T H E N E T W O R K O B S E R V E R
VOLUME 3, NUMBER 1 JANUARY 1996
"You have to organize, organize, organize, and build and
build, and train and train, so that there is a permanent,
vibrant structure of which people can be part."
-- Ralph Reed, Christian Coalition
This month: How to wreck a community network
The economics of standards
Doing the Java war-dance
Chain letters and publicity stunts
Welcome to TNO 3(1).
This month Doug Schuler explains some of the ways that community
networking projects can inadvertently come unraveled. A lot of
experience has accumulated with these projects, and all of it
points toward the need to involve people and their organizations
deeply in the work so that it doesn't end up being driven by
technology or money. Doug is a founder of the Seattle Community
Network and his book "New Community Networks: Wired for Change"
comes out later this month.
Also this month I've provided a mostly-annotated bibliography
of references on the economics of standards. Regular readers of
TNO will know that I regard this topic as crucial. Information
infrastructure behaves very differently from other social and
economic phenomena, and if the information infastructure of the
future is going to reflect democratic values then it's because a
good-sized social movement has figured out how to intervene in a
remarkably complex set of social dynamics that are simultaneously
technical, political, economic, and imaginative.
This month's "wish list" follows up on this theme by offering a
manifesto for the construction of the widely heralded Internet-
centered computational universe. If such a universe is actually
coming then it provides a rare opportunity to do a lot of things
over again right. If the users of the world want the newly
emerging standards to be open and to support democratic values
then now is the time for them to get organized and articulate the
connection between standards, self-interest, and the common good.
Meanwhile, a brief article complains about ill-conceived chain
letters on the Internet.
A footnote. At the moment it seems likely that a strong version
of the Communications Decency Act will become part of the final
version of the US Congress' telecommunications bill and sent to
Bill Clinton. Many people have observed that the language in
this provision as it now stands is clearly unconstitutional under
current law, inasmuch as it restricts speech that is not just
"obscene" but "indecent". Yet I have heard nobody ask what must
be an obvious question: if the folks from the Christian Coalition
are as smart as they seem, why have they insisted on language
that will present such an easy target for civil-liberties
litigation? Aren't they afraid that all of their hard work
will go to waste? It's worth considering the possibility that
they have done this deliberately in order to raise the stakes.
Once the courts strike down their language, which they have sold
to their large and well-organized constituency as a necessary
means to protect children, they will have some high-quality
ammunition to use in organizing a movement for the reconstruction
of Constitutional law away from 20th century interpretations
and back toward those of the 19th century. Assuming I'm right,
what would such a change mean? It would clearly have significant
consequences for First Amendment law. But it would have even
greater consequences for regulatory law: a return to a broad
"freedom of contract" legal theory could instantly bring back the
tumultuous economic conditions that just about tore the country
to pieces in the late 19th century -- not a family-friendly
prospect. The underlying problem is that the Constitution was
written in a world without computers or corporations by people
who assumed that communication across large distances was
inherently difficult. (See the tenth Federalist paper, Madison's
famous treatise on factions.) The world is different now, and
major technological changes inevitably place the law under great
tension. It's a difficult problem to be sure, but I don't think
we can solve it by turning back the clocks.
Chain letters bad and good.
During the 1995 Christmas season, a message went round the
Internet claiming that the publisher Houghton-Mifflin would
donate a certain number of children's books to a good cause
if a certain number of Internet users sent electronic mail to a
certain address by a certain date. As Christmas came and went,
a second message went round stating that they had only received
a third of the messages they had requested. This second message
provoked a lot of speculation: was the first message real or a
hoax? When one person sent the follow-up message, which didn't
even claim to have been written by H-M, to several mailing lists
(lists, by the way, whose connection to children's books was
not at all clear to me), others questioned whether it was legit,
whereupon someone else sent a message saying he had called up H-M
and verified it, but then of course most people on the lists did
not know who this person was, and so forth and so on.
I won't take a stand on the question. On one hand, the message
didn't seem extravagant enough to be a hoax. But on the other
hand, to be honest, it was too dumb to be real. I am imagining
some publicist somewhere, who knew a little about the Internet
but not very much, thinking that this would be a no-cost pre-
Christmas stunt to position H-M as a hip, high-tech, big-hearted
publisher of children's books, unleashing this thing on the net
with little sense of the dynamics that it might set in motion.
What this person, if he or she exists, does not understand is
that anybody who has been on the net awhile has become accustomed
to a whole menagerie of e-mail microbes -- such as the "Good
Times" message, the "modem tax" rumor, and the "$250 cookie
recipe" stories -- that have been circulating on the Internet
since time began (a few years ago). These messages each suggest
that their reader would be doing a good deed by the simple act
of forwarding them to everybody they know. In this regard they
are the Internet equivalent of the boy in England who supposedly
wants to get a world-record number of postcards before he dies,
or the urban myth, propagated by people who send clippings from
local newspapers to their relatives in other towns who then
create rumors that get reported in the local newspaper, about
the peel-off "tattoos" that supposedly contain LSD. If you're
a publicist, please consider that if you attempt such a stunt
then anybody who knows the net at all well is going to place
you in the same category as these not-so-prestigious phenomena.
Of course, there do exist good reasons for sending out messages
for broadcast across the net. But these messages must be
constructed very carefully in accordance with formats that have
developed over time. For example I've discussed the case of
political action alerts in TNO 1(1). When these are done well,
as in the case of the excellent alerts from the Voters' Telecom
Watch <email@example.com>, the result can be instructive and uplifting.
When they are done badly, as in the case of the recent chain
letter originating in Japan against French nuclear testing in
the South Pacific, things can really get out of hand. I've
recently seen a message purporting to be from those Japanese
folks asking people to stop sending their chain letter around.
In my opinion their original message should have had a definite
expiration date, an organizational identity with full contact
information, sources of background information, and a clear set
of instructions only to forward the message where appropriate.
Everyone has to decide what the phrase "where appropriate"
means for themselves, but my sense is that it greatly reduces
the number of alerts that are sent where they don't belong.
In the case of the putative publicists, my point is not that
they were out to mislead anyone. But a problem with messages
originating in publicity stunts is that -- by their nature --
they are each *sui generis*, so that nobody understands what are
the appropriate places to send them. As a result, I expect that
an awful lot of people are grumbling to themselves about what
they regard as inappropriate postings. You *can* do positive
PR on the net (see TNO 2(3)), but you shouldn't fool around with
dynamics that you don't understand.
How to kill community networks.
Hint: We may have already started...
Seattle Community Network
Community networks (often called Free-Nets or civic networks) are
geographically centered computer systems that support the local
community with a wide range of free or low cost information and
communication services. While just a handful of systems were
operational in the late 1980's, perhaps 300 operating community
networks now exist and hundreds more are being planned. The
National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN) reports that the
total registered users on their affiliate "Free-Net" systems is
nearing 400,000 people.
For purposes of this essay, I'd like to further restrict what
I mean by a community network: A community network is designed,
used, administered, and owned by the community. These additional
constraints "disqualify" (here at least) several popular
non-profit and government projects and nearly any for-profit
The Community Network Vision
One of the most intriguing documents to emerge from the community
networking community is a list of goals that developers have set
for their systems. With few exceptions, the goals (offered by
attendees at the 1994 Ties that Bind conference) were unabashedly
idealistic. They included the "development of civil society in
a post-apartheid South Africa", "civic networking at the local
community level", "economic revitalization," "environmental
consensus building and education", "providing open forums where
free speech is encouraged", and "bridging the gap that currently
exists between people" to name just a few. Taken as a whole,
the goals reveal the optimistic belief that a more equitable,
egalitarian, and convivial future is possible -- if people are
willing to work towards it. This vision is quite different from
those offered by corporate interests, either major political
party, or the semi-official cyber "visionaries" currently on the
lecture circuit. In addition to providing a vision, these goals
establish a basis for action for thousands of experiments in
community-building. These local experiments include community
computing centers, employment services, electronic memorials,
social and political activism, economic development, health-
based self-help forums, teen counseling, assistive technology,
electronic pen pals, training and distance learning, homework
assistance and many others too numerous to mention.
Perhaps the unfolding of time will belie this optimism. Or
perhaps not. At this moment in history, while new communication
paradigms are being shaped, it may still be possible to play
a leading role. But this moment won't last forever. And
effectively seizing this moment will require persistence and hard
work. As abolitionist Frederick Douglass reminds us, "Without
struggle there is no progress".
Killing the Concept: Three Approaches
Community networks may continue their rise in importance or they
may fade into obscurity. Community networks will not be killed
by a stroke of the pen, a judge's degree, or a rejected funding
proposal. If they wither away it will likely be for reasons
that we see today; attitudes that can sometimes be found within
today's community network movement. These counterproductive
* Community networks are utilities, like electricity or gas.
* The lack of money is the biggest obstacle to their success.
* Community network projects are technological projects.
This last attitude has three consequences: Don't involve the
community; have "professionals" guide the project; and don't
Death by Utilitarianism
If a community network is seen as a utility, like electricity
or gas, that is always available and is paid for with a monthly
check, then it can be provided by the government or by business
with little or no involvement from community members. This
would mean another lost opportunity for citizen participation
and another lost opportunity to help rebuild the community.
Community networks as utilities offer little excitement. The
commercial network providers don't sell their services as merely
utilitarian. Their system may make your life more exciting (or
so the ad copy implies). In print ads for the "new" Prodigy, a
sultry "Loni" (who loves to "pseudo chat" on Wednesdays at 9:37)
is shown lounging against a car provocatively declaring "Let's
just say I don't hang out in the knitting forum". The other
commercial services offer a smorgasbord of virtual excitement,
edification, and entertainment all for a small monthly charge.
Although community networks may not want to entice users with
sex (although an on-line Dr. Ruth would be a valuable service!),
they should be made as useful, interesting, and exciting as they
We know that information and communication services provide
benefits unequally. University of Washington professor Philip
Bereano's reworking of the old maxim makes the point clearly:
"Only the naive or the scurrilous believe the Third Wave claim
that 'information is power'. Power is power, and information
is particularly useful to those who are already powerful."
Information is actually quite plentiful: we are already on the
receiving end of a firehose of information with neither the tools
or the time we need to give it adequate consideration. If all
this information were power then surely there would be enough
power for everybody! We find that the opposite is closer to
the truth: the asymmetry of power is becoming greater every day,
and computer networks are probably contributing to the problem.
The powerless are becoming increasingly isolated. Their opinions
are infrequently sought; their concerns are often not even
Therefore it isn't enough to provide more information. People
with no access to power -- let alone to computers -- and whose
voices are seldom heard need to be partners in the design of
new services. These services could include job information
and electronic forums for laid-off workers, crisis referral
information and information on civic assets -- churches,
organizations, meetings, projects, and programs. Most
importantly, the services need to be tied to community programs:
literacy, economic development, job training, activism, cultural
events, education, and others. And tying community networks to
community programs and community organizations is diametrically
opposed to the idea of information as a utility to be metered out
by a telephone or cable television company down an information
super pipe way.
Death by Fiscal Longing
A common complaint among community networkers today is that they
don't have enough money. While this complaint is true enough,
it sidesteps the real issue which is the lack of community
understanding and support. While money is indispensable to
a community network system -- for telephone lines, hardware,
office space, and staff -- its acquisition should not become
the sole motivation of the organization. I've heard more than
one developer say that if they didn't get one grant or another
they'd be forced to start charging users. Although a very small
fee might ultimately be justifiable, this decision may begin
a gradual shift in emphasis from a public library model to a
commercial model -- like Prodigy or America Online, a profound
If the focus is on money then the focus is unlikely to be on
community outreach. If the focus is on money, especially on
getting large amounts of it in the short run, then the organizers
will be more likely to accept a deal -- any deal -- with a large
organization that could swallow them or cause them to water down
their principles. Finally, focusing on the acquisition of money
in the short run blinds organizers from envisioning sustainable
models for the networks.
Death by Software Engineering
Attention to the technology itself is valid but should not
predominate. While software engineers may know how to build
programming language compilers and word processing applications,
they don't know how to build community. In general, the world
does not proceed by the same orderly and inflexible logic of
computers. And trying to conceptually force-fit the world
into such a framework can make the community networking project
seem irrelevant, uninteresting, unrewarding, and elitist.
If community members perceive the project in this way they are
unlikely to have any enthusiasm for it.
Community network developers, perhaps because of a focus on the
technology, have done little to advance their cause politically.
Unfortunately, many people now fear and mistrust politics and
feel that participation in the democratic arena is obsolete
(thus leaving decision-making to those without such doubts).
But the democratic arena, for better or worse, still exists, and
it is a proper place in which to debate and discuss the future of
The fear of politics can unnecessarily expose the entire movement
to external threats. Currently Democratic Senator Exon and
others are pushing legislation to enforce "on-line decency" in
a way that will force Free-Nets and other community networks
into the uncomfortable, unwanted, and wholly impractical role of
network censor. Although a stronger challenge could scarcely be
imagined, the community network community -- with some exceptions
-- is strangely silent.
Is it too early to work with legislators or to hire lobbyists?
Is model legislation needed? Developers are building local
technological models but perhaps it's time to build local
social and political models as well. In many cities there
are government efforts to put information on-line and provide
other services. While many of these efforts appear to be as
unapproachable as the commercial services, government is still
(in theory at least) answerable to the public. Developers
need to be working with local governments to insist on strong
community participation and oversight and to ensure that they
receive other information in addition to that which their
friendly telephone, cable television, and computer companies may
supply. Developers also need to be working with the local PEG
(public access, education, and government) community because they
have waged similar struggles in the past. And community network
organizers in communities all over the world might begin to
contemplate what types of relationships they need to build with
While the counterproductive attitudes I have described may
contain the seeds of self-destruction for community networks,
there is no ill intent within the community of community network
developers. Many developers (myself included) are relatively new
to the idea of community development and organizing, having come
from technical backgrounds such as computer science or software
engineering. We may also be naive. We expect the righteousness
of our cause will prevail or that democratic, community-oriented
computer networks are inevitable. Even a cursory look, however,
at the history of communication technology will reveal the
unwarranted optimism of this view.
The medium is currently malleable enough to be coaxed into
various shapes. On many levels there is a struggle for these
"shapes" of cyberspace. The struggle is waged with ideas,
debate, and investment (both of time and money) and everybody
who discusses these issues, influences policy, or builds on-line
systems is involved. It is largely a struggle of consciousness:
Who will define this future and what future will they define?
Will pay-for-byte, pay-for-view, and home shopping crowd out
public dialogue and deliberation, educational programming, and
alternative voices? Will there be a public place in cyberspace
for seniors, youths, or people with disabilities? The time may
be short -- and those with other views might move faster and
more decisively and more persistently than community networkers.
Determining the nature of public cyberspace -- and whether
it exists at all -- will be due in part to the efforts of
community network developers. To this end, developers need
to form strategic alliances with community organizations.
When organizations begin working independently through their
own channels, the momentum will grow rapidly. Developers
need to go to these groups and tell powerful, idealistic, and
transformative stories. Computer companies, telecommunications
and cyber-pundits are not the only ones capable of crafting
alternative futures for cyberspace.
While working with other community organizations is crucial,
developers also need to register lots of users -- tens and
hundreds of thousands -- and make sure that they are finding the
information and services that they need. Make sure also that
they are engaged in a dialogue about the future of free, public
computing. The community network message is simple, yet it is
powerful and compelling. In spite of the high intensity rhetoric
to the contrary, people still "get" public libraries, free fire
and police protection, free public universal education, and free
public, community cyberspace.
Bibliography on the economics of standards.
Several issues of TNO have touched on the remarkable and highly
consequential economic phenomena that attend technical standards,
particularly with regard to issues of interoperability, and
this month's "wish list" is about to carry the analysis further.
One of my goals in TNO is to explore the implications of these
phenomena for a broader range of political and social issues,
with particular reference to the ways that the Internet community
can organize itself to intervene in order to encourage both
technical advance -- through coherent, extensible, well-designed
open standards -- and social justice -- through broad access to
the means of association that computer technology and especially
computer networking may be able to provide. So here are some
of the more useful references. I have also included several
references to the economics of information infrastructure more
generally. All of these references will be helpful to anyone
who wants to get deeper into the issues raised by the "economics"
section of my article on genres for new media in TNO 2(11).
Brian Kahin and Janet Abbate, eds, Standards Policy for
Information Infrastructure, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995. This
extensive edited collection is probably the best starting place
for exploration of these issues.
Carl F. Cargill, Information Technology Standards: Theory,
Process, and Organizations, Maynard, MA: Digital Press, 1989.
An influential book distinguishing various types of standards,
various stages in the standards-setting process, and various
roles that standards can have in a single organization's
processes and strategies.
Caroline S. Wagner, Carl F. Cargill, and Anna Slomovic, Standards
and the National Information Infrastructure: Implications for
Open Systems Standards in Manufacturing, Santa Monica, CA: RAND,
1994. An excellent and unfortunately obscure paper arguing for
a policy of government support for standards-setting activity,
inasmuch as standards are often public goods.
Cristiano Antonelli, ed, The Economics of Information Networks,
Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1992. See especially Antonelli's own
survey article, "The economic theory of information networks",
which includes an impressive taxonomy of different kinds of
externalities that operate on the economics of information
H. Landis Gabel, ed, Product Standardization and Competitive
Strategy, Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1987. See especially the
first chapter, by Joseph Farrell and Garth Saloner, which I have
already recommended in TNO 2(8).
Paul A. David, Clio and the economics of QWERTY, American
Economic Review 72(2), 1985, pages 332-337. A famous article
about how standards get entrenched in the economy -- that is,
become "de facto" standards -- even when they do not represent
the best available technical approach.
W. Brian Arthur, Self-reinforcing mechanisms in economics, in
Philip W. Anderson and Kenneth J. Arrow, eds, The Economy as an
Evolving Complex System, Redwood City, CA: Addison-Wesley, 1988.
A more theoretical consideration of the mechanisms through which
economic phenomena can produce the conditions for their own
perpetuation and expansion, so that whichever option gets an
initial jump in the economy then gets reinforced even though it
may not be the best one by some objective standard.
Robert E. Babe, ed, Information and Communication in Economics,
Boston: Kluwer, 1994. I find that the economics of information
technology standards is, as you might expect, greatly clarified
in the context of the economics of information. This volume is
quite eclectic, and Babe's own historical review is the chapter
that is most relevant here.
Lisa Bud-Frierman, ed, Information Acumen: The Understanding
and Use of Knowledge in Modern Business, London: Routledge,
1994. This is a terrific collection of papers on the connection
between infrastructure, standards, information, and ideology in
the history of business. Geof Bowker's article at the end sums
up a truly profound point: that the practice of talking about
the whole world within a common repertoire of categories, though
taken for granted and treated as something entirely natural and
given, in fact presupposes the existence of the infrastructure
and institutions to represent the world in a standardized way
across its full extent. Mark Casson's article provides a useful
outline of how economists think about the role of information in
shaping economic relationships. As standards and infrastructure
spread, he says, information costs go down, so that transaction
costs do as well, meaning that the economy evolves toward the
ideal of perfect markets, so that transactions come increasingly
to be governed by freshly negotiated price-mediated exchange
rather than custom.
Shane M. Greenstein, Invisible hands and visible advisors: An
economic analysis of standardization, Journal of the American
Society for Information Science 43(8), 1992, pages 538-549.
D. Linda Garcia, Standard setting in the United States: Public
and private sector roles, Journal of the American Society for
Information Science 43(8), 1992, pages 531-537.
Michael B. Spring, Information technology standards, Annual
Review of Information Science and Technology 26, 1991, pages
Oliver E. Williamson and Sidney G. Winter, The Nature of the
Firm: Origins, Evolution, and Development, Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1991. This book surveys intellectual
developments downstream from Ronald Coase's original 1937
paper on transaction costs and the structure of the firm.
The information technologies that he had in mind were the
telegraph and telephone, of course, but the point generalizes.
William J. Drake, Europe in the new global standardization
environment, in Charles Steinfield, Laurence Caby, and Johannes
Bauer, eds, Telecommunications in Europe: Changing Policies,
Services and Technologies, Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1992. A
good article about evolution in the institutions through which
standards related to telecommunications are being established.
Nathan Rosenberg, Telecommunications: Complex, uncertain,
and path dependent, in Exploring the Black Box: Technology,
Economics, and History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1994. A good, brief summary of the distinctive economic features
of telecommunications networks.
George Basalla, The Evolution of Technology, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1988. One of several theories of technology
choice that likens the process to biological evolution through
natural selection within a complex ecosystem -- the primary
alternative in this area to the neoclassical economic worldview.
Gernot Grabher, The Embedded Firm: On the Socioeconomics of
Industrial Networks, London: Routledge, 1993. This isn't about
standards as such but about the economics of the increasingly
complex and various interorganizational relationships whose
shape influences and is influenced by the workings of networking
I wish for a completely brand-new set of e-mail standards based
on the Web. The basic Internet e-mail standards we have now are
okay for the 1970's and for basic things: ASCII text is still the
major use that most of us have for e-mail, or more accurately,
ASCII text is still passably adequate for the major uses that
we now have for e-mail. The problem is that those old standards
have become set in stone, not because someone decreed it thus but
because there are now dozens or hundreds of systems in use that
assume those standards: mailers, mail-readers, Listserv, and so
on, and it would be nearly impossible to get everyone to upgrade
to more sophisticated standards in a coordinated way. But those
old standards have a lot of problems -- for example it is hard
to send anything except plain ASCII. MIME was a heroic effort to
define a higher-level standard that permitted more complex kinds
of documents to be mailed around. It's a good thing, but it only
goes so far and it has attained far from universal acceptance.
This impasse can be broken, though, as Java permits hundreds
of useful new applications to be built on top of the WorldWide
Web. This really is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get a
lot of things right by setting really-thought-through standards,
most especially for e-mail. In case it's not clear, what I have
in mind is a brand-new kind of e-mail that you use from entirely
within your Web browser. I don't pretend to know in any detail
the right way to do this. An e-mail message is probably just a
URL that your server sends to my server or vice-versa, where the
URL points at a form with various standard fields and a link to
the body of the message, which of course may have other links to
anything it likes. So now it's a trivial matter to mail someone
any format of material that their Web browser can handle, and if
you send them a format they can't handle then they can just go
and download the necessary bit of extra software (as for example
with the Adobe reader for PDF). Merging e-mail with the existing
Web will also help erode the dichotomy between passive reception
of information (e-mail) and active search (Web browsing). The
challenge, of course, would be to design something that everyone
could upgrade to -- or else we'd just be expanding the morass of
incompatible standards. As the MIME experience shows, this is at
least as much a hard social process of consensus-building as it
is a technical process.
While I'm wishing away here, I would particularly like this new
e-mail regime to include an extensive set of building blocks and
other support for end-user programming. Individual net users
should be able to build their own mailing lists, servers, and
other e-mail based mechanisms, with the level of sophistication
of these mechanisms depending in a smooth way on their level of
programming skill. So for example users would be able to simply
fill in a form to create a simple mailing list like the ones that
Listserv supports now, with form entries to control things like
moderation, the text that is sent to new subscribers, whether
nonsubscribers can submit items to the list, whether the list
of subscribers is private or openly available or what, and so on.
Then someone else could build a system to let people build other
kinds of servers that are controlled with e-mail, for example
servers that manage file archives (e.g., an archive of the
past messages to a list), operate real-time games, or whatever.
At last -- a world without Unix sendmail! More importantly, a
GUI interface that provides freedom of the press to people who
do not otherwise own one. That's what the Internet is supposed
to be about, but hasn't really become yet. Maybe such a system
could even become a platform, at long last, that will let anyone
build their own distributed applications -- it's surprising, in
this day and age, how few globally distributed applications are
running on public networks.
What will it take to create such a happy world? Obviously it
will take a lot of hard technical work. The standards-setting
activities at the WWW Consortium have plenty of vision, talent,
and good intentions, but they're going to need everyone's help
-- and everyone's vigilance. Vigilance will be needed to ensure
that the process results in open standards, and especially so
that proprietary standards do not get entrenched in the global
economy, thereby creating a replay of the Microsoft Windows
debacle. Vigilance also involves community spirit: when deciding
whether to adopt one of the hundreds of Web-based Internet
applications that will appear over the next few years, everybody
needs to apply a version of Kant's categorical imperative by
asking whether that application would make a good de facto
standard for the whole Internet. Often an individual or
organization can acquire a local, temporary kind of advantage
by adopting a system that then turns out to be a closed
standard, so that they pay a penalty if they buy any other
supplier's upgrades. Avoiding this situation is self-interest.
But individuals and organizations can sometimes also acquire
short-sighted advantage by adopting particular applications
without first getting a sense of what is good for the whole
community: what is open enough, extensible enough, broad
enough to include everyone's requirements, able to provide
basic functionality to people without the highest-end hardware
or broadest bandwidth, and so on. Technology adoption can
and should be a matter of broad discussion and debate in the
community of users, not just isolated choices by isolated
individuals. And I think that recent history has made clear that
this is true *both* for sound economic reasons *and* for sound
political reasons as well. If the user community exhibits this
kind of solidarity then the vendors will have no choice but to
comply with what the community decides.
The Internet can play a crucial enabling role in supporting
this global congress of users. It is a rapid, flexible medium
for conducting debates, and it is a place where anybody's views
can travel far and wide if they are phrased compellingly enough.
But the simple existence of the Internet does not ensure that the
necessary discussion will take place, nor does the establishment
of broad access to Internet connectivity. What's also required
is confidence that technical imagination, which is always also
social imagination, is a material force. Information technology
is one area where the supply-and-demand equilibration of the
decentralized market does not necessary yield the most efficient
outcome -- even by the narrow definition of efficiency found in
economics. That is because of the extensive range of economic
externalities that are inherent in the technology, especially
because of the tendency of certain de facto standards to become
entrenched in the market. Whereas supply and demand in perfect
markets settle down to a single unique optimum, markets involving
externalities associated with the interoperability of machinery
(hardware, software, networks, protocols, and so on) exhibit
what economists call "path dependencies". When the long list
of assumptions that constitute "perfect markets" roughly hold
true (which they sometimes do), such effects can be treated as a
residual category, "external" to the smoothly functioning price
system. But information technology turns this picture inside
out: the "externalities" become central to the picture and the
central phenomenon of neoclassical economics -- the fact that,
other things being equal, people buy less or something that
costs more and vice versa -- becomes nearly useless as a guide
to strategy and policy, or at best simply one principle among
We often forget about the struggle between vendors and users
over open and closed standards, or else underestimate its
scope and consequences, because our attention has been grabbed
by the phenomenally successful open standards of the Internet
-- specifically the TCP/IP protocols. But the market does not
tend to produce things like the Internet, for the simple reason
that things like Windows -- the opposite end of the open-closed
spectrum -- are much more profitable. Closed standards, though,
are only profitable once they get entrenched, and they only get
entrenched if their suppliers get a powerful jump on the market.
This "jump" has two parts. The less important part is simply
being first and/or most aggressive to market. The more important
part is a discoordinated user community: if a user community is
not working as vigorously to share its experiences as vendors are
working to push their proprietary standards, then everyone will
end up paying a much higher price than they realize in the long
term. This has become obvious enough for operating systems, but
many people still don't find it obvious for lots of other systems
-- think about Lotus Notes, or the Microsoft/Visa electronic
payment specs. Unix is an even worse example since it is an
irremediably poor standard that has gotten entrenched in a large
segment of the market while also fragmenting into an uncountable
number of variants, each of which is entrenched in its own
subset of local user environments. If we have our act together
this time then maybe we can avoid these sorry phenomena in the
forthcoming universe of Internet-based systems.
This month's recommendations.
Given that TNO 2(12) ended the year with a somewhat peculiar list
of Things That Are Not Good, it's only fair to start the new year
with an equally peculiar list of Things That *Are* Good. And so
here they are...
Foam-rubber ear plugs. I first started wearing foam-rubber ear
plugs virtually every night when I lived in a loft five floors
above the largest all-night Chinese restaurant in Boston, whose
revelrous patrons routinely created traffic jams at 3AM. They
improved my life instantly, and since then I cannot tell you
how many roommates, songbirds, motorcyclists, car alarm owners,
television watchers, hotel managers, and bouncers of upstairs
bedsprings owe their lives to these marvels of low technology:
cylinders of foam rubber, usually white, measuring perhaps 1/2"
inch in diameter and 3/4" inch in length. Two widely available
brands are Flents and North, and you can buy them in bulk from
industrial supply catalogs (they are often provided to machinists
and the like). They are indispensable for traveling, especially
if, like me, you often stay in pensions and youth hostels and
cheap motels that turn out to be across the street from major
freight lines. They only work passably on sounds created within
the room you're trying to sleep in, but they work quite well on
sounds whose high frequencies have been filtered out by walls.
Robert Christgau's "Consumer Guide" in the Village Voice. Being
an intellectual, I'm supposed to disapprove of commodity-making
exercises like ratings and rankings. Yes, it's easy to reify
the rankings so that you taste the score the wine got in the
guidebook rather than the wine that's actually in your mouth.
Nonetheless, my omnivorous appetite for music prevents me from
sampling everything I want to listen to. Most of it is rarely
on the radio, and I don't go to enough clubs to keep up with it
all. So I read Robert Christgau's more-or-less monthly "Consumer
Guide" in the Village Voice. Even though his one-paragraph
reviews are written in the Voice's typical insiderish code,
they still manage to communicate useful information. The real
point, though, is in the grades: A+, A, A-, B+, B, B-, etc.
He finds, as I do, that the hardest thing is deciding what's
a B- and what's a C+, so lately he has stopped listing most
everything below A- except when bursting the balloon of an overly
hyped "must to avoid". His range is considerable, with greatest
strengths in rock, pop, hip-hop, and world music, with some
jazz and country and almost no classical. I find his judgements
extraordinarily precise, meaning of course that they agree with
mine, and I'm really impressed with his ability to distinguish
the merely very good from the genuinely permanent. If you own
most of his A and A+ records then you have an outstanding record
collection, and more importantly you've been forced to acquire
a lot of tastes. I do think he has an excessive weakness for
eccentrics (such as the unlistenable Peter Stampfel) and for
interminable greatest-hits CD's (e.g., the admittedly virtuous
archival compilations from Rhino Records), but I can just ignore
those. Da Capo Press has published a book of his reviews from
the 1980's, which I highly recommend for those who now regret
having stuck with the Top 40 through that pretty decent musical
Library Express. The library at UCSD provides its patrons with
this amazing service called Library Express, and it makes the
professors at other universities jealous when I tell them about
it. Here's how it works: I call up the library's catalog on my
computer, and when I find a book I want I type "X" (entering a
password the first time in each session), and the book shows up
in my department's office a few days later with my name on it.
I like to stay current with several different fields, depending
on what I'm working on at any given moment (right now it's
economics, social studies of technology, theories of democracy,
and the social organization of public controversies), and Library
Express provides me with an efficient way to acquaint myself
with all of the relevant work all of the time. I sometimes feel
guilty about using it so much. One of the librarians referred
to me as a "power user"; he made it sound like a good thing. The
fact is, I can't imagine how I could live without it. I learn
about books I want to see in several ways: through book reviews,
publishers' catalogs, the communication librarian's periodic
lists of new acquisitions, and above all the bibliographies of
other publications I have read. I keep lists of titles on 3x5
cards (I consume about 2000 3x5 cards a year, a fact I hope to
write about for TNO some day), and periodically I request another
batch from among the accumulated titles that seem most important.
The breakdown of boundaries between disciplines is generally a
good thing in my view, and Library Express is one way that busy
scholars can maintain bridges across disciplinary boundaries
through current awareness of one another's fields.
The Practical Strategist and the Movement Action Plan. Now that
the Internet civil liberties community has gotten comprehensively
hosed on the issue of online censorship, it might be time to
learn how a real social movement is constructed. Two excellent
and cheap guides to the process are The Practical Strategist and
the Movement Action Plan by Bill Moyer <firstname.lastname@example.org> of
the Social Movement Empowerment Project (721 Shrader Street, San
Francisco CA 94117, +1 (415) 387-3361). Bill (who is not Bill
Moyers the journalist) worked in the civil rights movement with
Martin Luther King, and these texts distill his understanding
of King's procedures for building a social movement. It's
important to have a strategy, and it's important to have a set
of values that can draw people together noncoercively and provide
a background for resolving internal disputes (particularly the
ones caused by pathologically divisive people, who as Bill points
out are indistinguishable in their behavior from government
provocateurs) and helping everyone get in gear for the long haul.
They're each $2 plus $1 s/h (with volume discounts) from SMEP at
the above address.
I've bumped this month's follow-up to February to stay near my
self-imposed 50K limit.
Amy Bruckman's Technology Review article on building community
on MediaMOO is on the web at the following very long URL,
which I have broken into two lines: http://www.techreview.com/
Some interesting articles about the far right are on the Public
Good site at http://nwcitizen.com/publicgood/
The fan club for the Dilbert comic strip is called, as you would
expect, "Dogbert's New Ruling Class". The Dilbert home page is
located at http://www.unitedmedia.com/comics/dilbert/
Alta Vista is DEC's impressively fast search engine, and it's
the reductio ad absurdum of keyword-based searching of the Web.
Whatever you give it, it'll instantaneously return a directory
of anywhere from 3 to 300,000 tangentially relevant pages. The
URL is http://www.altavista.digital.com/
The CIA's Vision, Mission, and Values are summarized at
Phil Agre, editor email@example.com
Department of Information Studies
University of California, Los Angeles +1 (310) 825-7154
Los Angeles, California 90095-1520 FAX 206-4460
Copyright 1996 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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