Mr. Gingrich's Cyber-Revolution

The New York Times, January 17, 1995, Tuesday, Late Edition

Last week, Newt Gingrich unveiled an electronic archive that will contain every bill submitted to Congress and every speech uttered in the House and Senate. The archive -- called "Thomas" (as in Jefferson) and accessible through the Internet computer network -- is, according to Mr. Gingrich, just one part of an ambitious plan to take power away from the elite and give it back to the people. The goal is a return to a Jeffersonian past with a 21st- century twist -- the agrarian community, the glue that held 18th-century America together, is to be replaced by cyberspace.

For all the talk about the information superhighway and rise of cyberculture, cyberpunks, cyber this and cyber that, the social, economic and political importance of this new order remains undefined. Into the void steps Mr. Gingrich, who from his new position of power could well undo the very things that make cyberspace an inspiration to him and other Americans.

To understand what the Gingrich revolution is all about, it's important to understand his unique brand of libertarian futurism. Mr. Gingrich has close ties to an organization called the Progress and Freedom Foundation, which produced his teaching video "Renewing American Civilization" and this fall published a manifesto called "A Magna Carta for the Information Age." One of its co-authors is Alvin Toffler, who wrote "Future Shock" and has been advising Mr. Gingrich on how to bring Congress into the modern world.

The "Magna Carta" outlines a vision of national transformation through information access. America, the theory goes, is entering the Knowledge Age, as part of the "third wave" of history. The third wave is one where knowledge replaces matter -- natural resources, say -- as a source of power. And that power will flow through cyberspace (best defined as the space between computers connected by telephone lines). The central role of Government is to repeal "second wave" laws based on outdated concepts, making it possible to shift information from institutions to individual citizens.

Sort through the jargon and it's clear what this historical synthesis is: the rationale for a gold rush in cyberspace. That becomes clear at the end of the "Magna Carta," when Government is advised to remove "second wave" regulations from the telecommunications and computer industries by, for instance, removing the barriers that stop telephone and cable television companies from combining their networks. Mr. Gingrich seems to believe sincerely that these policies will return power to self-reliant citizens. As someone who came of age in cyberspace, I can understand his excitement. I spend several hours a day on line and take for granted the ways people interact in cyberspace; it's a communal enterprise where people tend to cooperate rather than compete. In part, this collaborative spirit reflects the newness of cyberspace and the need for guidance in navigating through it.

It is this communal self-governance that inspires Mr. Gingrich, and the reason he thinks the Internet is related to the pastoral values of Jeffersonian America. There is a good reason for this; it is the only part of cyberspace (which includes things like banking and equity trading) that isn't run for profit. Most people pay only a tiny fraction of the real cost of supporting the network of high-speed sw