A Brief History of the Internet, by Michael S. Hart and Max Fuller

(Michael S. Hart is director of Project Gutenberg, and was one of the first private citizens on the Internet back in the ARPAnet days.)

This is a copy of an email I sent to Dr. Hart in October of 1996, after reading his A Brief History of the Internet. It appears to be incomplete, but was posted for public download, so I treat it as a first edition rather than a draft. (You can download it by clicking on the title above.)


I have a few comments to make upon:

    A Brief History of the Internet
    The Bright Side:  The Dark Side
    by Michael Hart with Max Fuller

    (C)1995, Released on March 8th.

Firstly, is there a more complete edition yet?  If so, some
of my comments may be irrelevant, so I'll keep them brief
until I hear back from you whether you've finished the first
complete version of the book yet.

    Michael Hart may have been the first person who got on as
    a private individual, not paid by any of the 23 nodes, or
    the Internet/ARPANet system, for his work; but who at the
    time of this publication might have given away 25 billion
    worth of Etexts in return for his free network access.

The passage I quote here is very interesting, even tantalizing:
a bit of personal and Internet history from someone who was
there almost from the beginning.  My chief concern in
writing this message is that the title of the book is misleading;
most of the book is not about the history of the Internet
per se, but about where the Internet is likely going
and what we can do about it.  This is not a bad thing to
write about; far from it.  But (1) I would like to learn more
about the early history of the Internet, especially from persons
like yourself, and (2) if you are going to write primarily
about the future of the Internet, the title of the book
should reflect this.

    it in their spare time.  For $1,000 per book, I am sure a
    few people would be turning out a book a week for as long
    as it took to get all million books into electronic text.

It is a bit jarring to have you refer to yourself in
the third person in some places, and in the first person in
others (as in the passage I quoted others).

That's about as far as my stylistic comments are going to
go; the rest has to do with your argument.

Correct me if I'm wrong, or if this impression is
inaccurately formed upon an unfinished version of the book,
but your main points seem to be these: (1) That the Internet
has been free to most users for the first twenty-five years,
and ought to be free to the much larger number of users who
start using it now and in the future.  (2) That there is a
conspiracy, or at least a general inclination, on the part
of the "information rich" to keep information out of reach
of the "information poor."  (3) That one of the main tactics
of this game of keep-away is promulgation of etext formats
which are machine-dependent and expensive of processor time and
disk storage space.  (4) That, therefore, we ought to see to
it that etexts are prepared in the least-machine dependent
format ("plain vanilla" ASCII -- a lovely phrase! and
a prettier acronym, PVASCII) first, with fancier, more
machine-dependent formats created later, as a lower

Let me respond to those points, first briefly to each, then
at a bit more length.

1. The Internet has been "free" to employees of government,
universities, and large corporations as a job perk, and to
students as part of the indivisible package of services they
buy (or have bought for them) with their tuition.  It cannot
be free to everyone in the future without the costs being
similarly shifted to others.  If one grants your assumption
that it ought to be free, one must face the question of who
will pay for it.

2. I do not doubt that there is some such attitide as you
ascribe in the minds of many "information rich."  I hope
that you've exaggerated it, but I fear you've understated
it.  But I doubt that it is an organized conspiracy, and I
doubt more that it has much to do with the debate about
choice of etext formats.

3. and 4. After reading your etext of the Library of
Congress etext conference proceedings, I am inclined to
think that the main reason machine-dependent, expensive
formats are preferred by some people is simply that they
preserve more information from the original book than does a
PVASCII etext.  And it is usually easier to convert from a
high-information format to a lower-information format than
I would like to argue briefly against the idea that
the want of PVASCII etexts is a major cause of illiteracy,
or that an abundance of them would be a major factor in
reducing it.  When one can buy books -- and very good books,
too -- for 25c to 75c at thrift stores, situated for the
most part in the places where poor people live, the number
of PVASCII etexts available to people with low-end computers
is probably not a big factor in the rate of illiteracy.  If
one needs further evidence, look at Usenet.  The average
*degree* of literacy seems to be pretty low, though everyone
has at least the basic level which allows them to misread what
others have written and reply in such a way that they're likely to
be misunderstood in turn. :)  Yet people on Usenet have had
some years of access to hundreds of PVASCII etexts, many of
them to hundreds more etexts in HTML and other formats, and most
of them probably live in places where the libraries and
bookstores are of higher grade than they are in the
thrift-store neighborhoods I mentioned earlier.  But have
they profited by their opportunities?  No, for the most
part.  Again, don't get me wrong: I'd not have spend a
thousand-odd hours of my life typing and proofreading etexts
if I thought it a worthless pursuit.  But I don't think the
benefit is likely to come in an increase of literacy, but
in an increase of opportunities for those who are of
lower-middle class (not poor; the truly poor have no access
to computers whatever) and already literate at a more than
rudimentary level.

OK, now some more detail on each point.

1. There's no such thing as a free lunch.  Even if all the
content on Internet were in the public domain and had been
put there by volunteers, there would be costs involved in
giving people access to it: costs in electricity, network
maintenance, and depreciation of (and provision for
replenishment of) infrastructure.  Someone must pay for
this: if not the users themselves, then who?  The only
answers I see are (1) people's employers, (2) charitable
foundations, (3) the government.

As for employers: lots of people are getting Internet access
through their employers, and more people will do so in the
future; but it's unreasonable to expect every employer to
offer full Internet access to every employee.  They already
provide net access to those employees whom they judge will
benefit from it in increased productivity; to require them
to provide it to everyone, or all full-time employees, would
have an effect like all other benefit requirements -- it
would make employing people (at least full-time) a more
expensive proposition, and consequently (full-time)
employment would diminish.  It is the various benefit
requirements that the government imposes, at least to a
large degree, that are shifting employment from full-time to
part-time positions, and making a college degree more and
more a necessity: employers can afford to hire only the most
productive people in full-time positions.

As for charitable foundations: that would be really cool.
If you or someone else were to establish a foundation to
provide free or subsidized Internet access to the poor, I
would give money to it and probably do some volunteer work
for it.  But it would be unreasonable to expect such
organizations to provide access to everyone; they ought
probably to focus their limited money and labor on those who
need and will benefit most from their help.

As for government: I'm not going to spend several pages
arguing against such government services on principle, as I
could easily do; you're probably working from different
assumptions than I, and most of what I said wouldn't have a
chance of convincing you.  But consider this.  If the
government, right now, were to establish free access to the
Internet as a basic "right" for everyone, those who would
benefit most from it, at least in the short run, would be
those who have already learned something of the Internet by
using it -- that is, the information rich, in your
terminology.  Even the government would have to limit such
"help" to those who need it most desperately, if it were to
be cost-effective.  Also, there's the question of how it
would fund such a program.  We could argue all day about
where the funding *ought* to come from, if we agreed that it
ought to be done.  But I can tell you where it probably
*would* come from, given political realities.  It would be
by taking money away from other education programs -- mainly
libraries, I imagine -- or by new public debt.  As a matter
of fact, it would probably be done through existing
libraries, by diverting funds from book acquisition to
computer terminal acquisition.  (See Clifford Stoll,
Silicon Snake Oil.)  I may not agree with public libraries
on principle -- the subscription libraries established by
Benjamin Franklin were more just and at least as effective
-- but I admit that they're the nearest that government
programs ever get to effectiveness and efficiency.

Now that I've exhausted the free possibilities, let's look
at the low-cost possibilities -- beginning with the one you
mentioned and dismissed out-of-hand, Internet Service

        most of you probably never heard
    or saw the word Internet in the media until 1994, with the
    25th Anniversay hardly ever mentioned, as the idea was for
    everyone to think the Internet is the newest thing around,
    and to get us all to buy tickets for $20-$25 a month.

    Right now there are 40-50 million people on the Internet--
    and if someone could figure out how to make them all pay a
    $20-$25 fee. . .that would be $100 million a month or over
    a billion dollars a year.

Do you think that the Internet would be provided free if Internet
service providers were not charging $20-25 per month for it?
Scarcely.  If there were fewer Internet Service Providers,
there would be less Internet service provided.  To most
people who have high-end computers capable of using the
World Wide Web and so forth, $20-25 per month is not an
unreasonable price to pay for such access.  But for those
with lower-end computers, there exist lower-cost Internet
service options.  There are BBSs which provide text-only
access to the Internet for $20-40 per *year*.  The sysops
who run these BBSs, like the Internet Service Providers, are
entrepreneurs trying to make a profit, just with a different
target market... like Henry Ford selling low-cost cars to the
poor while others sold expensive cars to the wealthy.  All these
people -- the local ISPs, the big online service
corporations, and the BBS sysops -- are providing useful
services for a reasonable price.  (The ones that aren't
charging a reasonable price will soon be out of business.)
We ought to thank them, not vilify them for not giving
access away for free.

2. I've said all I plan to about this earlier on.

3. and 4. The people who prefer etexts consisting of
high-resolution images of every page of a paper book are
scholars who are interested in preserving all possible
information about rare books, against the eventuality that
the originals may someday be lost.  They're also concerned
about cost: human labor, needed to produce a PVASCII etext,
is more costly than the disk space needed to store high-res
images of every page in a book -- for a university library,
if not for a volunteer organization like Gutenberg.  As for
the controversy you relate about whether the Gutenberg etext
of "Hamlet" ought to read,

    "To be or not to be"
    "To be, or not to be"
    "To be; or not to be"
    "To be:  or not to be"
    "To be--or not to be"

-- it seems to me that this was more due to simple
pedanticism than any conspiracy against the information
poor.  Don't misunderstand me; I favor PVASCII etexts
myself, and that's the format I've used for all the etexts
I've produced.  But I can definitely see the reason in the
university librarians' arguments.  A PVASCII text can
eventually be produced from a set of page images; the
reverse is not true.  Suppose that some major disaster were
to occur: a meteor strike, a nuclear war, or something of
the kind... it might be that the only copies of certain
books remaining would be etexts, all the originals being
destroyed along with university libraries in big cities.  To
future scholars, it would make all the difference in the
world whether those were page-images or PVASCII.  Ordinary
people who enjoy good literature of the past would be all
right in the latter case; but the scholars would be forlorn
forever.  And, when the scholars of today are spending money
that was donated to a university library, it is more or less
reasonable for them to produce etexts that will benefit
scholars of the future, as well as ordinary people.  Once
the page-image or HTML is produced, it will be, at worst, no
more difficult to make a PVASCII etext from the high-detail
etext than from a paper book.  But, again, the reverse is
not true.

    You may have seen grants totalling ONE BILLION DOLLARS to
    create "Electronic Libraries;" what you haven't seen is a
    single "Electronic Book" released into the Public Domain,
    in any form for you to use, from any one of these.

    Why don't you see huge electronic libraries available for
    download from the Internet?

    Why are the most famous universities in the world working
    on electronic libraries and you can't read the books?

This is serious.  I shouldn't be surprised if much of the
money is being eaten up by the inevitable administrative
overhead that occurs in academic organizations.  A good deal
more may be being "wasted" in creating editions which
preserve more information about the original paper books
than ordinary readers will ever need.  This is probably
where your accusations are most accurate, and have the best
chance of sticking -- at least, if you identify who and what
you're talking about, instead of vaguely speaking of "the
most famous universities in the world" and "grants totalling
ONE BILLION DOLLARS".  What universities?  Which grants,
granted under what circumstances for what stated purposes?
If the grants were explicitly supposed to be for making free-
circulation electronic libraries, and the libraries are
being hoarded within single academic institutions, this is
not only wrong but maybe legally prosecutable.  But if they
were granted by alumni to build up the prestige and academic
resources of their alma mater -- such hoarding may be
selfish, but it is not strictly unjust.  Still, more
publicity might shame these people into giving copies of
their libraries away for the sake of the reputaton -- which,
after all, is the primary capital of a major university.
You are half done writing a good argument here, but it wants
more specific facts to be as valid as it could be.

I've written a lot more than I meant to; I'll stop here.  I
look forward to your reply.

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