Some notes on distance education, the cyberspace ideology, the concept
of trust, the economics of the Y2K problem, supposed childhood friends
who look you up on the Internet, the cultural learning curve around a
new technology, and (of course) cheap pens.  Plus recommendations and

Some people have noticed that my e-mail now bears the return address
of, and have asked if that's the address they
should use when writing to me.  The answer is no.  My official e-mail
address, which should work in perpetuity, is still "".

David Noble's latest article about distance education provoked as much
hate mail as you might expect.  You're not interested in the personal
abuse and all-around cheap shots in several of these messages.  More
interesting is the underlying form of their arguments.  Although
nobody openly says this, the conflict here is between two tacit views
of the relation between technology and power.  Noble comes from a
tradition that regards technology as an instrument of power and its
plans.  Power, he believes, wants to replace people with machines,
regardless of whether it is efficient or decent to do so, simply
because the machines make us easier to control.  The history of this
perspective stretches across centuries, and Noble regards distance
education as simply the next chapter in that history.

Noble's opponents, on the other hand, assume that technology is the
natural enemy of power.  They believe that technology has its own
inner logic, that this logic is unstoppable, and that its inevitable
effect is to destroy hidebound institutions and to overthrow their
oppressive masters.  They apply these assumptions not only to the
university system, but to governments and hierarchies of all sorts,
and they get upset if anybody challenges the virtues of technology.

These two views cannot both be correct, and you will be unsurprised
to hear that I believe that the truth lies in the middle.  That's not
because I'm a centrist, as someone suggested.  A centrist is someone
whose views are defined in relation to the views of others -- Slobodan
Milosevic is a centrist in the terms of Serbian politics.  Rather, I
have repeatedly noticed that opposite-extreme ideas are, in practice,
evil twins that feed on one another.  To be sure, each of the extreme
views is useful as a counter to the other, and each side directs
our attention to factors that the other side defines away.  What's
valuable in the perspective of Noble's critics, for example, is an
insistence on the unanticipated consequences of new technologies.
And what's valuable in Noble's perspective is its insistence that the
proper unit of analysis is machinery plus institutions.  The machinery
and the institutions, that is, evolve together.

That's a sympathetic reading of Noble, of course -- the unsympathetic
reading would be that power completely shapes and defines technology
to its own liking.  But then, close empirical study of the development
of real computer systems in real organizations has documented the
technical choices that reinforce existing power relations.  So the
contrary perspective, that technology imposes its own logic on the
institutional world, has some explaining to do.  It might be argued,
for example, that the old world of bespoke applications development
may have left plenty of room for managerial finagling, but that the
new world of globalized software standards and open networking will
be different.  Even there, however, serious study has documented
the domination of some important standards processes -- in electronic
commerce, for example -- by those interested players who have the
resources to participate in endless complicated meetings.  So the
matter is very far from settled, and objections to Noble must be based
on something more than stereotypes.

My purpose in distributing Noble's essays, therefore, is not to signal
complete agreement with them.  I just send things to this list because
I find them interesting, and I find Noble's essays interesting because
they do counterbalance a cargo-cult faith in technology that I regard
as dangerous.  It would be a disaster if society ignored the issues
that Noble writes about.  Some people hate college professors; they
are willing to disband the professoriat and hand absolute control
of higher education to university administrators and accrediting
organizations.  When they describe their program, of course, it
doesn't sound like they're trying to centralize control over human
knowledge.  They tell a story of markets and decentralization etc even
though that story makes no sense.  But that's how authoritarianism
works: it creates an enemy that is so gigantic that people are willing
to suspend critical thinking and hand all power to an authority that
promises to protect them from it.  I am not opposed to technology, not
at all.  I am just opposed to technological agendas that promise that
our salvation can be found in the logic of inanimate objects.

My messages debunking the cyberspace ideology have made some people
happy.  Those people are sick of the hype, and are relieved to know
that they're not alone.  But other people are upset, and these upset
people have kept me thinking away at the problem.  The upset people
often argue that their wild-eyed millennialism is simply an expression
of their "optimism" -- the implication being that their critics
have some kind of personality problem.  This argument is simplistic,
not to mention offensive.  Mindless optimism and mindless pessimism
are equally useless.  What's needed, instead, is analysis.  And the
problem with cyberspace is not that it is disproportionate to the
wondrous reality, but that it is analytically wrong -- that is, it
describes the world inaccurately.

Cyberspace, in other words, does not exist.  The Internet does exist,
and so do a lot of other technologies, and even more technologies are
on the way, and the adoption of those technologies will eventually
bring major changes to the world.  The point, however, is that neither
the technologies nor the changes are well described as the creation of
a distinct, separate, autonomous pseudo-place that could reasonably be
called "cyberspace".  The concept of cyberspace is destructive because
it draws our attention away from the most consequential effects of
the adoption of distributed information technologies.  It focuses our
attention on unrepresentative cases, it interferes with our attempts
to conceptualize the material and institutional context in which
online interactions occur, and it makes us less likely to ask many
important questions.  Not only that, but the cyberspace ideology makes
a vast number of predictions, the great majority of which are turning
out to be 180 degrees the opposite of the truth.

Why, then, does the cyberspace ideology persist?  Where does it
gets its power over our minds?  These questions have oppressed me
as I have been reading Randall Collins' magnum opus, "The Sociology
of Philosophies" (Harvard University Press, 1998).  And in reading
Collins, I was struck by the analogy between the cyberspace ideology
and the German philosophy of the early 19th century, particularly the
radical idealism of Johann Fichte.  Fichte believed that the whole
world was a creation of the human mind, and his extreme subjectivistic
relativism figures as the bad guy in many histories (e.g., Michael
A. Gillespie, Nihilism before Nietzsche, University of Chicago Press,
1995).  Collins observes that this outburst of idealism is mysterious,
given that the Enlightenment had just gotten done discrediting
esoteric philosophy in favor of science.  The solution to this
mystery, Collins argues, lies in institutional changes.  He observes
that idealistic philosophies have emerged in most countries in the
generation after the rise of independent university systems; idealism
is, he argues, an ideological expression of the newfound autonomy
of intellectuals.  It usually flourishes for one or two generations
as its various subtendencies challenge one another to develop their
arguments, and then it usually fades away after its internal tensions
come to the surface and competing philosophies take center stage.

The cyberspace ideology is another variety of radical idealism.  It
posits a world, the one called "cyberspace", that is completely and
entirely a projection of the human mind -- cyberspace is whatever you
program it to be.  It then posits either that we will all effectively
move into cyberspace in the years to come, or that cyberspace will
reconstruct the rest of the world in its image.  Recalcitrant atoms --
paper, ink, bricks, mortar, bodies, and so on -- will give way to the
city of bits, and human life will become a consensual hallucination.

Perhaps, following Collins, the cyberspace ideology is itself the
ideological expression an institutional change -- the rise of start-up
culture with its sense of being the vanguard of a social revolution.
This, after all, is very much the rhetoric, even if the rhetoric is
sometimes as much wishful as real.  Wired, for example, tells its
advertisers that its readers are about twenty years old than you'd
think they'd be from reading the magazine.  Another analogy would be
the elaborate ideology of engineers circa 1900, although this newer
ideology does not share the technocratic rationalism of the older one.

So am I a pessimist?  Hell no.  I'm an optimist, but I'm the kind of
optimist that's opposed to the cargo cult.  Technology has little or
no essence.  Counting on technology is like counting on politics --
you can get good technology or bad, good politics or bad, depending
on lots of things.  The question is not whether we should support
technology but what values we want technology to embody.  The
Internet that we know today embodies something good -- the strong
and positive desire the people feel to build community with others
who share similar experiences -- and something bad -- the difficulty
of maintaining personal boundaries.  This negotiation of intimacy
and distance, community and individuality, will only intensify as
the technology develops.  And we will only be able to reconcile
these tensions in the future if we get serious about designing the
technology today -- and not just the technology, but the institutions
in which it is embedded.  Hope may be good religion, but it is bad

About trust.  At the most recent Telecom Policy Research Conference,
I stayed up all night before my scheduled talk and wrote a new paper
to complement the one that I originally submitted for the proceedings.
This newer paper went out to RRE under the title "The market and the
net: Personal boundaries and the future of market institutions".  Its
thesis was that neoclassical economics and cyberspace ideology share
a normative picture of the human person: they both hold, if not quite
explicitly, that efficient markets and packet switching should both
be employed to continually reconfigure human relationships, matching
people with their optimal partners from moment to moment.  I regard
this as an unhealthy thing to want, and I suggested that the Internet
applications that we know today unnecessarily promote the compulsive
establishment of relationships with people one hardly knows.

After hearing this talk, Paul Resnick was troubled.  He said that his
work, and indeed most work in electronic commerce, could be understood
as establishing the conditions under which people can trust strangers,
and he didn't understand my opposition to this.  I had been awake all
night, so I couldn't comprehend his question at the time.  It took
me a few weeks before I understood the problem.  As Herbert Burkert
pointed out in his very good chapter in our "Technology and Privacy"
volume, when electronic commerce people talk about "trust", they are
actually talking about the opposite of what normal people usually mean
by the word.  To trust someone, in normal usage, is precisely to place
yourself at a certain risk without formal guarantees of your safety.
If you don't trust someone, then you insist on contracts and proof
and collateral and documentation and video surveillance and elaborate
cryptographic payment protocols and so forth.  And if you do trust
someone then you don't insist on these things.

If Herbert is correct then Paul (together with many other people) is
wrong: the purpose of electronic commerce mechanisms is not to enable
trust but rather to make trust unnecessary.  This is what Douglass
North is talking about when he praises the impersonality of the
market: efficient markets require that buyers be connected with the
widest possible range of sellers, and vice versa.  It follows that
efficient markets cannot depend on the deals made by small groups
of individuals bound together in long-term intimate relationships.
Large-scale trade requires impersonal institutions because strangers
could not negotiate and enforce every one of their transactions if
every deal had to be built from scratch.

The impersonal market model makes some sense when we're talking about
trade in old-fashioned, self-contained commodities such as clothing
and food.  Even in these cases, however, the quaint tales of zero-sum
barter in legal and economic texts is wildly misleading.  North makes
it clear why this is.  Modern trade in anything except perhaps garage
sale items is bound together with an elaborate array of institutions:
the credit system, standards organizations, consumer protection law,
and so on.  Furthermore, as products become more complicated, market
interactions become more relationship-oriented.  When you buy a car
from a dealer, for example, you are buying more and more of a long-
term relationship to the company that made it.  And once your car goes
on the Internet, this relationship will be capable of some complexity.
The result of this evolution doesn't deserve to be called "trust",
since the whole point of the institutions is to make trust in the
normal sense unnecessary, but neither does it suffice to call it
"impersonal".  We need better vocabulary for these things.

Maybe I'm just mean, but when I look at an iMac, I see a DEC VT 220.
I'm very pleased to see that Apple's public relations department has
returned from its decade-long vacation.  But I'm not pleased with
these news articles about "Is Apple Back?".  No, Apple is not back.
Steve Jobs surrendered the company to Microsoft because that was the
only rational course of action.  Apple is at the wrong end of some
iron-clad standards dynamics, and it lives only because Microsoft's
antitrust defense would suffer if it died.

About Y2K.  One RRE reader was distress by my assertion that the Y2K
problem originates in computer culture's lack of a functioning concept
of historical time.  He says that he was in the room when some of the
fateful date-representation choices were made, and that the problem
lay not with the programmers, who understood the problem perfectly
well, but with the cost accountants.  While I have heard plenty of
stories about programmers who never dreamed that their systems would
still be in use in 2000, cost accountants are plausible villains as
well.  Heaven knows they've caused plenty of harm in other areas (see
H. Thomas Johnson and Robert S. Kaplan, Relevance Lost: The Rise and
Fall of Management Accounting, Boston: Harvard Business School Press,
1987).  So to be fair, then, let's do the math -- that is, let's see
when it was economically rational to ignore the Y2K problem.

Consider an application that was written in 1960.  The programmers
had to decide whether to represent dates with two digits, or whether
to add an extra digit, or indeed an extra bit, to extend the lifetime
of the program well into the 21st century.  Memory was expensive back
then, and the year 2000 was a long ways off.  Assume:

     * the cost of repairing the program in the year 1999 is R -- say,
   $1,000,000 in 1999 dollars
     * the cost of a byte of memory was p -- somewhere on the very
   general order of magnitude of $0.01 in 1960 dollars

     * the amount of memory to be saved by compact date representation
   was M bytes -- for an application that maintains a database with N
   records, with several dates per record, and only one additional bit
   needed to extend the lifetime of the program, this would be on the
   order of 1,000,000 bytes
     * $1 in 1960 is equivalent to about $7.50 in 1999 dollars

     * the opportunity cost of an investment made in 1960 over 39 years
   is calculated on an ROI basis of 10% per annum -- a factor of 41

then the 1960 discounted present value of an expenditure of R in 1999
was about R/41 in 1999 dollars or about R/300 in 1960 dollars. If R
equals $1,000,000, then the discounted value of that investment in
1960 dollars is about $3,200. That means that introducing the Y2K bug
into one's program was economically rational if Mp -- the number of
bytes that would be needed times the 1960 cost of those bytes -- was
greater than $3,200. If M was 1,000,000 then bytes were too valuable
if they cost more than one-third of a cent apiece. And that doesn't
count 40 years of continuing costs such as maintenance, back-up, air
conditioning, and so on.

So it wasn't totally unreasonable for major applications to represent
dates compactly in 1960 even though they could foresee the need for an
expensive upgrade in 1999. Still, this optimistic theory of economic
rationality implies that dates were represented compactly only when
it was rational to do so, and that smaller programs used four-digit
dates and that larger programs used two-digit dates only in those data
records that would be instantiated most extensively -- large arrays,
for example. Others will know better than I whether these predictions
hold true.

Like most people whose e-mail addresses get around the Internet, I
have been getting a steady stream of messages from distant relatives,
as well as from people I haven't seen for decades. The Internet would
seem to be changing an important feature of human relationships: we
no longer take for granted that people disappear. It's bad, of course,
when people disappear without warning, whether because of the secret
police or the demon in the bottle. But it has long been normal, as a
cultural matter, for people to disappear from one's life in particular
circumstances. To take an example... When "white pages" services began
to appear on the Internet, I wasn't all that curious about them beyond
wanting to make sure that I wasn't listed in them. But I was just
barely curious enough to pull one of these services up and, just once,
type in the name of an old girlfriend from the 1980's. Bad idea: her
name appeared on my screen with an address and phone number in Maine.
(Her name might fill phone books in Poland, but not here. It was
probably her.) I instantly regretted this, and wished that I could
erase all knowledge of her present whereabouts from my mind. The
problem is not that I'm tempted to contact her -- the chances of this
are truly zero. Nor does the problem pertain to any leftover feelings
-- after all, we're talking fifteen years ago. The problem is just
having her located anywhere definite on my mental map of the world.
It's better sometimes if people disappear.

Thus the problem with these messages that keep arriving from my
past. Some people are happy to relive their childhoods, but I'm not
one of them. So what do I do with these messages from people I knew in
junior high school? I don't want to be rude. After all, I'm the one
who disappeared on them one day when I got myself accepted to college
three years ahead of schedule and promptly vanished without a trace.
So I'm polite, but I don't invite long correspondences.  Likewise
with the distant relatives. I've helped them considerably with their
genealogical projects, in fact, for example bringing home detailed
family registers from a trip to Norway. But I've had enough family now
for several lifetimes, so beyond the documentary assistance I just act
polite and let things trail off. I'm sure they understand.

I've been thinking about this because of a series of messages that
I got the other day. These messages purported to originate with one
"Joel S.", or "Joel C." -- he provided two different last names, one
in the header of the messages and the other in the body. This guy
claimed to be a long-lost childhood friend of mine who stumbled across
my address on the Internet. I felt odd about this, given that I could
not recall ever having known someone by that name, and certainly
not as a close childhood friend. (It's not like I had a lot of close
childhood friends.) I said so, apologetically, and after a couple
of messages he said "I must have the wrong address. I am really
embarrassed. Please accept my apologies." and went away.

A normal case of mistaken identity, right? Maybe not. The whole thing
doesn't add up. First of all, I'm fairly confident of being the only
Phil Agre on planet Earth.  It's not a common name. Second, the guy's
messages were internally contradictory. He said that we had been
parted since childhood but still seemed to assume that I knew about
his marriage, which had supposedly just broken up. He said "I'm still
at the same number", suggesting that he's still living in his parents'
house, but the telephone exchange he provided did not exist in my
town when I was a child. He never even named the town. The messages
themselves seemed phony -- too generic, somehow, with their briefly
sketched tale of divorce. Above all, the guy asked me if he could stay
at my house. He didn't indicate that he knew where I lived, even
though I live 3000 miles away from the town where I grew up. Nor did
he have a clear reason for his request.

So here's this guy who sends me a message out of nowhere, tries to
persuade me that we are long-lost childhood friends now reunited by
the Internet, and wants to stay at my house.  What are the odds that
this is a scam, and quite a dangerous one at that? How many people,
having given in to feelings of shame at having completely forgotten
a childhood friend, would pretend that they remembered this guy and
actually invite him into their house? I ask just in case anybody else
out there has received similar messages.

For the sake of argument, then, let us say that I have now identified
a new category of online scams. Some people will respond to this
by blaming the medium. The Internet, it will be held, is not just a
place where rumors spread and hackers prety, but it is also a place
where dangerous scam artists guilt-trip their way into people's homes.
It's important how we respond to such ideas. One tendency is denial:
this is the approach of many Internet defenders, who also belittle
the whole idea of pedophiles and pornography online. Another tendency
is essentialism: talking as if the Internet as such, by its nature,
ahistorically, is a place of rumors and hacking and scams.

I believe that both of these approaches are unreasonable. What's
happening right now is a phase of cultural learning: the culture is
learning how to use the Internet. Every technology goes through this
phase: the culture learned how to use the telephone, the television,
and the personal computer, and now it is learning how to use the
Internet. One part of the learning curve is always story-telling: both
passing around specific anecdotes, generally polished into mythical
form through repeated retellings, and then putting names on these
anecdotes so that they become symbols for a larger pattern. Many of
these larger patterns are promoted by interested parties, such as the
public relations firms that have invested great energy in hyping the
notion that the Internet spreads bad rumors that innocent companies
must retain PR firms to guard against. In other cases the stereotyping
is simply a matter of cognitive economy: we can't know everything, so
stereotypes reduce the complexity to something we can manage.

The cultural learning curve around any new technology is necessarily a
collective construction: a large-scale process of sharing both stories
and concepts. In this way, every single Internet user will eventually
learn about those urban-myth cookie recipes that spread around as
chain e-mail, and the little boy who supposedly wants to set a world's
record for get-well cards (I got another one of those just today), and
so on. Once the culture comes up with names for all of the potential
pathologies of Internet-use, a lot of those pathologies will disappear
simply because people stop participating in them. That's the process
of cultural learning, and it's an important idea: it doesn't suffice
to say that "people" (i.e., isolated individuals) learn to use a new
technology. Instead, we must recognize different levels of analysis.
Cultures learn to use technologies, and individuals both participate
in those larger cultural processes and, having heard what the culture
has to say about the technologies, then confront the technologies as
individuals when their turn comes.

The idea that it's cultures, not just individuals, that learn how
to use technologies should have significant consequences. When we
encounter a phenomenon on the Internet -- for example, the putative
long-lost-childhood-friend scam -- we should neither deny it nor treat
it as part of the essence of the technology. Instead, we should be
conscious of the cultural learning curve, and we should try to nurture
that learning curve as best we can. This is the motivation behind my
"how-to" articles, and it is also the motivation behind a lot of the
best reporting on the Internet, such as the very good introductions to
the phenomenology of the digital world in the New York Times' Thursday
"Circuits" section.

The cultural learning curve should also have implications for design.
Present-day personal computers are too isolated, so that the transfer
of know-who between individuals is too difficult, and present-day
Internet applications force people into an excessive intimacy, so that
people have a hard time screening bad stuff out of their mailboxes and
hard drives, not to mention their minds. We need a better understanding
of the cultural learning process so that we can build applications and
institutions that support it rather than frustrating or exploiting it.

The Microsoft Corporation has come up repeatedly on this list as an
example of the malfunctions of the software market, so I ought to
disclose that I recently agreed to write an article about privacy for
the "yearbook" update to Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia.  I thought
for a while before agreeing to do this. I certainly needed the money,
so that was part of it. But the money obviously isn't a good enough
reason if it's immoral to do business with Microsoft. Now Microsoft
has never been a successful competitor in any major content or service
area, so one might argue that writing an article for Encarta is not
the moral equivalent of inducing somebody to use Internet Explorer.
But on the other hand, I expect that some people argue that Microsoft
cut off Encyclopedia Britannica's air supply the same way they cut
off Netscape's -- flooding the market with nearly-free copies of a
shoddy competitive product. I expect that other people will argue
that Encyclopedia Britannica, much like Netscape, dug its own grave.
I guess we'll see whether I go to heaven when I die.

In any case, one needn't worry that Microsoft and I disagree about
what should go into the article. They provided me with a detailed
outline, but I had no trouble saying just what I thought within it.
In fact, they want to make stronger statements tending toward the need
for medical privacy regulation than I wrote in my first draft. (I try
to muffle my advocacy thing when I'm acting as an official authority,
teaching in a classroom or writing for an encyclopedia.)

Having been directed by several knowlegeable RRE subscribers, I just
got back from an expedition to the Kinokuniya stores in LA's Little
Tokyo. Both of them -- a small stationery store on the second floor
of the Yaohan supermarket at 4th and Alameda and the stationery
department of the Kinokuniya bookstore on the second floor of the
Weller Court shopping mall at 2nd and San Pedro -- have perhaps a
couple dozen models of Japanese pens that I haven't seen elsewhere.
I dropped thirty clams and got two Sakura Ballsign gel pens (including
one in the series that writes on black paper -- look for the sparkly
cap), a couple of Uni-Ball Signos, a couple of Uni Lakubos, a Pentel
Hybrid "milky" pen (prominently advertised as the thing for teens),
a Tombo Coat highlighter/fax marker, a Super-GP 0.7 (to compare with
the 1.2 that Stephan Somogyi sent me from the Kinokuniya store in San
Francisco), a Pilot Hi-Tec-C, a large mysterious gold-colored Pilot
with a spring-action tip that I haven't gotten working yet, a Pilot
V-corn, and a Pilot Hi-Tecpoint V5C. Only the last two are liquid- ink
pens, both seemingly variants on pens that I've gotten elsewhere. I'll
let you know more about these pens (and a couple of pens with marbly
multi-colored ink that I've left in my car) once I've had a chance to
road-test them.

For those who haven't seen it, most of my previous commentaries on
pens are available on the Web at:

Recommended: Thomas Vinterberg's film, "The Celebration". Shot in a
deliberately spare style, with a hand-held camera that will make you
seasick for the first three minutes, this is an incredible Danish film
about a screwed-up family and its out-of-control family reunion.

Recommended: The Manchester Guardian weekly edition has recently
begun publishing a once-a-month supplement English translations of
Le Monde Diplomatique.  They've done perhaps three so far, and they've
been excellent. I sure don't always agree with them, but it's such
a breath of fresh air to see independent reporting about the rest of
the world. The American press is notorious for its lack of interest
in the rest of the world, and the excessive government influence
on the New York Times' foreign reporting has been well documented.
Subscriptions to the Guardian can be had from, and
Le Monde Diplomatique is online at

Not recommended: PR Week. This is a new tabloid trade rag serving the
public relations industry.  Although I've certainly never been a PR
person, I've read a great deal on the subject, taught a course on it,
and talked at length with many PR people. And I didn't learn a darn
thing from the first issue of PR week. Okay, so some PR shop is making
a speciality of Y2K-related PR; I'm sure that their fellow PR people
will benefit by learning about that. But the feature articles, about
topics like crisis PR, were remarkably lazy, simply recycling ideas
that have been around for ten years if not forty.

Random Credit Card Fraud with Small Charges

"Who Will Own Your Next Good Idea" by Charles Mann

International Journal of Electronic Commerce

Electronic Markets

Information Center for Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China

News Archive on Lin Hai Case

article about Palm Pilot-assisted auto theft

DL'99, Berkeley, 11-14 August 1999

ACM conference on information retrieval, Berkeley, 15-19 August 1999

speech on communication and democracy by Henrikas Yushkiavitshus of UNESCO

virtual university conference

Conference on Computing and Philosophy, Pittsburgh, 5-7 August 1999

LA public defenders' office page on wiretapping

The Alertbox: Current Issues in Web Usability

Working papers on socio-economic impact of advanced communications

Encyclopedia of Law and Economics