Why Larry Page wants a no-man's land, and why you might too
Larry Page's comment that he wants to "set aside a part of the world" without regulation seems, on it's face, kind of crazy, like some lurid fusion of Ayn Rand and William Gibson fiction, until you realize that something almost like that already exists, you're on it, and Google relies on it to make billions of dollars. I'm talking about the internet.
From the very beginning, Google's mode of operation has been to vacuum up everyone's data for free or cheap, then use it to make compelling services, on which it can generate ad revenue. Search grabbed web pages, YouTube came for your videos, Gmail your email, and so on. And to technical people this all makes perfect sense, it's just a bunch of bits, right? We're just moving them from point A to B. This is what computers were invented to do. There are no physical constraints. It's the hacker ethos: information wants to be free.
But it turns out that information exists in a context. This magical layer beyond the physical world where data runs free is channeled over wires and through servers that live in the world like everyone else. "Just bits" is also some grandmother's bank balance or the name of a confidential source. In many ways, this is the whole story of the last few years. Bitcoin is the freest currency we know how to create, Tor the freest communication channel, and to some, Julian Assange, Aaron Swartz and Bradley Manning are revolutionary icons. Meanwhile Google and Facebook profit from a watered-down, corporate version of the same creed -- call them revolutionaries with stock options.
So Google has had to fight lawsuits against everyone from Oracle to the Associated Press, and get sanctioned by the EU and the FTC. Because their virtual land grab sucks up property other people feel they have a right to. As Google's ambitions widen -- as they assume the role of the internet wunderkind made good, now circling back around to physical space -- to self-driving cars and to insta-recording glasses on everybody's face, they're going to run into even more of these barriers constructed by government. Google Health and Streetview were just previews.
To Page, to Google, to internet pioneers of all stripes, it has to seem maddening. They've solved the technical challenge. They've lined up all the bits, all that's left is to set them free. Why can't our cars just drive themselves already?
And so this is the context of Page's dream of a free autonomous zone. No doubt, the problem with his voice, puzzling and isolating as it is, has given him some time and reason for introspection. And this is his contribution, ad-libbed or not, this is part of him as a person. It can't be far from anyone's mind, that if he wanted to, he almost has the cash to pull this off.
In a way, it's the dream of many. If only we could construct a system without government that actually worked. Isn't freedom the best possible outcome? What could be more democratic than the people governing themselves? In our minds, we can construct it, this place where somehow, never mind how, we'd all just get along. On its best days, the internet, with fewer consequences and infinite virtual land, is that place.
But it's also proven that the dream is a fantasy, that some rules and constraints are needed, so grandma can keep all her money, and we don't witness a lynch mob every second Tuesday. It's clear we haven't figured out what those bright lines are, how to draw them, and how to keep them from impeding the internet we so cherish, at once free, priceless and worth billions.