The unexpected is the best source for inspiration.
— Peter Drucker

Despite the commercial veneer and increasing degree of regulation it’s acquired in recent years, the Internet is still the best large-scale example of functional anarchy to come down the pipe in a long time. What’s more, it’s an anarchy that’s been built entirely on someone else’s property. Computers belonging to universities, big business and even the military have been hosting the digital equivalent of a squatter’s tent city for decades now. And, like absentee landlords, the institutions that own the machines have been largely indifferent to the activities of their tenants.

Those tenants have been busy redecorating and renovating, too. The last two decades of radically different technologies have been created by people with unapologetically unorthodox mindsets and belief systems, not corporate boffins ‘thinking outside the box.’ While they were adapting the Internet’s infrastructure to their own ends by creating everything from Coke machines connected to the Net (so that you could check if the machine downstairs had cold drinks in it without leaving your desk or going offline; the fact that a guy in Finland could also check the same machine was an amusing side-effect) to military-strength encryption software, these people also spent a large amount of time and energy writing vast amounts of material describing why they were bothering to do so. The result has been the widespread online circulation and adoption of ideas ranging from the revolutionary to the ridiculous.

If you really want to know what the next big thing will be, the next ‘killer app’ or billion-dollar company, you’re going to have to start paying closer attention to these ideas. The fringes of online culture are tomorrow’s mainstream Internet. Even when new ideas don’t originate in the fringe, there will probably be passionate discussion of them in fringe forums long before they reach the pages of any self-proclaimed ‘cutting edge’ print media. As Bruce Sterling writes of hisMirrorshades group on the Well, ‘If it’s in Mirrorshades, it’ll be science fiction in a year. In two years it will be in Wired magazine. In three years teenage girls will be wearing it. In four years it’ll be mentioned on CNN. In five years it’ll be “discovered.”’ The question is, do you want to wait five years, or do you want to know now?


‘TAZ’ stands for ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’. The phrase was coined by gay Islamic philosopher Hakim Bey (aka Peter Lamborn Wilson) in his book of the same name, published by Autonomedia in 1991. In brief, TAZ[1] outlines a theory that anarchistic temporary communities are a means of reclaiming a more intense, fulfilling, ‘immediate’ existence, not just online, but everywhere.

Though it sounds as if it had been custom-tailored for the Internet era, the theory of the TAZ isn’t just something that Bey pulled out of the ether. It’s based on the existence of actual ‘pirate utopias’ in the 18th century:

The sea-rovers and corsairs of the 18th century created an ‘Information Network’ that spanned the globe: primitive and devoted primarily to grim business, the Net nevertheless functioned admirably. Scattered throughout the Net were islands, remote hideouts where ships could be watered and provisioned, booty traded for luxuries and necessities. Some of these islands supported ‘intentional communities,’ whole mini-societies living consciously outside the law and determined to keep it up, even if only for a short but merrry life.

While plenty of French philosophy advances similar ideas (such as Deleuze & Guattari’s notion of nomadology), geeks and hackers by-and-large don’t read French philosophy. They do read science fiction and fringe literature, though. Themes similar to the TAZ (because they were based on the same subject matter) also appear in the work of geek icons Bruce Sterling (Islands in the Net), Neal Stephenson,  (Cryptonomicon), William. S. Burroughs (Cities of the Red Night; The Place of Dead Roads), and Kathy Acker (Pussy, King of the Pirates).Consequently, Bey’s notion of the TAZ (or ideas close enough to it that there’s no essential difference) were and remain inspirational to a whole generation of hackers. The text of the TAZ book itself is available in many places online, including <www.hermetic.com/bey>. Because it is explicitly anticopyright, it has become one of those texts that circulate in ascii format as part of the secret and revered literature of the Net.

As Bey describes them, Temporary Autonomous Zones have the following salient features:

  • They’re small in size, typically consisting of only a handful of people at any given time, though the constituency may change frequently.
  • Members tend to be anonymous, or at least pseudonymous.
  • They’re mobile, not tied to a specific physical location.
  • They’re exclusive, existing beyond the pale of social norms and well-frequented locales.
  • As the first word in the name says, they’re temporary, because a long-term existence would eventually result in the development of unwanted rules and regulations.
  • Likewise, they tend to be focused around the accomplishment of short-term goals. The TAZ follows that general axiom of hipness; by the time you know about it, it’s probably over.
  • These short-term goals frequently involve illegal activity.

Starting to sound familiar, isn’t it? The TAZ is the best model we’ve come across for describing what’s driving the action in peer-to-peer networks like Gnutella, Napster, and Hotline. The spirit of these networks lies at the very core of Internet culture and commonspace.

But the TAZ isn’t a run-of-the-mill Internet experience; it exhibits behaviour that runs counter to perceived wisdom about networking in general. Robert Metcalfe, the founder of 3Com and designer of the Ethernet protocol –  in anyone’s books, a very smart guy – once observed that the usefulness, or utility, of a Network equals the square of the number of users.[2] This observation, known as Metcalfe’s Law, generally holds true in commonspace: the more people who use a service, the more valuable that service becomes. However, Over a certain size, the TAZ fails. The size limit varies according to the TAZ in question; some raves can hold thousands of attendees, and Napster currently has millions of users. But once such festivities get big enough, they start to attract the attention of the authorities, and the whip comes down: the cops move in, break up the raves, Napster gets sued. And then what? Well, that’s the interesting part. Another TAZ appears, somewhere else, and the cycle begins again.

NetHistory 101

In a very real sense, the online TAZ existed before the Internet and migrated online once cheap modems and public net connections became widely available. But until that point, the same kind of behaviour that occurs now in the clandestine corners of the Internet occurred in clandestine corners of FidoNet, a loose networking system that sent packets of e-mail and newsgroup data between BBSes (bulletin board services usually hosted on local PCs) late at night, when long-distance calls were cheap. Pirate BBSes were very much like every other kind of BBS, save for their content –  the usual assortment of cracked and pirated software, specialized cracking software, instructions for making ‘blue boxes’ and other phone-phreaking tools, porn, anarchists’ cookbooks, etc.. Many ‘legitimate’ BBSes also had secret ‘Elite’ zones for crackers accessible only with the use of special passwords.

With the growing availability of Internet access through universities and mega-BBS services like the WELL, anonymous FTP (File Transfer Protocol) sites on Unix systems scattered across the Internet began to supplant the archival functions of the pirate BBSes. Unix-based university computer networks are vast, complex entities, and it’s entirely possible to tuck something away in a remote corner and not have it discovered for years (or to use an unauthorized account for years). The relative anonymity of USENET (and later, IRC) was enough to put the minds of most crackers, phone phreaks and other habitués of the TAZ at ease, and discussions about every subject imaginable flowed freely.

(There were also more than a few unimaginable discussions, such as alt.pave.the.earth, whose members continue to insist to this day that their Plan™ for the complete coverage of the planet’s surface in asphalt is not only a necessary but desirable goal. Within alt.pave.the.earth is an evenmore hermetic group, the ‘chrome the moon’ subfaction, who sometimes go so far as encrypting their heretical messages to each other with the use of PGP.)

Things heated up again when Netscape made widespread Web use a reality in 1995. Now there’s nothing stopping anyone from putting up any kind of content on a Web page. Unless an ISP receives a sufficient number of complaints, sites featuring even the dodgiest content can continue to exist for a very long time.

Warez web sites, repositories of cracked software, were fairly common in the early days of the Web, and it’s still very easy to find pages stuffed with stolen serial numbers for commercial software. In fact, the digital rabbit-hole leading to this portion of the TAZ is in plain sight. Go to any search engine and type the phrase ‘serial numbers’. You’ll get an extensive listing of Web pages that baldly list serial numbers for all manner of software types and purport to connect to real ‘Warez’ sites.

Warez Web sites are all about greed and rites of initiation. Almost all of them make a little money on the side by placing interminable clickthrough ads for porn sites on their pages. In order to gain access to the warez, you are directed to click on a certain number of these ads, which open a bewildering number of browser windows, many of which will refuse to close. Often, the only way out is to close your browser entirely. In theory, by following the links, you will eventually arrive at the ‘real’ warez, or at a secret password from one of the porn pages which will allow you to connect to a real warez site. But the hassle is rarely worth the effort.

Is that really what being an ‘elite’ cracker is about? Though the iconography of heavy metal and punk is everywhere on cracker sites –  skulls, dripping blood, swords –  Crackers (a.k.a. ‘warez d00dz’) are not really as subversive as they like to think they are. Usually, they’re just teenagers blowing off steam. The motivation for cracking is the same thing that drives even the normative parts of teen culture (and much of commonspace, for that matter): a craving for reputation. This is a long way from saying that crackers are either incompetent or stupid: the ‘I Love You’ virus and the tales in Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown are testament to their intelligence. If provoked, they’ll prove that they’re more skilled than you are and probably more dangerous. But left to their own devices, they rarely intersect with the straight world that sits on the surface of the Internet.

Eric Raymond argues that behaviour in the portion of commonspace occupied by crackers differs from the open source/hacker portion in significant ways.[3] Both types of commonspace operate according to gift economies. But crackers have stronger group identification and are more exclusive than hackers. Furthermore, crackers hoard secrets rather than sharing them. While it’s true that they share cracked software, serial numbers, and key generators, information on how to duplicate their feats is difficult to obtain. Because of the secrecy and status-seeking behaviour, the knowledge base of the cracker community, and therefore the community itself, grows much more slowly than portions of commonspace where information is shared freely.

Now that the Web has been largely domesticated, the energy of the TAZ has transferred to client-server and peer-to-peer systems such as Hotline, Napster and Gnutella. Peer-to-peer systems, the ‘killer app’ of the late nineties, could change the overall shape of Internet life and use as dramatically as the web did when it became graphical

And if you’re thinking right now, ‘Wait a minute. Is there more to the Internet than the Web?’, then thank you. You just proved our point.

Fun with Pantyhose

Internet culture is built of bits, literally and metaphorically. Everything that’s new online is the result of assembling fragments of something else. It’s not surprising, then, that the overall net aesthetics is one of bricolage, or, as William Gibson says in his paradigm-shifting short story ‘Burning Chrome,’ ‘the street finds is own uses for things’.[4]

Internet bricolage takes many forms: open source software development, where hackers build on each others’ code; the use of public domain CGI scripts, Java applets and so on to build Web pages; and the gradual mutation of bits of Net folklore and literature into new permutations.

Of particular interest to the TAZ theory is the adaptation or swarming of corporate software platforms, or the use of orthodox tools for unorthodox ends –  including the construction of unorthodox tools.  ‘Swarming’ is the old Internet practice of invading some unsuspecting USENET group, Web forum or other service, by a group of people other than the intended users who are bent on having the space for their own. In the halcyon days of USENET, many newsgroups maintained friendly rivalries with other groups as a method of boosting member loyalty and increasing posts. For instance, the Pavers of alt.pave.the.earth maintained a ‘bitter’ opposition to their sworn enemies, the members of the alt.destroy.the.earth newsgroup. All the names of interlopers from alt.destroy invariably ended up on the Pavers’ The List™, an index of those who will become PitSlaves when PaveDay finally arrives. Go figure.

There are also non-malicious forms of swarming. These types of swarming are the results of a product or service that appeals to a demographic group other than the expected one. A semi-reliable corporate wonk of our acquaintance relayed to us the story of a pantyhose company that built a Web forum for its users. This was in the early, naive period of post-net gain hysteria, when many corporations assumed that all they had to do to incorporate ‘community’ into their sales mix was build a space for one. What the company didn’t take into account was that a community usually requires people with something other than the use of a product in order to make it coalesce. In any event, the pantyhose forum was swarmed by transvestites, offering each other advice on how to match pantyhose with skintones, which ones covered up stubble the most successfully, etc. In other words, a perfect commonspace in action –  the real customers talking to each other about their real uses of the product. But both the pantyhose company and the corporate wonk who relayed the story to us were horrified, overcome by a sense of their prejudices and the loss of all-important control over a brand. The lesson here is not simply one of tolerance: it’s also about how to conduct online business in the new millennium. Devoted and active online communities don’t just fall out of the sky. When the pantyhose company closed the forum down, they blew an excellent attempt to connect to and build the trust of the people who keep them in business.

Hotline has no such qualms. Of the ‘big three’ file-sharing networks, Hotline, founded in 1996, is the oldest and the farthest from being a true peer-to-peer system. The Hotline client, an arcane piece of software that distributes chunks of its interface into a number of confusing little windows, inserts the user into a private intranet where hotline ‘Trackers’ list individual Hotline sites. In theory, a user can connect to any of these sites, though many are password-protected. (Instructions for obtaining the password, called ‘banners’ by Hotline regulars, are remarkably similar to those found on warez web pages: “Go to page X, do Y, and use the Xth word from the bottom of the page.’) The basic hotline tools, which offer chat, whiteboard and file-sharing options, were originally designed for business applications such as online meetings and file-sharing. But they have been largely hijacked by pirates trading software, MP3s, and full-length movies still in the theatres. (This is a spectacular example of what can result from bad interface design. We know from experience that most people have little tolerance for anything more complex than their e-mail program).

Oddly enough, Hotline seems to have been overlooked in the current wave of copyright-infringement lawsuits sweeping the Net. In the meantime, the eyeballs of their three million-odd users constitute an attractive audience for potential advertisers. (Banner ads are built into the Hotline client software itself, removing the possibility that users can block them without hacking the client software.) Individual Hotline site administrators have also adopted the old warez Web site trick of making users click through banner ads or join mailing lists in order to obtain passwords —  a small inconvenience for the user (who will likely comply on the chance of getting some free illicit goodies), but one that generates a modest revenue stream for the admin.

When Napster was released in 1999, it provided a simpler user interface and a greater autonomy than Hotline. However, Napster is still has a number of shortcomings. First, all Napster clients must go through the central Napster server before they can connect with other users. Its centralized or ‘arboreal’ structure means that all data flows through one trunk. In order to shut down the system, all someone has to do is collapse the central Napster server. Second, MP3s are the only type of file that can be shared on Napster. (However, this is not an inherent limitation, and the software could be easily adapted to other file types.) If Napster survives its lawsuits, it’s likely the new business model will require users to pay a monthly fee for the use of its services, and a portion of the monies from the user fees will go toward paying royalties for artists. But the big assumption here is that the Napster user base won’t migrate elsewhere for free music –  ‘elsewhere’ being Gnutella and other nascent peer-to-peer networks.

Gnutella, on the other hand, is a true ‘rhizomatic’ peer-to-peer system. With no central server, it’s impossible to shut down the network short of some very extreme measure, such as firewalling Gnutella traffic at the level of every ISP and other servers on the Internet (something that Sony claims they’re ready to try if necessary). It’s possible to share any type of file on Gnutella. This may spell success for Gnutella in the short term, but may ultimately be its downfall, unless its primitive interface evolves some filtering capabilities to deal with the massive glut of available data. Despite its radically decentralized nature, there are nonetheless business models possible for Gnutella (search engines and ad spamming, to name two).

While the above examples of functioning online TAZs are software-specific, it’s important to realize that the community is not the software. Though groups of users, or even patterns of use that transcend specific users, may coalesce on one platform, they often overlap onto other services or even migrate to new platforms. ICQ users can often be found in specific watering holes on GameSpy, Battle.Net, Kali, and IRC. Napster users who are getting cold feet as the court cases press on may switch to Gnutella. It may even be possible to inspire a migration of users from one TAZ to another by presenting a superior alternative in the right forums. However, much depends on the perception of the new service in the eyes of the user group. AOL’s Instant Messenger didn’t stand a chance of impressing any long-term ICQ users, despite the ubiquity of its distribution methods.

Virtual Reality Check

So now that you know what the TAZ is and a little bit about how it operates in theory and in practice, it’s time for a little skepticism. As Hakim Bey points out in his original essay on the subject, the reality of the TAZ is much more banal than its promise.

You offer me secret information? Well …  perhaps I’m tempted — but still I demandmarvelous secrets, not just unlisted telephone numbers or the trivia of cops and politicians. Most of all I want computers to provide me with information linked to real goods …. In short, assume that I’m fed up with mere information. According to you [hackers and BBSers], computers should already be quite capable of facilitating my desires for food, drugs, sex, tax evasion. So what’s the matter? Why isn’t it happening?[5]

Despite the radical potential of the TAZ, most of its online manifestations turn out to be populated by intelligent, antisocial teenagers (who, despite recent government hysteria over denial-of-service attacks or the Columbine High shootings, are not ‘cyberterrorists’). And really, the clandestine goods they circulate are fairly tame, despite the concerns of overanxious vice-principals, religious fundamentalists and other guardians of public morality. Certainly an adult with a little pocket change can come by most of the commodities being traded online far more easily, without really missing the money. So much for the revolution. Or is there more?

HavenCo: A Real-World TAZ

In his epic novel Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson spins the tale of a group of enterprising geeks who set out to build themselves a data haven – the computer-storage equivalent of the Cayman Islands banking system, where data could be stored by any paying customer without fear of that data being accessible to any person, business, or government on the planet.[6] Right now, in the North Sea, a group of enterprising geeks is in the process of doing just that.

A startup called HavenCo Ltd. <www.havenco.com> is betting its existence on the belief that Roughs Tower, an abandoned World War II antiaircraft gunning platform six miles off the shores of Britain, is actually what its owner says it is: the sovereign principality of Sealand < www.sealandgov.com>. The company’s home page claims that ‘The independence of Sealand was upheld in a 1968 British court decision where the judge held that Roughs Tower stood in international waters and did not fall under the legal jurisdiction of the United Kingdom,’ though neither the British or U.S. governments officially recognize Sealand’s existence.

If Sealand really is its own country, all 6000 square feet of it may well become the realization of Stephenson’s fiction: millions of dollars of networking gear communicating with the rest of the Net via satellite, undersea fiber-optic cables, and microwave, busily archiving data that nothing short of a small armed invasion will be able to access. In other words, a 24/7, Permanent Autonomous Zone. The HavenCo FAQ claims that they won’t allow spam, corporate sabotage, child pornography or money laundering to occur on their system; but subpoena-proof e-mail, pyramid schemes, gambling, adult pornography, and untraceable bank accounts all get the green light. You may not find such practices ethical, but they’ll be legal, at least in Sealand. And there are many, many businesses in the world without a sense of ethics.

Not that HavenCo lacks a cuddly, humanist side. The company is already donating free server space to NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) that promote free speech, human rights or give a voice to minority and oppressed groups. They’ve already signed up Tibet Online <www.tibet.org> and the CryptoRights Foundation <www.cryptorights.org>.

If HavenCo becomes fully operational and manages to avoid the ire of the British government for even a few years (and that’s a big if), a precedent will have been set, and the repercussions for the Internet and for business culture could be substantial. But even if HavenCo doesn’t succeed in building a data haven/TAZ, someone else will. As media theorist Avital Ronell has noted, technology has no ‘off switch.’[7]

Dispatches from the Edge

So: what lessons does the TAZ hold for the larger Internet, and specifically, for those interested in how commonspace connects to their online lives?

The power of commonspace exist in potential; all it requires is a vehicle.
Look around you. The world is full of associations, clubs, networks, and other groups. Some of them have already begun to extend themselves online and into commonspace. Many others haven’t, but could, given the opportunity and an attractive enough platform (in the sense that it offers them something tangible). If that tangible good is made of bits, it’s duplicable and shareable and will in turn becomes a reason to interact with other users.

Alternatively, there may be ways to ‘slice’ the constituency of the Internet that no one else has dreamed up yet. If you create the slice, i.e. develop a platform for people who are just in the process of realizing that they have a reason to interact, you’re off to the races.

Commonspace is goal-driven, even if the goals are obscure or highly specialized.
People come together for a reason. Whether playing a game, trading stock tips, swapping illegal copies of current-release feature films, or arguing about the intricacies of how to cover the moon in chrome, there has to be some sort of motivation for people to gather. Commonspace works much better when the goal is explicit.

There’s nothing wrong with short-term goals, either. A community can last for as long as it takes to download a file, or for the entire life of a software operating system. Don’t be afraid to close one down when the job is done. Others will appear.

Infamy is good PR.
Before the lawsuits started, Napster was a well-kept secret, something that most adults were vaguely aware of but wouldn’t ever have used themselves. Now it’s a household word. You can’t buy P.R. like that.

There’s also the fact that while Napster has no clear business model and is up to its armpits in lawsuits, venture capital firms are still pumping millions of dollars into the company. If millions of people use it daily, there has to be a way to make money off of it. Which leads to our next point:

No matter how weird the constituents of commonspace appear, a large user base = a highly specific target market.

Before you turn up your nose at the people who’ve found their way into your brand-new Web site, relax a little. Once you’ve figured out who your audience is, and what their interests are, there are plenty of ways to market to them: banner ads, e-mails, chat groups, sales incentives and so on. Don’t have a clue what their interests are, or why they’re here? You could always ask. You may get the odd flame, but eventually a picture will begin to emerge.

Don’t Panic.
Douglas Adams was right: the first thing that people should see when they turn on a computer is ‘Don’t Panic.’[8] This is doubly true of commonspace, because there’s so much propensity for unexpected, emergent behaviour. One day you’re designing a spiffy new digital whiteboard app for your online groupware, the next day all of your virtual boardrooms are full of sarcastic, foul-mouthed kids trading hot files. You can shut down your server, or you can try to figure out a way to spin the situation. (Ever think about hiringsome of those kids?)

Commonspace is not the software.
Sooner or later, communities will either outgrow and overlap their initial vehicle or shrivel up and die. If you want to stay ahead of the game, you have to keep upgrading your platform. Try open-sourcing it and putting it in the hands of the people who use it. It may just evolve on its own.

The Soap-Bubble Principle.
Some kinds of commonspace are incredibly fragile. Your interference, or even public awareness, may kill the community altogether. Sometimes it’s better to leave a situation until it stabilizes: you never know what positive things might emerge.

The End of Property

Monitor the bleeding edge of commonspace, and you’ll stay aware of the wildfire trends that the people in marketing discover years after they’re everywhere.

Think of the process of monitoring the TAZ as the Internet equivalent of the DEW Line – a string of radar stations that will show you what’s just about to come over the horizon. And you already know that all software has a definite life-cycle.  First, hackers invent software, which they can either open source or release commercially. Then, whether the product is commercial or open source, it’s adopted by mainstream users. More-or-less simultaneously, it’s adapted or appropriated by hackers, crackers and geeks, who in turn find new uses for the software, which creates new products…and so on. So why not catch a new wave at its beginning?

Unless you spend a lot of time on sites like Blue’s News (or its content syndicates, such as Slashdot), you’ve probably never heard of Machinima <www.machinima.com>. Too bad. That means you probably also don’t know about their ultra-low-budget computer-generated film-making that utilizes technology originally designed for computer games. In other words, the Machinimaniacs use the Quake II engine to make movies. Think about it: you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on expensive 3-D rendering and animation software and hardware; they use a customizable out-of-the-box solution like Quake or Half-Life on their PC for a total cost of about $1200, and then draw on the free expertise of the community for technical advice.

The Machinima people do what they’re doing for love, not money. Some of them are amateurs, other are people who’ve spent time studying filmmaking, acting and vocal improvisation. There’s a thriving commonspace at work there, with opportunity for both serious amateurs and real commercial filmmaking ventures.

Good ideas come from the fringe. Machinima is one example, but there are many, many others. You no longer have to wait for those ideas to come to you. You can go looking for them where they’re busy being born.

[1] Hakim Bey, TAZ; The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism(New York: Autonomedia, 1991).
[2] <www.mgt.smsu.edu/mgt487/mgtissue/newstrat/metcalfe.htm>
[3] < www.tuxedo.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/homesteading/x170.html>
[4] William Gibson, ‘Burning Chrome.’ Burning Chrome (New York: Ace Books, 1987).
[5] Bey 114-15.
[6] Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon (New York; Avon Books, 1999).
[7] Avital Ronell, The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), xv.
[8] Douglas Adams, The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (London: Pan Books, 1979).


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Commonspace: Beyond virtual community Copyright © 2002 by Mark Surman & Darren Wershler-Henry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.