Here are some random notes about noncontroversial topics such as race,
religion, monopoly, political correctness, the decline of computer
science, and Dilbert.

As a periodic reminder, you can end your subscription to RRE by
sending a message that looks like this:

  Subject: unsubscribe

Some additional messages might still be in the pipeline, so your
unsubscription request might not take effect for a day or two.

You may have noticed my frequent requests that you not use the Eudora
"redirect" command to forward RRE messages.  Incredible though it
seems to me, a significant number of people are still not complying
with this very simple request, and my mailbox is still receiving an
unbelievable stream of misdirected mail, some of it highly personal,
some of it including baroque error messages or flames from people
who misunderstand the misleading header that "redirect" generates.
Henceforth, anybody who uses the Eudora "redirect" command to forward
an RRE message will be removed from the list.

You may have noticed a New York Times article the other day praising
Steve Dorner, who has received little fame or cash for writing Eudora.
I certainly agree that Steve is a hero.  He just needs to fix the
"forward" command so it doesn't generate those unsightly ">" indents,
and he needs to move the "redirect" command to where unsophisticated
users cannot readily find it.

Judging by the response to my messages about command-and-control
computing, lots of people are ready to contribute to the coming reform
of computer science.  I don't claim to have invented this theme; quite
the contrary, these are changes that have been gathering in the works
for years.  As I mentioned, these changes fall under two categories,
substantive and procedural.  Let me concentrate on procedural changes
here.  We can see these changes in the increasingly interactive design
practice of mass-market software companies, at least the ones that
do not benefit from the perverse economic incentives of proprietary
standards.  We can also see them in the emergence, still haphazard to
be sure, of practices such as concurrent engineering and requirements
engineering, both of which respond to (among other things) a rapidly
growing list of spectacularly failed large-scale software development

The general theme is that we're starting to integrate computer science
with the rest of the world.  Some of my teachers at MIT argued against
having a separate undergraduate degree program in computer science,
on the grounds that students should study something substantive and
take computer classes on the side.  I agree, and I think that computer
science will soon have to break free from its insularity if it wants
to retain its relevance as it loses its monopoly on technical skill.

Here, in response to several requests, are some references on the new
generation of system design processes:

  Gro Bjerknes, Pelle Ehn, and Morten Kyng, eds, Computers and
  Democracy: A Scandinavian Challenge, Avebury, 1987.

  Alan M. Davis, Software Requirements: Objects, Functions, and
  States, Prentice Hall, 1993.

  Yrjo Engestrom and David Middleton, eds, Cognition and Communication
  at Work, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

  Joan Greenbaum and Morten Kyng, eds, Design at Work: Cooperative
  Design of Computer Systems, Erlbaum, 1990.

  Marina Jirotka and Joseph A. Goguen, eds, Requirements Engineering:
  Social and Technical Issues, Academic Press, 1994.

  Thomas K. Landauer, The Trouble with Computers: Usefulness,
  Usability, and Productivity, MIT Press, 1995.

  Douglas Schuler and Aki Namioka, eds, Participatory Design:
  Principles and Practices, Erlbaum, 1993.

  Peter J. Thomas, ed, Social and Interactional Dimensions of Human-
  Computer Interfaces, Cambridge University Press, 1995.

These books just represent a few of an increasingly diverse range of
views of computing as a social process.  All of them represent small
steps beyond the command-and-control worldview in computing; we have
a long way to go.

Back in the fall, I solicited comments on my students' analyses of
social structures, activity forms, and communication genres in various
communities.  The idea, as you may recall, was to provide a powerful
vocabulary for reasoning about what kinds of media and genres would
actually fit into a community's present and future ways of life.
Those projects are now finished, and I've collected links to a sample
of them at
I think they're very interesting, and I hope you benefit from them.
If you encounter any bad links etc, let me know.  They're my fault.

Some of the students are now going on to the second phase -- iterative
prototyping with their communities.  This is a lot harder, of course,
and our current research is figuring out precisely how, as a procedural
matter, our analyses should be used in the design process.  Are these
busy, practical-minded people going to sit still long enough to learn
our theory?  Not likely.  Fortunately we have other options.  We've
already fallen on our faces a couple of times, which is big progress.

More references while we're at it.  I mentioned a while back that the
available scholarship on Descartes has gotten dramatically better in
the last few years.  It's surprising that it took this long, but at
least now everyone has these resources available.  This is important
for philosophical and historical studies of technology, which cannot
avoid trying to assess Descartes' role.  Although my focus here is
on recent books, I've included a couple of older books that I find

  Roger Ariew and Marjorie Grene, eds, Descartes and His
  Contemporaries: Meditations, Objections, and Replies, University
  of Chicago Press, 1995.

  Susan Bordo, The Flight to Objectivity: Essays on Cartesianism and
  Culture, State University of New York Press, 1987.

  Daniel Garber, Descartes' Metaphysical Physics, University of
  Chicago Press, 1992.

  Stephen Gaukroger, Descartes: An Intellectual Biography, Clarendon
  Press, 1995.

  Dalia Judovitz, Subjectivity and Representation in Descartes: The
  Origins of Modernity, Cambridge University Press, 1988.

  Simon Kemp, Medieval Psychology, Greenwood Press, 1990.

  Dennis Sepper, Descartes' Imagination: Proportion, Images, and the
  Activity of Thinking, University of California Press, 1996.

  Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, Free
  Press, 1990.

The recent books are very concerned with overturning simplistic ideas
and stereotypes about Descartes.  This is a useful exercise but not
always convincing.  Bordo's feminist psychoanalytic interpretation of
Descartes, for example, although still just as daring as the day she
wrote it, still strikes me as basically true.  So does the indictment
of Descartes as the father of the project of the mathematization
of all things, notwithstanding some of these authors' revisionism,
especially Sepper.

If you're like me, you've gotten tired of all those generalizations
about information technology breaking down hierarchies and leading us
back to the kind of entrepreneurial world once imagined by Adam Smith.
Sooner or later, it comes time to ramp up our attention spans and wrap
our minds around a sustained social-scientific argument from evidence.
One place to start is with the work of the economic geographer Saskia
Sassen.  The short version can be found in "Cities in a World Economy"
(Pine Forge Press, 1994), and the long version can be found in "The
Global City: New York, London, Tokyo" (Princeton University Press,
1991).  She argues that information technology -- more precisely, the
way in which information technology has been used -- has indeed had
consequences for the roles that particular cities play in the emerging
global economic order.  She concentrates on one important pattern:
information technology makes it increasingly possible to administer
the operations of a global organization from a single center; these
centers tend to be located in a small number of cities because they
require the maintenance of a dense social network; and the economies
of these cities are increasingly dominated by those support services
that these headquarters require and cannot obtain at a geographical
distance.  It is true, as we have so often heard, that information
technology permits many operations to be dispersed -- made mobile,
moved into rural areas, coordinated in numerous locations in real
time, and so forth -- but Sassen focuses on the flip side of this
phenomenon: the geographic grouping of economic activities in terms
of those relationships that cannot be dispersed in this way.  As so
often, once we complete the picture it looks different.

While we're on the topic, I instantly bought William Greider's new
book "One World Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism"
(Simon and Schuster, 1997) the moment it came out.  Greider is my
favorite journalist, and his "Who Will Tell the People? The Betrayal
of American Democracy" (Simon and Schuster, 1992) is the book I hand
people to explain my otherwise quaintly-old-fashioned-seeming views
about democratic values.  I'm a hundred pages into "One World Ready
or Not".  It's an impossibly ambitious journalistic-intellectual
account of the many-leveled transformations that comprise economic
globalization.  This means that on the one hand it's tremendously
stimulating, and that on the other hand it's sometimes faintly bogus.
I've got 400 pages to go, however, so an awful lot can still happen.

The Department of Justice's brief in the Supreme Court case Reno v
ACLU (the appeal of the Philadelphia court's decision striking down
the Communications Decency Act on constitutional grounds) is on the
Web at

In response to my call for reading lists in social informatics, Chuck
Huff pointed me at
and said "it contains the reports from ImpactCS, an NSF sponsored
panel of folks who put together some standard for teaching social
and ethical issues in computing in the undergraduate computer science

The syllabus for Bruce Umbaugh's "ethics in cyberspace" class is at

Please send me your reading lists on topics related to the social and
political aspects of networking and computing.  Let's help everyone
in these diverse areas of work become acquainted with everybody else's

Gene Spafford maintins the very extensive COAST Hotlist, a Web
resource list on Computer Security, Law & Privacy.  Its URL is

The Stalker's Home Page, with many worrisome resources for finding
people, is on the Web at

A basic introduction to privacy-enhancing technologies for the Internet
by Ian Goldberg, David Wagner, and Eric Brewer at Berkeley is online at

The MapBlaster is cool.  It prints maps at any scale, centered on any
point in the US.  I wasn't actually impressed with its map of my own
neighborhood, but like most of the Web it's the concept that counts.

A useful survey of the Internet in 1996 -- assuming that 1996 isn't
so long ago that a survey can't still be useful -- can be found at:

What would happen to your worldview if you were to learn tomorrow that
Internet penetration in the United States had leveled off?

An interesting international discussion list about the Internet for
police from can be found on a Canadian government Web site at
Particularly interesting messages include:

Have you built up a wall of resistance to all Christian beliefs on
account of all the political and cultural nightmares that have been
perpetrated in God's name?  Not so smart.  Not only are you closing
yourself off from the real wisdom of a major spiritual tradition,
but you are also checking yourself out of the language that already
dominates American political discourse and will continue doing so
for a generation.  Here's a plan: chop the doctrine down into small
pieces and cultivate your own engagement with each one separately.
Don't believe anything that feels wrong to you, but don't override
your feelings when bits and pieces of truth do call out.  Become able
to explain in simple terms what feels right, and what feels wrong,
or like a wrong interpretation, of each fragment.  If you can't hack
the Bible, another approach -- indeed, a predominant approach in the
new generation of American churches -- is through music, which chops
the doctrine into song-length pieces and gives it a beat.  Christian
music isn't yet exactly a giant industry yet, but it has lately gotten
much better.  To verify this, one need only compare the 1996 and 1997
editions of an annual 2-CD sampler of new Christian music called WOW.
The 1996 edition is just about unlistenable, with few exceptions; even
Amy Grant can't figure out what she's doing there.  The 1997 edition,
however, is much better; I recommend it, and not just as opposition
research.  Information is available at

The best song on WOW 1997 is "Lord of the Dance", by my favorite,
Steven Curtis Chapman.  His new record, "Signs of Life", is less
political, more personal, much louder, and not quite as well produced
as his breakthrough record, "Heaven in the Real World".  Its song
structures are less misguided, though he is still better at starting
a song than ending one.  The best two songs are the first two, "Lord
of the Dance" (for which I've seen a fleetingly effective video)
and "Children of the Burning Heart".  Each song is testimony to the
cultural vitality of contemporary evangelical Christianity.  You can't
make this stuff up.

One day when the final history of communications is written, I think
that the phrase "information superhighway" will be put in the same
category as the South Sea Bubble.  Has anybody else noticed how many
of the humongous, revolutionary, spectacular technologies that would
inevitably be unleashed by telecommunications deregulation have been
tanking in the last few months?  Interactive television?  Video over
the telephone?  Anything of any value over cable?  Things have changed
rapidly since 1995, that's for sure, but how rapidly have they changed
since 1992, before these extraordinary delusions of the moguls began
their rise and fall?

My point is not that nothing changes, but that we all bought into a
PR-driven frenzy that bore little relationship to the actual dynamics
of technology diffusion.  Even the Web, whose expansion over the last
few years really has been spectacular, must still be judged a toy when
measured by its integration into work practices, media systems, and
organizational forms.  Society takes a lot longer to digest technology
than we normally expect.  I hope the accountants conclude that the
cable lords and regional telephone companies lost an enormous amount
of money on their adventures.  Otherwise we will have to conclude that
they were all completely artificial, whipped up to secure passage of
an advantageous law whose major result thus far has been to increase
industry concentration.

This is from Geoff Nunberg:

In a Statement, Dilbert & Dogbert Decline to Apologize for Appearing in
the "Do-It-Yourself Empowerment Kit" Distributed to the Employees of a
Major Office Equipment Company

        You bet we did it for the dough --
        You ought by now, Dear Friends, to know
        What true empowerment's about:
        You first get yours and then get out.

I've been reading Charles M. Payne's excellent new history of the
civil rights organizing tradition in Mississippi, "I've Got the Light
of Freedom".  He makes the point that the civil rights movement could
not get started until news from Mississippi began to filter to the
outside world through the media; only then could organizers operate
without being silently killed.  The connection to the Internet is
pretty obvious, and the Internet has played a role (as one part of
a larger array of media) in maintaining visibility for endangered
democratic movements around the world.  It's not just moving bits from
point A to point B, of course; it's also a matter of agenda-setting --
arranging for the atrocities to actually become newsworthy.

Payne also notes, however, that the civil rights movement had another
condition: structural changes in Mississippi society whose distal
cause was technological innovation that made cotton-picking much
less labor-intensive.  Indeed, he reports, candidates for governor
were competing for white votes on the basis of who could promise
to drive more redundant black people out of the state.  So even
though communications technologies are always useful in some way,
the particular ways in which they are useful vary, and other kinds
of social changes provide the conditions for particular kinds of
usefulness.  Figuring out just how the Internet is going to be useful
in a particular case, for example, requires some analysis, and that
analysis includes some understanding of the social changes attending
other kinds of technological change.

Another relevant reference is the new second edition of John Glen's
valuable history of the Highlander Folk School (published by the
University of Tennessee Press), which trained many of the important
labor organizers in the 1930's and 1940's, civil rights organizers
in the 1950's and 1960's, and environmental organizers in the
1970's and 1980's.  As the meaning of democracy fades steadily from
our pundit-saturated minds, we do have these resources to help put
names on the values we are losing.  It has been fashionable lately
to paint the civil rights movement as prophets of victimhood, but
this is a distortion of history.  Faced with a systematic pattern
of racial terrorism, the civil rights movement developed enormously
sophisticated methods for helping people to overcome an ingrained
passivity born of an impossible situation.  They started with small
steps, like basic literacy and voting rights, and then moved by
further small steps into the elements of consciousness and solidarity
that people require to live any kind of decent life.

Somewhere I have some of the curriculum texts from the summer schools
that the civil rights movement organized in the South during the early
1960's; they are perfectly amazing in their clear-eyed comprehension
of power and its workings, and in their intense focus on knowledge and
empowerment.  When I wrote my little handout on "How to Help Someone
Use a Computer", I had the Highlander Folk School and this curriculum
in mind.  In recent years this incredible cultural inheritance has
been steadily dissipating in public discourse.  As a result, the
echo-chamber pundits anticipate no challenge when they use the word
"empowerment" to refer to the spiritually devastating experience of
facing the whole world as a lone individual who can expect no sympathy
for any form of oppression except those practiced by certain parts of
the government.  This is one reason why the liberals are losing, and
why they have only themselves to blame.

CNET (which, by the way, has become required reading) reports that a
major Bible publisher, the Zondervan Publishing House, has expressed
support for the Philadelphia judges who struck down the Communications
Decency Act.  The Zondervan people see the Internet as an important
vehicle of free speech, and they have chosen to express their moral
concerns through a "green ribbon" campaign in which people voluntarily
affix campaign ribbons to their pages if they support Zondervan's
notion of responsible speech.  This is just fine, in my view.  It
reminds us that the Christian community is much more diverse than
either its would-be political spokespeople or its stereotype-prone
political opponents normally assume.  It may also reflect many
conservatives' concern at the increasingly anti-democratic character
of their movement.  The board of the conservative religious journal
First Things, for example, just about disintegrated in the wake of its
now-famous symposium issue exploring the idea of a theocratic coup in
the United States.

Even beyond that, I'm surprised that liberals haven't made more of
the resurgence of openly anti-democratic philosophers such as Edmund
Burke, Leo Strauss, and Russell Kirk.  The problem is, although
liberals continue to write books defining and defending the basic
ideas of their politics, they have almost ceased their attempts to
communicate these views in plain language to a broad public.  In
particular, they have made very little attempt to characterize and
rebut basic conservative ideas, which have been marketed with great
and systematic sophistication over the last ten years.  Consider
something as basic as the phrase "political correctness".  If any
liberal propagandists were actually awake out there then someone would
have assembled a list of all of the ideas and practices that someone
somewhere has labeled "politically correct", painted a picture of a
society in which none of those ideas and practices were accepted, and
presented the result as the society that conservatives are advocating.
(In my opinion, the only liberal propagandist with any kind of plan is
Michael Moore; my suggestion would make a great "TV Nation" segment.)
My favorite example is the well-known theologian who wrote a book
portraying the Pope as the Antichrist.  When objections were raised,
he mocked them with words to the effect of "I guess that wasn't
politically correct".

Way back on Christmas Eve, I happened to see "The Preacher's Wife".
It's a typical Penny Marshall confection -- cartoonish plot with
lots of fuzzy sentiments.  Its redeeming features are its positive
portrayals of black church life and the opportunity to appreciate
Whitney Houston.  The premise is that Denzel Washington is an angel
who is sent from heaven to help a preacher get his act together.
Denzel has this "angel's handbook" which is the source of frequent
jokes.  And one of these jokes Microsoft Windows.  The mystery for me
is whether this was intended as a product placement.

(Intermission.  If business were reported the same way as government
then we would know, among many other things, the complete history of
Microsoft's PR campaigns.  Every cover story in Time would be openly
analyzed in terms of whether it successfully engineered the necessary
consent, and the PR people would enjoy the same type of tawdry fame
as the political spinmeisters.  Would such a world be better or worse
than our own?)

Anyway, the angel, you see, is a guy who died in the 1950's, and so
he is unacquainted with modern things like computers.  Faced with
having to type a letter, he must learn to use the PC on the preacher's
secretary's desk.  Seeing the characeristic blue sky and the primary-
colors Windows logo, he flips open his handbook to the right page and
says something like "ah, Windows".  Then we hear the characteristic
chord that Windows plays when it boots, and in the next scene he has
produced an amazingly perfect letter, better than the secretary had
ever produced.  Here's the mystery: is the point that a guy who just
arrived from the 1950's could easily learn to use Windows, or was the
movie suggesting that learning to use Windows requires a guy whom God
Himself has endowed with the capacity to perform miracles?  I honestly
cannot tell which it is.

I think of this as a serious matter.  A profile of Steve Ballmer
in the current issue of Forbes presents an ugly picture of a company
whose managers throw screaming fits, that pleads self-defense as
it undermines much smaller competitors, that does not innovate, but
rather gets ahead by producing bad copies of other companies' work
and then using aggressive tactics to exploit market failures and
establish proprietary standards in the marketplace.  This is Forbes,
mind you, which is not normally known for its a priori animosity
toward private concentrations of power.

When I last beat up on Microsoft, some people wrote to point out that
Microsoft does employ open standards.  But their history is clear --
they rarely employ open standards when they can impose proprietary
standards, and when forced to accept open standards they go to
great lengths to superimpose proprietary standards on top of them.
Look what's happening with Java now.  Others point out that Microsoft
does these things because it can, and that other companies would do
the same thing if they had the opportunity.  That's just right; the
ultimate problem here is not bad people but a dysfunctional market.
Markets work great when they conform to the numerous assumptions of
old-fashioned supply-and-demand economics; the problem is that markets
for information technology conform to very few of those assumptions.
The good news, of course, is that Microsoft's dominance is galvanizing
a lot of open standards alliances that would not otherwise hold
together, Java and CORBA for example; the optimal scenario would
be for those galvanized alliances to actually win -- in which case
Microsoft will deserve our thanks.

Others wrote to point out the benefits that derive from Microsoft's
domination.  These benefits are real; they are the benefits of
monopoly.  Some people, of course, do see it differently.  Many
of my friends on the left, for example, positively like monopolies
because it is easier to nationalize an industry when it is organized
as a monopoly than when it is more fragmented.  Such a development,
whatever its other virtues might be, would certainly reduce the level
of cognitive dissonance in society: once the government gets done
privatizing the Internet and nationalizing Microsoft, reality will
once more correspond to prevailing stereotypes about the relative
quality of work in the public and private sectors.

The depth of the issue only really hit me over the Christmas period,
as I encountered people going through absolute nightmares as they
tried to install software on their new Windows systems.  The press
goes on endlessly about how Windows has supposedly caught up to the
Macintosh interface.  But this superficial resemblance has little
bearing on the experience of ordinary people trying to get software
installed.  We the elites of computing have the benefit of systems
maintainers who do stuff for us.  All of the unnecessary arcana keep
those people employed, and then our short-sighted decisions create
de facto standards that everybody else must live with.  Go to a user
group meeting and you'll encounter a whole subculture of intelligent
people who take the blooming chaos of the Microsoft world for granted,
immersing themselves in ten layers of fine detail that normal people
should never, ever have to know about.  Microsoft people continually
emphasize that they get 75,000 customer service calls a day -- that's
27,000,000 calls a year if their numbers are right -- and they dare
to spin this as a sign that they know what customers want.  Wouldn't
a serious company be embarrassed that so many people need help using
their products on a continuing basis?  (They describe the callers as
asking for "advice".  Language is wonderful.)  I see this as a social
justice issue: in a world of network effects, by choosing Windows we
condemn everyone else to a life of Windows.  It's no joke.

The 1/20/97 issue of The New Republic brings a remarkable example
of the upsurge of Lysenkoism in American culture.  Jacob Heilbrunn's
article "Speech Therapy" reviews the academic research behind modern
methods of teaching standard English to students who speak African
American English at home.  The author names several linguists who
have conducted research on the structure and history of the the AAE
dialect, and he describes their role in the educational innovations.
His tone is harshly condemnatory.  His view is that children who
employ AAE forms should be told that they are "wrong", and that any
other policy is pure relativism and a rejection of all standards.
What is most striking is that he offers no evidence at all for this
view.  The linguists' positions are criticized purely in terms of
their lack of fit to the author's own views.  Along with much press
coverage and punditry, he conflates the distinction between accepting
that AAE is a separate dialect and abandoning the goal of teaching
the standard dialect.  But what is most disturbing is the casual way
in which he judges scientific research on purely political grounds.

This has become a common pattern in recent years.  What's new is the
way it is justified.  Lysenko held that agricultural research could
and should derive its results on theoretical grounds from Engels'
"Dialectics of Nature"; when his research was put into practice, a
famine resulted.  At least Lysenko was quite explicit about what he
was doing.  The new style is different; its basic move is to impose
political criteria on research by accusing the scientists of having
done the same thing.  As in the Soviet system, a simple accusation
suffices.  I wish I had saved my favorite example: Congress was
planning to debate a certain environmental issue, and so it asked
government scientists to study it; when the scientists came back on
the eve of the debate with results indicating that regulation was in
fact needed, one congressman accused them of perpetrating "political
science" -- on the sole grounds that the results were released on
the eve of the debate!  This kind of projection -- Jung called it
the shadow -- is a characteristic trope of the new style of political
discourse, and I hope to write about it at greater length later on.