‘What is the moose of cyberspace?’

Susan Crawford, writing about David Post’s forthcoming book and his search for the The Moose of Cyberspace:

In the prologue, David tells the story of Jefferson fighting against the Old World belief that animals and humans degenerated in the New World — that every creature was smaller and less powerful in American than it was in Europe. To prove his point, Jefferson had an entire [dead] moose shipped to Paris and reconstituted in stuffed form in his entrance hall. There, see? Things are large in America! That moose was seven feet tall. (You can read another account of this controversy here.)

David wants to put Jefferson’s ideas to work in describing cyberspace as a new place — he’s writing his “notes on cyberspace” to reflect Jefferson’s “notes on the State of Virginia.”

The great question for me, and the question I put to my class today, is: What is the moose of cyberspace? What’s the thing you’d show people to convince them that the internet is hugely different from a telephone network or a broadcast system and that entirely new things are possible there? We’ve got this unbelievable group-forming-network-of-networks — how do we show people what it is?

Several people said Wikipedia is the moose of cyberspace — an amazing encyclopedia created by everyone. There were also strong voices for eBay and Google. Imagine having knowledge at your fingertips, 1/4 of a second away! That’s big.

So — what do you think is the moose of cyberspace?

Ten or more years ago, I would have said PGP or some other asymmetric encryption system. My vote today is for Google. Except of course that it’s a cheat, as Google is only magic because of all the content it makes available, so to say ‘Google’ is to in some sense just reference the whole thing.

(And of course, PGP didn’t turn out to be a very smart or lasting choice. Will Google?)

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14 Responses to ‘What is the moose of cyberspace?’

  1. ac says:

    mturk.amazon.com, though it isn’t as easy to “get” as a stuffed moose

  2. I’d vote for Ebay.

    But I think the goal is really for a magic bunny.

    That is, I have an uncomfortable whiff of the old saying “… “cyberspace” as a kind of Magical Kingdom where one is safe and free, where everything is magic and we can talk to bunnies.”

    Jefferson was not saying a moose was something outside of human ken. He was saying it’s A BIG ANIMAL, just like other BIG ANIMALS.

    Cyberspace is not a “new place”. It’s not a “place”. It’s a *method of communication*, which while having advantages and disadvantages, does not in any way escape being a *method of communication* – not a new democracy, not a virtual avatar, not a Magical Kingdom.

  3. Alex H. says:

    I think ebay is a good choice. But I would go with Wikipedia. Despite some of the recent handwringing, I think it is our modern pyramid, a tremendous store of freely available human knowledge. I tell my students that their grandkids probably won’t know what the word “Internet” means, but are going to ask what they did to help build Wikipedia.

  4. metromiami says:

    bah.
    fark.com is a bigger moose.
    you have your constant flow of news and information, and a
    large community of people commenting on stories they’ve read,
    linking to other stories, etc.
    if anyone used the wikipedia “talk back” forums i suppose it would
    be similar, but no one does. fark.com is probably the largest community
    of people listening to stories together that has ever existed.

  5. elliottg says:

    Google is distinct from the content it references. To dismiss it as only useful because of the content is misguided. A simple thought experiment where google has been removed from the Internet, but every other link survived would quickly demonstrate something unique about google. Google is the card catalog of the Internet.

  6. arthur says:

    email is much more different, useful and powerful than any other use of internet. Millions of people use email and dont’ touch the rest of the internet, but I doubt that anyone uses the interent with also using email.

  7. Look at it this way – what is the assertion to which “Moose” is the answer?

    It is: “that every creature was smaller and less powerful in American than it was in Europe.”

    What is the assertion to which “Magic Bunnies” is the answer?

    It is: “cyberspace as a new place” – because it’s NOT a “place”.

    I *think* the assertion which compares directly to “hugely different from a telephone network or a broadcast system” is something like “that every page was dumber and less informative on the Net than it was in print” (in which case, Wikipedia is likely to be a *confirmation*, not a *refutation*!).
    Hmm … I’d say “GNU/Linux” is the answer there.

  8. Eli Rabett says:

    I’ve heard a story that when they were shooting the movie “Jefferson in Paris” the crew went looking for a stuffed moose. They found the original one. It is probably still around. That friends is the kind of urban myth I want to believe

  9. Joe Viola says:

    Google Earth. If you’re answering with something different, maybe you should try Google Earth.

  10. Mojo says:

    Internet porn. (Although Jefferson would have had to have shipped a few hundred bison, grizzlies, moose, and sequoias to make the comparison truly apt.)

  11. David Post says:

    thanks for the ideas (and for the spirited discussion) about my project — re Eli Rabett’s question about the moose used in the “Jefferson in Paris,” I’ve heard the same thing (that they used the actual skeleton J. had shipped to Paris in the movie), and I actually think it’s true.

    One comment I can’t help taking issue with. Seth Finkelstein wrote:
    “I have an uncomfortable whiff of the old saying ‘… ‘cyberspace’ as a kind of Magical Kingdom where one is safe and free, where everything is magic and we can talk to bunnies. Jefferson was not saying a moose was something outside of human ken. He was saying it’s A BIG ANIMAL, just like other BIG ANIMALS. Cyberspace is not a ‘new place’. It’s not a ‘place’. It’s a *method of communication*, which while having advantages and disadvantages, does not in any way escape being a *method of communication* – not a new democracy, not a virtual avatar, not a Magical Kingdom.”

    Well, I disagree. Even putting aside the reference to the ‘magic bunnies.’ I am guilty, I confess, of thinking that the rise of cyberspace is a major, world-historical event, with spectacular potential to change the world, and even maybe for the better. I know we’re all supposed to be deeply skeptical and to smile ironically when saying something like that — but I’m not skeptical and I’m not being ironic.

    More substantively: of course cyberspace isn’t a “place” in the way that Virginia, or Mount Rainier, are “places.” But I think you’re missing something to say that it’s just “a method of communication.” I think it’s hard to deny that It has elements of “place-ness,” that one can look at it (as many people do, instinctively) and think about it AS a “place” and get insights into what it is and how it operates and what we should do about it.
    David

  12. Dave says:

    The moose is that there is no moose. Or that there are as many mooses as users.

    There’s no one thing – each person has their own thing that makes cyberspace unlike what’s gone before. Since anything that can be expressed as data is possible, it’s up to us to decide how to use it and what of those things are special. E-mail, flickr, Google Earth, DeadBase, whatever you think is the most important or influential, that’s your moose, but there’s no one moose.

    Dave

  13. John Kelsey says:

    I wouldn’t point to a single site or technology, because none of them catch the essence of what makes the net so different. It’s the ability to very quickly form new networks of people with shared ideas, beliefs, or interests. That can be done over usenet newsgroups, weblogs, LISTSERV lists, irc channels, etc. The point is that these networks can form more-or-less spontaneously, and that they bypass all kinds of old barriers to this kind of thing. This extends to news, opinion, programs, markets, hobbies, etc.

    If I wanted to point out a big moose, though, I’d point out bot networks and DDOS extortion schemes. This is genuinely a new thing under the sun.

  14. To David Post:

    I concur in part and dissent in part, with what you say.

    Regarding: spectacular potential to change the world, and even maybe for the better

    Yes. I strongly agree. I’ve devoted a lot of effort to this proposition myself, and at a high cost to me in many ways.

    But: “It has elements of “place-ness,” that one can look at it (as many people do, instinctively) and think about it AS a “place” and get insight …”

    No. With respect, I believe this is extremely wrong, and WORKS AGAINST insights. Print has “potential to change the world, and even maybe for the better”, but we don’t talk about “paperspace“. The sort of material which comes out of “place-ness”, tends to be a dressed-up version of “books take you on a journey through time and space, visiting distant lands and other eras”. Except its taken seriously instead of recognized as just flowery language, and so the outcome is a flight of fancy.

    I know – It’s appealing. It plays to a certain mindset. It fills pages. Etc.

    But so does Santa Claus.

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