(A slightly modified version of this article
appeared in IEEE Computing, Volume I, Number 1, 1997.)

Fast, Cheap and Out of Control

By Christopher Locke
There is perennial warfare between creativity and control. The stuff of epic, you can find this motif reverberating through the works of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake. A little closer to home, you can find it on the good old Internet. Some recent developments bring this theme around again with near-Biblical vengeance. One of them is the intranet.

In essence, this is a terrific idea. But let's remember where it came from. Just a few years ago, before the Internet frenzy had reached full throat, it was nearly impossible to get much organizational support for net-related projects. The people who initially built the Internet, did so out of love -- or perhaps it was just plain obsession. Call it what you will, what made the Internet into something truly awe inspiring were the contributions of enthusiastic individuals, writing, coding, hacking away, building something together that belonged to none of them, contributing their energies to some common pool of data, information, knowledge, culture.

That culture was often characterized as a kind of anarchy. No one was in control. Yet somehow, through highly participatory negotiation and cooperation, things did get coordinated pretty well -- to the point where the rest of the world couldn't ignore the phenomenon any longer and decided to come have a look. Evidently the world liked what it saw. It's currently estimated that nearly a quarter of the population of North America has some form of connection to the net. Granted, this doesn't represent the world at large, and yes, there's plenty of inequity with respect to access. Still, that figure is incredible for those who can remember when the Internet was the exclusive province of well-endowed university research centers and the biggest guns in the military-industrial complex.

So what was it that attracted the unwashed proletariat? (In which class by the way, despite some very lucky breaks, I squarely situate myself.) Some will say it was Mosaic or Mozilla or Internet Explorer, whatever their bowser of choice (and no, that's not a typo). They'll say it was the Web what made it all so easy, and that's why everybody joined the club. But hold the phone! I don't know about you, but I burn incense and recite mantras every time I connect, lest some little thing should go awry and leave me scratching my head over winsock.dll's or IP stacks or the arcane inner mysteries of DNS. And I've been at this game a good long time.

If people are generally spooked of programming their VCRs, then why have they been willing to go through hell to get online? You have to admit, it's still not exactly like fixing Pop Tarts. I have a theory about why they came. And it has everything to do with the culture of anarchy -- or you could simply call it freedom.

The mass media never allowed for anything like this. Most organizations surely didn't encourage unbridled exploration or the indulgence of rampant curiosity. One metaphor that came early to mind was of a wild new electronic frontier, with plenty of unfenced space for explorers willing to make the trip. Yes, the web and graphical browsers helped make it more accessible -- but the "it" itself was the real attraction: people speaking their own minds, for once, jointly investigating highly focused issues and interests, freely distributing nifty (often elegant) software, writing the maddest, funniest -- sometimes most cogent -- stuff you've ever read, painting each other's luminous displays with the liquid assets of raw imagination.

Yeah, sure, of course, there was no lack of pitiful drek as well. But don't let that divert you from The Main Thing. And The Main Thing is that -- apart from, say, the cave paintings at Lascaux, which had quite a bit smaller audience I'm told -- nothing like this had ever happened in the bloody history of the world!

Perhaps these early efforts were primitive compared to slick sites like C|net and Pathfinder, Microsoft Network and CNN. But they had something going for them that these latter day camp followers are largely lacking: heart, enthusiasm, genuine joy. And if you don't get too sucked in by the numbers game, if you dig a little deeper than the web.media.wowie.zowie spectacle of the moment, it's all still there -- undermining the boundaries of Empire, working its labyrinthine and subversive trade routes, challenging any notion that it's ever going back into the box.

If you don't recognize at least some truth in this description then I'd guess you haven't been online long enough to acquire what is, after all, a fairly subtle taste. But many haven't, and many never will. To a lot of management types (being one myself affords me certain privileges to impugn the species), this whole Internet thing is a massive waste of corporate resource. They trot out the legal beagles who come down with the fantods over language documented in depth in the Oxford English Dictionary -- and in pretty common use by anyone living outside of a nunnery. They wring their hands about misuse of company time (where were they when Microsoft was delivering Solitaire into their corporate midst?) They wail and moan about data security and the evil hackers who will do their precious data dirty if ever given half a chance.

Now, on this point don't get me wrong: there are nasty bandits out there and for whatever twisted reasons, they do get off by destroying networked systems. So data security is something that's critical and can't be hand-waved away. But there's something much deeper going on here. There's fear and suspicion that goes far beyond what's rationally warranted by these real dangers.

The fear is the fear of losing control. The suspicion is that nobody is taking you seriously anymore. If you've ever entertained such thoughts, then let me be the first to break the news. You are losing control. And nobody is taking you seriously. All that "information" you're trying to protect? How much value does it really have? Isn't it just more legacy data-baggage for the most part, leftover artifacts of obsolete data gathering procedures so run amok that no one can stem the proliferation of the useless junk they continue to spew out? If you answer no, then yours must be a very special case.

In contrast to this bleak scenario, people got excited about the Internet because they could create something they actually cared about, and on their own terms. We're not just talking about kids discovering America Online. We're talking about people in large corporations. For once, here was something that was not about following brain-dead business algorithms and terminally boring management dicta. Before the intranet was sanctified on the front cover of Business Week last year, who do you suppose built all those zillions of web pages inside the companies that publication was reporting on? It surely wasn't the CIOs they quoted. Instead, it was regular corporate wage slaves like you and me, suddenly having the time of their lives -- in HTML.

Why? Maybe, for starters, because no one told us to. Those original pages were put together by skunk works looking to get the word out on their pet project, by people who wanted to champion some needed innovation, by individuals who wanted a little recognition for their intelligence instead of a paternalistic pat on the back for putting in 12-hour days of robotic paper pushing.

I knew a guy who spearheaded the first web project at Big Company X (a name you'd surely recognize, but which shall remain veiled in mystery for reasons soon to emerge). He told me his team had worked like demons to figure out TCP/IP and HTTP from scratch, and to build a server that brought together a massive amount of the company's most useful information. Then of course, they made it available to anyone who wanted to plug in. Evidently, lots of people inside the company wanted to. World spread like wildfire that Something Very New was Up. "We did all that in nine weeks, from start to finish," he told me with obvious pride, "with no management support and only whatever budget we could scavenge from other less interesting jobs."

When you hear the term "high-performance team" -- and it's not just some gung-ho power-hoser blowing smoke -- this is what it means: a bunch of turned on people having so much fun learning together that they forget to do things like eat and sleep for long periods of time, and who, moreover and notwithstanding, go out and proselytize the hell out of anyone who shows the least bit of interest -- and teach them how to do it too. A company that encourages such behavior, and really learns how to nurture it, can easily blow the proverbial doors right off its competition.

But sadly, that's not the end of our little anecdote. "When the suits got wind of what we were up to," my Company X pal told me, "everything ground to a complete halt. They set up committees to study the market, they brought the legal guys in. At first it looked like we might get to do what we'd been hoping for... land some serious resources to really grow the thing." Yes, I said, all ears. So then what happened? "Well, they kind of took it away from us -- gave it to some heavier honchos a couple of miles upstream on the org chart." He drifted for a moment, clearly recalling what had been. "...and after that, it wasn't the same. Everything slowed down and got real bureaucratic. It just wasn't fun anymore."

This darkling parable is a good one to lay on those of our organizational brethren who may tend to view the corporate intranet as an excellent means to impose some high-sounding yet bogus "management oversight" on the integral and intrinsic anarchy of the Internet. If the point is to protect proprietary data, fine -- do that, and do it well. But if the point is to reinstate command-and-control management paranoia, allow me to humbly suggest that the inevitable result will be rapid, expensive and dramatically embarrassing failure. And well deserved.

(Why does this remind me of a bumper sticker I saw last week? It said "U.S. Out of America!")

The reason the net works so well is that it's about the free flow of ideas that someone really cares passionately about. Lots of passionate someones make for a vibrant growing web. Lots of corporate intranet rules and regs make for a Maginot-Line mainframe mentality. Just running over TCP/IP doesn't count for squat if nobody's much inclined to use Your Network. If the Internet has proven anything, it's that only one tactic always works: give it away -- to people who might have a clue what to do with it.

Fast, cheap and out of control. To some these words are music; to others they ring with ominous threat. But anyone who comes to understand what creative anarchy can do for a business -- or any intentional community of human beings -- quickly begins to love the whole idea. Hell, I did.


Next time out, "Network Computer: Friend or Foe?" Plus, more on intranets -- "How to Stuff the World Wide Web into An Easy-to-Build Terrarium!" Stay tuned...