From Internet User to Cyberspace Citizen

By Ippei Wakabayashi

Sequence: Volume 32, Number 4


Release Date: July/August 1997

By the next decade, we will move from being "Internet users" to "citizens of Cyberspace." In our day-to-day use of the Internet we face many technical problems, so technical aspects of the Internet seem to be important right now. But the technical problems will disappear when the technology matures and is accepted by most people. Technology itself never disappears as a physical entity, but we cease to be conscious of it when it matures.

I take a commuter train everyday to my office. But I am not conscious of the train as a technology. I must be aware of the timetable of the train when I take it, but the only thing I have to think of is the timetable itself, not the technical system of the train.

Consider the cause of the commuting rush-hour problem. We are packed like sardines in the morning train, which is a notorious "commuting hell" in the Tokyo urban area. But this must be blamed not on railway technology, but on the urban planning philosophy or on the lifestyle of the people who have been making our industrial society. In order to achieve a comfortable commuting environment, we must change our way of thinking about our working style itself. So it seems strange to design a double-decker train to solve the problem.

The Internet will become mature as a technical infrastructure in the near future, but meanwhile the Internet has been creating "Cyberspace," which is made by new technologies and then causes new social and cultural possibilities and problems for us all.

Needless to say, the computer is already a mature technology in many fields of the society. We are able to use ATM systems without any concern about "software bugs" or "sudden freezing of desktop screens." Many microcomputers are helping us to drive smoothly and safely. Car manufacturers have their own customized computer chip factories. We do not need to be concerned about the computers working inside rice cookers, TV sets, microwave ovens, and almost all other consumer products. They are mature and invisible.

But, unfortunately, personal computers have not yet matured. PC users suffer regularly from "software bugs" or "sudden freezing of desktop screens." So PC users are always conscious about computer systems. They are visible. Today, personal computers are the most popular interface between people and the Internet. Unfortunately, this immature interface prohibits ordinary people from using the Internet and joining in the global Cyberspace.

Today's Children in Tomorrow's Cyberspace

In the present Internet environment, we are surrounded by many technologies, such as Java, Windows, HTML, plug-ins, and so on. Many people believe that to learn the Internet is to learn technology. If we think so, we miss an essential point. Today's children will experience tomorrow's matured Internet. When the Internet becomes mature and invisible as a technological entity, today's children will experience Cyberspace on an everyday basis. Teachers who are responsible for today's children are responsible for tomorrow's Cyberspace citizens. One of the first lessons they must impart is how to enjoy the freedom of Cyberspace.

Let us think about a difficult subject first. Everybody will say yes if he or she is asked, "Do you want freedom or not?" Nobody will say "I do not need it." Of course, me too. Yet freedom is a heavy burden as well as a sweet fruit.

We are no longer passive consumers, but rather active users of information. Every user can choose what he or she wants from the enormous amount of resources available. If we count Web pages alone, there are no fewer than 60 million URLs. This may be an information labyrinth rather than an information resource. Who helps us when we lose our way in this kind of information labyrinth? How can we enjoy our unimaginable freedom? In order to enjoy this freedom, we have to be able to decide for ourselves and act free from outside authority. Yet it is a heavy burden to manage this as a personal task.

In an interesting article by David Kline ("The Myth of Disintermediation," HotWired, July 1996, hotwired.com), he states, "A presentation by AT&T New Media Services at the recent Business Online 96 Conference in San Francisco demonstrated that nearly 60 percent of Web users visit fewer than 10 sites on a regular basis (at least once a month or more). That's barely 1/25,000th of the total number of registered sites in the entire Web universe."

It is true that it is a difficult task to choose your favorite site within the Web universe. Usually you can't know what you really want when you don't know what there is. So AT&T's research result coincides with our common sense. The freedom of choice created by the Internet is too huge for most people to manage by themselves. Our personal ability to endure the tension to do such a difficult task is limited.

"The Myth of Disintermediation"

"Disintermediation" is a key word to understanding the information distribution scheme of the Internet. A typical example is the transformation of corporate culture by introducing the Internet into traditional corporate hierarchical management structure. The Internet creates a flat organization and eliminates many intermediating personnel like "kacho," Japanese middle managers.

What is actually happening in the consumer world? According to Kline, "They say the Internet levels the playing field and frees creators and consumers from the supposed tyranny of the big brand names. They say that in the interactive, information-rich online world, consumers need no longer rely on the mediation of editors or marketing campaigns to influence or filter their choices in information, entertainment, or products and services."

Kline criticizes the above common sense and says that, as usual, it is wrong. The result of a marketing researcher presents us with a rather difficult reality, "In studying the behavior of tens of thousands of consumers in simulated online supermarkets, Harvard Business School associate professor Ray Burke has discovered that shoppers do indeed tend to show more brand loyalty than they do in real-world supermarkets."

When Cyberspace shopping, we can't touch, pick up, smell, or observe the detail of the package like in real-world shopping. So we tend to rely more on brands that we trust and have confidence in. Ironically, the powerful tool to liberate people from a brand-dependence syndrome seems to be creating more brand-dependent people.

Two-Way as a Two-Edged Sword

The most noticeable technical feature of the Internet is its two-way interactivity. Information flows two ways on the Net, rather than one-way like traditional TVs, magazines or newspapers. This two-way communication makes unimaginable freedom come true, and occurs whether users are conscious about it or not. But we have not been educated to be ready for participating in the two-way Cyberspace environment. Today's consumers have been educated by the traditional one-way paradigm and they are used to experiencing one-way media such as TVs, newspapers, magazines and schools, and therefore they are not always conscious of two-way interactivity.

When you receive information from a site, at the same time you send keystroke information to its server. In other words, you can't get information without your keystroke, which is monitored by other parties, including the target site and other widely distributed networking node computers. When you are browsing Web sites, the following alarming dialog box message sometimes appears on your browser: "Any information you submit is insecure and could be observed by a third party while in transit. If you are submitting passwords, credit card numbers, or other information you would like to keep private, it would be safer for you to cancel the submission." This message is correct and important. Two-way communications work on the Internet whether you are conscious of them or not. The unconscious two-way character of the Internet is important and thus dangerous in some cases.

Search Engines as Marketing Tools

We can't surf the Net universe without search engines. I use them almost every time I need information. A search engine is a Swiss Army knife for Net users; because we pay a price for the information provided by every key-stroke we make when using search engines. Search engine companies collect user information, from the input key words to the place and time of every submission. Analyzing this data tells them about up-to-date consumer images and their needs, and much more. It's a powerful marketing tool. The better the marketing tool is organized and the more visitors who come, the higher the value added to the advertisements on their sites. Eventually, sophisticated two-way or interactive advertisements will be available. So search engine companies are eager to invest in the research and development of the best search engines. On the other hand, they are recruiting marketing professionals from advertisement businesses.

While we are enjoying the convenience of search engines, more and more sophisticated systems will be developed to collect and analyze our private tastes and consumer image data. This might be a good thing for a while.

The Insecurity of Cyberspace

We may have to pay a price for the convenience of Cyberspace. It is not search engines alone that collect personal data, analyze them, and use them for their own purposes. There is no guarantee that a third party might not use such data for another purpose. Worse, they might reconstruct the data themselves. And then what will happen?

The worst imaginable case is seen in the film "The Net," where the heroine's identity is deleted. The home page of "The Net" (URL<http://www.spe.sony.com/Pictures/SonyMovies/17net.html) says, "Like all of us, Angela Bennett (Sandra Bullock) lives in the age of information. Every trace of her existence is computerized. Everything about her is encoded somewhere on a complex network of information. It's something Angela never thought about . . . until the day she was deleted." Angela is a freelance programmer working in her home using the Internet. By chance she obtains a secret computer program created by an awful criminal organization. Her every keystroke has been monitored by this criminal group. First they delete her identity information in all official files and then they attempt to delete her.

Needless to say, this is fiction. Yet this film predicts a dangerous aspect of Cyberspace. If we remain unconscious about the two-way character of Cyberspace, this possibility might become a reality.

Consent to Monitoring at all Times

In order to learn the meaning of the two-way character of the Internet technology, I recommend the U.S. Navy's NRaD World-Wide Web (WWW) Server (URL<http://www.nosc.mil/nrad/html/warning.html), which is provided as a service by the Department of Defense for distribution of publicly available information.

The warning says, "USE OF THIS OR ANY OTHER DEPT. OF DEFENSE INTEREST COMPUTER SYSTEM (DODICS) CONSTITUTES AN EXPRESS CONSENT TO MONITORING AT ALL TIMES. This DODICS and all related equipment are to be used for the communication, transmission, processing, and storage of official U.S. Government or other authorized information only. All DODICS are subject to monitoring at all times. If monitoring of any DODICS reveals possible violation of criminal statutes, all relevant information may be provided to law enforcement officials." In conclusion it states, "After reading and understanding the foregoing statement, you may continue with the NRaD WWW Server or exit from this server (or document)."

In effect, the above warning applies to every site on the Net. We have to know the truth and teach it to our children.

"Staying Street Smart on the Web!" from Yahooligans!

Yahooligans! is the children's version of the Yahoo! directory and search service. This service includes an important safety rule for children, which is a good example of how to teach both the pleasure and the danger of the Net. Smartness means how to walk safely and pleasantly on the Net street.

"Staying Street Smart on the Web!" (URL<http://www.yahooligans.com/docs/safety/index.html) starts with the following words, "The Internet is a great place but it can also be like the real world - with safe and unsafe places for Yahooligans. If you follow these rules of the 'road' you will have a better time in cyberspace, stay safe, and keep your parents worrying less."

"Yahooligans Rules for Online Safety" is presented courtesy of Larry Magid of The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and Interactive Services Association. The first rule says, "I will not give out personal information such as my address, telephone number, parents' work address/telephone number, or the name and location of my school without my parents' permission." The second says, "I will tell my parents right away if I come across any information that makes me feel uncomfortable."

Another four items follow after this. In all of them the important key word is "parent," not teacher. We should remember this. When children lose their way in Cyberspace, parents should be the most familiar consultants or partners there as well as in the real world. Parents should not be just earnest consumers as in the "Juken sangyo," which means entrance-exams-related business in Japanese.

Emancipation is Dangerous, but Charming

I have been emphasizing the dangerous aspects of Cyberspace, because Cyberspace is a pleasant and charming world for all of us. In order to safely enjoy this pleasant and charming world, we have to know the other side of Cyberspace as well. Yet it will be a one-way cultural attitude if we just say, "Home page creation should be prohibited because the Cyberspace is a dangerous place for students." "Dangerous but" is a better two-way cultural attitude.

"Can I safely submit private information like my name, address and credit card number to a shopping site? I want to send e-mail to an unknown but interesting person. Am I safe on the Net?" These questions are frequently asked by active students ready to challenge a new world. Those who are just looking at Web screens never ask such questions.

Let me explain the distinction between a secure page and an insecure page on the Web. There are many more potential eavesdroppers in Cyberspace than in the traditional telephone network or the "snail mail" system. The most secure communication method is a face-to-face one. This has been true since ancient times. Yet there is no absolutely secure method in the communication world. We have to make judgments about tradeoffs in each case.

I usually respond by asking them, "Is it really safe to walk alone on the street at Shinjuku in Tokyo?" Many underground businesspeople are working there. The probability you might be killed there is not zero although it's extremely small. So walking alone is much more dangerous on a Shinjuku street than on the Net. Yet there is an air of liberty there. Last week I discovered an interesting art in the underground street by the west exit of Shinjuku Station. Many homeless people have cardboard houses there. I was surprised to see art students using the walls of homeless people's houses as their painting boards and creating original art works. Large painting boards are expensive for art students to buy. The students asked the homeless people to use their houses as painting boards. They accepted the students' request willingly. This is an example of the charming culture of Shinjuku. I believe Cyberspace is a more charming place than Shinjuku to stay and enjoy.

It is a regretful fact that we have been living in a culture that excludes two-way communication for a long time. This one-way culture has effectively been controlling our society. Such a culture is not compatible with the borderless world of today. We can't imagine how to survive in this borderless world without accepting the existence of competing concepts or the reality of two-way communications.

Teachers Must Teach the Price of Freedom

It is unrealistic to hope that freedom is easily compatible with security. Imagine a life in jail. This is the ultimate but clearest example to show us the relationship between freedom and security. You have no freedom but almost perfect security in a jail. The jail is under perfect surveillance for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. So it is a perfectly secure place. Who likes jail because of its perfect security? Maybe nobody. In order to enjoy freedom securely we have to maintain the constant tension between freedom and security.

In short, the price of freedom is expensive for us all. You must be ready to pay the price for freedom. Teachers must teach the truth of how expensive it is.

I have been thinking about the objective of education: how to educate children to walk on their own feet. It is important that they are able to walk where they want to go - not where someone else wants them to go, and of course not where their teachers want them to go. The point is to be able to "walk alone." So the basic rule of being able to walk alone is essential. The most dangerous thing is to be ignorant of this basic rule. This might lead to endangering one's own life. Such ignorance is extremely regretful.

Think about manners. For a long time manners have been taught as a norm of the hierarchical relations in our society. Manners have not been rationalized as the knowledge and method necessary to maintain egalitarian relationships. Yet manners are even more important in egalitarian relationships than in hierarchical ones.

Why knock on the door? Why let him or her know who I am? Why not just go in before being admitted? Once I was thinking with my students about the reason for these questions - to check the security inside the closed door, to avoid your own danger by letting him or her know your friendly will, and so forth. All of this is part of the knowledge and method we need for self-survival.

One day a student came into my office without knocking on the door, so I jokingly shouted with a pose of firing a gun at him, "Baaang, you are dead!" - because he forgot to check the security inside the closed door; not because of the hierarchical relationship between him and me.

In this country we have been trained to use and like a one-way culture since childhood. Usually we are not good at playing catch with information. One-way traffic may be safe and comfortable, but it's imaginary in today's borderless world. The reality is the two-way traffic of information. Take a look at the reality.

Idare to say there have been double standards between those inside and those outside schools. Generally we have become accustomed to such double standards between inside and outside national borders. But the Internet has drastically changed our information environment. We have already been liberated from one-way traffic divided by national borders. Two-way traffic is unstable but pleasant.

A Culture of Volunteerism Offers Hope

We have come to a difficult problem for teachers that we can not escape when we accept a two-way culture in our schools. There is a discipline problem for us teachers to overcome when we take children in Cyberspace. Live information flows into the classroom across borders. Children will search the virtual library liberated from the limitations of textbooks and teachers. They are likely to meet new teachers in Cyberspace from whom they can acquire what they have been seeking. Redefining the relationship between teachers and children will be necessary when the traditional hierarchical structure collapses.

Discipline-first education, which might not be true education, is easy to manage on a daily basis. Information flows one way from teachers, or "teaching machines," into children's "vacant vessels." In this case teachers are just the transporters of ready-made information. Many children have become bored with such one-way transportation of information.

When such one-way educated children participate in Cyberspace, what will happen to them there? It is clear that information showers will mercilessly fall upon them. They are likely to be persuaded to accept the influential brand-loyal information mentioned above. They may feel comfortable and misunderstand the intensified brand-loyalty in Cyberspace as their free will. I would like to coin the new word "Cyberservitude" to describe such servitude in Cyberspace. "Discipline first" will take children to a comfortable "Cyberservitude" in the near future, which will lead to the collapse of our society itself.

Finally we have to mention our hope. A culture of "volunteerism" has created the Internet. The sixth annual Internet Society conference, INET'96 was held in Montreal, Canada from June 26 to 28, 1996. More than 2500 delegates from around the world discussed present and future Internet development. I attended the conference as a regular member of the Internet Society. Educational institutions are seeking ways to use the Internet and new trends are emerging. The entire educational system will have to be redesigned in light of the new tools available and the needs of students in today's environment. All members, from young students to the middle-aged executives like Vinton Cerf freely discussed the present and the future of the Internet. A culture of volunteerism was alive there (see Ippei Wakabayashi, "Challenge of the Internet for school education: the problematic factor of INET'96", URL<http: //www.wakabayashi.com/cyberspace/).

Such volunteerism offers hope, however small. Hope is right in front of us. Children, the potential creators of the future Cyberspace are in front of you. Hope is right in your hands if you have the courage to accept it.

This article was adapted from a keynote speech in Japanese to the AGENE (Association of Global Electronic Networking Educators) Internet Seminar at Fujitsu Makuhari on December 14, 1996.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Ms. Elizabeth R. Baer and Professor David Loy for their professional assistance, and my wife, Yoshiko Wakabayashi, for encouraging me constantly.

Ippei Wakabayashi is a member of the Faculty of International Studies, Bunkyo University, Japan. [email protected]

References HotWired URL<http://www.hotwired.com/

Lycos URL<http://www.lycos.com/

Alta Vista: Main Page URL<http://www.altavista.digital.com/

excite URL<http://www.excite.com/Subject/

LookSmart URL<http://www.looksmart.com/

Welcome to NRaD URL<http://www.nosc.mil/nrad/welcome.page

Yahooligans! URL<http://www.yahooligans.com/

Internet Society URL<http://www.isoc.org/

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