T H E N E T W O R K O B S E R V E R
VOLUME 2, NUMBER 1 JANUARY 1995
This month: Conservative infrastructure
Libraries and information activism
Information technology and the workplace
Mailer errors from hell
A batch of useful net resources
Welcome to TNO 2(1).
This month's issue includes four brief articles by the editor,
plus the usual departments. The first article offers some
thoughts on the incoming Republican majority in the US Congress
and the shifting political structure that it reflects. I want to
assemble some materials toward a more sophisticated understanding
of the roles of technology in political life. More on this topic
in later issues.
The next two articles are transcripts of contributions to panel
discussions on the subjects of "the potential dark side of the
NII for the workplace" and "the NII and the Constitution". Each
begins with lengthy demurrals about the assigned topics, followed
by more positive analysis. As usual, I suggest that neither
technology nor law make any real difference in the world unless
people get together to actively make and use them rather than
passively predicting their "effects".
Finally, I offer my top-ten list of the most annoying phenomena
I encounter as the maintainer of a large mailing list. The error
messages produced by Internet mailers are probably the single
worst bit of user-interface design that the average network user
encounters, and many of them really are beyond belief. I was
once among the people who assert that the Internet brings true
freedom of the press, given the old saying that "freedom of the
press is enjoyed by whoever owns one". But I've realized that
this isn't really true -- the tools do not exist for any but the
most fortunate and sophisticated few percent of Internet users to
maintain their own large mailing lists. The net will not live up
to a fraction of its potential until this can change.
The conservative revolution.
My liberal friends are virtually all in denial. They change the
channel when Rush Limbaugh comes on, they cite low voter turnout
figures as evidence against the electoral legitimacy of the new
Republican Congress, they assert as obvious that Republicans and
Democrats are the same by now anyway, they dismiss Newt Gingrich
and the editorialists of the Wall Street Journal as nut-cases,
they speculate that the 1980's provide grounds for predicting
that the new conservative movement will self-destruct and fade,
and they act as though they could rebut every last conservative
argument before breakfast with one hand tied behind their backs.
Dream on, my friends, because you are in serious trouble. Little
analysis of the detailed electoral numbers is required to figure
out that we're looking at the largest and deepest shift in US
political institutions since the New Deal. But the strongest
evidence goes beyond the numbers. The conservative movement has
built an impressive array of institutions, a system of parallel
structures with serious funding and a genuine mass base. This
includes parallel media institutions (the Washington Times, talk
radio and National Empowerment Television, all of them by-passing
the mainstream news), parallel public interest organizations (the
American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) competing head-to-head
with the ACLU, as well as a batch of other conservative legal
institutes employing the ACLU model but pressing property rights
and anti-affirmative action agendas), parallel intellectual
networks (based for the most part in privately funded think tanks
like the Heritage Foundation and Manhattan Institute, but also
in law schools and economics departments), and much else. One
reason why liberals can maintain their denial is that they have
chosen, by and large, to remain uninformed about these alternative
institutions. Their world has remained stable for so long that
they are unable to conceive that changing political conditions
could simply throw a switch, channeling cultural and financial
resources to the new institutions and leaving the old ones to
wither and die.
Money helps build such institutions, of course, but it's not
just money. The last decade has seen the rise of an extremely
well-organized network of activists who are much more thoroughly
studied in conservative ideology than the Reaganites of ten and
fifteen years ago. They support and recruit young Republican
activists on college campuses, they get vast amounts of ideology
distributed to people who can use it, and they sell large numbers
of books by Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises and a world of
other conservative theorists to people who really do read and
understand them. In particular, they have sophisticated ideas
about the structure of the liberal coalition and its weaknesses,
and they are exhibiting extraordinary precision and thoroughness
in applying pressure along the fracture lines.
One sign of the ongoing decimation of the liberal coalition
is its nearly complete lack of rhetorical traction in rebutting
conservative arguments. We can see this, for example, in the
impunity with which conservative rhetors have appropriated words
like "elites" (a term which no longer includes bankers but does
include journalists), "bigotry" and "hate" (now used to signify
opposition to the political program of religious conservatives),
and "political correctness" (a term which formerly was rarely
used in seriousness by anyone but sectarian Leninists but which
now routinely conflates social dissent and political repression).
We can also see it in the impunity with which these same rhetors
employ extreme vocabulary in their anti-liberal polemics -- read
any of P. J. O'Rourke's "enemies lists" in the American Spectator
for the prototype, but the phenomenon is pervasive.
Much will happen in the next few years. The Democratic Party will
disintegrate. The corporate funding on which it came increasingly
to rely as it alienated its mass base by increments since the late
1970's has now shifted radically toward the Republicans. (Most of
the figures you'll see won't seem to prove this, since the radical
shift only began toward the end of the 1994 campaign.) Corporate
money only went to the Democrats in the first place because money
buys access and the Democrats were the majority party. Now that
that's no longer true, this money will seek its natural home and
the inherent bias toward incumbents in the money-intensive political
process will lock in with extra strength. Enough things are
genuinely messed up in Washington that the new Republican majority
can be heroes simply by cleaning up the worst of them, starting with
Congressional rules. It'll take incredible discipline to balance
the budget, but they'll probably do it. If they do actually start
balancing the budget, though, they'll need to considerably deepen
the revolution. If they're smart, they'll take Bill Kristol's
suggestion and hold "show trials" of failed government programs,
presumably starting with the Departments of Energy, Transportation,
and Housing and Urban Development. Eventually they'll empty out
the Department of Education, since it's a creature of the Democrats'
most central constituency, the National Education Association, but
they don't need to do that immediately. What the liberal pollsters
don't understand is that the conservative ideological network
can back up Republican legislative initiatives with tremendous
grassroots firepower through talk radio and other media -- the crime
bill and failed attempts at lobbying reform in the previous Congress
provide good examples. What seems politically impossible today
won't seem so impossible once this machinery gets back in gear in a
few months. This effect will be awesome in the 1996 election cycle,
and Bill Clinton is more likely to be assassinated than he is to be
The biggest question is whether the new conservative majority has
enough discipline to prevent a return to the social conditions
of the 1880's, when a laissez-faire legislative majority and
legal system permitted the profound social chaos inherent in an
unregulated market economy to express itself. Large business
coalitions are already forming to eviscerate the Securities
and Exchange Commission and the Food and Drug Administration,
which regulate perhaps the two most morally hazardous industries.
Increasingly frequent proposals to means-test Social Security
benefits will turn Social Security into a form of welfare and
thus greatly increase its political vulnerability. Once people
like Richard Posner and Richard Epstein are appointed to the
Supreme Court, if not before, look for New Zealand-style changes
in labor law and the end of affirmative action. It's a leftist's
dream, in an unfortunate and twisted way, but it will take place
against the background of a thoroughgoing conservative hegemony
that will make leftist arguments nearly unintelligible.
What does this have to do with networks? All along, I've pointed
at something important -- the infrastructure of the conservative
political movement. This includes technical infrastructure --
radio, Newt Gingrich's videos and conference calls, direct mail
and the databases that back it up, and so forth. It includes
institutional infrastructure -- activist training by groups like
Gopac, networking groups like the Council for National Policy,
the Free Press, and the whole world of institutions based in
conservative evangelical churches. It also includes what we
might call rhetorical infrastructure -- the discursive forms of
public relations that provide standard frames and logics for the
ceaseless circulation and reassembly of bits of fact and argument
and narrative by conservative pundits and activists. And it
includes what we might call ideological infrastructure -- the
basic framework of abstract ideas that get filled in with this
rhetorical material in particular settings.
No one or two of these basic types of infrastructure suffices to
characterize or explain the material workings of the conservative
movement. In particular, technology is an indissociable part
of the whole picture, but it is just one part. In another TNO
article I want to sketch a framework for thinking about the
communicative metabolism of social movements in general, but for
the moment I simply want to remark on the specific uses being
made of communication technology by this one particular movement.
As I keep saying, the technologies do not in themselves determine
how they will be used, but their specific workings do matter for
the workings of the larger social machinery -- the institutional,
rhetorical, and ideological machinery with which it articulates
in daily practice.
Will the conservative movement change its character as (or, I
suppose we should say, if) access to computer networking becomes
more widespread? We cannot be certain. We can be certain,
though, that computer networks will not themselves change any
existing movements or create any new ones. Rather than wait
for that to happen, let us become aware of the specific ways in
which different kinds of social movements take hold of particular
technologies, and let us keep on imagining the other ways in
which the technologies might be used.
The NII and workplaces.
[This is an edited transcript of my contribution to a panel on
"The Potential Dark Side of the NII", organized by Stephen Bates
at the Annenberg Washington Program.]
My assigned topic here is "The Potential Dark Side of the NII in
the Workplace", and I want to start out by clearing the ground
with a series of hedges and qualifications organized around that
phrase. There are six of them.
First of all, the phrase "the NII" tends to presuppose that the
NII is a unitary system. This may actually happen if a generic
bit-transport protocol like Asynchronous Transfer Mode emerges
the most efficient way to ship all types of content for all
purposes. But an equally likely outcome is a great diversity of
information infrastructures tailored to different purposes.
Second, to speak of "the Dark Side of the NII" suggest that the
infrastructure itself produces good or bad social consequences,
and this is surely far too simple. The NII is not monolithic or
inevitable; rather, it will coevolve with a complex and varied
range of institutions and applications, and it is these things
that can be spoken of has having light or dark sides. I also
want to make sure we don't fall into single-factor explanations;
as the NII evolves, ten other important trends will be evolving
Third, in focusing on dark sides I'm wary of being typecast as
a technophobe. As I hope will become clear, my stance is more
complex and ambivalent than that, and I am quite enthusiastic
about the light sides that I do see.
Fourth, very little is known with any certainty about these
matters. The reality is evolving daily, and empirical research
is having a hard time keeping up. The argument I'll make here
rests on an extensive patchwork of different kinds of evidence,
but it is surely an oversimplification in many ways.
Fifth, from the point of view of analyzing workplaces, what's
crucial is not the NII, or National Information Infrastructure,
but the GII, or Global Information Infrastructure.
And sixth and finally, it is not at all easy to define what we
mean by a workplace. We want to be sure to include places like
kitchens that have often been neglected for their historical
associations with women's work, as well as places like commercial
trucks, airline seats, and hotel rooms that are increasingly
connected back to a mobile worker's home organization through
wireless and other forms of modern communications.
These points having been made, we're in a position to put the
emerging workplace in some kind of larger context. I want to
approach the topic of workplaces stealthily, starting with a
general consideration of the place of computer networks in the
What do computer networks do? Or, more precisely, what do
computer networks allow people to do? For one thing, computer
networks contribute to a generalized decrease in transaction
costs. This effect is uneven, of course, being most intense in
finance and only starting to emerge in areas like legal services.
At the same time, computer networks also contribute to a
generalized decrease in coordination costs. As a result, we can
expect to observe a very complex pattern of structural changes in
virtually every industry.
Generalizations about these things are bound to be flawed,
particularly given our current state of knowledge, but some
broad themes are starting to become clear. As experience grows
with large-scale technologies of coordination, power shifts
increasingly to globally coordinated firms that have the capacity
to orchestrate sharp global competition among their suppliers.
These firms have a strong incentive to outsource everything
except their knowledge-intensive core competencies and to
rationalize and standardize their activities to obtain the
maximum advantage from their global scope. Production processes,
including formerly concentrated activities such as design,
are broken down into smaller units, which are then distributed
globally wherever they can find the optimal combinations of
infrastructure, wages, skills, and political conditions.
Within organizations, as a general matter, networking facilitates
two simultaneous trends that in the older regime of Fordist
assembly-line production would have seemed contradictory,
namely a decentralization of operational decision-making and a
centralization of organizational control.
How does computer networking facilitate these things? That's
the question that will let us get the new workplace in focus.
In particular, it's the question that will let us get the
potential "dark side" of this new workplace in focus. In recent
times concerns in this area have been articulated in terms of
"workplace privacy", and the metaphors for thinking about these
concerns have been derived from historical experiences of the
secret police: the Big Brother boss is watching you, for example
by reading your e-mail, or listening to you, for example by
tapping in on the conversations of telemarketing workers and
These phenomena are real enough, although their extent and
significance has been debated. Yet the underlying metaphors,
while useful enough up to a point, nonetheless really do not
allow us to grasp the shifting reality of the workplace in the
globally coordinated economy.
Instead, I think, we have to back up to the deep logic of
computer system design as it is currently taught and practiced.
This logic seems simple and compelling. In order to support
an activity, a computer has to represent it. And in order
to represent an activity, a computer has to, as the computer
people say, "capture" it. And in order for *this* to happen,
the activity must be reorganized in a way that permits it to
be captured by a computer. A great diversity of technologies
is rapidly arising to support this process, based on accounting
software, bar codes, smart cards, radio-frequency tracking
devices, and much else. Whereas formerly system design meant
something closer to one-user-one-machine, now it means the
overlapping of globally coordinated human activity systems with
globally distributed computational processes.
It's not very useful to think of these schemes in Orwellian
terms, as oppressively detailed surveillance installed for the
simple purpose of oppression. Rather it's the playing-out of a
technical logic within an evolving market structure.
We can make this concrete in the context of Total Quality
Management and related schemes, which employ to one degree
or another what I regard as the two crucial elements of the
new workplace, namely empowerment and measurement. Work
activities can be measured to the extent that they are
captured, thus ensuring centralized control, and competition
with other suppliers removes some of the need for old-fashioned
direct discipline, thus making room for local operational
decision-making authority and creating pressure for continuous
This situation, obviously, is not all bad. The reduction of
direct discipline and the creation of space for local initiative
are raising skill levels and sometimes genuinely improving
working conditions. At the same time, the thoroughgoing tracking
of work activities and the ceaseless competitive pressures
organized by global coordination can, in very short order,
introduce severe new pressures and a great deal of additional
insecurity and instability. This sort of thing cannot be good
for anyone's health, much less their family life.
This, it seems to me, is where we discover the "Dark Side of
the NII in the Workplace". What can be done? To the extent
that computer system design imposes detailed tracking on human
activities out of simple habit, just because that's how the
design methods *work*, standardization of different design
methods, for example based on cryptographically enforced
anonymity, might help. Yet while these methods may actually
take hold in some consumer and commerce contexts, employers have
little incentive to employ them in workplaces, not least given
the enormous inertia imposed by the existing dominant standards.
The real solutions will be found, I think, precisely in what
I think of as the "light side" of the NII, namely its use by
ordinary people and nonprofit organizations as part of the
current flowering of global civil society and the rediscovery of
democracy. By this I mean democracy in the broadest sense, of
people coming together to take some control over their own lives.
Along with the growth of globally coordinated industry, we're
also witnessing the rise of global coordination among the people
who work in industry. As economic growth brings pressures for
political freedom in countries like China, much of this newly
released democratic energy will be channeled precisely into
the use of new-generation communication technologies for global
solidarity work in the union movement. All of those people doing
high-value work for low pay will want the high standard of living
that we've historically enjoyed in the United States, and they
are going to figure out how we got it -- through education and
union organizing. And over the Internet I bet they'll teach us a
lot about how to get it back.
A short reading list:
Philip E. Agre, Surveillance and capture: Two models of privacy,
The Information Society 10(2), 1994, 101-127. (See TNO 1(7).)
Stephen P. Bradley, Jerry A. Hausman, and Richard L. Nolan,
eds, Globalization, Technology, and Competition: The Fusion of
Computers and Telecommunications in the 1990s, Boston: Harvard
Business School Press, 1993.
Bennett Harrison, Lean and Mean: The Changing Landscape of
Corporate Power in the Age of Flexibility, New York: Basic Books,
1994. (See TNO 1(12).)
Mike Parker, Inside the Circle: A Union Guide to QWL, Boston:
South End Press, 1985. (See TNO 1(6).)
The Internet meets the Constitution.
[This is an edited transcript of some remarks I contributed to a
discussion organized by the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the
California Library Association at the CLA's recent conference.]
The topic we've been assigned today is "The Internet Meets the
Constitution". As computer networks become a more important part
of the larger process of getting information to people, a wide
variety of social choices will be made about the nature of that
machinery and how the machinery functions as part of society.
The Internet is an important test case for this process because
it is simultaneously one of the technical wonders of the world
and one of the world's greatest spontaneous experiments in
democracy. I will explain why I believe it is crucial for
librarians to take a leadership role in guiding the future
development of the Internet and information infrastructure
generally, but first I want to focus for a moment on the more
specific advertised topic of the Internet and the Constitution.
I want to make clear that I am not an attorney and that I cannot
quote chapter and verse of the law in this area. That's not such
a great handicap at the moment, though, since there simply *is*
very little settled law in this area at all. This is assuredly
going to change as more social life starts happening on the net
and more of the conflicts of that life move into the courts.
Nonetheless, it is my personal belief that librarians can expect
very little from new Constitutional law for the issues that most
concern them in the world of computer networks.
Partly this is due to the growing conservatism of the Supreme
Court, a trend that will probably continue, steadily if not
rapidly, for the rest of this decade. But it is also due to the
nature of the issues that are arising. Let me illustrate this
with a quick tour of five issues that concern librarians, most of
which arose in the discussions leading to this panel.
First, equal access to information for everyone. We're
all agreed that this is a good thing. But as information
increasingly becomes a commodity, equal access to information
becomes an entitlement. While a certain amount of due process
and equal protection might be found here, the courts are unlikely
to expand any kind of entitlement except through their review,
interpretation, and enforcement of particular legislation.
Second, ownership of information. This is a rapidly evolving
area, with a great deal of policy action going on in the Clinton
Administration right now which I urge you to learn more about.
The resulting proposals may include a variety of affirmative
requirements for organizations such as libraries to protect
the information property of others. The Republican Congress
is likely to support or even strengthen these proposals, and the
courts are unlikely to interfere to any significant degree on
First Amendment grounds or otherwise.
Third, privacy of communication. Much of the protection we
currently enjoy in this area derives from the 1986 Electronic
Communications Privacy Act. It has been a long time since
the Supreme Court has expanded its Constitutional privacy
jurisprudence, and some of the key precedents in this area are
built on complex interpolations of the First, Fourth, Fifth, and
Fourteenth Amendments that are highly vulnerable to limitation
in cases over the next few years. Privacy torts are in even
worse condition, and the courts do not seem to be accepting
academic arguments for an expanded tort law of informational
privacy, though some test cases may come up concerning
secondary uses of credit information and the like. Workplace
communication is receiving very little protection, not least
because the management owns the machinery. Most of the Internet
is in fact private property, and this fact bodes ill for broad
Constitutional protection for communication privacy, particularly
in workplace settings. Much remains to be seen, though.
Fourth, access to new technologies. It is widely held that
access to new-generation networking technologies is a social
justice issue. Historically this interest has been addressed
not through Constitutional law but through the universal service
provisions of the 1934 Communications Act. Attempts to update
that act failed in the last Congress, largely due to incoming
Majority Leader Bob Dole's opposition to updated universal
service and public access set-aside provisions. It is unlikely
that such provisions will even get out of committee in the
next Congress, and just as unlikely that the Supreme Court will
override the will of the legislature in this area.
Fifth, freedom of speech, press, and assembly on the net.
Some useful academic theory is being developed in this area,
and a number of cases have already been decided in the courts.
The outlook here is fairly good, but two crucial issues have
not been subjected to serious Constitutional test, namely the
scope of who counts as the press in cyberspace and the capacity
(or indeed, perhaps, the responsibility) of network owners and
service providers to restrict speech, press, and assembly within
their own domains.
The foregoing outline of Constitutional issues has been rapid and
oversimplified, and once again I do not want to present myself as
a final authority here. No doubt the situation is a little more
complex than I have made out. Nonetheless I hope you'll at least
consider the possibility that the future of information access in
a networked world is going to unfold not through Constitutional
guarantees but through organizing, action, and education in other
The main "other area" I want to consider here is what I call
the "architecture of information access". This is not just
the architecture of information machinery, though it certainly
includes that. And it is not just the architecture of
information itself, for example in cataloguing and interfaces,
though it crucially includes that as well. Much more generally,
the architecture of information access includes the whole network
of social relationships that surrounds and organizes the social
process of getting and using information. This includes schools,
bookstores, war stories told by coworkers, rumors on the street,
traditions passed from old to young, the press and specialized
commercial information delivery firms, and much else. From a
social justice standpoint, though, perhaps the crucial link in
the chain is the professional who knows about both people and
information, and about the hundreds of practical circumstances
that either connect people to information or else fail to connect
The rise of information technologies is bringing us many new
efficiencies and opportunities, but it only makes more complex
and more crucial the architecture of information access. Now in
addition to all of the above we have computer user groups, school
classes and after-school computer clubs, local computer gurus,
the whole on-line community, friends and coworkers helping one
another to get computer-based work done, system and interface
designers, and much else. What is the role of information
professionals in this whole network? It is a crucial role,
obviously, because all of the new complexity of information
access makes it even less inevitable that people will get
connected to the information they need. The amount of knowledge
needed to connect people to information in the new world is
staggering, and that knowledge only grows through the experience
of actually doing it and reporting back to the profession on what
Many technical people are wholly unaware of this phenomenon.
They are designing the net with little awareness of the complex
social architecture of information access. As library automation
specialist Karen Coyle points out, the Internet as it stands
is an amateur job. There's plenty of information, but it's
largely disorganized, with only the most haphazard provision
for professional help in connecting people to information.
This has to change, and it has to change soon before anti-social
technical standards become entrenched through widespread use and
What can librarians do about this? Plenty. Two things need
to happen hand-in-hand: experimentation and publicity. My
colleague, infrastructure policy expert Francois Bar, emphasizes
the crucial role of end-user experimentation in defining the
network architecture of the future. These experiments can have
a huge impact on the world through publicity. This means giving
presentations and demos to community groups, holding events and
sending out press releases, and making code and documentation
available on the net.
But above all it means organizing: going out in the community
and building an active constituency for information access
and intellectual freedom. Organizing is the only way anything
has ever changed in the world, and it's the only way we're going
to ensure that the democratic potentials of new information
technologies become real in our community and our nation the day
Bouncemail top ten.
In running a large mailing list for the past year or so, I
have become acquainted with a depressing variety of dysfunctional
mail handling software. I've gathered here my top ten least
favorite phenomena in hopes that a Universal Union of Large List
Maintainers might spring up to force them to get fixed:
10. Mailers that give intermittent "user unknown" messages
for users who perfectly well exist, perhaps because they
cannot detect transient local network problems well enough
to postpone delivering mail.
9. The confusion over the Errors-To: field, which sure
seems like a good idea to me but which apparently is not
part of the standard. It is supported by most but not
all mailers. If it didn't exist then I'd have to run my
mailing list from a separate account.
8. Mailers that generate messages lacking well-formed
headers, most commonly addresses like "someone@local"
without proper domain information.
7. Mailers that tell me "Press F1 for help with VNM error
codes" even though my function keys are unlikely to be
programmed the same way as they are for users at the
site that generates the bouncemail message. In general,
mailers designed on the assumption that all senders and
recipients of messages would use that same mailer --
particularly when the mailer in question does not think in
terms of standard IP domain formats.
6. Mailers that complain that a certain message could not be
delivered but do not specify who in particular the message
could not be delivered to. Also, mailers that complain
that a forwarded message could not be delivered without
providing any indication of what address(es) the message
was forwarded from.
5. Vacation programs that respond to bulk or mailing-list
mail or that do not keep track of who they've replied to,
with the result that I get batches of spurious vacation
messages (sometimes in German) as each holiday approaches.
4. Mailers that generate mail that cannot be replied to.
Sometimes a message says "From: Fred_Q_Smith@foobar.com",
even though the user's account is actually called "fqs".
Sometimes I have no idea why I cannot reply to a message,
and the mailer offers me no help in figuring it out.
This is particularly annoying when the sender in question
starts sending further messages to the effect of, "you
should reply to my messages, you rude person!" It is
even more annoying when the machine that generated the
bogus message does not have a "postmaster" alias defined.
3. Mailers that take a month before giving up on the delivery
of messages to a missing user, whereupon they initiate
a monthlong stream of error messages, individually, for
every one of the messages I've sent in the last month.
2. Mail-reading programs that automatically generate a little
message to the effect of "so-and-so read your message
about "routine administrative notes" on December 3rd at
08:41" -- even when the message was sent to a mailing list
and not directly to the person reading it. The people
whose mail readers generate these messages are usually not
aware of them, and their site maintainers usually do not
know how to shut them off.
1. The astoundingly baroque and uninformative error messages
that I have gotten from the Novell mailer.
Of course errors happen. The basic point here is that the error
messages are so incomprehensible, so incomplete, so inconsistent,
and so difficult to adjust or control. The right way to do this,
in my view, would be for mailers to be talking to one another and
maintaining updated status tables for the process of delivering
(or not delivering) each message. A reasonable amount of useful
information could travel over these lines of communication, and
my mailer could consequently provide me with some significantly
more useful functionalities. Imagine a GUI interface with a
window showing the messages that got bounced, deferred, and so
forth. And imagine that I could just click on each one to say,
in one nice clean operation, "okay, let's just take this person
off the mailing list, send them a nice explanatory note in case
they're magically back on-line, and expunge from the system all
remaining traces of existing messages from me to them or error
messages from these mailers about them".
This month's recommendations.
Campaigns and Elections. You must go read the December/January
1995 issue of the US magazine "Campaigns and Elections" ("The
Magazine for Political Professionals"). It's a special issue on
"grassroots lobbying", the practice of mobilizing and organizing
constituencies of "ordinary people" to pressure legislators on
specific issues, or issues affecting specific interest groups.
Of course, people have mobilized and organized themselves and
one another since the Stone Age. What's different now is the
rise of professionalized commercial firms that go out and create
grassroots movements for paying customers. Numerous such firms
have advertisements in this issue of C&E, and the issue would
be worth the $4.50 cover price for the ads alone. The issue even
includes a four-page "Grassroots Lobbying Buyer's Guide" listing
well over a hundred companies. In short, C&E is the cheapest and
easiest window onto the extraordinary distortion of democracy in
modern times, so check it out. (Ten issues a year, $29.95, 1511
K Street NW #1020, Washington DC 20077-1720.)
Kevin Phillips, The Politics of Rich and Poor: Wealth and the
American Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath, New York: Random
House, 1990. My car apparently having blown a gasket in its
exhaust manifold on Christmas, I spent Boxing Day at home reading
Kevin Phillips and Friedrich von Hayek in alternating chapters
with Rush Limbaugh's "The Way Things Ought to Be", seeking
some clue as to the nature of the vacuum currently being filled
in American political culture by the sophistry, mendacity, and
cruelty of the latter's muddled declamations. More about Hayek
another time, but I must say that the experience expanded my
already awestruck respect for Phillips, who is the foremost
student of American electoral politics. (Everyone who reads
Campaigns and Elections reads Phillips as well.) Despite his
being a Republican, he is merciless in his dissection of the
unfortunate structural changes in American society during the
1980's, and acute in his historical comparisons to the 1880's
and 1920's, among other relevant decades -- and not just in
generalities, but region by region and sector by sector. So now
I guess I'll have to get his new book, whose title is "Arrogant
Capital" -- the word "capital", I gather, referring to economic
and political elites equally.
Bob Scher, The Fear of Cooking, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.
Not a cookbook but a book about how to cook. This is the book
that got me past following recipes to being awake and aware in
the kitchen, able to cook without a recipe and able to diverge
confidently from recipes when the situation demands. Its motto
is "it's right in front of you". Charmingly eccentric and well
observed, its lessons about tastes, smells, rules, messes, fears,
failures, and learning are all written from the standpoint of
experience -- a mortal person getting along in a real kitchen.
This book has gone out of print for some weird reason, but if
you pester the publisher and talk to the best used book store in
town, you might be able to track one down.
Company of the month.
This month's company is:
1600 Peachtree Street NW
Atlanta, Georgia 30309
phone: (404) 885-8231
You've probably heard of Equifax -- they're one of the largest
companies collecting and distributing credit information on
consumers. They are also the most sophisticated among such
companies in terms of their public relations. They invest real
money in activities like publishing annual surveys of public
opinion about privacy issues. You might have seen, for example,
a recent Equifax press release revealing that a majority of
the American public would be willing to create a database of
residents for purposes of regulating illegal immigration. This
is no doubt accurate, at least assuming that the public is not
yet fully informed about the downside of such a proposal, but
the fact that they selected *this* number as the lead on their
press release provides some idea of the subtle game they play.
I recommend that everyone learn about the rhetoric and methods
of public relations around privacy issues, and an easy way to
get started is by obtaining and carefully studying Equifax's
materials on the subject. You'll find, of course, that they do
in fact have some valid arguments and that they do engage in some
responsible practices. The subtle thing is how privacy issues
are framed in the first place, and this is a matter best studied
through careful, repeated readings of the text, without having
to determine right away whether the facts and arguments being
offered are correct.
Try to defamiliarize the text in as many ways as you can.
Ask, how do the facts and arguments *work*? What is it like
to read them? With Buddha-like detachment, take note when you
find yourself adopting their questions as your own or thinking
"gee, I never thought of it that way". Read the text out loud
to some writers and artists and solicit their instant reactions.
Look up the etymologies of the words in a dictionary. Notice
the metaphors (fluids, conduits, forces, measurement, vision,
etc) and extrapolate them. How else might they have written it?
What implicit ideas do they have about ordinary people and their
beliefs and concerns about privacy? What implicit ideas do they
convey about the nature and structure of the personal information
industry? Gather a batch of reactions to the text based on such
questions -- it helps a lot to write them down as you go along.
Then sleep on it and send some relevant Internet discussion group
a message reporting what you've discovered.
(Of course, you can do all of these things with my own writing
as well, or the writing of anyone else expressing concerns about
privacy issues. It's just that theirs is much more interesting.)
Do not, however, harass the people at Equifax -- only request
their position statements on privacy issues if you genuinely wish
to read them. Thanks very much.
A couple of people from the Washington public interest community
responded to my discussion of Issue Dynamics Inc in TNO 1(12).
They pointed out that the founder of IDI, Sam Simon, far from
being a corporate PR person, is a long-time associate of Ralph
Nader, and they were particularly pained by my having mentioned
IDI in the same breath as Newt Gingrich. I didn't mean to
equate the two. The fact is, though, that IDI talks and acts
like a fairly sophisticated public relations firm operating
on the Internet, and my main goal was to educate net people
on the nature of PR work so that they can make their own fully
informed judgements about it. At the same time, these folks
correctly point out that IDI has associated itself with a number
of good causes, such as the Brock Meeks defense fund. I'm not
saying that it's a simple picture; I just want everyone to have
the facts to evaluate the picture for themselves.
As a footnote, one of my correspondents suggested that IDI's site
is called idi.net because IDI considers itself an Internet access
provider, and many access providers use the .net. I must admit
I had not thought of that. At the same time, it doesn't explain
The Chronicle of Higher Education is now on the Internet at
The first bona fide web artwork that I've seen and liked is "Life
With Father" by Joseph Squier. Its URL (which I've broken over
two lines because it's long) is:
It'll work better if you have a Macintosh with a large screen and
a fair amount of memory.
The EFF archive includes a nice concise how-to on lobbying.
Look in this directory, which has some other useful stuff too:
The lobbying file is called lobby_techniques.faq
The folks at LLNL have an extensive set of telecom net resources
indexed at http://www-atp.llnl.gov/atp/telecom.html
Plus more random stuff at http://www-atp.llnl.gov/atp/link.html
David Chaum's Scientific American article on digital cash is
available at http://digicash.support.nl/publish/sciam.html
Al Whaley <email@example.com>, who runs the CPSR gopher
and web pages, has been accumulating the messages to the Red Rock
Eater on-line. The URL is http://www.cpsr.org/cpsr/lists/rre
The Supercomputing '95 conference is going to be in San Diego
in December, chaired by Sid Karin of the San Diego Supercomputer
Center. They want to have a thoroughly wired conference, which
should be interesting. Check out their web pages at this URL:
In case anyone is interested, I've made web pages out of my
thirty-odd contributions to Risks this year. The URL is:
Phil Agre, editor firstname.lastname@example.org
Department of Information Studies
University of California, Los Angeles +1 (310) 825-7154
Los Angeles, California 90095-1520 FAX 206-4460
Copyright 1995 by the editor. You may forward this issue of The
Network Observer electronically to anyone for any non-commercial
purpose. Comments and suggestions are always appreciated.
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