liz and I rarely discussed work, and if we did I’d talk about holography, an interest I’d dabbled in for several years and was trying to make into a business. It was a few months into this vacation that day and I mentioned to Liz that holography was not to be my future and I was going to start looking for work. She looked at me and said “What will you do, get a job in computers and telecommunications?” With my last employment as a transportation planner, I’d imagined looking for a similar position and I asked Liz why she thought I’d do something with computers and telecom, an area I knew nothing about. Her answer, “That’s all you ever talk about.” was my first web experience. I didn’t recognize it at that instant, thinking rather that Liz didn’t really know me very well, and I corrected her and we continued on to lunch. But later that day, upon entering my apartment, the wisdom of her statement flashed before my eyes as I observed the books and magazines on ICT strewn about – Prestel and Qube were hot media topics. Within a year I was developing interactive cable (CATV at the time) projects and in 1980 a student at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunication Program. I wonder if this compelling 30 year interest of mine would have sunk into my consciousness had Liz not mentioned it? Thanks Liz.

Tom Lowenhaupt's shelf

Tom Lowenhaupt's shelf

My second web encounter was 13 years later. I’d been appointed to my local community planning board and began attending the monthly meetings in April 1991. At my first meeting I met the person sitting to my left. In May the person to my right. When I returned from the summer recess, I knew that the Major BBS system I’d placed on my shelf several months earlier (I’d used it as host for my QWIX Guide to the Online World on Nynex’s Info-Look system) had a purpose after all. And so I began developing a BBS for our community board.

I remember spending a year or so learning how the community board worked and designing the menu driven ASCII system to meet its needs. With no traces remaining, I can safely say it was an unparalleled gem. The first two users were enthusiastic about it as I recall. My second OneWebDay story arrived as I trained a third board member, Steve. He asked, “Where are the pictures?” Steve had seen some early web pages at his bank job and I explained that they were not available at this point. After trying to turn back the tide for a few more months, the BBS went back up on the shelf. It was 1999 before we were able to start a website at the community board, and 2002 before it could match what that Major BBS could do in 1992. Thanks Sir Tim.

My final web story happened yesterday. I sat down to write this piece and looked at the OneWebDay site for some inspiration. And after poking around for a bit I found it mid screen, right at the top, the announcement of the October 11 Freedom Not Fear event. It made my day and led to my third story. Let me explain. — And if you’ve not seen the Freedom Not Fear video, take a look, it’s a 118 second adrenalin boost. —

I attended college in the mid-1960s when we were still 20 years away from 1984 and George Orwell’s Big Brother. Communism was the day’s boogie man and we all thought a Brezhnev or Mao the likely Big Brother overlord. Then, as the year 1984 passed, and as the USSR collapsed, fears of Big Brother-ish privacy and control abuses were increasingly pooh-poohed, even used as synonymous for paranoia.

Over the past year I’ve developed an increasingly snappy slide presentation about the .nyc TLD, my current baby. To be true to myself and my cause, I conclude with a slide that warns about privacy issues relating to the .nyc feature that I infer is the TLD’s best element – community networking. In the slide narrative I warn that within community networking, where we connect ever more easily on ever more issues, one can imagine privacy becoming a thing of the past. That if it’s not carefully managed, our community web has the potential to facilitate the arrival of a hellish 1984.

OK, moving along… So yesterday, inspired by the Freedom Not Fear video, I did some research on privacy and security, starting with the assumption that the “Privacy is dead, get over it.” theory was hogwash. The first thing I googled to was a conference on hacking and privacy with Steve Rambam as a keynote speaker. Well, it turned out to be a three hour presentation that scared my socks off. Steve convinced me that there’s not much privacy left in today’s world. And while Steve didn’t show signs of privacy’s pulse, I later came across some work by Latanya Sweeney at Carnegie-Mellon that provided some hope. And I dug up an old email from a DNS creator advising:

It’s about thinking of what you could do by giving all of your constituents a unique digital identity and an organization for those identities.

So what’s my third story? It’s OneWebDay itself. When it began I found its “day to celebrate online life” a bit milquetoasty. But Freedom Not Fear made me see it in an entirely different light. Its organizers have set aside September 22 for reviewing their progress and for planning their mission. And OneWebDay has become the one day of the year dedicated to thinking about the web and all the things it can be. Thanks Susan.

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