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I started graduate school in 1995 with the intention of figuring out what was ailing Canada’s New Democratic Party. I dove into a comparative study of social democratic parties around the world.
As often happens for grad students, my research interest took an unexpected turn. A year into my studies, I was studying for my Ph.D. program’s field exams and shopping for a new computer. My desk was piled with two types of reading materials: books about European social democracy and MacWorld magazine back issues. On one typical day I spent an hour procrastinating my real work by reading reviews of the new Mac clones. Finally I buckled down and picked up The Class Struggle by Karl Kautsky, one of the early and influential popularizers of Karl Marx’s socialist theory:
Private property in the instruments of production has its root in small production. Individual production makes individual ownership necessary. Large production, on the contrary, means co-operation, social production. In large production the individual does not work alone, but a large number of workers, the whole commonwealth, work together to produce a whole. Accordingly, the modern instruments of production are extensive and powerful. It has become wholly impossible that every single worker should own his own instruments of production.
Fresh from my pile of MacWorlds, Kautsky’s argument caught my attention immediately. Sure, his argument made sense in a world of mass production — in a world of looms and factories. But that’s not the world most people I know work in: for more and more of us, the key “means of production” is a personal computer. And unlike a loom or assembly line, a personal computer can be operated by a single person, and is within financial reach of almost all the developed world’s population (and more and more of the developing world’s too).
It was a Reese’s moment: “You got social democracy in my tech shopping!” “You got tech in my social democracy!” Suddenly I could see the transformational potential: I wasn’t just shopping for a new computer, I was shopping for my own means of production.
I’m going to pause here to acknowledge the many dense layers of geekiness that lead a 25-year-old woman to think of her new Mac Performa (remember those?) as the contemporary equivalent of a textile loom. But in weaving together those various geeky threads — grad student nerd, leftie idealist, and computer geek — I found my field: Internet research.
My proposed dissertation on social democracy turned into a proposed dissertation on how computers were changing the nature of work, the nature of labour relations, and thus, the nature of social democracy. This did not make my advisors especially happy. They worried my argument had too many moving parts (computers >> work, work >> labor relations, labor relations >> social democracy) each of which implied a separate research agenda. This, too, was a problem many grad students face: developing a research agenda that is impossibly grandiose.
As I struggled to boil my dissertation down to a more focused and feasible scope, a more fundamental objection emerged: most faculty I spoke with were skeptical about the idea of writing a dissertation about the Internet. Yes, my department had approved one previous Internet-related dissertation. But most faculty were not sure that the Internet represented a dissertation-worthy development. The question I faced again and again was “What makes you think the Internet is important?”
For fifteen years, I’ve carried a little bit of a grudge about that skepticism. I got so tired of trying to convince my department of the Internet’s significance that I put my degree on hold for three years. When I returned (in 2001) it was no longer a tough sell, and I was able to get approval for a manageably-sized topic: the phenomenon of hacktivism (politically-motivated computer hacking). I loved working on it, but never ceased feeling regretful that I hadn’t been able to write what would have been one of the first Internet-related dissertations, which could have turned into one of the first books on the Internet and politics.
Would have, could have. Those words should have been a tip-off that my regret and resentment were misplaced. But I didn’t really let go of my frustration until this week, when I started reviewing the major events in Internet history that unfolded in the year I started grad school. Here are just a few of the 1995 highlights captured on the leading Internet history timeline:
- Sun launches Java on May 23
- WWW surpasses ftp-data in March as the service with greatest traffic on NSFNet based on packet count, and in April based on byte count
- Traditional online dial-up systems (CompuServe, America Online, Prodigy) begin to provide Internet access
- Registration of domain names is no longer free. Beginning 14 September, a $50 annual fee has been imposed, which up until now was subsidized by NSF. NSF continues to pay for .edu registration, and on an interim basis for .gov
- The Vatican comes on-line (http://www.vatican.va/)
- The Canadian Government comes on-line (http://canada.gc.ca/)
- The first official Internet wiretap was successful in helping the Secret Service and Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) apprehend three individuals who were illegally manufacturing and selling cell phone cloning equipment and electronic devices
- Operation Home Front connects, for the first time, soldiers in the field with their families back home via the Internet.
And a few more highlights, from the Cellstream wiki:
- Yahoo is incorporated.
- Internet services are launched in India.
- “Cable modems” are introduced. These high speed digital connections over cable television networks are primarily used for Internet connectivity.
- December, the Altavista web search engine is launched by Digital Equipment Corporation’s Palo Alto research labs, originally on the URL www.altavista.digital.com.
Holy cow! That is a lot of world-changing Internet goodness for one year. So many innovations that have helped define the Internet. So many moments that contributed to the Internet’s world-changing impact. So many developments that feel like they had to have been around for longer.
By the time I finally got my dissertation topic approved (2001) and certainly by the time I finished (2004) these events were old news. But when I first went to bat for my topic, they were fresh. The Internet’s scope and potential were just beginning to reveal themselves. And in retrospect, it seems not unreasonable that my department would subject something so new to a higher level of scrutiny before letting me gamble my academic career on its longevity and relevance.
Anyone who aspires to digital leadership can accumulate grudges like mine. If you have some extra bit of foresight, you may see stuff coming along before other people see it. Sometimes, they will react with a “wow, what a brilliant insight, please take my startup capital/letter of endorsement/signature on that dissertation form”. But a lot of the time they will react with skepticism, advise patience, or simply raise challenging questions you can’t yet answer.
When someone is holding you back from your leap forward it can feel like they are standing in your way. If you’re trying to take that leap on behalf of your organization — for example, by prodding them onto blogging or Facebook or Twitter — it can feel like your whole company or NGO or agency is on the line. You might say that the person who is acting as a road block “doesn’t get it”, that they are scared of change, that they are dinosaurs. You might feel a deep sense of conflict over whether to battle it out, or move onto a new context with more appetite for the innovation you’re urging.
Embrace that conflict, and learn to love that pain. More importantly, embrace and love the person who is inflicting it. For an innovator, this person is your greatest teacher: the person who will hold you to the highest standard, force you to answer the toughest questions about your vision, ensure that you know exactly why you’re anticipating the future you foresee. Your job is to help push them forward, and their job is to second-guess. It’s the push-pull that keeps us in balance.
Of course, it’s hard to take that attitude of appreciation when you’re locked in a struggle over why, in 2011, it might be a good idea to get on Twitter. (If you’re reaction is OMG, it’s so obvious! then I think we know which side of the push-pull you’re on.) So maybe you’re not ready to appreciate it; maybe the best you can do is to try not to hold a grudge.
Or maybe the best you can do is to let go of your grudge quickly. If you can do it in less than 15 years, you’re ahead of me.