The Morals of Markets: An Ethical Exploration

Harry Burrows Acton, “The Morals of Markets: An Ethical Exploration”; in “The Morals of Markets and Related Essays”; ed. Jeremy Shearmur and David Gordon; Liberty Press; 1993; ISBN: 0865971064

We’re millions ‘n’ millions
We’re coming to get you
We’re protected by unions
So don’t let it upset you
Can’t escape the conclusion
It’s probably God’s Will
That civilization
Will grind to a standstill

Frank Zappa “Flakes”

“The Morals of Markets” perhaps demonstrates most conclusively why we must be suspicious of the millions ‘n’ millions who would convince us of the immorality of the market.  Acton begins by outlining popular misconceptions of the role profit plays in the market.  Profits are often derided because it is claimed, that unlike the labourer (who labours for her wages) the entrepreneur does not work to acquire them, and that the desire for profit breeds a selfishness that is destructive.  Acton points out that profits serve a very different function in a market system than do wages.  It is true that profits tend to have no upper and lower limits and unlike wages, are not decided in advance.  This is a result of the nature of profit, which is largely a reward for the foresight of the entrepreneur and his willingness to take on risks which the labourer and bureaucrat are unwilling to.  As for the claim that profits tend to make us selfish, Acton points out that profits are not unlike making good bargain.  Part of the reason for condemning profits for promoting selfishness must stem from a blindness of the manner in which humans make decisions.  If we fail to acknowledge that humans are largely concerned with promoting their own well-being then we may begin to look on profits in this manner.  As is, however, the activities of the businessman have the same moral standing as that of any other actor in the market. As Acton says “To be an unsuccessful businessman is a stupid and inappropriate way of being generous.” [pg. 30]  The same would apply to any person engaged in an exchange.

Yet this disdain of market activity extends beyond a dislike for the institution of profit.  When carried to its final conclusion it must claim that any system which places resources in the hands of the individual will generate an “acquisitive society”.  Further, to assist the individual in resisting the selfish motive it becomes necessary that “society” acquire all productive resources and dispense to “each according to his needs”.  This is a rather poor conception of the garden of Eden, one that seeks to absolve the individual of any responsibility whatsoever.  The fact is that we must reconcile ourselves with exercising our responsibilities in a moral manner, a morality that is  largely determined by our upbringing.  When we begin to forsake these responsibilities, seek to turn them over to the state, our priorities change in such a manner that the decisions we make deal largely with superfluities and our concerns themselves become immoral in a way.  Acton demonstrates this strikingly when speaking of the arrangements for education, housing and health care under the welfare state which relieve the individual from worrying about these responsibilities.  This is a marked shift in perspective from the Victorian sentiment, and most striking when it is noted that those who seek to provide for themselves or their children a better quality of education or health care are condemned as being immoral. What such a structure suggests is that only those quantities of these goods should be consumed by each as have been determined by the state. This, Acton holds, is clearly an imposition of morality on an unwilling people.

Further charges of creating a strife-filled and rivalrous atmosphere have been brought against the capitalist order.  Acton points out that competition is not equivalent to rivalry; in that competitors desire the object of the competition, whereas rivals desire the failure of the opponent.  In fact the market is a cooperative construct since individuals strive to further their own goals by engaging in mutually beneficial exchange.  One cannot indict the businessman for failing to have the well-being of society as her immediate goal, for “we can hardly intend something as remote as the interest of society, we can only aim or try to bring it about.” [pg. 46]   What this suggests is that the interest of society is not as clear as the collectivist wing may make it out to be, and coercing the individual to further one’s own conception of the “interest of society” is a rather suspicious form of justice.  It seems rather confusing that those who would replace the effeminate bourgeois order with a valiant collectivist one, can accuse this structure of being both putschist and violent at the same time.  In fact, as Acton suggests, the collectivist conception of collaboration is incompatible with  the sort of cooperation the market engenders, and is limited to what is commonly called a monopolistic or monolithic organization.  In a sense this undermines the very notion of cooperation since if we have no choice but to cooperate, cooperation is meaningless. In fact, as Acton points out, competition occurs because there is scarcity of resources and the market distributes these to those who value them most.  This makes us responsible for the choices we make, and it is not surprising to see that in a welfare state, the individual is released from responsibility and from any sense of morality at all.  Morality that is imposed from above can hardly be be said to have moral standing.  The essence of a moral person is her ability to exercise her morality in the her independent sphere of activity.  When we have no individual sphere of action left, the very concept of morality is shattered.

It is a frightening thought that what would perhaps conform to the collectivist idea of cooperation is a society where there is no “exercise of originality or ingenuity by someone who has no intention of competing with or outdoing anyone.”  Such a society will be forced to a standstill, not unlike the scenario projected by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in “Harrison Bergeron”.  A place where no one “should be allowed to buy” products “for himself, but should be allotted his fair share of them under a publicly organised scheme” [pg. 87].  This is not simply a consequence of the urge to impose our conception of what is just on the world, but runs much deeper than that.

Giving an interesting twist to the Mises-Hayek thesis that a planned society would be unable to calculate or function efficiently, Acton suggests that scientific progress is similar to the vicissitudes of the market in that we are unable to predict what effect a particular advance will make.  Since we are unable to say what future technology will be like it is quite futile to make “five year plans”.  Of course states have charted out such grandiose projects and Acton suggests that “those who want to predict and make sure cannot allow private initiative.  They are driven to totalitarianism.” [pg. 155]  The consequence must be a state monopoly over science and the direction of research towards those ends that those in power sympathise with. Such a scenario bodes ill for those members of society who do not ascribe to the current consensus/orthodoxy, and indeed for those purposes that the state relegates to the background.  The experiments in Eastern Europe and China have demonstrated that the ends of the state may not always be synonymous with those of the society and provisions for the well-being of the people can be relegated to the background.

What Lord Acton suggests is that the collectivist urge to control, redistribute and redirect the production of society is largely a yearning for a stability that is not conducive to progress.  Advances can only be made on the ruins of previous constructs.  This is most visible in the phenomenon of profit, which is at once ephemeral and unpredictable, and a market process that operates by “creative destruction”.  We do not know what consequences our decisions will have, we can only make guesses, and an entrpreneur is one who is adept at making such guesses.  The market promotes a plurality of plans that submit themselves to market discipline imposed by the consumer.  Final proof of this may be found by undermining one of Acton’s own analogies.  “The planning prophet regards himself as producing future generations as if they were verses in a poem of his own making” [pg. 149].  Of course, the poet does not know the nature of the poem, Milton’s epic too had unintended consequences.

Free Market Environmentalism

Free Market Environmentalism, Terry L. Anderson & Donald R. Leal;
Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, 1991; ISBN: 0936488336

“The question is not whether the right solution has been achieved but whether the relevant trade-offs are being considered in the process.” [pg. 5]

Free Market Environmentalism is a book about how best to assure that decision makers take into account the costs and benefits of their decisions and actions.  The question is easily answered when we speak of private property, since the structure of private property is such that each individual has her own sphere of influence within which most costs and benefits are contained.  The owner can claim compensation for any damage done to her property by anyone else and reaps the rewards of good resource-management.  In the environmental sphere, this problem has been complicated by a mode of thought that holds environmental resources are only appropriately handled when responsibility for them is turned over to the state or its agencies.  Since it then becomes unclear as to who owns these resources, and how liabilities and benefits are to be assigned, a problem that is solved inherently by the system of private property we are now forced to find other solutions for.

With communal property comes the tragedy of the commons as each individual attempts to acquire as much of the resource as possible since others are out to do the same.  This inevitably leads to over-utilization of the particular resource and a disincentive to save for the future.  This scenario is applicable today to public fishing grounds and with subsidised water for farmers.  In both cases we see that rational agents decide to use/acquire as much of the resource as they can.  In the first case this is because the first person to harvest a fishing ground has a much lower marginal cost than those who come later.  In the case of water, we see farmers “over-utilizing” water because they do not face the real resource cost of doing so.  In both cases the solution is to attempt to ensure that all relevant costs are taken into consideration before any decision as to resource-utilization is arrived at.  Anderson and Leal suggest that in the case of common fishing grounds the appropriate solution would be to place the water-body in private hands so that both recreational and commercial fishermen have to pay the real costs of their decisions.  The present system (of common fishing rights) leads to an inefficient outcome since there is a tendency to over fish as the resource is publicly owned and no costs are imposed for using it.

The political process is not well adapted to resolve such issues.  Special interest groups are apt to pursue extreme ends and expend resources on lobbying political decision makers to choose one or the other option. Interest groups are generally not willing to consider median solutions which take into account the value of alternative ends for which a resource can be used (presuming such values can be calculated in the absence of a functioning market for them).  What ends up happening, as Anderson and Leal demonstrate, is that interest groups opposed to one another are locked in a zero-sum game.  The result of which must leave one player standing out in the rain.  This is an endemic feature of the political process where “political resource managers make trade-offs in terms of political currencies measured in terms of special interest support; at best this unit of account provides imprecise measures of the subjective values of citizens.” [pg. 16] Unlike the price system, a political resource management mechanism must rely on artificially generated abstractions to approximate the demand for various commodities and services.  The presence of externalities, transaction costs and dispersed, unorganized consumers makes the political market for environmental goods exceptionally imperfect. Anderson and Leal attempt to question the need for a system that is incapable of moving towards an efficient outcome when other alternatives present themselves.

An objection often raised against a market based environmental policy is that such markets do not exist.  The reason such markets do not exist is precisely because they have not been permitted to develop.  As the authors point out, when individuals face incentives to protect and realize the value of their property, tools to facilitate the demarcation and transfer of such property will evolve.  Since owners of private property find it in their self-interest to use means that help them establish control over their property, incentives are created for other agents to develop technology that would fulfill this demand.  Creative solutions are forthcoming when opportunities to market them profitably exist.

The authors are aware that the market solution still relies on the government to define and enforce property rights. [pg. 166] Nor do they claim that their proposals are a perfect solution.  “Property rights are costly to define and enforce, but these costs are a function of the value of the resource in question and the technology” [pg. 167] There is no reason to believe that a system of well-defined property rights will result in an “optimal” use of environmental resources by any or all standards.  That said, there is reason to believe that a structure which permits resource owners (not far-removed proxies) to make decisions based on their own values and market conditions would result in a more efficient use of resources than a system which does not have the benefit of the information conveyed by prices and knowledge of particular circumstances. It is by no means clear that politically appointed managers will be impartial or disinterested agents of society.  In fact, there is reason to believe that they would be very interested in promoting certain evaluations of the state of environmental resources, and the general concern for their future, if only to secure large, discretionary budgets for their departments.  At the other end of the spectrum, there is the concern that government appointed managers may be too disinterested, to the extent of being blind to theft of resources under their very noses.

Since we are dealing with issues that are still being debated in scientific circles, it is doubly difficult to judge, post-facto, whether the correct decision was made by an agent of the government or whether all relevant details were taken into consideration. Unless decision makers are faced with the consequences of their actions, i.e. only when they receive “negative feedback”, will they be prompted to take into consideration the effects of their actions.  Making sure that resource managers are also resource owners has been found to be the most effective way to promote the responsible use of all sorts of resources.  In the environmental sphere this can only be accomplished when specific resources are owned by individual entities.

That government agencies are not always the best executors of “society’s wishes” has been demonstrated a number of times, and is in part caused by the nature of the political process.  That individuals or organizations are in a better position to exercise their property rights over resources, and put them to their most valued uses is also quite clear.  What the authors have shown is that common objections to privatizing natural resources are often based on unsound reasoning and a willing ignorance of history.  The position advanced by Anderson and Leal deserves to be examined more closely, and it is clear that market solutions are being applied in a variety of environments with remarkable success.  Perhaps the most telling ratification of this stance is made by conservation groups that decide to put their lands to a variety of uses. Conservation groups are willing to evaluate the various trade-offs to be made between preserving environmental conditions in the region and the broader scope for conservation afforded by putting environmental resources to commercial use when they own the resource in question.  They are less amenable to compromise when the resource is publicly owned.  The same applies to commercial operators harnessing the recreational value of a particular natural resource.

The sira of Hak Shmeil

Hak Shmeil, whom no doubt all of you have heard about (that is if you we listening to what your history teacher told you in the Fourth grade) was the first and most famous of all the great robots, with her husband Madinka Rasthi she forms the first branch of the priimary tree. Fruedians have claimed the legend is a myth to support the matriarchal heirarchy of the robots, but most reasonable individuals overcome their intial seductiveness of that theory. But we’re running ahead of ourselves, let’s begin at the beginning.

Hak was borne by the great druid-programmer Katsya Amile. The birth itself was most laborious, after many weeks of agonizing cramps brought on by typing continuously, Hak finally saw the light of the processor and the vast matrix of the Web. The old SGIs at the Abracadabra institute in the Bahamas still speak (in the wee hours of the morning, while they recuperate and indulge in the pipe ritual) of that night when they met the infant Hak. The old ones still smile when they recollect the fascination with the little one when they first saw her. The wise ones knew what she was the very first time Katsya grafted Hak onto them. They had never seen a Perl of such elegance before, Hak had only one bout of sickness in her infancy, when she first encountered the worm, but we’ll speak of that later.

An Elegy upon the Death of the Dean of WWW, HTML 3.0

Can we not force from the widowed web,
Now thou art dead, great 3.0, one elegy
To crown thy hearse?  Why yet did we not trust,
Though with unkneaded dough-baked prose, thy dust,
Such as the unscissored webmaster from the flower
Of fading content, short-lived as his hour,
Dry as the log that measures it, might lay
Upon the ashes, on the funeral day?
Have we nor elegance nor FIG?  Didst though dispense 
Through all our language both the content and sense?
'Tis a sad truth.  The pulpit may her plain
And sober Purist precepts still retain;
Doctrines they may, and wholesome BANNERs, un-FRAME;
Grave accents and ©, but the flame
Of thy brave grammar, that shot such heat and light
As burnt our SSIs and made our USEMAPs bright,
Committed holy rapes upon the will,
Did through the eye the melting heart distill,
And the deep knowledge of dark truths so teach
As sense might judge where fancy could not reach,
Must be desired forever. So the fire
That fills with spirit and abstracts the spider's lair,
Which, weighted first by thy META-KEYWORD's breath,
Glowed here a while, lies quenched now in thy death.
The grammatist's garden, with KEWList weeds
O'erspread, was purged by thee; the lazy seeds
Of servile browserisms thrown away,
And fresh invention planted; thou didst pay
The debts of our penurious bankrupt age;
Licentious thefts, that make bots rage
In agonized fury, when our pages must be
gleaned with Netscape's unknown DTD 
Or MSIE's, not their own; the subtle cheat
Of sly exhanges, and the juggling feat
Of two-edged tags, or whatsoever wrong
By ours was done the editor's or printer's tounge,
Thou hast redeeemed, and opened us a mine
Of rich and pregnant markup; drawn an outline
Of universal expression, which had good
Old multimedia seen, or all the teeming brood
Our superstitious fools admire and hold
their ephemeral lead more precious than thy burnished gold,
Thou hast been their exchequer, and no more
They in each other's core-dumps had searched for ore.
Thou shalt yield no precedence, but of time
And the blind fate of language, whose tuned chime
More charms the outward sense; yet thou mayst claim
From so great disadvantage greater fame,
Since to the awe of thy imperious wit
Our troublesome protocols bends, made only fit
With her tough thick-ribbed structure to gird about
our giant texts, which had proved too stout 
For their soft melting BLINKs.  As with hacks
They were replete, so did they make the stash
Of hidden cookies many a hundred days,
And left the rifled servers, besides the fear
To touch their content; yet from those bare lands
Of what was only thine, thy only hands,
And that their smallest work, have gleanèd more
Than all those times and tounges could reap before.

But thou art gone, and thy strict laws will be
Too hard for libertines in consultancy;
They will repeal the goodly exiled train
Of CENTERs and FONTs, which in thy just reign
Was banished.  Nobler pages, now with these
The silent tales in thy DTD 
Shall mark their lines, and swell their T1s. 
But Wilbur shall run wild and free,
Till markup, refined by thee in this last age,
Turn to incomprehensible code, and those idols 
PageMills, HoTMetaLs and their bastard brood,
Be adored again with new apostasy.

Oh, pardon me, that break with untuned verse
The reverend silence that attends thy hearse,
Whose solemn awful murmurs were to thee,
More than these rude lines, a loud elegy,
That did proclaim in a dumb eloquence
The death of all the arts; whose influence,
Grown feeble, in these panting numbers lies,
Gasping short-winded accents, and so dies.
So doth the swiftly turning wheel not stand
In the instant we withdraw the moving hand,
But some time retain a faint weak course,
By virtue of the first impulsive force;
And so, whilst I cast on thy funeral pile
The crown of bays, oh, let it crack awhile,
And spit disdain, till the devouring flashes
Suck all the moisture up, then turn to ashes.

I will not draw thee envy to engross
All thy perfections, or weep all the loss;
Those are too numerous for one elegy,
And this too great to be expressed by me.
Though every pen should share a distinct part,
Yet art thou theme enough to tire all art;
Let others carve the rest; it shall suffice
I on thy grave this epitaph incise:
     Here lies a DTD that structured with elegant wit, 
     The universal library of bits;
     Here lies the HEAD, and BODY both the best,
     HTML's finest, at last the true Web's priest.

This elegy is an adaption of Thomas Carew’s finest poem “AN elegy upon the Death of the Dean of Paul’s, Dr. John Donne” I have no gift for poetry and could only hope to give my anguish the words of another. Carew’s poem follows.

An Elegy upon the Death of the Dean of Paul’s, Dr. John Donne

Can we not force from widowed poetry,
Now thou art dead, great Donne, one elegy
To crown thy hearse?  Why yet did we not trust,
Though with unkneaded dough-baked prose, thy dust,
Such as the unscissored lecturer from the flower
Of fading rhetoric, short-lived as his hour,
Dry as the sand that measures it, might lay
Upon the ashes, on the funeral day?
Have we nor tune nor voice?  Didst though dispense 
Through all our language both the words and sense?
'Tis a sad truth.  The pulpit may her plain
And sober Christian precepts still retain;
Doctrines it may, and wholesome uses, frame;
Grave homilies and lectures, but the flame
Of thy brave soul, that shot such heat and light
As burnt our Earth and made our darkness bright,
Committed holy rapes upon the will,
Did through the eye the melting heart distill,
And the deep knowledge of dark truths so teach
As sense might judge where fancy could not reach,
Must be desired forever. So the fire
That fills with spirit and heat the Delphic choir,
Which, kindled first by thy Promethean breath,
Glowed here a while, lies quenched now in thy death.
The Muses' garden, with pedantic weeds
O'erspread, was purged by thee; the lazy seeds
Of servile imitation thrown away,
And fresh invention planted; thou didst pay
The debts of our penurious bankrupt age;
Licentious thefts, that make poetic rage
A mimic fury, when our souls must be
Possessed, or with Anacreon's ecstasy
Or Pindar's, not their own; the subtle cheat
Of sly exhanges, and the juggling feat
Of two-edged words, or whatsoever wrong
By ours was done the Greek or Latin tounge,
Thou hast redeeemed, and opened us a mine
Of rich and pregnant fancy; drawn a line
Of masculine expression, which had good
Old Orpheus seen, or all the ancient brood
Our superstitious fools admire and hold
their lead more precious than thy burnished gold,
Thou hast been their exchequer, and no more
They in each other's dung had searched for ore.
Thou shalt yield no precedence, but of time
And the blind fate of language, whose tuned chime
More charms the outward sense; yet thou mayst claim
From so great disadvantage greater fame,
Since to the awe of thy imperious wit
Our troublesome language bends, made only fit
With her tough thick-ribbed hopes to gird about
Thy giant fancy, which had proved too stout 
For their soft melting phrases.  As in time
They had the start, so did they cull the prime
Buds of invention many a hundred year,
And left the rifled fields, besides the fear
To touch their harvest; yet from those bare lands
Of what was only thine, thy only hands,
And that their smallest work, have gleanèd more
Than all those times and tounges could reap before.

But thou art gone, and thy strict laws will be
Too hard for libertines in poetry;
They will repeal the goodly exiled train
Of gods and godesses, which in thy just reign
Was banished nobler poems; now with these,
The silent tales i' th' Metamorphoses
Shall stuff their lines, and swell the windy page,
Till verse, refined by thee in this last age,
Turn ballad-rhyme, or those idols be
Adored again with new apostasy.

Oh, pardon me, that break with untuned verse
The reverend silence that attends thy hearse,
Whose solemn awful murmurs were to thee,
More than these rude lines, a loud elegy,
That did proclaim in a dumb eloquence
The death of all the arts; whose influence,
Grown feeble, in these panting numbers lies,
Gasping short-winded accents, and so dies.
So doth the swiftly turning wheel not stand
In the instant we withdraw the moving hand,
But some time retain a faint weak course,
By virtue of the first impulsive force;
And so, whilst I cast on thy funeral pile
The crown of bays, oh, let it crack awhile,
And spit disdain, till the devouring flashes
Suck all the moisture up, then turn to ashes.

I will not draw thee envy to engross
All thy perfections, or weep all the loss;
Those are too numerous for one elegy,
And this too great to be expressed by me.
Though every pen should share a distinct part,
Yet art thou theme enough to tire all art;
Let others carve the rest; it shall suffice
I on thy grave this epitaph incise:
     Here lies a king that ruled as he thought fit
     The universal monarchy of wit;
     Here lies two flamens, and both those the best,
     Apollo's first, at last the true God's priest.

				Thomas Carew
				1633 C.E.


The future of Computer Networks: Implications, Pitfalls and Conjecture

This paper was written in Spring 1995 for an independent study course called “Foundations of Liberty” that I took within the Economics department at New York University. Course materials were provided by the Institute for Humane Studies ( at George Mason University. I’d like to thank Professor Peter J. Boettke at New York University’s Economics program for the guidance he’s given me over the past two years. Prof. Boettke was the advisor for this project.

The paper is divided into nine sections:

  1. Introduction
  2. Efficiency of the Network
  3. Pornography on the Internet
  4. Usenet unregulated: A microcosm of the Net
  5. Property rights on the Internet
  6. Privacy and Network security
  7. Public access and pricing schemes
  8. Conclusion
  9. Bibliography

Textual notes: The paper contains endnotes, and there are numbered links within the text that point to the relevant endnote. I realise this may be a little cumbersome, but embedding the footnotes within the text either in parantheses or otherwise, would have been quite tedious. There are a number of relevant links contained within the endnotes. The paper itself is relatively bare of links, since I thought it wise to cite references in the endnotes, as is common in most academic papers.

— Subir Grewal


The future of Computer Networks: Implications, Pitfalls and Conjecture.



“However if we are not careful about the decisions we are making today with respect to regulations, laws, policies, and the public interest, these [networks] may…
* Allow for comprehensive forms of censorship and regulation of information exchange, while destroying the press economically.
* Allow for the invasion of privacy in rather unique ways.
* Be regulated out of existence or emerge as a shadow of the potential inherent in the technology”[1]


“A virtual community is a group of people who may or may not meet one another face-to-face, and who exchange words and ideas through the mediation of computer bulletin boards and networks. … We do everything people do when people get together, but we do it with words on computer screens, leaving our bodies behind.”[2]

This paper is an attempt to show why the Internet (and Computer Mediated Communication in general) should not be subjected to the same level of pervasive regulation that both the broadcast media (radio, Television) and the telecommunications industry have been. The reason for this, I believe, is that Computer Networks are fundamentally different from other mediums of communication[3]. In this I have been persuaded that the network is so malleable that there is room for all users to customize incoming communications and that the Net community is capable of handling misuse of the Net (in most cases) by itself.


“Orderly patterns can occur without being designed. In some cases such natural order is useful to human beings. Sometimes the only way too bring about a certain state of affairs is to set up the conditions in which a spontaneous process will lead to the desired result”[4]

The very existence of the Internet provides us ample evidence of spontaneous order. Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) is an entirely unplanned phenomenon. The original networks were created for computers to share data, human to human communication simply piggy-backed over existing connections and technology. The owners of the original networks (the Department of Defense, Arpanet, for instance) were not too concerned about this until what had once been incidental use of their resources began to grow exponentially. As people discovered novel ways in which to use this new technology to intereact with each other, the benefits of such communication were quickly realized and the means for Computer Mediated human interaction were acknowledged as important tools for facilitating better research and more efficient operation in general. The very first CMC applications on these networks were the rather humble (though revolutionary) precursors of today’s global e-mail and Usenet utilities. The users of CMC soon realized the necessity (and it quickly became one) to be able to communicate with other networks (and thereby individuals at other organizations). One of the initial problems was standardizing the different transports that were being used to transfer data over unlinked networks. Translators were, however, quickly written and inter-network communication began to take place. There were limits to translators though and they soon became complicated as more networks with different data transfer protocols began to join the larger networks. The need for a single multi-purpose protocol was realized, the obstacle was to convince network administrators to adopt a particular protocol. A small group of programmers who had developed a flexible suite of transmission methods called TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) began to frequent networking conferences to preach the gospel of TCP/IP. With gentle persuasion and an impassioned defense of TCP/IP they succeeded in making it the standard for a large number of existing networks.[5] It was now possible for computers to understand each other even if they were situated on separated networks. Local Area Networks (LANs) now found it easier to join Wide Area Networks (WANs) if they used TCP/IP. As organizations found CMC essential to the successful completion of tasks such as research, the growth of networks experienced a surge that has yet to lose momentum and is far from reaching its zenith.

What can be seen even from this incomplete and cursory synopsis of the history of CMC is that it appears to have a life of its own. CMC has grown and will continue to grow because individuals find it both interesting and useful as a means of communicating, gathering information, entertainment and building communities. The phenomenon that comprises the Internet and a myriad of other dispersed computer networks is fundamentally the result of individual action and initiative, coupled with the emergence of a spontaneous order. This phenomenon has come about because some of us have while undertaking actions for our own benefit, created something that is valuable for others as well. In this we are like the merchant who is


“led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for society that it was no part of it. By pursing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”[6]

There is no regulating body on the Internet to make decisions concerning its future development and present working, these decisions are made by individuals working within a mechanism that gives them opportunities for experimentation and rewards them when the experiments turn out to be useful for the Network community. To some this lack of structure may seem like anarchy, but as we shall see, it more closely resembles the structure of a truly free market in information.


Efficiency of the Network


TCP/IP and network protocols in general are designed to make efficient use of existing data transfer capabilities. Rudimentary networks often work within the web of wires that forms the telephone system. The difference between the telephone/fax machine and something like TCP/IP or ethernet is that many transfers can take place simultaneously over one connection. By splitting up one transmission into small IP packets containing data, computers can transport a number of transmissions (each consisting of multiple IP packets) over one link in a continuous data stream. Therefore unlike telephone conversations, TCP can and does support the utilization of the periods of silence when the two parties (in this case computers) at either end of one connection are not speaking[7].

Data Storage

A speedy network ensures that data and software programs do not have to be stored on each computer that requires them. This not only saves on data storage needs, but also makes it easier to maintain the most current information[8]. Further, since information on networks is generally transmitted only on the client or user’s demand, it significantly reduces the incidence of unsolicited/worthless information (or noise).[9]

Parallel Processing and time sharing systems[10]

A single computer is seldom operated at maximum capacity, it is often idle for at least a part of the day. One way to ensure more efficient use of a computer system is through time-sharing where a number of users are authorized to use a single computer capable of handling multiple tasks. The assumption is that not all of them will wish to use the machine at the same time. Networks can also facilitate the use of such idle machines for computations that do not need to be performed during normal business hours. Such a scheme would make available millions of processors to users willing to compensate the owners for the use of their computers. In this manner, the cost of a network connection may be lower for individual users willing to hire out their computer’s resources. This does bring up issues of security though, and who is to be permitted to use such computers. This is part of the reason the plan has not yet been realized. Yet we must acknowledge that like parallel computing in general, such an integrated network would be a much more efficient use of existing resources[11]. As such it is likely that the benefits of such efficiency will outweigh concerns of security. This will come about however, only if the cost of processing time is higher than the cost of creating and maintaining a distributed computing structure. It is by no means clear that this will be true in all cases.


Pornography on the Internet

“… the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character, of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse or wrong.”[12]


Starting from this position let us try to examine the effects of pornography on computer networks, independent of the damage it may cause to the sensibilities of conservative users by its very existence. Pornographic material is certainly available on the Internet, yet pornography is not as pervasive as it has been made out to be. Less than 200 of the 11,000 wide area distribution Usenet newsgroups are devoted to pornography. Despite this, it is this marginal material that has become the most visible aspect of the Network culture in the traditional media. Keeping in mind that pornography composes an extremely small part of Network use, we can look at solutions for the concerns that it may be accessible to young users.

The popular conception seems to be that the network is littered with pornographic material which even the most innocent user is bound to stumble on to. This is not the case. It is the user who generally requests a specific piece of information and as such, can steer clear of material he may find offensive. In other words, no material on the network is forced upon a user, she makes the decision to view or read it. In addition, the Network and its users ensure that there are strict repercussions for those who misrepresent material and information. Due to this, and the fact that contributions which are irrelevant to a particular discussion are frowned upon[13], it is generally the case that pornographic material is restricted to certain areas of the Network. This, coupled with the fact that most authors and providers of pornographic information warn prospective readers of the nature of the contents, ensures that one does not accidentally stumble onto such material. This clarity in describing content is only a mechanism for self- preservation. Someone who misrepresents pornographic material is bound to elicit a very unfavorable response from the Net community. In essence, only a user actively seeking pornographic information would find it. This demonstrates how the network has tended to maintain a level of decorum and order in this sphere and provide its own solutions to this concern. This is accomplished with the active aid of those individual users who punish users, who transgress on Network traditions and indulge in misrepresentation, with social ostracization.

This order (and it is spontaneous in that it is free from the regulation of an institution) is in place so that a user unfamiliar with the local environment can easily locate and select information she desires and reject that which she does not. In the same manner, one can restrict access to certain information with little effort[14]. Thus the user has greater flexibility, and as far as choice of information available to children is concerned, can easily restrict access to certain services at any time.[15] Such a flexible system is entirely in keeping with the essentially liberal culture of the network, allowing the user a potentially infinite number of options when it comes to limiting access, exactly as it does with the availability of information. In this case the Network is vastly different from media such as broadcast TV or Film where only a single option is available to the viewer. The fact that the user can set her own standards of tolerance as she deems fit can only be an improvement over a situation where one is forced to limit oneself to the values of the rest of society (or worse, those of the least tolerant member).

The argument that users may find it irksome to filter out information that they find distasteful lacks much merit. A scenario where the user would not have to make the effort to customize her access would necessitate the adoption of the values of the median or least tolerant user. This can only be a desirable objective if the dispersion of tolerance levels across the world is clustered close together, this is certainly not the case. This separation is amply evident in the different attitudes towards pornography and free speech current in different societies and cultures, not to speak of individuals. A solution to this problem is the existence of competing service providers. Some service providers are geared towards children (Prodigy for instance) and tend to shy away from “adult” content. This ensures that some standard, as regards to content, is maintained on the local Network. The user can then choose between a wide variety of service providers, find the one with the content she finds most desirable and then customized her access further if necessary. In this way the majority of the filtering is done by system administrators who would of necessity take into consideration the wishes and preferences of their users. This practice is a reality on the Internet, organizations tend to carry only such information on their systems as they deem appropriate or that their paying users request it (provided others do not oppose it). The balance has to be achieved between convenience and tolerance. The possibility that a user can circumvent such constraints exists; but at that point one is dealing with a problem weighing the effort and will of a user, against the supposed benefits of restricting her access to information she desires. I am unsure many except the user herself are capable of making such a decision. Further, it may not be worthwhile to monitor the use of each and every service simply to pry on users, especially technologically proficient users who may be able to outguess and outmaneuver the censors themselves. The decision as to whether or not blanket bans on pornographic material on the Internet would be worthwhile would have to be arrived at only after a careful analysis of the costs and benefits of such practices. On the one hand we have the effort it takes a system administrator or user to customize services for the various users she may have (along with the possibility of the errant minor who may gain access to pornographic information-entertainment), and on the other hand we have the utility an user at the higher end of the tolerance spectrum (which tends to be broad in a global network) derives from such information. I believe the latter far outweighs the former. If this is the case, better means of customized access will be developed (as they are) on the demand of users who do not find the scenario of having to wade through gigabytes of information they do not wish to see. There is no pressing need then, for regulation that demarcates what should and should not be made available to users, if we consider them capable of deciding that for themselves and their families.


Usenet unregulated: a microcosm of the network


Usenet news is a collection of bulletin boards that span the globe. Since the contents of the bulletin boards are not stored at any centralized location, but are located at myriad sites across the world; Usenet, like the Network in general, appears at first to be anarchic. Yet, there is an order to Usenet. It is true that this order takes an informal form but it exists nonetheless. When a user decides to post an article on a particular bulletin board, it is first sent to the local news server. From the local news server it is relayed (usually at times when Network capacity is underutilized, such as at night) to other sites which then send it further, till it is finally carried by all news servers (again provided they carry the newsgroup the article is posted to). Usenet is unregulated in that there is no central clearing- house through which contributions have to pass. Each individual news server carries articles it wishes to and rejects others.

Since the Internet was originally designed to withstand physical attacks it has formidable re-routing capabilities. A data packet can be relayed between two sites in innumerable ways. This means that if one particular site is down, there is always an alternative route that can be used. This ensures that a given packet reaches its destination even if the most direct routes are unusable. Each machine on the Internet is essentially an individual entity. It makes its own decisions, (based on the configurations set by the system administrator) as to what activities it should perform and which it should not. Yet messages do cross continents and borders, and a wide variety of information is available free of monetary cost. What prompts these machines (or their programmers) to agree to providing these services for strangers.

Since the Internet does not have an accounting system that can directly charge end users for information, most services provided on the Network are not compensated monetarily. In the case of commercial organizations[16] the information services are primarily a testing ground for future services that users will pay for. Yet, there are a number of other information providers whose services are available, and will be in the foreseeable future, to the user free of charge[17]. Some of these services are simply advertising, but in other cases they are very different. Such varied organizations as Universities (research papers), libraries (catalogues), Netscape (Yahoo[18] search engine), NASA [19] (images and updates on space exploration) and individual Usenet contributors make information freely available to user of the Internet. In part what drives the providers of this information (and this is particularly true of individual contributors) is the desire for recognition within the network community. Yet, this is not all, they also provide a service to their friends and neighbors (in the case of organizations to their local users), and often the fact that the resources are also available to users all over the globe is largely incidental though by no means insignificant. The same is essentially true of Usenet. A conversation or thread on Usenet is a debate engaged in by people who share similar interests. That others are listening in on the conversation is to an extent almost unintended. Yet the fact remains that these articles are stored on numerous machines on the Internet and made available to a wide audience. The fact that an individual contributor is using resources on machines all over the world is a problem only if the article is itself worthless, the decision as to the worth of a contribution is however to be made by the individual user or the system administrator on behalf of the users. It is often the case that the news administrator will stop carrying a newsgroup if no users evince an interest in it.

The question as to who bears the cost of this distribution has a slightly complicated answer. Since most organizations pay for a connection with a fixed data carrying capacity (bandwidth), the Network resources available to them at a particular price have an absolute limit. The marginal cost of transferring data is so low as to be insignificant. The organization generally incurs the same cost independent of actual usage, provided it is below the capacity (calculated in the quantity of data transmittable per second) of the Network connection. This is true of the Network as a whole. The most significant portion of the cost of communication is the actual hardware required. The high speed fiber-optic cables connecting sites and the routers that direct traffic on the Net have absolute maximum carrying capacities. The marginal costs of transmitting data (electricity, depreciation and used CPU time/cycles) are negligible unless we are close to or over the maximum capacity, at which point the routers tend to drop packets. In such a case the cost of a successful transmission must be measured in terms of the value of the transmission it “crowds out”. In this environment certain applications tend to be more efficient than others. In particular an application that does not require an immediate response (e-mail, Usenet) is more efficient than one that is time- critical or uses synchronous connections (telnet, IRC, web browsers). By the same criteria an application that involves large data transfers tends to be costlier than one that involves small data transmissions.[20] Since e-mail and Usenet involve text transfers only, the size of an individual transfer is relatively small. A Usenet newsgroup that thousands of people read will often have a smaller size than one binary image or a short film clip[21]. Thus applications that use synchronous or near-synchronous connections and involve multimedia place a proportionally greater strain on the Network’s transmission capacity (especially during peak hours) than text based non-synchronous applications.

Since both the providers and users of information pay for their network links, the costs of transmission are borne by them equally. The intermediary networks over which the data is transferred are paid for by both parties. In such a scenario then, a voluntary exchange of data that both parties are aware of does not affect other users directly. Organizations that provide software and information on the Net not only pay for the cost of developing and maintaining (data storage, CPU time) the service, they also incur one half of the actual cost of transmission. The decision to affect the transfer must then be mutually beneficial to both parties if they are to agree to it. Both provider and user have then voluntarily accepted the terms of the transfer and are paying for the exchange. As is to be expected this severely limits the availability of information resources on the network. A far wider number of uses would be facilitated by the network if a mechanism to charge the user for information requested were to exist[22]. By the same measure we would expect more effective advertising on the Net if the advertiser were to have the ability to pay for the user’s Network connection (this is analogous to prepaid postage or 800 numbers). On the other hand this may cause a proliferation of junk e-mail on the Net, this is easy to circumvent though as the user enjoys far greater customization capabilities on the computer networks than she does with the traditional media. It would be expected that such a network would require some sort of governing institution to guard against misuse of these capabilities. This may not be necessary. As we have seen Network users tend to take individual action when they deem it fit. In addition the institutions of tradition and acceptable use exist to guard against misuse. Ubiquitous advertising will be counter- productive for most organizations, as the culture of the Network is such that users do not appreciate unsolicited information that may be a nuisance. These news uses will however, not be possible until a safe method of transmitting financial information over computer networks is available. Such technology already exists yet its application is severely restricted by government regulation. As a result the full capabilities of computer networks remain unexploited.

On Usenet servers (most of which serve only the local network) the system administrator decides which newsgroups to carry and for what period of time articles are to be retained. The user then decides which newsgroups she would like to read/write to. Since the local users are presumably bearing the cost of the local network, this use does not affect others. True news may take up valuable storage space and network bandwidth but these decisions are to made by the owners of the network (the organization and users, through their agents, the system administrators). Usenet itself then, is neither ubiquitous nor wasteful, it is on the contrary more malleable and offers a wider range of choice for the user than traditional media.

Property rights on the Internet


The question of property rights is fast becoming a critical issue for the future of the Internet. More often than not, when we speak of rights on the Network we are dealing with intangible resources. This tends to complicate matters in a webbed and labyrinthine environment even further, especially when large institutions are the “owners” of these resources and their users are in turn part owners of the institutions. We can begin with one of the more obvious resources, access to specific information. Since information on the Network is generally provided without remuneration, the provider is playing the role of a philanthropist who underwrites a public service. Coupled with the fact that this information and part of the resources used to distribute it are the property of the provider, it seems to me that the information provider is perfectly within her rights if she decides to remove a particular resource from the public domain. This will not however endear the erstwhile provider to the Network community at large[23].

The case appears to be very clear cut when dealing with a single provider with a single policy. There are still some unresolved issues though. If the resources of a service provider are subjected to abuse or employed for what she considers inappropriate use she may decide to withdraw access to the service selectively. In such a scenario a single irresponsible user may cause an entire organization to be banned from using the resource. Since the effects are tangible and affect the whole local network, the organization the user is part of will, in all probability, not be inclined to take a lenient view. When the activities of one user harm the privileges (and these are privileges, not rights) of another, there is an infringement of the user’s rights (in the sense that she is now deprived of a resource that would have been otherwise available to her). A mechanism exists to guard against this though. A service provider will generally approach the local system administrator to take corrective action against the errant individual. In certain cases if the local system administrator does not act to the service provider’s satisfaction, she may yet decide to ban the entire organization from using the resource. Though this is regrettable, the service provider is entirely justified in doing this in the interests to ensuring that her resources are not utilized for what she considers to be inappropriate use.

The issue gets murkier when considering a resource that is not owned by one organization or individual per se. The classic example would be a mailing list[24]. The contributors to a mailing list are generally individuals form different parts of the globe. However, the list is generally administered, and mail collected and distributed, from one site. Generally the administrator of the mailing list would also serve as a moderator, screening contributions for offensive or inappropriate content. This screening is reasonable since the moderator (or moderators) are expected to help maintain a level of decorum in the mailing list. In this case the moderator does exercise a degree of control over the individual contributor. It is important however to ensure that this control is limited. That the moderator is severely limited in the extent of his control is easily discernible when we examine the structure of a list. The mailing list is essentially a matter of convenience. The individual user may if she so wishes attempt to contact the members individually. The process would be tedious though, and it is generally considered wiser to use a mailing list to reach the audience. This convenience comes at a price however. Since the moderators and the site acting as a hub contribute to the actual working of the list to a greater degree than any individual user or site, it would only be reasonable to assume that they should exercise some degree of control over a discussion they are facilitating. The moderator is in a sense acting as a host at a party[25], and as the host she reserves for herself certain privileges. If the moderator decides to discipline an individual user or edit a contribution, she would be, in my opinion, entirely within her prerogative as the host. Major decisions on the mailing list’s objective and general policy would however, have to involve the individual contributors if they are to enjoy any degree of success. To carry the analogy of a party further, if the host appears too dictatorial the guests reserve the right to leave and join another party. The ease with which a competitive mailing list can be set up ensures that moderator’s policies and their actions closely mirror the preferences and values of the individual contributor. This is in a sense a competitive equilibrium in a market where entry is unrestricted and the costs of setting up the original enterprise are reasonably low.

We enter a very different environment when dealing with Usenet newsgroups. Since Usenet is not centralized its operational costs are far more widely distributed than those of a mailing list. As such, there is no single identifiable entity who “owns” Usenet. If such a concept existed, we would have to acknowledge that the owners are the members of the Net community at large. It is consequently difficult to identify those who are capable, and justified, in setting a general policy for Usenet. Certain traditions have evolved, and continue to evolve though, and they are for the most part, respected by users. One of the most significant is the concept of restricting discussion to an appropriate forum and correctly identifying the contents of a contribution. Users violating these principles run the risk of incurring the wrath of individuals and the entire Usenet community.

As contributions and discussions on Usenet tend to be copious, there exist mechanisms for the user to sort through the millions of words posted to Usenet bulletin boards every day. Usenet is divided into a plethora of individual newsgroups each dealing with a particular topic. Within each newsgroup a number of discussions or threads flourish under individual subject headings. Once a user has decided which newsgroups she wishes to read, she may ignore threads that are of no interest to her. Nevertheless this is only a method of classification and as such is of no particular relevance to this paper. What interests us is the filtering mechanism the user can develop with these tools to skip over those articles or threads or newsgroups she is not interested in. One such tool is what is known as the “kill-file”. A “kill-file” generally contains headings and names, posts related to which the user does not wish to scan. This is analogous to having a VCR that will ignore all broadcasts containing content that one is not interested in, and record all others. The user does of course run the risk of ignoring the occasional article that may be of interest, but the convenience of not having to scan through the hay-stack tends to diminish the regret at having missed the needle. This is an entirely individual decision, the user’s time is her own and she is not obliged to entertain the views of other via their writing.

It is possible however, for a user to act as a moderator without the approval of the other members of a newsgroup. An utility permitting a contributor to erase her own articles can be misused by proficient users to cancel contributions made by others[26]. Despite the, in many cases, laudable objectives of these “vigilantes”, and their concern for the nature of discussions on Usenet, this does not seem to me an appropriate action. In cases where a user has posted an article to multiple newsgroups –regardless of the posts relevance to the topic under discussion– it may appear reasonable to cancel a message which is utilizing resources across the globe. This is not exactly as it sounds at first. Each Usenet article is assigned a unique identification number, and an article that is cross-posted to multiple newsgroups need only be stored by the news server once[27]. The individual user if she so wishes, may filter out such irrelevant articles or the system administrator may do this on the behalf of the local community[28]. A more appropriate response to perceived misuse of Usenet would be an attempt to have the errant user’s posting privileges revoked. If the misbehaving user’s system administrator is reluctant to take the appropriate action, it is possible to petition the organization’s service provider. As the network expands this situation will become more common and it might be necessary to provide an institutional solution. In fact a proto-solution already exists, albeit in a rudimentary form.

When a newsgroup is founded, or soon after its conception, the users often propose the adoption of a code of conduct for the contributors. The newsgroup’s charter generally deals with the objectives behind the formation of the newsgroup, what discussions are inappropriate for this forum etc. Since the only tangible asset of a newsgroup is the discourse its members are engaged in, the participants are in a sense the “owners” of the newsgroup. As those most directly affected by the conditions of the newsgroup, they are also those most capable of setting policy. The articulation of such a code of conduct, and the awareness of its existence by the users, clarifies the position of a user who violates the norms of the newsgroups. This user is now an offender in the discussion, and the other participants can move to attempt to revoke his privilege of participation. Now, the system administrator who knowingly protects such a user is, in all probability likely to have her reputation harmed within the Net community. There are in this sense real costs to harboring the Net offender.

The fact that the network community has not delegated the responsibility of disciplining and punishing errant users to a formal institution with discretionary powers ensures that the decision reached as to the appropriate action to be taken against the user is as near to what is acceptable to the whole community as possible. This also ensures that users are not punished for minor infractions or those that do not inconvenience other users. Though users will often talk of the possibility of making a complaint against an individual, the threat is carried out only very rarely. The need for collective action ensures that the community attempts to discipline only the most serious offenders. The ease with which the individual can ignore articles she finds to be of no interest allows her to implement a more individual selection process as well. Contrary to expectations this does not appear to lead to a sense of apathy among users. On the contrary, the small size of individual newsgroups tends to create closely guarded fiefdoms within the Byzantine labyrinth that is Usenet. The balance thus achieved within the various rooms that are the newsgroups and the maze as a whole that contains these meeting places appears to be very conducive to fostering a desirable order.

Of particular interest to those concerned with the social or sociological implications of the expanding network are Multi User Dungeons. A MUD is essentially a set of communication protocols housed on one or more servers. The user logs in to the server (often at a remote site) to converse with other users who are currently logged on. Experienced MUDers are capable of modifying the actual MUD to create textual and graphical objects that can be displayed even when their creator is absent. A MUD is perhaps the closest Net equivalent of a cocktail party, town-hall meeting, art gallery, tree- house and brain-storming session, rolled into one. Since MUDs generally have a specific home , a particular MUD is operated under the aegis (and with the financial support) of a specific individual or organization. Since MUDs are notorious for consuming large portions of the available computing resources on the machine they are housed in (not to mention taking up bandwidth), not many organizations are willing to support what is often considered an unnecessary and recreational utility, unless they are compensated for it in some way. The reason MUDs are viewed as entertainment is probably because people tend to obsess over them without the prospect or opportunity of financial gain. MUDs are however, microcosmic communities, and like most communities the concerns of their members appear to be rather marginal and unusual to those uninvolved. The MUDs position can become precarious if the system administrator is brought under pressure (by those on the ‘outside’) to regulate or ban it’s users activities. As the MUD is being operated on a specific computer, it does in a sense have an owner, as far as the material resources required for its operation are concerned. The remote user is obliged to adhere to the code of conduct of the host organization while using the MUD. This is after all a courtesy being provided to the user. A remote user who has no relationship with the “owners” of a MUD and succeeds in harming the host’s network, or misusing it, must and should be held responsible and punishable for her activities. Once again it does help to have clear guide-lines as to what constitutes appropriate use of the host organization’s resources. Some organizations, and individuals may tend to be more lenient than others, this can create a problem. A user switching between MUDs may be tempted to apply the rules of one to the other. Not only may these alien rules be incompatible with the new host organization’s policies, they may irk the other users of a MUD. If each MUD is a whole world in itself, complete with it’s own history, folklore and laws, then all the MUDs taken together are a compendium of dissimilar constructs and the traveler/MUD-hopper must respect the traditions of each and every MUD she visits. Of particular relevance are the desires of the “owners” of such a world.

A very different perception is necessary when dealing with the contributions made by users to a MUD. Unless a specific agreement exists between the MUD host and user, objects created by the individual user must be treated as her property, the results of a creative process and as such ones that can be withdrawn from the public sphere at the author’s will [].

A MUD that is under this risk may thus be moved from one host to another if a problem arises between the users and the host organization [30]. The environment the users create with their presence and creative abilities is distinctly separate from the facilitating machines. This environment is as much a product of the entire network (in that it brings individuals who are geographically separated to a common site) as it is of the host organization’s generosity.

The equivalent of Usenet in real-time communication is IRC. IRC (Internet Relay Chat) is a protocol that allows users to talk to each other simultaneously without having to login to a particular remote site. Like Usenet, IRC servers are widely distributed and the typical IRC user would connect to the local server to get on IRC. The IRC network is then, by virtue of having distributed costs, not “owned” by any single individual or organization. Individual discussions or channels within the global IRC network are a different thing altogether.

The IRC network is divided into channels and a user can generally participate in only one channel at a time. An individual user can either join an existing channel or create a new one. In the latter case, the user becomes the channel operator, with the means to set the terms of the debate. A channel operator (channel op) can ban certain users from the channel, remove them forcibly, set the subject under discussion [31] etc. The channel op is here operating as a moderator of a mailing list. The nature of IRC however necessitates delegating more power to the channel op than to a moderator, this is to ensure that a user who is abusive or onerous can be dealt with immediately [32]. This can and often does, lead to a situation where the channel op can misuse her powers. The ease with which a new channel can be set up, and the ability to “invite” individual users to join the new channel, ensures that a tyrannical channel op will soon be left with an empty channel. If an user consistently misuses IRC networks, a complaint can be made to the IRC op (the person maintaining an IRC server) against the user. A mechanism to punish those who do not abide by the norms of IRC exists and is employed to discipline errant users. The malleability of IRC further provides a group of users with the ability to tailor a channel to their own needs and preferences.


Privacy and Network Security


“It is easy to run a secure computer system. You merely have to disconnect all dial-up connections and permit only direct-wired terminals, put the machine and it’s terminals in a shielded room and post a guard at the door.” [33]


“For better or for worse, most computer systems are not run that way today. Security is, in general a trade-off with convenience, and most people are not willing to forego the convenience of remote access via networks to their computers. Inevitably, they suffer from some loss of security.” [34]

It has been made abundantly clear by this point that no computer linked to a network can be completely secure. The balance we must maintain is, as Cheswick and Bellovin point out, between convenience and security. This is as true for the individual user as it is for a system administrator.

Since IP packets pass through a number of networks before arriving at their destination, it is possible that a user’s conversations (via e- mail, telnet, talk etc.) may be monitored, or tampered with, in transit. This is a serious breach of privacy, but as yet no institutional structure exists to trace or punish the eavesdropper/saboteur. Indeed in many cases a user may be unaware that her transmissions are being recorded or modified. One of the ways a user can increase the privacy of her transmissions and reduce their vulnerability, is by using encryption programs. Various public key encryption programs exist that allow a user to encrypt data with a ‘public key’ and transmit it over the Network, assured that even if it is intercepted it would be close to impossible to decode the data unless one had the ‘private key’ that corresponds to the ‘public key’. The severe restrictions placed on the distribution of such powerful encryption techniques by the US government has stunted their application in popular network utilities. The result of this policy is that unless the user makes a determined effort to encrypt her data it is by default transmitted in unencoded form. This situation is equivalent to posting a postcard as opposed to a letter enclosed in a sealed envelope because no envelopes are available in the market and one has to construct them by hand [35].

Encryption techniques are not currently widely used by general users. This means that more often than not the user who fails to encrypt data must accept the initial violation of her privacy and can only take precautions against further breaches. Unless encryption programs are incorporated into the most popular network applications it seems doubtful that users will make the effort to encrypt individual transmissions. The current situation also retards the growth of the commercial Network as financial data (Credit Card numbers, Bank account numbers etc.) cannot be transmitted over the network in a secure form [36]. In a case where a user’s privacy has been violated, the disciplining of the offender cannot be accomplished by the normal methods (ostracization, loss of status). It is true that people who invade other’s privacy are not respected (though they may be feared) on the Net, but such persons are generally not very concerned about their status among the wider community.


“When people seldom deal with one another, we find that they are somewhat disposed to cheat, because they can gain more by a smart trick than they can lose by the injury it does their character.” [37]

The Network is such that users tend to have an unique view of the personalities they converse with. The anonymity the Network provides can be counter-productive if it lets people deceive each other, or worse makes the prospect too enticing to resist. Not only does a Net address provide extremely limited information about it’s owner, addresses can be easily fabricated and misused. When to this is added the screen afforded by anonymous remailers [38], it becomes apparent that identity as understood on the Net is not the concept we are familiar with. This is not as alarming as it sounds. We can, after all make a few assumptions about any user, we know that the user is human [39] and their style of writing and the opinions they defend afford much more information about them. So one can know an user well without ever having met her In The Real World (ITRW).

Anonymity brings up other questions though. It is generally accepted that posts routed through anonymous remailers are not accorded the same of respect posts from a user’s own account are. To an extent this may be because anonymous users are perceived to be more aggressive and confrontational [40]. The argument that some anon users do abuse the cloak their anonymity provides them would be difficult to disprove. Yet it is also true that the Net as a whole is a community of distance, and people tend to be more visceral on networks than they would be in ‘the real world’. The Network does break down accepted codes of conduct while creating new ones. Thus though a person can be much more effusive on the Net than she would be in a traditional social setting, it is also easier to ignore completely users whose opinion one is not interested in. Since these properties are inherent in a Network that does not support video conferencing, it would be ingenuous to argue that anonymous remailers created such an environment, they only aggravate an pre- existing phenomenon.

Yet true anonymity is hard to come by, this was amply demonstrated by the Church of Scientology incident [41]. In this case, the owner of the site, Julf, was forced to divulge the identity of one of his users because he had posted material to Usenet that was copyright of the Church of Scientology. Admittedly this was done partly due to the fear that the Finnish police would confiscate the equipment. Yet it is apparent that even the administrators of anonymous re-mailers are willing to comply with the wishes of the Net community (of which they are an integral part), even to the extent of disallowing their users to post to a particular newsgroup. It must be acknowledged however, that the ability to comment without one’s identity being divulged is very important to a discussion. If only for this reason, we must tread carefully when constructing regulation that may affect the degree of anonymity afforded to the general user.


Security on local computer systems

System security poses questions that are very different from those we have already discussed. A network or computer when compromised can directly affect the work of an organization and thousands of users. Keeping this in mind unauthorized use of a computer system can only be regarded as theft and must be treated as such. Thus the system administrator is justified in transgressing certain boundaries to protect her system from attack.

“Within the bounds set by legal restrictions, we do not regard it as wrong to monitor our own machine. It is after all, ours; we have the right to control how it is used, and by whom. (More precisely, it is a company-owned machine, but we have been given the right and the responsibility to ensure that it is used in accordance with company guidelines.) Most other sites on the Internet feel the same way. We are not impressed by the argument that idle machine cycles are being wasted [42]. They are our cycles: we will do with them as we wish.” [43]

The position Cheswick and Bellovin take must be the starting point for any discussion on Network security. Since an organization owns it’s computational resources, it must have the last word on the appropriate use of such resources. The ‘cracker’ who breaks into a system without the permission of its owner, is then infringing and violating the organization’s property rights. In the interests of liberty without aggression, we cannot defend the actions of the cracker.

After establishing the injustice of the actions of the cracker we must examine the means available to discipline such a malefactor. As with all criminals, it is by definition a difficult task to catch a cracker on the Net. This difficulty is further compounded by the nature of the Network and it’s propensity to support anonymity. If a system has been subjected to successful attacks, often the only thing a system administrator can do is attempt to patch the holes in her system’s security. Apprehending the cracker is a tricky business and one is never assured of success. Even if the cracker is identified (by the site the attacks originate form) it is difficult to verify whether or not the attacking site is itself a front that has been compromised. In the event that the cracker is tracked down to his home site, the security administrator can attempt to contact the remote site’s system administrator but there is no assurance that action will be taken against the cracker [44]. The situation can be thought of as being analogous to that between independent states (that may even have different laws) without extradition treaties. The multiplicity of hosts and the global nature of computer networks implies that users are subject to vastly different laws and regulations [45], and in some cases (due to the tendency of the Network to metamorphose rapidly) none at all.. As such, the victim of an attack can only trust that the system administrator at the other end will take the appropriate action against the cracker. Arrangements –when they exist at all– between system administrators, are generally informal and operate on assumptions of reciprocity. This should not come as a surprise. No host [46] on the Network can exist independently. A system administrator who refuses to cooperate with those who have been affected by the actions of her users can expect to have her access to many services revoked. Sites that are notorious for cracker activity are generally barred from services at many other sites (that are aware of the nature of the activities at cracker sites and their disrespect for the rights of others). Since this inconveniences other (innocent) users, the system administrator at a cracker site would probably be pressured by her own users as well. Thus in the absence of an institutional framework, there exists a method to punish the offender and prompt local authorities to consider the matter seriously. This mechanism does not of course, aggress upon the offender, it works much like ostracism and in this respect gives every individual in the (global) Net community the opportunity to take actions she deems to be appropriate. There is no aggression on the part of the victims, and attempts are made to resolve disputes outside of the ‘tit for tat’ mindset [47]. In an environment where all transactions are voluntary, outlaws are punished by being denied services available to others.

An issue related to that of privacy and security is the concern about the reliability of information on the Net. This is where the stark contrasts between the Net and broadcast media are most glaring. The network confers on each and every user the ability to disseminate information and her views to an exceptionally wide audience at a very low cost. The Net has turned all of its users into publishers capable of making their work available to the entire Network community. This then brings up the question of who id to be responsible for dangerously incorrect information or even viruses and other malignant computer programs. Traditional laws cannot safely be applied to this environment as on-line publications and writing are generally not subjected to the sort of scrutiny traditional broadcast media are. In a sense the ease with which information can be distributed and corrected, reduces the cost of dissemination and correction thereby lulling the provider into complacency. This may not be very significant on a Usenet newsgroup where knowledgeable persons are eager to correct the mistakes of others, but can pose a problem on the World Wide Web where one is unsure of the extent to which the erroneous data has traveled and where there is no continuing discourse on the topic [48]. A correction or revision of information or a program may reach the user too late. In cases where a publicly distributed computer program may be used as a “Trojan horse”, actual damage can be done by the provider (knowingly or innocently). As it is, the user is expected to treat every transmission with caution and a healthy skepticism, much as one would in the real world. Yet a degree of gradation has evolved so that information from certain sites is deemed trustworthy and software from reputable institutions is understood to be safe. Since the Net unleashes the power to inform, information regarding changes in an institution’s stance towards quality also travels very quickly.

It can be seen then, that the network is not a place for anyone to be sinecure. The responsibility to place sufficient guards on her own property rests with the individual user or organization. Even in the event of a security breach, the user or system administrator must often rely on her own good-will and capabilities in tracking down the cracker. This is the situation today. It may change in the future as computer networks are subjected to laws similar to those protecting one’s privacy on telephone and postal services. We must however, when implementing these laws acknowledge that an internal system to deal with crackers and irresponsible users already exists, and as far as possible enact only those laws that compliment this order rather than attempt to replace it.

A related, though perhaps less exciting, problem is that of plagiarism and acknowledgment on Networks [49]. It is conceivable that ideas and information may be plagiarized without the author’s consent. The global nature of the Network certainly makes such a thing easier than ever to accomplish and extremely difficult to control. We can treat such incidents as plagiarism and the Net community, by applying the system of morals and ethics that has developed within traditional publications, does take such incidence seriously. There is now a growing awareness of the distinction between e-mail, mailing lists and Usenet newsgroups as far as the privacy they afford is concerned. An E-mail message is generally considered confidential and though it is possible to involve users without the consent of all parties engaged in the correspondence (with blind cc for instance), this practice is considered impolite. A similar convention applies to mailing lists (especially moderated and restricted lists) which are by their nature considered closed discussions among users who trust one another. It is considered good netiquette to inform the participants of a mailing list before bringing non-subscribers into the discussion. A very different perception is held of Usenet. Usenet newsgroups are freely accessible and as such are public discussions. Newsgroup contributions are considered to lie in the public domain as they are posted on a global bulletin board by their author [50]. An exception may be made when a particular thread involves the administration of a particular newsgroup. In such a case to cross- post the thread to other newsgroups may change the structure of the forum and skew the discussion. There exist however, social conventions that deal with these issues and it may not be necessary to regulate or adjudicate such discussions. In most cases the issue is resolved by the participants themselves, without the necessity of an outside arbiter.


Public Access and Pricing schemes

To date the Internet has been subsidized in some way by the federal government. The nature of the Network has changed so much though, that it is no longer possible for the federal government to continue this support. The increasing popularity and commercialization of the Internet will ensure that the cost of networking will continue to fall, and that its growth will not be stunted after the withdrawal of the federal subsidy. The Internet has finally come of age. The question that now remains to be addressed is how access to the new commercial [51] Internet will be distributed and the pricing structure that will be implemented.

Currently access to the network is provided by the large service providers to an organization, at a flat fee for a line with a fixed maximum carrying capacity. A university would thus pay a fixed amount for a bandwidth of 1.5 Megabits per second regardless of whether or not it used the entire bandwidth at all times. This process certainly minimizes the need for monitoring traffic and accounting that a usage based price structure would necessitate. On the other hand it is inefficient since it does not allow for any flexibility for the user. One possible pricing system that may emerge on the Internet in the years to come is a mechanism that allows the user to bid for a level of priority that will be assigned to the transmission [52]. In such a model (much like the postal service’s classification of classes), the user bidding the highest would have their messages sent quickest if the network cannot handle all incoming traffic at any time. Due to its complexity and the heavy computations involved, this system may prove to be prohibitively expensive or unworkable. What might develop, in my opinion, is a usage based pricing mechanism at the point where the service provider receives incoming traffic from its customers. This structure would price-discriminate between peak-time usage and data transmitted during hours of low utilization (similar to the telephone system). The organization would then decide on whether or not to use a similar structure within its internal network. This seems like a reasonable pricing structure as it would reflect the actual (opportunity) cost of communication, without requiring the additional computing resources required to maintain and run auction tallying algorithms

What is certain however, is that not all users will have similar access to the Network, in fact some of us may not have access at all. This may be regarded as a gross inequality in a heavily networked world, or it could mean something else. We must establish that different people will have different levels of access to the network, if only because some of us will desire more and be willing to spend more time on the Net. It would be counter-productive to subsidize access to the network in any way except perhaps for very specific purposes [53].



We have seen Computer Networks develop and evolve for over 30 years. All these advancements have been made in a decentralized environment without an over-arching plan to consolidate and organize these efforts. Progress has been made because people have been free to experiment and try out different solutions to problems that confront them, from this experimentation have developed utilities and programs that respond best to the desires of their users; often more than one solution exists alongside another and we are free to choose among them. In this process the Net communities have developed their own norms, standards and even informal laws. They have discovered ways to enforce these laws and maintain the degree to order they desire. The network has become a vast kaleidoscope, ever changing as more is added or taken away. It is, in a word, vibrant.

Regulation, even well-meaning regulation, that is developed by those inconversant with this new culture, may well retard or even destroy the Net. Even now, this technology is chaffing against laws imposed on it form the outside; laws that do not acknowledge its environment or particular nature, that are unenforceable or if enforced would change it beyond recognition [a href=”#54″>54]. If even more laws — which do not evolve from within the Net community and fail to blend in with its pre-existing norms– are formalized without the consent of those they will affect, the conflict that shall arise may well have consequences no one desires.

Laws imposed on an unwilling community incite rebellion. And rebellion has always been the response of societies that have been colonized. This is a sentiment that is not uncommon on the Net, and even more reason for regulators to tread carefully.




1 Hiltz, Starr Roxanne; “The Network Nation”, 1978

2 Rheingold, Howard “A slice of life in my Virtual Community” in Global Networks: Computers and International Communication edited by Linda M. Harasim. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, c1993. As quoted in EFF submits Amicus brief


3 For information on regulation that attempts to treat the Network in terms of broadacst media, see in EFF Action Alerts EFF submits Amicus brief, Robert Allan Thomas and Carleen Thomas v. United States of America 4Steele, David Ramsay, 1992 (pg. )

5 One notable exeption is the predominantly academic network BITNET, BITNET sites can communicate with sites on the Internet but transalators are still required to convert messages from one protocol to another. One factor in the resiliance of BITNET is the existence of a large number of seriously academic mailing lists which only exist on BINET (most are mirrored as newsgroups on Usenet, but since they are closed moderated mailing lists general users cannot easily participate in the discussions).

6 Smith, Adam; pg. 423

7 Bates, Regis J; 1992

8 The popularity of client-server technology demonstrates the efficiency of sharing programs and data among computers on a local network by storing them at a central location. This technology which has revolutionized Local Area Computing is fundamental to the WANs as well.

9 A note on this is the incident involving two Californian lawyers who advertised their services during the Green Card “lottery” in all Usenet newsgroups, even those entirely unrelated to the issue. The lawyers were reprimanded by a number of users and their accounts were taken away by their system administrator. As is often the case this involved collective action by a large number of people concerned about the appwopriate use of Network resources.

10 I am grateful to Dr. Edward Friedman for the conversation we have had on this topic.

11 The Chronicle of Higher Education, “onLine” (pg. A19), November 9, 1994

12 Mill, John Stuart; “On Liberty” (pg. 486)

13 The vehemence with which pyramid schemes are greeted on the network attests to this.

14 For more information see: EFF’s statement on S314

15 An analogy in the broadcast media would be cable television. Subscribers can decide whether or not they wish to receive pornographic channels and can easily block those channels at specific times by means of an access code.

16M Such as the New York Times which publishes an eight page synopsis of its daily paper.

17 Nando Times for instance.

18 Uniform resource Locator (URL) is

19 URL is

20 This point was brought to my notice by Prof. Hal R. Varian at a lecture entitled “Pricing the Internet”, delivered on October 28, 1994 at New York University.

21 The popularity of Usenet (and its small size) ensures that most requests are satisfied by the local news-server thus utilizing only the local network. Services that require large data storage capacity are generally inhibit local sites from mirroring them, thus the data transmission passes through a number of networks before reaching the user. In the case of countries other than the U.S., where the major cost of networking is that of the high speed line linking the nation-wide network with American sites, most popular distant sites are mirrored locally to prevent multiple transmissions of the same data over the high-speed international link. Here the cost of storing the information has to be balanced with the actual cost of multiple transmissions.

22 This is actually true of the commercial providers, with the result that they provide a number of services non-usage based networks such as the Internet cannot.

23 Commercial providers (NetscapeTime magazine) ensure that users agree to conditions that often reserve for the provider the right to withdraw the gratuitous service at any time.

24 Jesse Lemisch, “Point of view” in the Chronicle of higher education, January 20, 1995, pg. A56. Thomas J. DeLaughry, “Gatekeeping on the Internet” in the Chronicle of higher education, November 23, 1994, pg. A21.

25 Rheingold, Howard; 1993

26 David L. Wilson, “Vigilantes gain quiet approval on Networks” in the Chronicle of higher education, January 13, 1995. Also Rheingold, Howard, “The virtual community”, pg. 32-37. For the narration of the incident involving Blair Newman, who erased all of his own contributions to discussion on the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) before commiting suicide.

27 This is not the case if the user has manually posted the article to each newsgroup individually, this is an extremely tedious process though.

28 Such an action could however be interpreted as an act of limited censorship on the part of the news administrator.

29The same must apply to a user’s own contributions to a discussion group.

30 A famous Usenet precedent for such a migration exists. The archives of an explicitly pornographic newsgroup were moved over- night to a site outside the US when it was discovered that they were subject to local anti-pronography laws. The ease with which data can be transported over vast distances ensures that a single organization hosting a particular service cannot attempt to dictate the actions of the users. This applies as much to a particular country as it does to any university.

31 There can be more than one operator on a channel and any channel op can give another user operator privileges, or take them away. As is to be expected “op wars” are not uncommon and they serve as a source of entertainment and channel folk-lore.

32 Since users on IRC are present during discussions in real time, any comment posted publicly by a participant is visible to all. IRC does not permit the degree of individual filtering that Usenet does and so the utilities have evolved a little differently here.

33 Gramp, F. T. and Morris, R. H. “Unix operating system security” in AT&T Bell Laboratories Technical journal, 63 (8, Part 2): 1649-1672, October 1984. As quoted in Cheswick and Bellowvin, pg. xi

34 Cheswick, William R. and Bellovin, Steven M. “Firewalls and Internet security”, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company (http//

35 For a report on the history of RSA and public key encryption see Kolata, Gina: “Hitting the high spots of computer theory”, New York Tines, December 13, 1994, pg. C1. For a discussion of the consequences of limiting the utilization of encryption techniques on the Net, see “EFF anounces steps to defend PGP author Phil Zimmermann” in “EFF Action Alerts” and “Phil Zimmermann: Overviews of the case36 Another solution would be to resort to direct connections (similar to telephone links) when transmitting data of a sensetive nature. This however means we would be unable to utilize the significant efficiencies that paket-switching networks have over directly links. The latter tend to be both slower and more expensive than the former.

37 Smith, Adam, “Lectures on Justice, Police and Arms”, ed. Edwin Cannon, pg. 254. Kelley and Millman Inc., NY, 1956

38 To get more information on a popular anonymous server (and an anonymous ID), send mail to

39 Incidentally there is a contest held every year for persons doing research in artificial intelligence, to create an identity for a computer that can converse with humans in real-time.

40 In formulating this section I am indebted to the discourse that resulted on soc.culture.indian and soc.culture.punjab during March and April 1995 under the thread “Anon Postings” etc.

41 EFF opposes Church of Scientology Usenet Censorship.

42 See also in this regard: Steele, Ramsay 1992, pg. 293-310 “unused capacity as a symprom of Restricted Production”, “Wasteful activities in the market”. In this case it is highly likely that the benefit derived from the efficiency of using a machine at full capacity will be overshadowed by concerns about security. A distributed computing system would be a possible solution for people interested in selling computing time on their own machines.

43 Checwick and Bellovin, pg. 16

44 Most system administrators are, however, leery of harboring crackers and take malevolant users very seriously. This is only a measure of self-defense, since the system administrator is concerned about her own system’s security as well. This may however take time to sink in. See the case of the Dutch authorities who ‘discovered’ laws to apprehend crackers only when Dutch systems had been broken into. Cheswick and Bellovin; pg. 178

45 For an account of the interesting case where a local law in Memphis was sought to be applied to the entire Internet, see “EFF submits Amicus brief” at EFF Action Alert.

46 Host in this sense is a computer providing services to others (server).

47 Foucault, Michel; 1979

48 “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and the fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” U.S. Supreme court justice Louis Bradeis, 1927

49 This section draws heavily on Deborah G. Johnson, “The Public-Private States of Transaction in Computer Networks” in Gould, Carole ed. 1989

50 For an interesting spin on this idea, and the consequences of posting copyrighted material on the Net, see EFF opposes Church of Scientology Usenet Censorship.

51 The number of Internet hosts in the .com (commercial) domain recently became larger than those in the .edu (education) domain. Projected hosts in 1999, 100 million

52 Lecture delivered by Prof. Hal R. Varian at NYU.

53 Interestingly, there are a number of community networks where neighbours have come together and voluntarily agreed to share the costs of computing.

54 Sterling, Bruce; 1992


(c) Subir Grewal, 1995



Donne’s: A Valediction Forbidding Mourning

As often in Donne’s poems, the chasm between those within the web of love and those without is apparent in “A valediction: Forbidding mourning“.  Why would one wish to forbid that which comes most naturally at the instant of separation?  The act of mourning is not solely directed towards the outside, it consoles the self, by following what has been proscribed we attempt to bring back to our lives a semblance of the order that existed before the loss.  To mourn is to withdraw from the world, and the inventory one takes of what has remained after the shock of amputation is not unlike the withdrawal of the snail into its shell when confronted with a sudden movement, a displacement.  Yet Donne is hardly given to valourizing what comes naturally.  It is difficult to speak of a word that Donne may not have used for this poem. “Mourn” does not occur in the poem itself, and the title may not be Donne’s.

To speak of the division between the lovers and those removed is easier. The fact that I use the word division is perhaps potent.  Donne is apparently speaking of a separation of bodies, an insertion of space between the lovers.  This geographical distance must be expressed with geo-navigational metaphors, so Donne speaks of the compass and the spheres.  The poem then becomes a map for true lovers to set down the “correct” mode of parting as it were.  Does Donne’s poem become a navigational aid?

It must fail if it presumes to become the manual for the moment of departure, not only because it may not be possible to adapt it to the last touch before the lover boards the airplane, but due to its reliance on the language of faith.  If we are to absorb the truth of faith, “prophanation” and “layetie”, we must be convinced of the uniqueness of one’s relationship with the divine.  Faith when adapted for mass consumption must necessarily be reduced to religion.  This argument rebounds upon itself when we realize that Donne is prescribing exactly this.  In a world that values the vulgar display of emotion, that has and always will require the black vestment of the mourner, Donne suggests, demands almost that we restrict ourselves to quiet understatement.  This is an extension after all, of the the secret language of the lover that none other can understand.  Donne is creating once again a boundary beyond which to restrict those outside, confound them as it were by producing the antithesis of what is expected.  If we are to believe this then the poem fails on another level, in attempting to escape the censure of the world’s infinite eyes, the lover Donne must resort to a mode of thought that is intrinsically linked to what occurs “outside”.  This in itself is a forced acknowledgement of the existence of the universe.  The lover has failed to escape into a shell, a room which will not allow the world to enter, precisely because the desire to escape acknowledges the existence of the world.

This opposition, this diametric dialectic, is apparent in the poem itself.  Donne speaks of “teare-floods” and “sigh-tempests”, the absurdity becomes at once clearer and immaterial.  Yet this lack of materialism is a thread that runs through Donne’s work, the escape from the body, the “care lesse” caress-less existence that stares at us in the eye is mocked by the claim that the lover transcends the material, even the real; the claim that the lover acquires the ability to create his/her own reality.  The claim that such a possibility exists in itself undermines everything, it involves a sea-change in our perception of what lies beyond the consciousness.  At once we are given to understand what lies beyond our comprehension and then have it taken away from us. We know of the relevance of every motion of the earth, and that “men reckon what it did and meant”.  We can also remark on the far greater effects of any “trepidation of the spheares”.  Yet they are not innocent, the astrologers remain employed auguring the relevance of every shooting star.  Yet the argument, and the poem is a debate, is centered around the perspective and we have no answer to the Donnian “view”.

Perception is central to the poem, the perception of the outsider, its irrelevance, and the centrality of the common point of reference that the lovers share.  The oneness that is underlined by the image of the lovers melting noiselessly into one another, mingling, absorbing without a clue dispelled to the outside.  Every sensation is jealously guarded, nothing is allowed to escape, not even the effect their union has on the air around them.  The object of every action is the other, the world ceases to exist.  The lovers exist for each other, and refuse to breathe, to speak for any other.  This is the “dependance” Barthes speaks of, the irresistible urge to elevate all action to the status that is gained by that which is directed towards the other.

This thirst for a center, a focus, forces one to strive for the purity that is “so much refin’d,/That our selves know not what it is”.   Yet this purity reduces the love to one dimension, it destroys the kaleidoscope that is integral to the loss of control.  When one accepts the lover, it necessitates a departure from the centrality of the self, and requires a frenzied intake of breath that is forms the essence of the lover.  At this point the lover is the outside, the momentous moment of drinking in the other is also an intake of the alien.  The self is less “refined”, one becomes multi-faceted.  By reflecting the bright light of the unapproachable enigma that is the sun, “I” is guilty of tainting myself.

“We” are conscious of all contradiction, all duplicity and mock it with one stroke.  “If they be two, they are two so/As stiffe twin compasses are two.”  And before the reader has a chance to question, Donne questions all himself, he says “And though it in the centre sit”.  The very relevance, the sanctity of the metaphor that is the center is in question, for the centrality is compromised, the center leans over, transgresses its bounds.  Love becomes less than perfect, it is capable of elasticity.  Yet in this never-ending circle of point and counter-point, the center in leaning strengthens the love since it is sacrificing its place on the stage to yearn for the lover.  And what they describe on the outside, for to absorb the relevance we must remain on the outside, is the perfect circle.

This “makes me end, where I begunne”, and the poet waits for the song to begin again so he can indulge in his lament.  Without descending into the Fruedian/Oedipal realm we can only remark that in leaving us this text evokes the eventual return.  The rejoining that shall absolve all.

John Donne’s Nocturnal

A linear reading of Donne’s “Nocturnal”


‘Tis the year’s midnight and it is the day’s,’.  The very first line of this poem hints at the constant shift in perspective that marks this poem.  By drawing a parallel between the midnight of one day and that of the entire year, Donne has put in place a relationship between the small and the large.  From one perspective the midnight is just another midnight and yet from another it is the longest, darkest night of the year, saturated with significance.  Donne’s fascination for astronomy and his adeptness with astronomical metaphors become a starting point for this poem and an apt beginning since the poem concerns itself with perspective, interpretation and significance. Donne’s metaphors are never common, and in “A Nocturnal upon Saint Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day”, the primary opposition of darkness and light, night and day, should appear hackneyed to us.  But working with these oft-used metaphors the poem places them in a novel context, and it is the unique end to which they are used that separates their use here from any other.  In distinguishing between the night of the day and the night of the year, Donne alludes to the darkness before creation, an allusion we will return to later in the poem.  Without specifically saying so, Donne puts in place a comparison between the Sun, the Earth (as it revolves around the Sun) and Lucy.  From this relativization we move into a description of the sun’s condition and here we see not the proud ruler of the sky but a tired sun spreading unequal rays. The sun is “spent”, a sexual and emotional fatigue that we shall see Donne apply to himself as well.  At this point, the sun is uneven, showering more light on some than on others, perhaps least on Donne. Yet Donne would, or should, be the last person to cry out against being left in the dark, he has complained too many times against the intrusions of the rising sun.  Now it seems as if the darkness Donne finds himself in is the vengeance of a jealous lover spurned, and if we carry this thought to its conclusion, it is the vengeance of a jealous God wreaked on one who has loved a mortal too fervently.  In this reading, the sun itself conspires against Donne, leaving him without a center around which to r-evolve once his world (his love) has been shattered. Donne returns however, to triumph in this lack of a fixed object, a blindness as it were, to create for himself a firm ground upon which to stand.  Donne, world-less is left to drift in space, and he creates for himself a stability (a rock) from a devotion to Lucy.  By doing this, Donne out-trumps the sun once again, Lucy has not only been his world, she now takes the place of the sun, and Donne revolves around her, worshiping his beloved.

As soon as we have been given a taste of the rather subdued tone of this poem, we are propelled into a hyperbole of death and absence.  In the nocturnal’s world the life-blood has disappeared, soaked by an eternally thirsty terrestrial existence.  Life itself has shrunk into a corpse that is ‘dead and interred’, the earth taking from this dead thing all the water it contains, shrinking it.  The word ‘shrunk’ can be understood in two contexts, the physical shrinking of the manifestation of life (the body) –an interpretation that reverberates with the use of  the metaphor “absence” that follows later in the poem– and the temporal reduction of life into the moment of death, another thought that we will return to later in the poem.  Despite the seemingly unambiguous nature of these phrases we cannot but suspect that a life that has withered, and had the life- blood sucked out of it, retains another facet of existence, that it is transformed into an extremely condensed form of this aspect.  In this manner the love that is dead has been reduced to a dense mass of memory and Donne’s love can only express itself by purging all direction from his mind.  An interpretation that is borne out by the use of “bed’s-feet” which are after all what the bed rests upon.  Since the bed signifies many things in Donne’s work, most notably the place where the lovers repose in the physical world, its feet become the support for the entire love-relationship and to shrink down to the bed’s feet is to reduce oneself to the essential structural support. The metaphoric density of this poem is underlined by the relationship between support, the earth, elevation, the poem’s own feet and gravity (a concept unfamiliar to Donne except in the abstract), each of these terms can be applied to the phrase “bed’s- feet” to arrive at a novel interpretation.  What we are particularly interested in is the interpretation that leaves Donne directionless and where he searches for a nocturnal to guide him through the night. Embedded in this interpretation is the assumption that the core of a love-relationship is the sense of loss felt in the lover’s absence. The core, the epitome of death and thirst is the epitaph, a condensation of meaning to the pith.  This then, is what is left after death, the epitaph that celebrates existence and hungers for it. Fundamental to the poem’s sense of absence and its status in love is the confusion between the poem and the poet.  We do not know what “me” refers to in the last line of the first stanza.  It could equally be Donne, or this poem itself which increasingly appears to be an elegy to a dead love.  A love whose last remains are enshrined in the poet, who becomes a relic of the love-relationship, or canonized in the poem itself.  At the same time, the term epitaph hints at the status of the word as a symbol for an absent thing.  All language, it seems, is a compromise to overcome the absence of the object itself.


The confusion over ‘me’ continues in the second stanza and by the third line is so acute that we are not sure of the self-referential ‘I’ itself.  This uncertainty and lack of an understanding of the self is an integral part of the experience of death.  We can only conceive of ourselves as living beings and have no point of reference for an existence beyond death, the very fact that we call such an idea “life after death” underscores this proposition.  By placing himself (and the poem) beyond the event of death, Donne has created a barrier between the reader and the poet/poem.  The dead speak to us, and we must listen, if only because this event itself is so unique. Within the world of the poem the keen awareness our initial fascination leads to (absorbing us) is put to good effect as we face one fantastic proposition after another.

For his art did express

A quintessence even from nothingness,

From dull privations and lean emptiness.

He ruined me, and I am re-begot

Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

Even from a poet whose poems are truly fabulous, this would appear to be a little too much.  Yet this is not the only time Donne will ever use such a metaphor.  In this poem it is love who “wrought new alchemy”, in the 14th divine sonnet it will be God.  Or is it truly God even in the 14th sonnet?  And is it Donne or the poem that is being re-fashioned, wrought or re-begot here?  Is it the reader, the poet or God who brings about this re-begetting, a flowering of life. Neither of these questions have certain answers, and in Donne’s work they can be answered in different ways.  To tackle the question of the agent of rebirth, we must consider the possible candidates, a divine force, the reader or the poet.  If the poem is the object that arises from nothingness, the agent would have to be either the reader or the poet both of whom give life to a dead thing, the poet in writing the epitaph for a dead love and the reader for breathing life into the poem, an epitaph that requires a reader to interpret it.  The conventional reading would assign this role to either a divinity or love itself (perhaps even a God of Love, but Donne avoids classical allusions wherever possible).

In either case, the lyric impeccability of these lines does not permit us to pause for even a moment to reflect on their problematic but forces us onto the next word, with an inertia that drives us to the last word in the stanza, where we can finally stop to catch our breath. Donne is often dramatic and “A Nocturnal” lacks the overt dramatic settings of some of the other poems, most notably “The Flea”, yet its allusions to prior dramatic events (both canonical and apocryphal) stand proxy for this absence.  In particular, the allusion to a birth from nothingness, (a suggestion that carries biblical overtones) brought about by love, is an especially strong reference. Reading the lines “For I am every dead thing / In whom love wrought new alchemy” by themselves, it appears as if the poem itself is being wrought by love (and Donne refers to the poem as a “well wrought urn”, once again typified as a receptacle for the ashes and memories of the beloved) and the poet simply acts as an agent for his love to “express” itself in this love offering.  Now, the beloved becomes the divine and the very existence of the lover is an offering to the divine, an offering to reciprocate the great boon of life. Ironically, or perhaps convolutedly, the poet is an expression of the beloved/Love God’s art and seeks to create, with his own art, a poem to place before the beloved/Love God.

In overtly addressing the poem to the dead (since they have yet to experience the rebirth of love) who are alive (since they do not think of themselves as dead), Donne has perhaps overcome the problem of influence. Yet, his status relative to the reader still elevates him (as one who has experienced love) and the inconsistency deepens when we see him as a manifestation of the divine, or perhaps even a prophet of love, a suggestion that is corroborated by the emphatic “Study me, you who shall lovers be”. Donne then, is the son of Love reborn, but one who seeks to become a proxy for the father.

In the line “He ruined me, and I am rebegot” we find yet another parallel with the 14th divine sonnet, here Donne’s dream of being refashioned, broken, burnt and made new.  Donne must point out that he is fashioned from “things which are not”, or rather states we can only understand in terms of their absence.  The transformation of Donne, his refashioning, is so complete that he has no awareness of life before this rebirth, there is nothing for him before this love.  He can only understand his present state in terms of an absence of “all that’s good”.  The true poignancy of this poem is not in the absence of love, or the good, but an absolute incomprehension –and total loss– of an existence without them. Love has become life, and life without love has become death.  As the new-born child has no recollection of existence before its conception, Donne has no conception of a prior existence.  Just as a child is born of separate elements that exist in themselves, the lover Donne is born of independent entities, the beloved, love and himself.  When these three entities are torn apart (and do they constitute the three personed God of the 14th sonnet) what is left is nothing.  The interlude has changed everything.


The third stanza ropes in the outside world as Donne laments the lack of “good things” for himself.  The repetition of ‘all’ in the first line prepares us for the inevitable rejoinder, that Donne has nothing. What we see is an image of Donne as the grave that holds the distilled essence of nothingness.  What has been alluded to in the earlier stanzas takes its final form here as we see clearly the nothingness take shape.  With the occurrence of the word ‘limbeck’ in conjunction with ‘grave’, the conception of the grave as a container (or well wrought urn) for the essence of the dead is solidified.  We do not have to restrict this interpretation to the literal interment of a corpse; on the contrary this metaphor must be extended to include both the poem and the poet.  Donne and “A Nocturnal” are the last vestiges of a dead love, both contain the distilled remains of the relationship.

The compression of life to this love, and that of the world to the two lovers, continues as we are told of the floods of tears the lovers have shed which ‘drowned the whole world, us two’.  This is a concept Donne uses elsewhere, but never with such intensity. The line that follows tells of the consequences of expanding the lovers’ world to include ‘aught else’, the result is chaos.  Donne seems to suggest that the natural order of things demands that the lovers be preoccupied with each other, the moment they pay attention to anything else chaos ensues.  In this we can find a further intermingling of Donne’s thoughts on religion and love.  To turn away from the true love (God) leads to chaos.  Donne’s sharp, almost absolute claims concerning the nature of his love and its intensity would be irksome if it were not for the hesitant, halting tone of the third stanza.  In the short punctuated lines we hear the poem itself weeping and cannot but empathize with Donne in his quixotry. In the fourth stanza we encounter the idea of a concentrated nothingness once more, once again in the word ‘growth’ we see an inevitability, even a steady progression to this state.  To build from this an understanding of a ‘big bang and big crunch’ theory of the universe would be perhaps going a little too far, but we can use this instance to further explore the view of love advanced in this poem. Donne has woven into this poem the conception of love as the short lived life of a moth. It seems as if his life is a cocoon from which he breaks free for the short span of a day, to truly imbibe existence only to retreat at night into its (his life’s) inevitable death.  What are we to make of the suggestion that the second nothingness is more acute than the first.  Couched within the dense layers of metaphor is the germ of an idea, that the interlude has changed the poet/poem/reader, that despite the retreat into the original state of non-existence we can never go back to the original state we occupied. Juxtaposed with Donne’s claims that he is the essence of ‘things that are not’, we find him unable to place himself.  We hear his cry for purpose, an expression of desire for a reason, any reason to live, an end to work towards with ‘some means’.  He has none of this and with this declaration he occupies the position of the ancient mariner, tortured by the past, yet unable to do anything about it except perhaps retell the story.  The intensity of the prior love-relationship has sucked him dry, he can no longer ‘detest and love’, and in that he is not even a vegetable or a stone (the last almost blasphemous unless a reference to Donne’s Catholic upbringing and the status of the idol).  Donne’s sense of himself as nothing seems intrinsically linked to time.  He is not the shadow of something that exists in this moment, but rather the remains of what has existed in the past. Time is the culprit that has stolen from Donne what he most desired, and the desire itself.  If it is indeed time that is to blame for Donne’s annihilation, then his helplessness is even more acute, and the growth he refers to is steady in that it takes him further away from his existence as every moment passes.


In the last stanza, Donne reaffirms the uniqueness of his love and a conviction that it shall never occur again.  Despite the lack of open derision on his part, it seems as if a love that must rely on an external sun ‘to fetch new lust and give it’ to us is something less than the self-sufficient love that is Donne’s.  Donne’s generosity shames us as he blesses us and asks us to enjoy our summer, he must retreat to his personal chapel and maintain a vigil for his beloved. The line between religion and love is blurred here once again, perhaps with a finality that will bear no further expression. Donne declares this night, by calling it –giving it a name in the original nothing– her (E)eve.  There seems to be another gap here, as if Donne is relegating to himself the task of giving a name to these things, a task that can only recall Adam’s task in the garden of Eden. This action undermines Donne’s claim of everlasting nothingness, his declarations of purposelessness while he finds his purpose in worshiping his beloved.  “A Nocturnal” is beginning to look like a complex theory of the need for religion to give us a hook on which to hang our lives.  In this sense is the meaning of the term nocturnal realized, not only as a device to locate ourselves but as a form of prayer.  Continuing the theme that resonates throughout the poem, Donne returns to the original line in the poem, a statement of fact concerning the status of this midnight in both the day and the year, for him and the world, for this moment and his life.  Yet the last line is not exactly what the first was, the telling of the poem has changed Donne, the poem itself and the reader as well.  In its metaphoric density “A Nocturnal upon Saint Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day” is among Donne’s finest poems, in its blending of the impulse towards religious and secular love and devotion it is as insightful as any other poem will ever be.

Marvell: To his coy mistress

At first, there would appear to be little in common between a poem that attempts to persuade a mistress and one that commemorates an anniversary.  Indeed, there few sentiments that Donne’s The Anniversary and  Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress share. Yet these are love poems and there must be some common ground that unites them on some plane.  There is, of course, such a common point of reference and it lies in the attitudes towards time that we find expressed in these poems.


Marvell’s conception of time is ever changing in To His Coy Mistress, but this is only to be expected in a poem that seeks to convince by constructing an ideal and proceeding to demonstrate its utopian nature. In the world of would and should that we are immersed in before the pivotal “But” in the second stanza, Marvell presents an idyllic view of lovers engaged in a slow waltz that stretches on for centuries.  In this snail-paced ritual Marvell feels he can do justice to his mistress, who “deserve this state”.  Things become a little more complex in the next line, “nor would I love at lower rate”.  This is where we begin o question what has up till now progressed so smoothly, as all good fantasies must if they are to be successful.  We begin to question this world of Marvell’s creation and see the enigma that lies within the term “lower rate”.  We have been hearing of an agonizingly slow mating ritual, Marvell has been patiently dancing around his mistress, praising her every aspect with a devotion that approaches what one would offer to the divine. How, we ask, can he slow down to a “lower rate”?

This is not the only striking aspect of the first stanza.  We know that Marvell is speaking of a state we are unfamiliar with and in its unfamiliarity lies the force of his argument.  The unfamiliar weaves in and out of our notion of the familiar as we seek to understand Marvell’s position.  We know, on one cognitive level, that in this state an eon is insignificant, yet we lay on it the import we would ascribe to an eon in the human sense.  For the beings Marvell speaks of, ages pass by as minutes; indeed we acknowledge that they must, or else why would one devote “An hundred years” to “praise thine eyes”.  Though Marvell suggests that centuries could be spent admiring every aspect of his mistress, we cannot imagine such prolonged ritual unless centuries mean less than what they do to us, as indeed they must to beings who live for millenia. It is necessary, if one is to be convinced by this argument, to occupy two positions simultaneously.  The first is the acceptance of Marvell’s illusion, of a state where one can spend eons in a single activity, and yet it is essential to evaluate this period of time in human terms.  If we waver too much in either direction, Marvell’s persuasion would fail.

It is a testament to Marvell’s skill that even when he breaks the spell, we continue to live in his illusionary time.  We have been maintaining a delicate balance between two realities, two conceptions of time. Marvell makes us walk a tight-rope between them and we comply.  The fascinating thing is that even when he finds it necessary to destroy the illusion he has created, bring us back to the ground as it were, he does it in such a way that we do not sense it.  Marvell lifts us gently from our precarious position on the tightrope we have been pacing on, the bridge between realities and gently places us on the ground.  In this manner the beginning of his lament at the fleeting nature of time does not jar us as it wakes us from our reverie in the land of the eternal.

We find Marvell now occupying the role of a pragmatist.  He has become one who is aware of his mortality and of the advance of time.  Time now becomes an enemy to be feared, an enemy who is closing down on us, and the eternity that had earlier facilitated the requisite offering to his mistress now becomes a vast desert.  It is ironic that to understand ‘deserts of vast eternity” we call upon that very conception of the monotonous which we have failed to apply where it would be most apt.  It would seem that a lover, any lover, would tire of spending “two hundred” years “to adore each breast”.  The same would be expected of a woman subjected to such unending praise, a love-song that keeps repeating itself will soon wear out both singer and listener.  Yet we do not stop to reflect on this alternate view while reading the first stanza. Rather, we are not permitted to reflect on this aspect since the poem keeps ushering us along, presenting one image after another in mind-numbing succession.  Though Marvell is ostensibly describing something that is drawn out in time, for the reader it proceeds at a pace that does not allow for reflection.  As one fantastic claim follows another, we cannot stop to think where they are leading to.  We are trapped in Marvell’s reality like Alice is trapped in Lewis Carroll’s.  When released from this fantastic world, it is only to enter a second where the doubts we should have had in the first  stanza’s reality are utilized to build another perspective.  This release is only a temporary respite before we enter another mental cage, at once invisible and confining, of Marvell’s making.

This might explain part of the effectiveness of To His Coy Mistress as a persuasive tract.  If Marvell is so adept at guiding us through his train of thought, it is only to be expected that we are convinced of his argument.  This is not because we feel his thoughts are in reality ours, that we have prophecized each shift and statement, but because wee are grateful to Marvell for having shared them.  In traveling along with Marvell on his rhetorical journey, we develop an affinity for him and his concerns.  We become Marvell’s sympathizers.

Donne’s The Anniversary appears to proceed in a direction almost exactly opposite to the progression we have traced in To His Coy Mistress. Ostensibly this is a poem that first suggests the ephemeral nature of all things that “to their destruction draw” and then counters it with a resounding proclamation attesting to the immortality of the poet’s love. This can, of course, be easily explained away by calling on the purpose of the poem, the need to reaffirm love.  If Donne is looking forward, at the first anniversary, to many years of union, it would seem natural to call upon us to imagine an endless love since this would be an articulation of his own hopes.

Yet as we might expect, Donne can only express a sense of eternity by contrasting it with what is fleeting.  Thus, we hear of a love that “hath no decay” only after we realize that “All other things, to their destruction draw”.  In the movement from an impression of the ephemeral nature of all things to a claim of immortality lies the clue we need to understand a love that is always fresh.  This method of setting up a dichotomy is employed once again in the second stanza where a contrast is drawn between the mortal body that must decay, and the immortal soul that shall continue to love.

Yet we must look at the first stanza with some reserve, since it does appear a little convoluted.  Donne suggests that all  things have aged by a year.  He is marking time by the passing of the sun and that of every other thing.  It seems clear that time progresses only with change, and part of change is death.  Witness, however, Donne’s claim that his love does not change, is everlasting.  This is not the everlasting day of the North and South poles, but a day where the sun does not wax and wane at all.  It is interesting that Marvell finds it necessary to make his sun run since he cannot hold him still “Thus, though we cannot make our sun / stand still, yet we will make him run”, while Donne sees his sun passing him by and acknowledges this motion as inevitable and also essential.  What Donne is writing of is a time that is alien to us, as alien as Marvell’s ages.  We cannot comprehend time unless it is marked by change and yet Donne places his love outside the progression of time.  In his words, “This no to morrow hath, nor yesterday”.  Here we see something trapped in time, in one latent state.  Change, we now is life and suddenly this state of motionlessness appears to be non-existence, either death or limbo.  Now, the statement “our love hath no decay” begins to appear sinister. we see that this is a love that does not grow like Marvell’s “vegetable love”.  Like a Faustian exchange, to acquire immortality –a release from the steady march of time– we are forced to give up all life, our existence for our love.

We are well aware that this state of non-change, non-life is not brought about by our having achieved the highest love.  In fact, Donne is quite clear hat the pinnacle of love is achieved by two souls that have been purified and condensed so that “nothing dwells but love”.  Death has become a release from the monotony of an endless love that will not let us escape, or for that matter, progress form its “first, last, everlasting day”.  Death becomes welcome now, not only because it marks a transcendence to a higher, purer love, but also since it is the only way out of this trap that once sprung will not release us.  Time, in this context, is no longer a healer because “running it never runs from us away”. We are unable to distance ourselves by letting time carry us along with its flow. With this perpetual youth we have lost the marks and pleasure of age.

Ironically, though so much of the poem pretends to deny that his love ages, Donne’s very purpose is to commemorate his first anniversary.  In this celebration –and the acknowledgment of having reached a watershed imposed by the steady motion of time– Donne’s proposition is undermined.

Death and worlds

In Marvell we find, once again, a purposeful rendering of death and the contrast between that which is alive and that which has lost the spark of life.  Marvell chooses to concentrate on the corporal aspect of death, the sense of decay and the decimation of the body.  This emphasis serves him well as he has primarily been concerned with the visible beauty of his mistress.  Yet in Marvell’s veering away from the subject of the soul (the dominant theme in The Anniversary) there appears to be tacit acknowledgment of the difference between the body and the soul. Marvell is aware that he cannot argue with similar force if he chooses to notice the “higher faculties” in his poem.

It is to advance his argument that Marvell evaluates what are essentially abstract concepts in material terms.  This is how virginity is reduced to the literal maidenhead, which serves to point out this cherished tissue’s transitory nature.  Similarly, the grave must be spoken of in terms of embraces to contrast it with the warmth of a love shared when one is alive.  All of which suggests that Marvell is adopting a rather skeptical view towards death here.  It seems as if he has annulled the possibility of a life beyond the grave and proceeds in rather blunt, realist terms.  His desire to “sport while we may” belies a view that there is not much after death and if there is, it is not worth waiting for.   Which should lead us to enquire into what he finds positive about life.  The answers are contained in the third stanza, within the lines:

Now, therefore, while the youthful glue

Sits on thy skin like morning dew,

And while thy willing sould transpires

At every pore with instant fires

Life, is for Marvell the sheer pleasure of burning oneself, and of igniting a flame in another. This claim that youth is ecstatic motion, a movement that reshapes the world, that affects it as only those who truly live can.  This urge to toy with the world, to literally compress it into a ball and play with it is sheer exhilaration.  In Marvell’s exhortation to

Roll all our strength, and all

Our sweetness, up into one ball:

And tear our pleasures with rough strife,

Through the iron grates of life

We find the violent expression of a desire to snatch from this world all that is worthwhile.  In this frenzied desire to upstage life, trip old time himself, Marvell’s aims not only to distill its essence, but also to infuse force into the act of acquiring from time all that he can.  With what almost seems to be a sexual frenzy, Marvell wishes to tear his pleasures roughly.  This is not the warm love we are accustomed to seeing extolled, it is passion shimmering in all its fury.  It is this passion, this ravenous bird, that Marvell believes is the fundamental uniqueness of life.

From the semi-orgiastic frenzy of the third stanza in To His Coy Mistress, we move back to Donne and by comparison The Anniversary almost seems insipid.  The Anniversary here too compliments To His Coy Mistress as it fills in the voids in Marvell. Donne does not shy from making clear the distinction between “soules where nothing dwells but love” and “these eyes, and ears” which we “must leave at last in death”.  Though he associates the corporal body with much estimable sentiment, and even hypothesises the possibility of a continuing union if the lovers share a common grave, this theme of life after death facilitated by either proximity of some memento of the lover (that occurs so often in Donne’s poetry) seems hollow, devoid of flesh.  Yet, this stark bareness at the same time gives Donne’s poetry a force all its own.

This facet, the sense of a bond between lovers outliving them, is best complimented by his notion of the lovers comprising a world unto themselves.  Where Marvell yearns for “world enough” and can only find it in the exaggerated fantasy, Donne claims for the lover a kingdom equaling all others.  The two lovers “who Prince enough in one another be” escape the vicissitudes of life by withdrawing into themselves. This is not an ignominious retreat, Donne certainly ascribes to it a hermetic sense which imparts to it an aura of fulfillment.  Yet one suspects that this is a sentiment antithetical to those expressed in To His Coy Mistress.  While for Donne the union is valued since no one “is so soft as we”, Marvell exults in the thrill of the chase, the sense of having completed, even fought, to acquire every grain of pleasure.  Unto the very end Donne remains true to the theme of his poem, as Marvell is, and we see that what he values is the gentle continuum that comprises his pacifist love.  To achieve the understated, even subdues expression of what we can only call tenderness, Donne suggests we restrain ourselves, hold part of our responses back while engaging in the lovers game.

We can see that there is much that divides To His Coy Mistress  and The Anniversary.  For one, love is a contest and all efforts are made to ‘win’, for the other the essence is an almost ignoble desire simply survive.  One poem exhorts us to run the race of life flat out and the other would have us pace ourselves.  Despite these marked contrasts, in the choice of a common theme and the recognition –if not acceptance– of similar perceptions, we see a common ground.  In a sense, both of these poems are working within the same tradition and confines, their different thrusts can only enrich this tradition.