Notes and recommendations.

So I've moved to Los Angeles.  People ask me why, and the true reason
is that Los Angeles is the big city and San Diego, bless it, is not.
When I first got here, I needed a ritual to mark the occasion.  So
I grabbed a cell phone and a copy of Business 2.0 (the cyber business
magazine whose name I accidentally mistyped the other day as Release
2.0, which is the title of Esther Dyson's book), drove to Santa
Monica, found a juice bar with sidewalk seating, ordered a double
wheat grass and a cranberry smoothie, sat in the sun, and returned
phone calls.  This was interesting for about five minutes, and then
I wanted to get back to work.  So much for LA rituals.

My new department at UCLA is the reconstituted library school.  Most
of the library schools have been going through revolutions lately
as they position themselves at what is allegedly the new center of
the universe -- the nexus between information technology and social
institutions.  The department's official name is still Library and
Information Science, but we have some paperwork lost somewhere in
the bureaucracy that is supposed to change our name to Information
Studies, which I'll admit makes me feel a little better.  Not that
I diss librarians, quite the contrary, but nobody wants to be in
a department whose official subject matter they know nothing about.
I'm learning, but still.  The opportunity here is to comprehend and
shape, in our own small way, the emerging generation of information
institutions -- public or private, gadget-focused or service-focused
or both, within organizations or between them, formal or informal,
educational or political or whatever, etc.  A great deal is known
about all of this, and it's a matter of abstracting out its essence
and applying it to the new situation in the world.  If you've read
my TLS article, ,
then you've got the idea, or at least my own version of it.

So UCLA is a happening place.  Come visit.  You'll probably be hearing
more about our plans, at least if you stay on this mailing list.

Here again, for those who might have missed it, is the new command for
unsubscribing from RRE.  Just send a message that looks like this:

  Subject: unsubscribe rre

Please forgive us if you're getting mail that you didn't expect to
get, or whatever.  Transitions like these are always clumsy.  The RRE
Web page has been updated with the new facts, and here is its URL:

Let me know if anything is wrong with it.

My note about the Times Literary Supplement, which published my piece
on information technology and institutional change, may have left the
impression that I was mad at them.  Not so.  Publishing in magazines
is always difficult.  They've got their own production pressures and
everything, so mistakes happen.  The bottom line is that, Internet
or no, the print publications still have the audience.  And the TLS
people didn't change the meanings of any of my words, which in my
experience is the exception rather than the rule.

I poured hot oil on the whole concept of disintermediation the other
day, and got several interesting messages in response.  Rather than
try to respond to these messages individually, let me expand on the
point a little bit.  The problem with the concept of disintermediation
is not that nothing resembling it ever happens.  Rather, like most of
the concepts that we use to talk about the networked society, it tends
to reify one end of a complex spectrum of phenomena.

The problem is analogous to the problem with the concept of virtual
communities.  Amidst my railing against cyberpundits, I do make an
exception for Howard Rheingold, who is a real intellectual.  For
one thing, he wrote his "Virtual Community" book way back in 1993 --
and it still holds up well today.  But the phrase "virtual community"
is nonetheless disastrously misleading.  Even though Howard knows
better himself, the phrase tends to set up an opposition between two
extremes: the mythical face-to-face community of American civic ideals
where nobody even picks up the telephone, and the totally Internet-
mediated community where nobody even knows where anybody else lives.
In fact, in reality as we find it in 1998, most communities lie at
points between these two extremes, and we only confuse ourselves when
we try to use the exteme concepts to analyze any real case.

And that's the problem with the concept of disintermediation.  One
could (and some do) try to define a concept like "pure intermediary",
which is basically the kind of intermediary for which the theory
of disintermediation applies.  In the market context anyway, this
is the kind of intermediary who does absolutely nothing except pull
standardized information from sellers (or buyers) and transfer it to
buyers (or sellers) with minimal processing.  Even if such a concept
could apply to some real case in the world, it is still misleading
because it invites us to ignore all of the other stuff that the vast
majority of real intermediaries do.  Disintermediation does have the
great virtue, in addition to the other sarcastic virtues I mentioned,
that it identifies a class of social enemies that information
technology can be employed to purge.  But if our goal is economic
efficiency, social justice, rational design, or honest social theory,
then we need to throw away that drama and get ourselves a serious
anatomy and physiology of intermediation.

What, then, do intermediaries do?  Once we compare and contrast them,
we discover that they do all sorts of things.  They deal with the
innumerable details that resist standardization.  They hear about all
of the pitfalls that their clients run into so they can warn you about
them.  They process, analyze, and synthesize information.  They watch
over the social environment for relevant issues.  It varies a lot, and
it not terribly helpful to try to analyze the matter in the abstract.

So to make matters concrete, let us spell out a particular scenario
that proponents of the disintermediation theory are likely to approve
of.  That scenario involves XML.  XML is cool.  Perhaps the purists
will cringe at me for putting it this way, but it's a cross between
a document markup language and a database notation.  XML documents
come in definite, predefined types, and each type has its own set
of specialized tags.  Someone could write (and probably already has
written) a "DTD" (document type definition) for resumes.  People who
are looking for work could mark up their resumes using the relevant
tags, put them on the Web, and make them visible to some Web crawler
that indexes XML pages.  Then an employer could search for suitable
job candidates by typing some keywords into a resume-specific search
engine.  The search engine could probably be constructed automatically
from the DTD.  Presto, no more want ads, and not even any more "job
boards" on the Internet.  Likewise, industries that produce heavily
standardized goods like electrical or mechanical equipment, where
any product can be almost completely characterized using a fixed list
of parameters, could get together to create DTD's for their products.
Then instead of going through market-makers, they could simply publish
their catalog online as a set of XML pages, and anyone wishing to shop
for such goods could simply type in a search request at a generic XML
search engine.

That's the scenario.  I didn't invent it; quite the contrary, it's
the conventional wisdom in many quarters.  So what's wrong with it?
Not that much, so long as you stick to the cases for which it works.
The key is standardization.  If the task at hand is simply matching
"wanters" with "havers", and the match can be defined in standardized
ways, then XML provides a generic platform for building the necessary
tools.  The deep principle here is the symbiotic relationship between
information technology standards and standards out in the big world.
The more information and communication technology you have, the more
incentive you have to standardize things like agricultural goods,
mechanical parts, computer programmers, etc etc.  And, reciprocally,
the more standardized things are in a given social world, the more
incentive that world will experience to adopt another round of
information and communication technology.  That doesn't mean that
things necessarily will get standardized -- standardization can be
costly.  But it does shift the balance.

To see this, think about two more examples, EDI and libraries.  Read a
brilliant article by Eric Brousseau, "EDI and interfirm relationships:
Toward a standardization of coordination processes?", Information
Economics and Policy 6(4), 1994, pages 319-347.  It's about the reason
why EDI (electronic data interchange) has stalled, and secondarily
why electronic commerce faces unexpectedly steep challenges.  EDI
was supposed to integrate companies more closely with their suppliers
by creating an open channel for orders and other associated data.
The problem, as Brousseau points out, is that relationships between
companies and their suppliers vary a great deal in their stability.
In some cases, the relationships are very stable and predictable.
Orders don't vary that much, and it doesn't take much data to specify
them.  In those cases nobody needs a complicated, expensive computer
system to send and receive orders; the telephone is plenty, or just a
standing order with fixed quantities.  At the other extreme, as in the
construction industry, things are so unpredictable that orders cannot
be specified over a data line using a moderate number of parameters.
Once again the telephone is required, or face-to-face interaction with
complicated paperwork.

EDI, like many technical systems, requires fairly large economies of
scale before it becomes affordable -- that is, a lot of companies have
to adopt it so that the costs of developing it can be distributed.
And that never happened because it was simply not useful enough to
enough companies.  Electronic commerce on the Internet might be more
successful because it unbundles several layers of functionality that
EDI systems enclosed in one complicated package.  The bottom layers
-- the functionality of the raw Internet before any applications are
installed -- can be applied to many, many purposes.  As a result, many
firms have multiple incentives to connect to the Internet, and the
fixed costs of developing the Internet can be spread so widely that
nobody even thinks of them as costs.  The pattern can then repeat
with all of the other elements of electronic commerce functionality,
layer by layer.  In each case, however, the story is the same: the
technology is useful when it fits in with standardized elements of
the institutional world around it.  The more such elements one can
identify, the more value the technology delivers.  And as the payoff
from standardization increases, the incentive to standardize things
increases as well.

Libraries epitomize another pattern: stuff in the world that is sort
of standardized, but not standardized enough that all of the effort
can be pushed to the margins of the system.  Library collections
encompass an amazing variety of stuff, in hundreds of languages, in
all kinds of formats, with all kinds of exceptions and quirks and
details, and librarians have spent centuries refining methods for
cataloguing the stuff.  To make the administration of their catalogs
as efficient as possible, the librarians keep using information
technology to push the effort, so to speak, upstream.  The OCLC
database in Ohio, for example, pools much of the world's cataloguing
effort.  Publishers are asked to prepare rough drafts of catalog
entries.  Individual libraries customize catalog entries to their
local purposes.  Each record is the result of a whole elaborate
division of labor organized by a sort of monastic cult that lives and
breathes the very detailed standards that make the results consistent
and thus useful.

These people, the catalogers, are intermediaries in the vague sense
that they stand between authors and readers.  (Another problem with
trying to apply the concept of disintermediation to everything is that
you're tempted to interpret everything as an intermediary, whether
that's a useful way to talk about it or not.)  You're not going to
disintermediate them.  Instead, what needs to happen is happening:
the people themselves keep reshuffling and reorganizing the work.
We can learn a lot from them.  See Chris Borgman's forthcoming book
for details.

That's not to say that the whole publication system should stay the
way it is.  Just about everybody in the research world is longing
for the day when we can get rid of commerical journal publishers who
acquire intellectual property from research institutions for free and
sell it back to them for thousands of dollars at a time.  This won't
happen, however, until the value that those intermediaries add to
research publications gets added someplace else in the value chain.
That is why most of the best innovations in journal publishing
are happening in technical and scientific fields.  ARPA and NSF,
visionaries that they are, have thought hard for many years about the
infrastructure of scientific and technical research, and they have
encouraged the use of standard tools.  That includes spectacular tools
such as the Internet, but it also includes mundane tools like the
LaTeX document formatting system.  If everyone who publishes technical
information uses LaTeX then it becomes much easier to run a journal,
and much of the value that publishers add (typesetting, copyediting,
and so on) becomes unnecessary.

Is this disintermediation?  Again, you can stretch the concept to fit.
It's much more useful, however, to map out the reshuffling division
of labor that becomes possible as the rising tide of standards makes
information technology more useful.  We'll still have intermediaries
in research publishing, but their functions will be different.  Their
functions should be moved away from commercial firms to university
consortia and professional organizations so that intellectual property
and other contractual constraints don't motivate the intermediary to
slow down the transition.  (If a journal editor decides to move his
or her whole journal and editorial board from a commercial publisher
to a nonprofit organization overnight, a lawsuit is likely to result.)

It's a trade-off: as we move those functions around in the system, we
lock ourselves into a whole new set of standards.  Those standards may
facilitate compatibility and cooperation and efficiency, but precisely
for that reason the standards themselves may become hard to change,
and the fixed costs associated with adopting the standards may tend
even more conclusively to marginalize those institutions, for example
in less developed countries, that cannot afford them.

I read a semi-humorous story once, about five years ago, by a guy
who had just finished running for a council seat in his town.  This
guy happened to be Jewish.  Now in the old days, a Jewish candidate
for town council would wake up one day to find rumors that he had
been eating the town's children or planning to sell everyone out to
international bankers or something like that.  We're far beyond that
now.  Instead, this guy woke up one day to find rumors that he had
accused his opponent of anti-Semitism.  He lost the election.

I thought about that story this morning as I read an article about
the response to Hillary Clinton's speculation, in an interview with
a Little Rock newspaper, that prejudice against Arkansas contributed
to the bizarre attacks on her and her husband.  Representative Jay
Dickey (R-Ark) responded to Hillary's comment as follows:

  "It is sad and unfortunate that Arkansas is depicted by the first
  lady as a backward state, worthy of ridicule and prejudice," Dickey
  said. "It would be much better if the first lady would make a
  mature and responsible assessment of the situation and not blame us
  Arkansans for their troubles."  (NY Times 8/12/98)

I had to read this several times, it was so twisted.  Hillary's
point was obviously that the alleged prejudice against her state was
unfair -- otherwise her argument would make no sense.  Despite this,
Rep. Dickey simply pretended that she had endorsed the prejudice.
And Dickey's comment is not isolated but part of a very common pattern
nowadays in which people who point out prejudice and discrimination
are themselves blamed for the prejudice and discrimination that they
are pointing out.  It's an argument that is so primally senseless that
is hard to know how to respond to it.  And that, I am sure, is very
much the point: to make a harsh, confusing, and really loud noise and
then keep moving to the next news cycle and the next attacks.

Some versions of the pattern are more destructive.  Take Clarence
Thomas' view, expressed in a speech the other day, that affirmative
action should be repealed -- and even that it is racist -- because it
presupposes that blacks are inferior.  This view was quoted widely in
the press as if it made the slightest sense.  What affirmative action
presupposes is that blacks suffer from pervasive, institutionalized
discrimination.  Reasonable people can disagree whether affirmative
action is the best response to that entrenched pattern.  Thomas'
comment, however, like Dickey's, is so senseless that it is hard
to come up with any response to it -- you can't analyze a logical
argument to identify its fallacies until you can find the first
semblance of a logical argument to analyze.  Lacking such, one is
put in the position of guessing or reconstructing an argument, itself
a hazardous procedure because it invites accusations that one has
put words into the person's mouth.  That's what things have come to
in the United States: utter nonsense shapes public policy because it
goes unanswered, and it goes unanswered because it is utter nonsense.

Another, related argument contents that promoters of affirmative
action want to create equality of outcomes when a free society needs
to be based on equality of opportunity.  I would swear that I have
heard this argument a thousand times.  Yet it, too, is so twisted that
it is difficult to make any sense out of it.  Promoters of affirmative
action believe that all social groups have the same innate talents,
so that massive, systematic inequalities in "outcome" -- educational
attainment, economic power, and so on -- are prima facie evidence of
discrimination.  In particular, they interpret inequality of "outcome"
as evidence of inequality of opportunity, and so they propose various
measures to level the playing field, thereby creating equality of
opportunity.  That's what affirmative action is -- a wide variety of
measures to level playing fields that have been (and are being) tilted
by discrimination.

So what's going on?  Even though the parallel grammatical construction
-- equality of outcome, equality of opportunity -- creates a surface
impression of logic, the argument itself (if you can call it that)
only makes sense on the assumption that discrimination does not
exist -- or, worse, that the only kind of discrimination that exists
is affirmative action.  You can believe that different social groups
suffer unequal opportunities because of discrimination without
supporting affirmative action as a remedy.  But if you don't believe
that inequality of outcome implies inequality of opportunity, then
you must believe in one of the other logically possible alternatives.
Those alternatives are not terribly numerous, and all of them are much
closer to racism than the position that is held by the supporters of
affirmative action.

But the worst and deepest of these twisted arguments is the one
about "playing the race card".  You may recall that in the primary
elections in Alabama recently, the mayor of Birmingham, who happens
to be black, endorsed the challenger in the primary for governor,
whereupon the incumbent (who believes that Alabama is permitted by
the Constitution to establish a state religion, and whose campaign
manager was Ralph Reed) and his allies engaged in a round of classical
race-baiting with all of the codes -- pictures of scary black men in
afros, you name it.  When the mayor objected to this, he was accused
of "playing the race card", something that the good citizens of
Alabama apparently just won't stand for.

When this happened, I wanted to slit my wrists and die.  You, of
course, recall where this phrase "the race card" came from -- it
originated with O.J. Simpson's murder trial, in which the defense
presented evidence of the LA Police Department's racism and
incompetence in order to raise a reasonable doubt that O.J. might
have been framed.  The jury found this evidence all too congruent
with their own experience and let him off, despite the otherwise
overwhelming evidence of his guilt.  When someone now cites that
phrase in some other situation, what are they doing?  That's right --
they're likening that situation to one in which a wealthy black man
gets away with murdering a white woman.  This is, obviously, the same
primitive racism that I grew up around in rural Maryland, only now it
has become repackaged under this fancy, indirect, high-tech rhetoric.
It is so very sad.

Ill Wind at CNN, including documents, from the LA Weekly

Some documents on virtual universities and the like:

California Virtual University

Restructuring the University for Technological Change
by A.W. Bates

Virtual Teaching in Higher Education:
The New Intellectual Superhighway or Just Another Traffic Jam?
by Jerald G. Schutte

Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity
by William F. Massy and Robert Zemsky

Milken Exchange on Education Technology