Watch an astonishing segment on Bulletin Board Systems from “The Computer Chronicles — Modems & Bulletin Boards” originally broadcast in 1985. The section you need starts at 14:15 and runs to 22:39.
In 1985, before everyone was on the Internet, a small number of people were using “Bulletin Boards” to communicate with each other. They posted articles, participated in forums and used email, over modems that are slower than the connection you get on a 3G phone today.
In the section of the programme you just watched, the owner of “The Well” BBS, Matthew McClure, one of the most famous and populated boards at the time, describes what The Well is and what sort of things people discuss there. It sounds like a primitive monochrome microcosm of what people do today on the internet.
At 17m:00s the producers of this programme bring in a lawyer, Assistant District Attorney Don Ingram. Then the journalists begin the questions. When these people start to talk, I am sure you immediately were subjected to an overwhelming sense of deja vu and acute nausea, brought on by:
How does the law currently view a Bulletin Board? Is it like a newspaper with first amendment rights, or is it like a utility subject to government regulation?
That is very familiar isn't it?
Its exactly the question journalists ask about Bitcoin today! Here it is, phrased for the Bitcoin generation:
How does the law currently view Bitcoin? Is it like cash, subject to KYC/AML rules, or is it an asset subject to SEC regulation?
What you have witnessed here should have you in shock. The journalists of today, thirty one years after this programme was transmitted, are coming at a new use of software with exactly the same questions and thinking that were in use in 1985. There is no difference in tone. There is no difference in the core assumptions (that government has a “right” to regulate everything) or the use of the Appeal to Fear in their questions.
Journalists have not progressed at all, in thirty years. The world has moved on, but they have remained stuck in the mid 20th century. This should be very disturbing for anyone involved in software, but at the same time, deeply re-assuring. The free, open and unregulated Internet came to pass, just as free open and unregulated Bitcoin will. There is no way these people can keep up with the inevitable “Transformation” that is coming, because their profession and the thinking that is standard in it is stagnant and stuck in the last century.
Note also that the example DA Don Ingram gives as a threat is “child pornography”. This is the go to trigger phrase and has been since at least 1985, though thanks to Edward Snowden, this trigger is losing its effectiveness.
The world of 1985 had total surveillance of all faxes, telexes and phone calls. No one knew about it, and people were still innocent about the State and the evil it was doing. Few people even knew what the letters, “NSA” stood for.
Now of course, everyone knows about the insidious NSA and what they have been doing for decades. Everyone is outraged at being violated, from the man in the street to Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, who has taken it upon himself to protect the 74.5 million iPhone users in the world from invasive and unethical surveillance.
McClure makes a good case for the system operators being free of liability, and to his credit Don Ingram reflexively makes the case for owners not being liable for what is posted on their systems, but then destroys his credibility by saying if instructions (text) that he does not approve of are disseminated by a BBS, it should be “taken down”. This line is in character with the DAs of today, who gaol for life the likes of Ross Ulbricht, who was convicted of running a Bulletin Board.
This video gives us an insight into how journalism fails to understand technology, how it has failed to progress with technology, and what we can expect the outcome to be of the current confusion over Bitcoin’s nature and its regulation.
Just as these journalists and legislators in 1985 couldn't decide if a BBS is a newspaper or a mail service, journalists and legislators today cannot decide if Bitcoin is an asset, programming tool for “Smart Contracts” or money. The outcome will be the same as it was for the “how to define a BBS problem”. The communications protocols that underlay these systems will remain, new services will be built on top of them, hundreds of millions of people will use new services and none of these new services (like Hotmail, Gmail, Facebook and WhatsApp) will be regulated.
The journalists and regulators cannot keep up with innovation, do not have the intellectual capacity or ethical character to serve the public correctly, and will simply be ignored, just as Google, Hotmail, Facebook, Uber and WhatsApp ignored regulators when they designed and launched their products.
None of their lies about Bitcoin will work (the pornography, and now “terrorism” Appeals to Fear) just as their lies about BBS systems in the 1980s did not work. They may execute some raids, wrongly imprison some hapless victims in sting operations, but none of that will make any difference in the long run. Just as it was in 1985 it is today, only more accelerated, because the internet pushes innovation thousands of times faster than it ran in 1985.
This is the central source of thrust in The Transformation, where the world moves away from one system of mediation of human interaction to the new system that is software mediated.
“It’s not hard to see another unique event, when you missed the beginning, and you miss the end.” — Wire “40 Versions”