The Shareware Universe

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 May 1998

Some people are getting tired of my anti-business tirades. Mostly businesspeople, in fact – or developers and journalists trying to justify why they sold their souls to them. The argument they throw at me in emails, online forums, and my public speaking gigs is this: how can you hate a market-driven Internet when it’s the market that’s driving technological innovation, universal access, and competitive pricing?

How can I? Because it is not the brute force of the marketplace that has brought us any of the major technological and social leaps leading to what we now know as the Internet. These innovations have been driven by cooperation, not competition.

Eudora, USENET, the web browser and chat were not developed by companies, but by universities. They were not sold in stores, but distributed as shareware, for free. They were developed not by people looking to make money, but by students, teachers, and researchers hoping to advance the state of networked culture. The protocols that allow our computers to communicate were developed collaboratively. These standards were not set by business monopoly or “first to market” incumbencies, but by committee.

Many of us, including me, were mistakenly convinced that the US military had a lot to do with all this. A seminal essay on the subject by science fiction author Bruce Sterling (where he outlined how the US Defense Department and Rand think tank created the Internet as a way for military installations to maintain communication in the event of a nuclear war) is only half-true. What really happened is that the Defense Department saw that the already-existing communications infrastructure developed by scientists and universities – ARPANET – would be quite capable of surviving a nuclear war, and could be used by military installations in this eventuality. Because of this, the Defense Department funded additional research.

The fact remains that every single major development in online technology and communication came as shareware. Since big business took the wheel, we haven’t seen anything significant – save, maybe, Java, an Internet programming language by Sun, which is itself distributed for free. Microsoft and Netscape have developed increasingly sophisticated browsers and email programs that don’t really do anything more than early shareware versions of Mosaic and Eudora – except take up more hard drive space an processor speed. The companies creating these programs also (intentionally) create all sorts of compatibility problems as they fight for dominance in the marketplace. It’s harder to send attached files to multiple recipients or create a web site that everyone can view now than it was five years ago. This, thanks to free market competition.

While shareware developers create programs to address universal needs, businesses develop programs in order to create needs. It’s a bizarre form of reverse engineering, where the research department figures out how to do something new, and then the marketing department determines how to sell it. By setting standards and fighting compatibility, companies can insure that their customers will need to buy new machines and software if they want to keep communicating with others. Competition devolves. (If you don’t believe this, just think about how much “better” each new release of Microsoft Word really works for you, but how you have to buy it if you want to remain compatible with everyone else.)

Not true, the business folks argue. In the long run it will all be better. The force of competition drives evolution! “Survival of fittest” may sound hard, but it’s what allows a species to develop! At first, perhaps, but many species also evolve unique bits of shareware that benefit groups and not just individuals. The poison in a mosquito’s bite benefits not the mosquito who has stung us, but her buddies: our nervous itching releases a hormone into our sweat that the other mosquitoes can smell in order to find us. Evolution – and survival – is a team sport.

This applies to the Internet, in particular. Unlike many of our technologies – like guns or pizza ovens – the Internet depends on cooperation for its survival, and thus implicitly encourages its members’ collaboration. This is because the technology itself is about connectivity and group activity. No wonder it requires a supreme effort the likes of which only a Microsoft can afford to impose standards for profit in such an environment.

Businesses encourage us to think of ourselves as shareholders rather than community members. The bottom line is money, and how much we’ll get to keep for ourselves. Such an ethic does not promote innovation in the style or technology of group dynamics. On the Internet, the true bottom line is communication. This is why the only productive ethics have always been education and the free exchange of ideas and tools. Shareware is a more highly evolved survival mechanism than competition.

But business, proponents argue, pays for advertisements on the web, allowing for all these terrific web sites! Actually, that’s not true. The advertising business model has not worked online – only direct sales sites, like, and pay-for-access sites, like stock market services, have turned a profit. Banner ads don’t work, and the commercial content providers depending on them are dropping like flies – or starved mosquitoes.

Maybe that’s what will finally end the argument. The businesses attempting to steer the Internet will just go out of business.