CFR and the Digital Age

The Colorado Freedom Report:  A libertarian journal of politics and culture.

The Colorado Freedom Report--www.FreeColorado.com

CFR and the Digital Age

by Ari Armstrong, January 1999

Net boy, net girl
Send your impulse 'round the world
Put your message in a modem
And throw it in the Cyber Sea

-- Neil Peart, 1996

While these song lyrics from Rush aren't entirely complimentary of the digital age, they indicate, at least, that the age has come. It's hard to look anywhere without seeing some business's web address advertised.

Now, not only are practically all movies advertised on the internet, but movies themselves are increasingly about the internet. The Net, Virtuosity, You've Got Mail, and Hackers are titles that immediately come to mind. On-line movies themselves cannot be far behind. Orders for books can now be placed with a few clicks of the mouse, and, what's more, whole libraries of books are now offered in digital form on-line. Victor Koman's on-line Kings of the High Frontier (available at www.pulpless.com) won accolades long before the novel was ever printed on paper.

The nostalgic among us long for a friendlier era when neighbors chatted, when family bonds were tighter, when phone sex was the bizarre frontier. A wired culture needn't be an impersonal one, however; technology may have broken some social ties, but it has also created new ones. Now, families and friends can stay connected for a whopping marginal cost of zero, sending messages and photos at near-instantaneous speeds anywhere in the world. Fathers and mothers are increasingly able to work from home, thanks to their modems.

The Colorado Freedom Report is first an on-line publication; the paper edition is an after-thought. I suspect that we'll stop offering paper copies altogether at some point, simply because the demand for paper won't continue. With the first edition of CFR hitting the cyber-stands in January of 1999, I thought it might be interesting to consider this journal's place in the virtual world.

The main advantages of publishing on-line are high speed and low cost. A few hundred dollars a year will purchase server space. The fact that a CFR paper subscription costs more than twice as much as an on-line subscription reflects the costs of printing and postal service.

Of course, the main disadvantage of cheap internet service is that most material on the internet is of terrible quality. Newsgroups are notoriously bad. However, the free market is increasingly providing ways to assure quality: reputation, web "rings," mandatory fees (such as those of the on-line Wall Street Journal), and copy-editing all are coming increasingly into play. While CFR as a small regional publication cannot afford the full-time staff that larger magazines can maintain, still it will meet high standards because of my editing, the copy-editing of David Bryant, and the improvements made possible through subscription funds.

Another barrier to digital publishing is the eye-strain caused by staring at a computer screen for hours on end. Having read nearly all of Koman's lengthy novel on my web browser (a great book, by the way), I can attest that this is a real problem, though not an overwhelming one. I predict the day will come when most books are published solely on-line. (Movies, TV, and music will more certainly move on-line, as they can be enjoyed directly in a digital format.) I have already read about paper-like screens in the tech magazines. Eventually, someone will come out with a small, dedicated computer the size of a normal book, with a screen as readable as the printed page, that takes some sort of storage disk. Imagine -- instead of buying paper books for $6 to $90, you will buy the book-computer for a one-time $60 and digital books for a fraction of the cost of the bound versions. And thousands of books will fit in the palm of your hand.

Of course I am not ignorant of the failure of previous predictions concerning the coming of the "paperless office." With the computerized office came an incredible increase in the use of paper. This is hardly surprising; the computer printer replaced the typewriter as the primary means of producing documents. Early computers were good at two things: math and word processing. Now, the computer has evolved from a tool to print on paper into a tool to display information first-hand. With digital formatting, computers can drop the marginal costs of texts, videos, and music albums to practically zero. Given this fact, the coming of these products to the internet is a virtual certainty.

We're not there yet, though I'm convinced the time is rapidly approaching. Until then, readers will have to make do with viewing CFR on a regular computer screen or purchasing the more expensive paper subscription.

Libertarians have made much of the internet's potential to advance freedom. The increased ease with which information can travel has already made pro-market ideas more readily available. Many see the internet itself as a paradigm for how markets operate. CFR hopes to play a significant role advancing libertarian ideas in the region.

I am less hopeful that the internet itself can undermine the State. On one hand, this seems possible. Who cares about gambling laws, for instance, when one can gamble in other states and countries over the internet? Commerce can increasingly be handled from outside the reaches of particular governments. In addition, encryption software may enable commerce to evade the eye of Big Brother. However, the State is well able to regulate industries, including the internet. Laws dealing with encryption, internet activities, and internet taxes have already been proposed. No, I do not think the internet can replace a well-fought war of ideas.

The internet can be a tool in that fight, however, and in this respect I hope that CFR will have a real impact. The State with its corruption and oppression will collapse under its own weight, once we convince enough people to stop supporting it.

The Colorado Freedom Report--www.FreeColorado.com