Some notes on the democratic Internet, the new culture of design,
premature dot-com business plans, and things that piss me off, plus
a bunch of follow-ups and URL's.


The new year is under way and the new economy is under water, so it's
time to kick-start some democratic cultural forms on the Internet.

(1) Ordinary people should be able to start radio stations.  The
technology exists, so it's a matter of instructions and interface.
Carolyn Kay  is collecting resources on the
subject.  Please send her anything you know, such as URL's for Web
sites, that would be helpful for ordinary people who want to start
their own radio stations on the Internet.  Examples would include
server software that normal people can use, microphones and other
equipment for getting good sound into your computer, Web sites that
aggregate normal people's radio stations, knowledgeable advice about
running a radio show, information about running particular formats
online such as call-ins and show archives, and press reports about
people who have done such things.  Carolyn has volunteered to impose
order on this material and make it available to everyone on the Web.
If useful materials exist in sufficient amounts then we'll be happy.
If not then I will send out another, more ambitious call that asks
people who have relevant knowledge to send messages explaining what
beginners need to know.

(2) Normal people nowadays often find themselves in civil liberties
controversies involving information and communications technologies.
For the most part they're on their own.  But in many cases we can help
them by putting documents online.  Therefore, we need a low-overhead
organization, really just a mailing list and a simple Web page, of
people who have scanning equipment and/or Web sites, and who might be
willing to scan or host some occasional documents.  This organization
would not be publicized.  Rather, groups like the ACLU would just
know about it, and they would pass people along.  What happens now is
that a normal person or a lawyer finds themselves in a civil liberties
controversy, so they call the ACLU or some other well-known group on
the phone.  Those groups are all overloaded, so mostly they try to
pass the cases along to people who can help.  For example, I end up
talking to a lot of people who are involved in transportation privacy
cases -- not that I'm an authority myself, but nobody's an authority
and at least I've written about them.  Oftentimes those people will
have interesting documents that would be worth publicizing -- press
clippings, legal briefs, police files, government reports, etc.  Even
if I can't solve their problem, I'd like to have someplace I can send
them to help get publicity.  Once their materials are on the Web, then
we can make the situation known to reporters, lawyers, people who face
similar situations, etc.  To get this low-overhead organization under
way, all we'd need is one volunteer to be the provisional organizer.
That person would set up a moderated mailing list and a simple Web
page, and we could then send out a message inviting people to join the
list.  All that would be needed in the long run would be a few people
willing to keep the list and Web site going.  It wouldn't be too hard.

(3) Voting Reform Watch.  If the US Supreme Court has invalidated the
voting laws of a majority of states, and if it has established equal
protection tests that are so strong that they are violated by nearly
every jurisdiction in the country, and if we really believe that the
Court meant what it said, then we are looking at a few years of very
intense voting reform.  But voting reform doesn't happen automatically
and it doesn't necessarily represent forward progress.  Many "reform"
bills, like the ones that Florida enacted after the voting fraud in
Miami in 1997, are designed to make matters worse, or at least have
that effect.  Therefore, concerned citizens need to pool their efforts
to watch voting reform efforts at every level throughout the country.
Is there any particular organization that credibly claims to be the
focal point for this watching?  It's probably not something that could
be coordinated on a volunteer basis; it's just too big and complicated.
But it's also not something that could be done solely by professional
staff.  What's needed is an Internet-sophisticated organization that
has sufficient credibility to motivate good citizens nationwide to go
out and watch, reporting back what they see.  Publicity could then be
generated when bad bills start moving in legislatures (or good ones),
and notes could be compared about the strengths and weaknesses of the
different approaches.  Experts could be brought into the discussion
to lend their own views to the citizen-watchers out on the front lines.


The "Republicans want to shut down public television" hoax is going
around the Internet again.  If I recall correctly, this thing began
life in 1995, in the Newt Gingrich era.  Like so many of these e-mail
viruses, it has apparently lain dormant in the Internet's nervous
system all this time, only to flare up again in the wake of the recent
election.  The new version is better-written and -formatted, but it is
still bogus.  Look for the email addresses at the University of North
Colorado -- those addresses do not exist.  And the petition that asks
you to add your name and pass the result to everyone you know is worse
than useless.  Don't pass around political action alerts unless they
are signed by a reputable organization.


When I sent out my annotated syllabus on "Information and Institutional
Change", it was full of editing errors and bad writing.  I just didn't
have time to fix it.  Now I have finally copyedited it.  So if you are
looking for good reading material related to the issues of this list,
you can find the syllabus here:

Let me know if you find any more mistakes.

I've also revised "How to help someone use a computer":

I hope you'll forward it to everyone who can use it.


Recommended: Sal Restivo, Wesley Shrum, and Keith Benson, STS and the
Unabomber: Personal essays, Science, Technology, and Society 26(1),
2001, pages 56-81.  In these short essays, at turns amusing and scary,
officers of two academic research societies, the Society for Social
Study of Science (4S) and the History of Science Society (HSS),
recount their personal involvement in the FBI investigation of the
Unabomber.  All three were approached because of letters from the
bomber that appeared to the FBI to have been written by a sociological
student of technology.  Each author had to deal with being a suspect
in a murder case, with his responsibilities as a scholar and research
society officer, and with the attitudes of his colleagues.  The
high point comes when the FBI agents register for the 4S conference
in New Orleans under assumed names and befriend everyone in sight;
the really shameful low point comes when Keith Benson's colleagues in
the Department of History at the University of Washington call him to
a meeting in which every last one of them yelled at him for supposedly
endangering their lives through his involvement with the case.


The need for a new culture.

The world is being swept by new materials, including computational
devices that can be embedded into anything.  These new materials are
full of knowledge; far more knowledge goes into the average hunk of
steel, glass, fabric, computer circuitry, display screen now than ten
years ago.  If you look around at a hundred sectors of industry, you
see people exploring a world of new design options.

What's missing from this picture is the most important kind of
knowledge: the knowledge of how to live.  We have an opportunity to
redesign our lives, and I want to argue for a new culture in which we
use this wave of new materials to reinvent the way we live.  We're at
a crossroads.  We can be good little consumers and buy all the shiny
commodities, or we can be active participants in shaping the culture.

This active design orientation has a precedent in the Internet world;
the Internet is designed so that end users can build on top of it,
and the Internet's development has repeatedly headed in unexpected
directions because of the ways that end users have taken hold of it.
We need to bring that orientation home and apply it to a much wider
range of technologies.

Knowing how to live has many facets: having a purpose, being useful,
evolving rituals instead of ruts, advancing professionally without
tearing oneself apart, keeping in touch, using TV and other drugs in
moderation, physical and mental health, balance, cultivating tastes,
eating the right things, standing for something, and advancing the art
of having a life.  But I want to consider a few aspects in particular.

Quiet.  Access to computers will soon be a solved problem, but access
to quiet is something else.  All sorts of machinery can be made more
quiet with new materials and computer-intensive methods of vibration
analysis.  This includes HVAC and compressors generally.  And noise-
cancellation devices will soon be cheap enough to scatter everywhere.
It's time to start auditing our homes, workplaces, and public spaces
for noise.  Some noises are good.  Others are bad.  We've gotten used
to too many unnecessary bad noises.

Indoor air quality.  We know that indoor air is choked with fumes
from carpets, paint, and plastics.  The problem isn't getting solved
because it's invisible, but we'll soon be able to get small devices
that automatically analyze the air.  Then we'll be in a position to
force the issue.

Adverse selection.  Homes today are designed to look good for the
half-hour you spend on the tour, instead of what they'll be like to
live in.  When everyone is online we can help people find other people
who live in similar houses from the same builder, and a lot of new
questions can come to the surface.  What would it be like to have a
service that enables people to communicate based on the stuff they
own on common, or are thinking of buying?  It's an easy problem on a
technical level and tough on a social level.  You have to deal with
privacy issues, spammers, and perverse incentives.  But maybe there's
a way.

Intellectual life.  In a world of terabyte databases and superabundant
bandwidth it'll be much easier to explore the art, music, and ideas of
the world.  We'll be able to discover what we really find interesting
and what we really care about.  And it'll be much easier to find other
people who care about the same thing.  Then will we we make time?

Boundaries.  As cell phones mature into always-on technologies
that keep us connected to everyone else, we'll have incredible power
to keep in touch.  But we'll also have to decide where to draw the
line.  E-mail addiction will move from the desktop to restaurants,
vacations, recreation, and the middle of the night.  We'll have to
set boundaries: at which points exactly during your kids' Saturday
soccer game are you letting them down if you're hooked to a device
and not to them?

The tidal wave of new materials can be used to amplify the negative
forces that are pushing the world out of balance.  And that is
the most likely outcome unless a new culture of living well takes
root.  We can drive ourselves into fragmented, hyper-competitive,
over-scheduled lives, or we can learn how to use the new technologies
positively to design healthy lives of involvement and balance.

This exploratory period of new technologies is important: technical
standards are a parliament of early adopters.  Companies produce
products, but only real people in their real homes can tell what's
useful, and only real people in their real lives can understand how
the pieces fit together.  People with a strong design orientation
lead the market and effectively make choices for everyone else.
That's why we need a movement of creative people designing good
lives for themselves, and why we need it now.


We're laughing at the "new economy" companies that are trading at 15
cents a share right now, and justly so.  But mixed in among the downer
cows, I suspect, are some legitimate ideas that are simply premature.
Here are a few reasons why that might happen:

Scale.  Most information technologies huge massive economies of scale.
They require substantial one-time investments, like writing software,
that must be paid off across many customers.  Economists often pretend
that prices are driven by the marginal cost of production, which in
the computer world are usually low, but in scale-intensive industries
prices tend to be driven by fixed costs.  And fixed costs tend to
be counterintuitive.  If a company with fixed costs of X can find
N customers who are willing to pay X/N, then they can at least break
even.  These could be 10 customers who are willing to pay X/10, or
1,000,000 who are willing to pay X/1,000,000 -- any N will do.  If
the product can be released in several versions that justify charging
different amounts to different customers then you can combine N1,
N2, and N3 to get the cash flow you need.  But in many cases those
N customers don't exist yet, for any N.  Either enough people aren't
online yet, or the product requires complements (such as personal
computers) that are themselves still too expensive.  As a result, lots
of good ideas have to wait until the market builds sufficient scale.
This idea takes some getting used to: one day your worthless business
plan will become valuable, but that day will not be announced by any
thunderclaps -- the market will simply and silently have grown big
enough.  Since most of these markets are natural monopolies, again
because of their high fixed costs, the game is to predict when scale
will be achieved.  Get started early enough to be positioned when it
comes, and late enough so you don't run out of cash while waiting for
it.  The bigger the prospective monopoly, the greater the incentive
to burn cash for the sake of the first-mover advantage.  That was the
theory behind a lot of the .com start-ups.  They got it wrong for the
most part, but their investors believed it long enough to put a bunch
of Ferraris on I-280.  Maybe next time they'll get it right.

Scope.  Once upon a time, giant media mergers were always justified
economically in terms of "synergy".  If you paid $50M for a media
company that only seemed to be worth $30M, you would claim that the
deal isn't just ego, and that the combined company would be valuable
enough to make up the difference.  These claims got discredited in
sufficient numbers that nobody utters the S-word anymore, but that
obscures the fact that a real economic principle was at stake.  This
principle is called economies of scope.  Whereas economies of scale
are efficiencies that can be gained by producing large numbers of the
same thing, economies of scope are efficiencies that can be gained by
using the same facilities to produce several different things at once.
Economies of scope were first discovered in the early 20th century
by the chemical industry and other businesses that could use the same
equipment to combine the same inputs in different ways.  If a company
produced only one chemical, then it would lose in competition with a
company that could produce several chemicals, distributing its fixed
costs among all of them.  The same thing is true in media industries.
The effort that goes into creating a cartoon character or reporting
a news story can be turned into products in several different media.
This is why the Internet is not going to revolutionize the economic
structure of the media industry: the Internet is one more channel for
the distribution of synergistic products.  Someone who produces media
content only for the Internet must compete with people who use the
same facilities and effort to produce media content for several media. 
A company's business plan can be premature because the technology or
distribution channels do not yet exist to capture economics of scope.
A concept might only be viable if it is turned into both a Web site
and a cable show, but if not enough people have digital cable yet then
the concept will have to wait.  Some concepts may require distribution
channels that are so numerous that we'll just have to wait for them
all to be invented.

Stovepipes.  Networked applications are organized into layers.  The
Internet Protocol is a layer.  So is the HTTP protocol for moving Web
pages around.  Layers manage complexity by defining abstract bundles
of functionality that are likely to have many uses.  Layers are also
economically efficient because they enable economies of scope: the
more services you can build on top of a given layer, the more ways
you have to distribute its cost.  In fact, if you have a layer like IP
that supports a wide range of valuable services, then you can probably
make it free, just from the labor contributed by the people who make
money from the stuff built on top of it.  It's a good system, and much
of the long-term quiet politics of the computer world is about the
ways in which future layers are going to be defined.  If you try to
make them all things to all people then they will crash, but if you
try to focus them then someone will be upset.  Current examples of
long-term layer-development are digital libraries, cooperative work,
large-scale simulation, and distributed objects.  Digital computing
(as opposed to analog) is itself a layer.  A product can be premature
if it combines a lot of functionality that should really be provided
by layers.  Such a product is called a "stovepipe", and earlier I have
described a technical and economic dynamic called the "platform cycle"
by which stovepipe products get made obsolete by the coming of new
layers that abstract away the common elements of their functionality.
To think up examples of stovepipe technologies, start with any major
layer, define its functionality, and then think about products that
included that functionality before the layer existed -- any special-
purpose network that preceded the Internet, or any distributed display
system that preceded the Web.  Right now, the world badly needs layers
upon layers of middleware to support emerging distributed applications.
An example is Akamai-style distributed database technology, which sits
between your Web browser and the Internet and invisibly redirects your
information request to a nearby uncongested server.  The same sort of
thing will be needed for wireless and ubiquitous-computing services,
and it would probably be a mistake to build those services before the
general-purpose distributed database layers are available.

It's entirely likely that the smart players know all these things.
They have the intellectual property, capital, and skills that they
will need to join the game, and they are calmly waiting for the time
to come -- for the market to acquire scale, for media synergies to
develop, and for new service layers to be standardized and deployed
on a large enough scale.  They don't have to engage in hype.  What's
unfortunate is when unsuspecting investors plough their cash into
new ventures that really are good ideas but aren't good ideas now.


Ten things that piss me off.

(1) Photocopiers that silently clear their settings.  The copier
doesn't know where you are, so if you don't push any buttons for some
period of time, a minute or whatever it is, the copier silently resets
itself.  This is most annoying, because quite likely you have spent
that minute preparing for an especially complicated copying job, one
that involved lots of complicated copier settings that are now lost.
To make matters worse, most copiers deliver their output someplace
where you can't see it.  So you have to reach around, grab the paper,
and carefully check whether you got the results you were expecting.
(Hopefully the copier won't reset itself while you're doing this.)
This is bad design.

(2) Those 50 state quarters.  Those who live outside the United States
will need it explained that much of our currency has been redesigned
in recent years.  You've probably seen the new paper money, which
is reviled by art critics but apparently tolerated by everyone else.
But you probably haven't seen the new quarter-dollar coins.  They are
the same size and color as the old ones, and they still have George
Washington on the front (albeit with some different words around him).
The problem is on the back, where there are no fewer than 50 totally
different designs, one for each state.  They're bringing out different
designs on a regular schedule, I believe in the order that the states
joined the country.  I have two problems with these new quarters.
One is pure design: the coins are not visually consistent, and so I am
constantly doing double-takes to see if the coin I have reached for is
really a quarter.  The other is political.  These are partisan coins
that symbolize and abet the current unfortunate drive to restore the
Articles of Confederation.  The two problems are related.  Back when
transportation and communication technologies were measured in miles
per day, it made sense to have a lot of local governments.  That way
decisions could be made close to the people whose lives they effected.
But those days are gone.  The current talk about devolving power to
the states is selective at best, given the powerful interests behind
uniform laws.  A fragmented currency system is inefficient as well.

(3) Business reports about companies making or missing "expectations".
In the old days, business reports would state that IBM, for example,
had made profits of such-and-such, which were up (or down) so-and-so
many percent from the year before.  Now, though, business reports tell
us that IBM made (or missed) their expectations.  What, you may ask,
is an "expectation"?  It's a number that had previously circulated
in the press, having arisen through some combination of stock brokers'
analyses, insider advice from the companies themselves of the sort
that the SEC recently outlawed, and rumor.  When headlines about a
company's performance are framed in relation to these "expectations",
they assume that the audience is sufficiently immersed in day-to-day
financial talk to follow these esoteric numbers.  As a result of this
assumption, business news has now been rendered even more impenetrable
to normal people than it had been.  What is worse, time scales have
collapsed.  The headlines comparing profits to the year before, for
all of their crudeness, at least indicated some kind of historical
perspective.  The new "expectations" reports point to a time scale
more on the order of weeks.  Worse yet, serious newspapers have gone
a step further by reporting on "whisper numbers", if you can believe
that.  Whisper numbers are to expectations what expectations are
to the actual, official quarterly numbers -- which numbers are then
thoroughly artificial, having been manufactured through a whole new
generation of dishonest accounting tricks.  If business were just a
gambling arena that only hurt gamblers then this would all be trivial.
But it's not.  Business affects everyone, and we should discourage
practices that prevent everyone from understanding it.

(4) Corporate soap.  When I get up in the morning, the last thing I
want is a snootful of chemicals.  That's why, for many years now, I
have refused to purchase corporate soap.  From what I can tell, every
single brand of soap that is sold in mainstream supermarkets smells
like chemicals.  Of course, they are chemicals that have been designed
to suggest some kind of brand image, like meadows or hospitals or
what-have-you.  But the smells are so offensively fake that I can't
imagine breathing them in my own home.  (An exception is soap swiped
from hotel rooms, which increasingly tends to have no smell at all.)
Instead I spent embarrassing amounts of money on soap from health food
stores, ethnic import shops, and farmers'-market artisans, purely on
how it smells.  These non-chemical soaps then create another problem:
preventing their smells from permeating the house.  This is one more
reason why Zip-Loc bags were created.

(5) The information design of bus systems.  I am a city person, and I
usually have plenty of bus lines going past.  The problem is figuring
out where they go and when the next bus is coming.  You would think
that the bus systems would have an interest in telling you this kind
of information.  In practice, however, the information design of the
signs and brochures of bus systems is appalling.  You do have to give
them some sympathy: they don't always have lots of money, and they are
up against the complexity of the information and the depredations of
vandals.  Still, I find it frustrating when I come across a route map
that is upside down compared to the direction that the bus is running,
or that doesn't provide enough cross streets to figure out how the
streets on the map match up with your own mental knowledge of them.
The question of when the next bus is coming is the hardest and most
frustrating.  That's why I was thrilled to hear about something called
NextBus , a wireless technology that tracks
the buses and transmits to various devices -- including ones attached
to the bus stops -- accurate information about when the next bus will
arrive.  I saw an article about the NextBus system in San Francisco
that claimed major improvements in ridership, although that could be
hype.  In any event, a bus system whose every bus stop had an actual
departures board would be a fine thing.  One could also establish a
departures board for the neighborhood buses on a Web browser window,
thus timing one's departure from home to avoid long waits at the stop.
Technology isn't the whole problem, however.  Someone needs to teach
information design to the bus people.

(6) Hotel phone charges.  This is probably the most notorious entry
on my list.  One hotel where I stayed recently had long distance phone
charges of nearly $3 per minute.  These charges  were not disclosed
on any piece of paper in the room -- you couldn't get the exact amount
without calling the operator.  The hotel must have provided special
training to the operators, because otherwise they couldn't have quoted
those rates without cracking up.  Even though I have known about the
exorbitant phone charges forever, and even use my cell phone to make
local calls from hotel rooms, still I get bitten by the problem more
often than I can believe.  The most insidious are the high-tech hotels
that loudly promise low long-distance rates on their data lines, only
to bill you several times the advertised amount when you check out.

(7) "This day in history" factoids in the newspaper and on the radio.
Even though calendar dates are a necessary part of any retelling of
history, an excessive focus on dates falsifies history by painting it
as a succession of discrete events, usually involving famous persons,
as opposed to the long-term accumulation of trends and forces that
involve people and activities of all sorts.  "This day in history"
factoids take this bias even further by presenting the dates in the
most arbitrary and least useful order.  The calendar day an event
happens is rarely significant; the major exception is when someone
chooses to do something on a certain date for its symbolic value.
Presenting people with a list of events that happened on January 9th
is like presenting them with a list of people whose automobile license
plates happen to end in 4.  The events are listed out of any context,
in a form that makes it essentially impossible to learn anything from
them.  There are better ways to remember things.

(8) Those entrepreneurial origin myths.  Was eBay really started to
sell Pez dispensers?  Come on.  News articles about start-ups always
recount these unlikely stories that sound like, "I was walking down
the beach one day when I wanted to find out how my stocks were doing.
All at once it occurred to me, wouldn't it be great if I could get
stock quotes in my sunglasses?"  And they *always* sound like that.
They never sound like, "I was shmoozing these geeks at Il Fornaio,
and they were all grooving on this new technology at Stanford.  So
I went over there and found the professor.  I laid some smooth talk
on him, hooked him up with my VC cronies, and kept 30% for myself."
Don't the business reporters ever check whether the entrepreneurs'
stories are true?  Of course, some of the stories might be *part* of
the truth.  But they can't all be true, and almost all of them surely
leave out important elements of the story.  Aside from their general
unlikeliness, these stories are unfortunate because they hide most of
the reality of business from people who haven't been socialized into
it.  People are forever lectured to be "entrepreneurial" -- I've even
caught myself doing this, even though I hate when it's done to me --
but few of those people have access to useful information about the
concrete, material work of starting a company.

(9) Animated icons.  I can't stand anything moving in my peripheral
vision when I'm trying to work.  That's why I am so annoyed at the
animated icons that are used by certain software packages.  (Netscape
is one.  AOL is another.)  Animated advertisements in Web publications
can be turned off with a couple of mouse clicks, but the icons keep
moving.  I can understand the motive for icons that are always drawing
attention to themselves.  But how can it be a smart marketing strategy
to annoy people?

(10) The word "Kumbaya", used to refer to a mindless display of group
harmony.  Ugh.


My short paper about Babbage's theology provoked some puzzlement among
working programmers.  Actually the responses were varied.  Some people
said, "yup, that's how it was when I worked at X".  But other people
said, "how can this theology be the essence of computer work when all
of the programming texts I read and follow, Yourdon for example, tell
me the opposite?".  It's a good question.  First of all, my point is
not that the computer world conforms everywhere completely and entirely 
to the six axioms of Babbage's theology.  My point, rather, is that
Babbage's theology is encoded deeply in the language and practices and
institutional dynamics of the computer world, such that they exert a
gravitational force that ceaselessly erodes any divergence from them.
The actual state of practice at any place or time probably will differ
from the dire picture of the six axioms.  But the real test is dynamic: 
what forces operate on the practice, and how does it evolve over time?
The degree of Babbageness will vary across different companies, sites,
industries, technical fields, historical periods, countries, and so on.

Was I unfair because I did not enumerate the countervailing forces that
tend to keep things at least in the middle of the scale?  I suppose,
but the heart of my assertion was that the theology is more fundamental
and more powerful than the other forces, and will remain that way until
it can be brought fully to consciousness.  A harder problem from the
point of view of the working programmer reading that paper is that I
didn't even try to demonstrate the truth of my assertions -- such an
argument could be made, but it would take a substantial book -- nor did
I put much effort into my list, at the end, of concrete manifestations
of the problem.  That would be a more feasible paper; it might refer
to work on the institutional obstacles to participatory design (see
for example Jonathan Grudin, Interactive systems: Bridging the gaps
between developers and users, IEEE Computer 24(4), 1991, pages 59-69).
The obstacles include deadlines, contracting rules, and the question
of whether a user who has become conversant with the designers' lingo
is still representative of users as a whole.


If you type the word "Phil" into, my home page comes up
before the page for Phil Lesh.  Far out.  Granted, I come out below
Phil Zimmerman, but that's only fair.


Another innocuous RRE message has been rejected by a mail filter.

  Date: 6 Jan 2001 17:15 GMT
  Subject: [RRE]pointers

  One or more of the recipients listed is a MailWatch client.  As
  a result of specific e-mail control settings determined by their
  organization, their copy of the message has been detained in a
  special holding area at MailWatch and can be released only at the
  discretion of their system administrator.

       Allegro MailWatch
       Phone: 1-937-264-7000

  NOTE: This is an automated email notification.
	Please do NOT reply directly to this message!


  Date: Sat, 6 Jan 2001 09:07:02 -0800
  From: "Phil Agre" 
  To: "Red Rock Eater News Service" 
  Subject: [RRE]pointers

If someone has a museum of "stupid filter tricks", this would seem
like a whole new category of exhibits.


In response to my article on beginners as a scarce resource, one
person suggested that Apple's forthcoming OS X may fix some of the
conceptual confusions and incompatibilities that have long befuddled
beginners on Apple's classic Finder.  Here are some excerpts:

  I agree that how people interact with computers leaves much to be
  desired.  However, Mac OS X is making a modest step in the right
  direction.  The new dock, which a lot of people have been bashing
  for various reasons, may improve the situation for newbies...

  1. Any application being launched appears in the dock.  While
  launching, it gently bounces up and down, then comes to rest with
  a small triangle beneath it.  While not hugely obvious, you can
  see at a glance what applications are open.

  2. The norm for OS X applications is to open an Untitled window
  when brought to the front (when launched or when already open),
  if no windows are open.  This will help people when they switch
  back to some app.  But so far, the inconsistency of quitting (or
  not) when closing a window still seems to be with us.

  As the dock shows minimized windows separately from applications,
  it may help with drawing that distinction between the two.

  A big change in OS X is that clicking on a window of an inactive
  app to bring it to the front leaves any other windows of that
  application in back, behind the previous active application(s).
  There's a case to be made for this, but it something OS 9 users
  probably won't enjoy unlearning.  There are a couple of easy ways
  to bring all an app's windows to the front.

  OS X uses Unicode almost everywhere (ok, perhaps not in Telnet),
  and this may be a good thing eventually.  At the moment, developers
  (at least those with little interest in multi-language support)
  probably feel it's just one more thing to convert to.
  (While I *think* all this is all accurate, I may have gotten a
  detail or two wrong -- and everything is subject to change in the
  1.0 release on March 24th.)

I do hope that Apple survives long enough for the new Powerbooks and
OS X to settle down -- being Apple, the first editions of each will be
long on design and short on execution.  Because I'd sure rather have
them than the alternative.


In response to that same article, another reader pointed out that
studying beginners is not new, and that user-interface people have
talked in terms of the user's "model" of the machine, as opposed to
the "correct" model that is embedded in the design of the machine.
The question then arises of what beginners' models tend to be like,
and how to make the beginner's model and the correct model align.
That alignment could come about in different ways: teaching strategies
that install the correct model in users' heads, or design strategies
that make the correct model transparent to users in the first place.
It's true that I am hardly the first person to think of investigating
users, and if I were writing an academic paper I would be responsible
for citing all of the relevant literature in useability and elsewhere.
My point was different.  I want to suggest a naturalistic study of
users that places them in the full context of their lives.  I also
want to encourage a polemical view of beginners as rational people,
and of experts as victims of brainwashing.  And I am not exaggerating
this for rhetorical effect.  I honestly believe that the computers
we have today incorporate ideas about people and their lives that are
radically false.  We as experts have to gotten used to the pathologies
that result from these mistaken ideas, and the fine, naturalistic
detail of beginners' experience really is our best way of remembering
what we have lost.

I also have a problem with the word "model".  I may not disagree with
it, but I think that it can be misleading.  First of all, it suggests
something that is unified and coherent in people's minds.  If so then
I am not sure that it makes sense to speak of beginners as having a
model of a computer at all.  Beginners do exhibit very characteristic
forms of reasoning, but these can almost be defined as the absence
of the kind of model that experts are said to possess.  Alright, you
might say, so beginners need to build a model.  What's the problem?
The problem is that beginners are not empty.  They come to computers,
for example, with elaborate expectations derived from other media
(on this topic see Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation:
Understanding New Media, MIT Press, 1998).  They are also familiar,
unfortunately, with all manner of cultural constructions of computers
-- including all of the fiction that anthropomorphizes the computer
and treat *it* as unified and coherent, which it's not.  The idea that
computers have all kinds of social contradictions running through them
is incomprehensible against that cultural background.

The notion of a "model" also focuses on the mental lives of individual
users, and thus distracts attention from the larger contexts in which
individual users are embedded.  I enumerated several such contexts.
One is the microsociology of interactions between beginners and experts
-- for example, when the experts "help" the beginners by taking the
keyboard away from them, talking technical gibberish at them, changing
their configurations, and generally disempowering them in every way
they can.  Another is the local ecology of knowledge and practice in a
home or office; this ecology can be supportive and constructive, or it
can undermine the beginner's capacity to learn.  Each case will need
to be investigated on its own merits, but we will usually discover a
combination of both.  Yet another context is the computer industry and
particularly the competitive dynamics of standards.  Economic pressures
both for and against compatibility are easy to find, and every computer
is a historical conglomeration of different architectural choices and
competitive configurations over many years.

The most important intuition for the naturalistic study of users, in
my experience, is to look in the margins.  Experts imagine themselves
to be inside the machine; they *do* have a model of how the machine
works, and they "see" the machine purely in terms of that model.
If the machine fails to behave according to the model, experts have
no problem simply restarting an application or rebooting the machine.
Beginners cannot distinguish between proper and improper functioning
of the machine, and they find this behavior on the part of experts
bewildering.  Experts see only the picture; beginners see only the
frame.  Experts cannot see all of the detailed work around the edges
of the system: getting an account, figuring out which machine you're
allowed to use, turning it on, logging in, password problems, getting
your hands registered the right way on the keyboard, learning what
you do with the keyboard versus what you do with the mouse, getting
help, knowing what things are called, knowing whether your work has
been saved, logging out, shutting the machine off (and whether you're
supposed to be shutting it off at all), and so on.  Very few people
have ever investigated what really happens in college computer labs,
for example.  One of them was Steve Strassman, who in the mid-1980s
wrote his senior thesis at MIT based on six weeks of observation in
the computer lab for the 6.001 introductory programming course.  His
work is unpublished, to my knowledge.  But if you're concerned with
access to the Internet, in my opinion the most important problems are
all in this zone of peripheral vision -- the area that is invisible to
the brainwashed experts.  The cost of hardware and software is not the
big problem in my opinion, simply because the cost is dropping like a
rock.  The problem, rather, is with knowledge and culture -- and with
the culture of expert knowledge that makes life harder than it has to
be for non-experts.


We've had some acronym problems on RRE lately.  The message about
organizing among ICANN stakeholders never explained what ICANN stands
for.  It stands for Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and
Numbers; it is the organization that supposedly runs the Internet's
domain name system, and it may or may not run other aspects of the
Internet later on.  It's good to be reminded that 99% of the earth's
population is not part of the small world that follows Internet
politics.  Another message failed to explain the much more obscure
acronym HIPAA, which stands for Health Insurance Portability and
Accountability Act.  I didn't even know this.  It's the law that the
recent US government medical records privacy rules were issued under.


It turns out that my recent attempt to "correct" my mention of Moore's
Law was just as fouled up as my original version.  Rather than confuse
the matter any further, I'll refer you to Robert R. Schaller, Moore's
law: Past, present and future, IEEE Spectrum 34(6), 1997, pages 52-59.


I was wrong.  I speculated that the New York Times' recent article
about AI was motivated by the upcoming Spielberg movie; a more likely
explanation is that both were motivated by Stanley Kubrick's "2001".
Reality by now is all a movie; it's just a question of which one.


I did more harm than good with my paragraph on the problem of people
sending me stuff for the list that I already have.  Now a bunch of
people are trying to read deep meaning into my necessarily very brief
replies, which look like "tx" and "great tx".  The bottom line is,
don't worry.  In seven years of running the list, I've only had one
person who made a nuisance of themselves by sending me stuff, and he
was sending me ten items a day, 98% of which were useless.  Duplicates
are not a big problem and I'm surprised that I don't get more of them.
A bigger problem, I suspect, is people who see something interesting
but think, "oh well, Phil must already have seen this".  It eats me up
to wonder how much cool stuff I'll never see because everyone assumed
that I had gotten it from someone else.  So if you come across a good
URL or something, pass it along.  The only things that I categorically
don't want are corporate press releases, which are amazingly useless.
I read the New York Times, Washington Post, Salon, (London) Guardian,
and often the Los Angeles Times (I'm trying to cut back), so you don't
have to bother with those.  What's most valuable is materials from the
regional and foreign papers, personal Web sites, the trade press, and
academic research -- things that most people wouldn't have come across.
My number one emphasis is facts facts facts.  My number two emphasis
is analysis -- provided that you find it conceptually interesting and
original, and not just congenial in its outcomes.  But mostly, don't
worry about it.  When it doubt, send it along.


An Australian has sternly instructed me that koalas are not bears.
They are marsupials, and nasty, scratchy ones at that, loved only
by Japanese tourists.  He did admit that Australians refer to the
creatures that biologists call jellies as jellyfish, but he was not
into the irony of that.


Some URL's.


Bush's Christian Guru Aims to Reshape America

Evaluating Voting Technology

The Real Scandal Is the Voting Machines Themselves

Jane's Handy Links

Theft of the Presidency (may crash Netscape)

Bush's Voluntary Pollution Reduction Program Reduced No Pollution

Cabinet nominees

Ashcroft Battle Likely to Focus on Race Issues

Anti-Ashcroft Resources

Big Fight Likely for Bush Cabinet

Days of Paige

After Chavez

Background on Gale Norton

Bush's Choice Linked to "Guns for Pupils" Group,3604,421586,00.html

Ashcroft interview in Southern Partisan

Perversion of the Process


Government Urges Court to Uphold Microsoft Split

government's brief in Microsoft appeal

Microsoft Comes Out Swinging in Antitrust Appeal


Steven Levy chapter on Whitfield Diffie

Hearings to Put Agency's Ambitious Toll Plan on the Line

Digital Signature Risks

Do You Even Know Who's Watching?,1283,40935,00.html


Dave Farber on the FCC staff in the AOL / Time Warner merger case

World Consumer Protection Organization

Tough Times for Data Robots

Italy: Foreign Internet Sites Can Be Closed

European Union Ponders Crackdown on Spam,2107,500298155-500475648-503241131-0,00.html

Wireless Telephone Spam Protection Act

everything else

controversy about settlement-free peering claims

article on 802.11b free wireless networking

Near Real Time Earthquake List

Mobile Phone Forces Plane to Land

IRC: Attack From Killer "HaX0rZ",1284,41077,00.html

gift lists for schools (it's sad that this is necessary)

An Old Key to Why Countries Get Rich

subscription-based full-text online library for students

How Not to Teach Values

Aussie Scientists Stumble Across the Doomsday Bug