Principles of cyber-realism


Last year a group in the US launched with the statement:

"In this heady age of rapid technological change, we all struggle to maintain our bearings. The developments that unfold each day in communications and computing can be thrilling and disorienting. One understandable reaction is to wonder: Are these changes good or bad? Should we welcome or fear them?"

The technorealists then went on to set out eight principles of technorealism, and invited people to sign up to a sort of electronic petition. 1700 did so, and it created some useful discussion.


In the autum of 1999, several inquiries or debates will help shape the future of cyberspace as seen from the UK, and it is important that we share some understanding of the realities of cyberspace to inform those discussions. Elsewhere we set out some possible scenarios for cyberspace, and a draft manifesto which derives from the principles below.The inquiries and debates are:

  1. The UK Government's Policy Action Team 15, which is considering action to combat social exclusion in the Information Society, will finish taking evidence by mid-October and then draft a report for Prime Minister Tony Blair.
  2. Culture Secretary Chris Smith has asked for a public debate, concluding by November 1, on funding of the BBC. The Davies panel report recommended funds from an additional digital licence fee should support BBC education campaigns and also local access. Even if this recommendation is rejected, it puts down a marker about the need for public funding for these centres.
  3. By October BBC Online will be opening The Great Debate on its relaunched site with discussion about online communities. Hopefully other major online service providers will also promote discussion.
  4. We may also expect MPs to become increasingly interested in the potential and pitfalls of electronic democracy as they consider a general election in about two years time.

Below are some draft principles for cyber-realism. If we can add, amend, reach some consensus on a backcloth of principles, we can hopefully move towards some recommendations for action in relation to the above inquiries.

Draft principles for cyber-realism

1 New media technologies are not neutral - they will change our 'real communities' for good and ill.

Increasingly we will live our lives partly in the real world and partly in the virtual communities of cyberspace. These online communities - or cyberplaces - will provide facilities for shopping, gaming, socialising, debating and doing business. Who gains and who loses by this will depend substantially upon four factors: who has access to cyberplaces, who design and constructs them, who controls them, and who has the skills to use them.

2 The main construction of cyberplaces will be commercial.

Much of the fabric of our towns and cities has been constructed by private developers, and the same will hold true for cyberplaces. Once we get beyond basic email and 'do it yourself' web pages, the major places visited on the Net are being created for business purposes. Investors are nurturing online communities by free services and other attractions so that these communities can be sold to - or sold on to others. They must provide returns to shareholders. These pioneering efforts can provide us with great benefits as consumers - but not, on their own, as citizens.

3 In cyberspace - just like real space - position matters. Increasingly this will be privately controlled.

In one sense cyberspace may be limitless. There are few forseeable limits on the ability of individuals, groups or companies to create their own cyberplaces, in some forms. It is as if land were (almost) free, and without planning controls. But where you are will matter more and more - because people will find cyberplaces through search engines, gateways, portals and other devices controlled mainly by private interests. Position will be allocated primarily to serve those interests. Individuals and groups will continue to create good cyberplaces, signposting and gateways - but without some action in the overall public interest they may exist only on the margin.

4 Access is not enough.

Providing poorer people with access to the Internet, and training in the use of computers, is essential for social justice and overall economic wellbeing - but it will not in itself combat social exclusion and improve people's lives. For that to happen the cyberplaces people can find and use - whether they are poor or not - must be designed to meet more than their needs as consumers. They should be designed with the participation of users. In addition, training and support must go beyond technical issues to include information literacy and the skills needed to participate in online communities.

5 Digital television and Internet developments will transform cyberspace within a few years.

The speed of the Internet will increase tenfold for many ordinary users within a year. Within a few years more all television sets will be digital, providing additional access. Cyberplaces will increasingly be multi-media - a mix of text, audio and video. All media will converge. The control of that media will lie in fewer and fewer hands.

6 Information is not power

The Internet and other media will increasingly provide access to vast amounts of information. But that information is useless if it is not structured - or structured only in ways which suit certain interests. The ability to create content on the Web is merely vanity publishing if no-one can find it.

7 Size matters.

One of the great attractions of the Internet for early enthusiasts and activists was that individuals and small groups could - apparently - create cyberplaces to rival those of large public and private interests. This may still hold good - but only the large will channel and attract large audiences. Only the large will have a loud voice in cyberspace.

8. Understanding technology should be an essential component of global citizenship. (from the techno-realism principles)

In a world driven by the flow of information, the interfaces - and the underlying code - that make information visible are becoming enormously powerful social forces. Understanding their strengths and limitations, and even participating in the creation of better tools, should be an important part of being an involved citizen. These tools affect our lives as much as laws do, and we should subject them to a similar democratic scrutiny.

9 Public cyberspace should be central, not fringe, and of high quality.

In the UK at least, we accept that parks need to be in the centres of towns and cities, and that public transport should be available to all at reasonable cost. Increasingly we expect that our public and community facilities which serve us as citizens should match that of the shops we use as consumers. Public cyberplaces should be at the centre of our online lives, and they should be good.

10 Cybercitizens should be involved in the development of cyberspace.

Without the innovation and investment of the private sector we will not have a world class digital ecomomy - and without that we will not have the wealth and public resources needed for a socially inclusive Information Society. But we cannot just leave it to corporations and Government to get it right. In the 'real' world the case for community involvement in major developments - and neighbourhood change - is entirely accepted. We expect our MPs and councillors to represent our interests, developers to submit planning applications, and a range of meetings and other methods to give us a say in things which affect our lives. We have a National Trust for special places, and a Civic Trust to champion good design. We should not stiffle the innovation that has characterised the Internet by simply seeking to transfer 19th century institutions to cyberspace in the 21st century. We should, however, urgently debate the nature and requirements of public cyberspace.


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