T H E N E T W O R K O B S E R V E R
VOLUME 2, NUMBER 6 JUNE 1995
This month: Reforming computer science
The Exon bill -- the day after
Computing and the people
Corporate privacy policies
Welcome to TNO 2(6).
This issue of TNO includes three short articles by the editor.
The first one prescribes a change in attitude for the field of
computer science, from automating other people's lives to working
with the people who have deep knowledge of the particular worlds
where computers are used. The second reflects on the conflict
between Republicans over the Communications Decency Act, which
may be a model for many other such conflicts among conservatives
down the road. And the third offers some first thoughts on the
sense in which computer technology is increasingly "popular" --
that is, shaped by the collective action of ordinary people for
their own purposes. Plus two short notes: one on electronic junk
mail and another on conspiracy theories about the Oklahoma City
This month's wish list gathers a batch of small items that have
been bothering me, mostly about books and magazines. I've also
included a review of Jeff Smith's book "Managing Privacy" that
Wired magazine wouldn't print.
David Henkel-Wallace <email@example.com> (who doubts that he's
the first one to have noticed this) points out that "information
superhighway" is an anagram for "New utopia? Horrifying sham."
A footnote. Reporters have to stop confusing the Internet with
Usenet and acting as if the Internet were coextensive with the
public discussion groups that reporters can easily listen in on.
Both of these problems are evident in the following article:
Julie Chao, Internet pioneers abandon world they created,
Wall Street Journal, 7 June 1995, page B1.
It's an article about physicists who have stopped reading the
Usenet discussion groups on physics because they're full of
uninformed speculation and polemics. Gee whiz -- I'm surprised
that the physicists didn't forget those groups a decade ago.
But the idea of physicists literally abandoning the Internet
is like -- like what? -- like the idea of Chicagoans abandoning
sports. Who, for example, invented the Web? Let's encourage
reporters to look at the real uses of the Internet in scientific
communities -- and every other kind of community. It's just
that doing so requires a little more effort than listening in
on a news group.
Computer science is dead.
I have a doctoral degree in computer science, but I now teach
in a social sciences department. Though I would like to think
I'm starting a trend, the evidence is not strong. Even so, the
evidence *is* strong that the academic discipline of computer
science is in trouble. I was first alerted to this fact a few
years ago when my officemate from graduate school quit a top-rank
computer science faculty position to work for Microsoft because
he wanted to be where the action is. He's right: the agenda for
computer science research has shifted from academia to industry.
But the problem runs deeper than that, and I think that computer
science needs to fundamentally reinvent itself to avoid shrinking
into irrelevance. Here's the problem: we are told that computer
technology is being continually revolutionized, but it doesn't
really work that way. Instead, computer science has historically
laid down one layer after another of settled art, little of which
must be greatly revised later on. Lots of people got tenure for
designing parsers, for example, and now we know how to do that.
An earthquake did occur at the fault line between processor
design and compiler design in the 1980's, but that has settled
down. Programming language design was a difficult matter once,
but now it isn't, and the market has decided that it's satisfied
with C and C++ anyway. There's no accounting for taste, but
there it is. (For a more general analysis see Andrew Friedman's
brilliant historical book "Computer Systems Development", which
I recommended in TNO 1(9). See also Peter Denning's recent
articles about the future of the engineering field generally.)
So what happens next? The technical methods of computing are
like a lake that is silting: once somebody finally figures out
how to make distributed operating systems, it'll be all over.
The most likely exception is in the theory of computation -- the
mathematical foundations of the field, where really interesting
research on "interactive proof" methods will probably bring
us a lot more useful stuff from the same place that public-key
cryptography came from. Plenty of other computer research
will remain to be done, of course, but the emphasis may shift
elsewhere. No longer will the world need hordes of computer
scientists who know a little about medicine or engineering or
business; instead, it will need hordes of doctors and engineers
and business people who know a little about computers and a great
deal about a particular world where computers are used.
The field of computer science can save itself, though, if it
gets a new attitude. It has to stop looking at the whole world
as a bunch of technology-driven "application domains" and instead
develop a spirit of partnership with people who know substantive
things -- things about organizations, about managing information,
about sickness and health, about democracy. Although numerous
computer people are sympathetic to such an approach, many of the
basic concepts and methods of computer science make it difficult
to put into practice. One obstacle is the field's understanding
of formalization: to implement something on a computer, you have
to translate it into mathematical terms that can be coded. But
the resulting formalisms rarely correspond to the way that users
think about things. Furthermore, computer scientists know almost
nothing about how computer use fits into the lives and activity
systems of the people who use them. Instead, generations of
systems analysts have used models that derive from industrial
automation -- rather than from the intention of providing support
for skilled people with complex lives. The approach, whether
explicitly or implicitly, is not "we will work with you and help
you build tools" but "we will represent you and replace you".
But an attitude of symmetrical partnership, necessary as it is,
will not suffice in itself. We also need what I call "bridging
concepts" -- that is, medium-sized concepts that make it easy to
move back and forth between serious ideas about technology and
serious ideas about the social worlds where technology is used.
Listening to the speakers at the conference on Society and the
Future of Computing that we recently organized in Colorado, and
reflecting on other valuable things I've read lately, I managed
to articulate ten candidates for these bridging concepts, which
I'll present here in the form of imperatives for the field of
(1) Designers must rethink the physical forms of interaction
At the conference, Joy Mountford from Interval described some of
the ways that professional designers were doing just this. The
existing physical forms of interaction with computers (keyboards
and screens) are alright for some purposes, but for many others
they lead to hand and eye injuries. Though I am hardly the most
overworked computer user in the world, I had prescription glasses
made (out of my own pocket) to help correct an atrophy in the eye
muscles that shift focus from near to far. Computer scientists
don't think much about the physical form of interaction with
computers because, by and large, they imaginatively identify with
the systems themselves rather than with the lives of the people
using them. Research on interfaces for people with disabilities
is helping to stimulate thinking about alternatives, but much
more remains to be done for everyone else.
(2) Systems must fit into users' diverse ways of life.
People from different backgrounds -- cultures, professions,
and so on -- live different lives, and so it seems likely that
they will need different computers. But how do computers and
ways of life fit together? A focus on individual users' thought
processes does not suffice to answer the question; indeed, it
can contribute to weird stereotypes about the different thought
styles or learning rates of different groups of people. What
about people who must switch back and forth between tasks on
their computer and tasks on other machines? What about people
who share a computer with several others? What about people
who maintain relationships with others through several different
media, including both computer and non-computer media? How do
different cultures organize the teaching and learning of family
members? And so on. A major problem is that nobody can get
tenure in a computer science department, at least in the United
States, for investigating such questions. This needs to change.
(3) Workplace computing must provide tools for people, not
automation that replaces people.
Much of computer science derives historically from industrial
automation, and the idea that computers are meant to replace
people is more deeply ingrained in the field's methods and
concepts than many computer scientists want to admit. The big
news, though, is that the old assumptions behind automation no
longer hold. So many activities have become automated by now
that today's jobs require highly skilled workers to keep track
of complex processes while participating in constant change.
Interface designers like Ben Shneiderman have emphasized this
shift from the technical side, while industrial researchers
like Patricia Sachs and labor researchers like Joel Yudken
are remarkably unanimous about the point as well. Computer
scientists often do make representations of people's work, but
these representations have largely been preludes to software
specs -- to automation. The hard problem, which new research
is only beginning to address, is how such representations can
support work by supporting the thinking and group effort of the
people who are doing the work.
(4) Interface design must move beyond a focus on users to a
focus on learning communities.
Even when they live or work alone, people are very much bound
up in social networks. As Jonathan Grudin has pointed out,
"the user" is a dangerous fiction. This fiction did have some
truth to the extent that computer-using jobs were rationalized,
using the "one best way" prescribed by time and motion experts.
But in the new world, the emphasis is shifting to continual
learning. The best learning is that which takes place through
dealing with actual problems. People who work together routinely
teach and learn informally, for example, by telling stories
about their experiences. How can technology support this kind of
informal learning in communities? Roy Pea and Elliot Soloway are
studying this question in classroom settings, and Julian Orr and
others are studying it in workplace settings. Computer science,
though, has a hard time conceiving of social relationships and
processes that are not directly captured by computers. This will
need to change.
(5) The new technologies of privacy protection must replace
system designers' habit of tracking human activities in
Public-key cryptography and the whole world of related emerging
privacy technologies have, as Marc Rotenberg points out, changed
the way we think about technology itself. Many theorists have
associated technology with social oppression, so that critics of
oppression have found themselves positioned as anti-technology.
Now the tables are turned: the bureaucracies that resist strong
cryptography are the real anti-technologists. But the field
of computer science has plenty of catching up to do as well.
For the most part, the use of computers to invade privacy
doesn't result from a conscious decision to invade privacy.
The situation is actually much worse, since the most basic step
in system design is to choose which entities in the world to
represent (people, vehicles, packages, transactions, etc) and
to create identifiers for them. The resulting records end up in
databases that then get reused for secondary purposes and merged
with other databases. But public-key cryptography lets us start
over by designing in privacy protection from the start. This
won't be easy, and it will require much more innovation so that
designers can produce systems that collect precisely the minimum
amount of information necessary to serve a given function. But
I think it can be done.
(6) Technologists must respect and support the extensive
expertise of information management professionals.
... that is to say, librarians. It is embarrassing to watch
computer scientists reinvent indexing and retrieval technologies
that librarians discarded in the 1950's. I don't think most
computer scientists have realized that, as Christine Borgman and
others have persuasively argued, managing large collections of
information is a specialized skill that is quite independent of
the (equally valuable) skills of computer people. The emergence
of digital library research may redress the problem; the big
question is whether computer scientists will pay attention and
give due respect, or whether this research will move into other
fields and other departments.
(7) As distributed information technology is used to reduce
transactions and coordination costs, it must not undermine
workers and their families.
Electronic commerce promises to interconnect buyers' and sellers'
computers, thereby removing a lot of useless paperwork from the
world's business operations. As Rolf Wigand points out, one
effect of this innovation is to reduce transaction costs: the
costs of making contracts in the market. This is good when it
brings lower prices at the consumer's end of the whole pipeline.
But economic theory predicts that reduced transaction costs will
have other effects. One of these, potentially, is an increase
in contingent work: that is, work that people do on a "flexible"
short-term contract basis. This system is great for people who
want flexibility in their working lives. But it's lousy for
people who need stability -- most especially people with kids.
Children need security, and we should worry whether they can get
it in a world where parents must change jobs every few months,
weeks, or days. Distributed computing also reduces coordination
costs, which are the costs of holding a far-flung business
operation together. To some extent this effect counteracts the
reduction in transaction costs. But it also gives centralized
management much better tools for controlling work at a distance.
Computer people should become aware of how these forces play out
in practice, and they should investigate how their systems might
help increase efficiency without also increasing the control and
instability in people's lives.
(8) Technical standards-setting processes must be opened to
a broader range of stakeholders --- long before the standards
become irreversibly entrenched in the market.
Technological markets need standards so that products can
work together and so that people can know what they are buying.
Standards have enormous consequences, since it is easy for a
standard to become entrenched in the market without necessarily
being compatible with the best technical solution or the most
humane social arrangements. Standards are still largely set
by remarkably informal voluntary arrangements. Plenty of
power politics is often going on behind the scenes, of course,
but standards-setting processes still seem like one venue where
social concerns can be explored before designs become faits
accomplis. It is possible, for example, that many standards can
be influenced toward privacy protection -- simply because nobody
had been thinking about privacy before, or because nobody had
been adequately informed about technical options for protecting
privacy. Who, we might ask, are the full range of stakeholders
in technical standards-setting, and what would it take to get
them a place at the table? Some plane tickets would help, and
regular reports about standards activities on the Internet would
help too, but substantive dialog is needed as well.
(9) Citizens and professionals alike must become aware of
the ways that information infrastructure architectures either
support or inhibit democratic participation.
Computer people have been talking about democracy a lot lately,
influenced in part by organizations like CPSR and EFF who have
articulated connections between information infrastructure and
democratic participation. The Clinton administration has done
little of substance, but their NII rhetoric has stimulated some
remarkably broad-based discussion of telecommunications policy
issues. At the top of the list is the distinction between a
symmetrical switched architecture, in which anyone can produce
their own content, and an asymmetrical architecture like the
US regional phone companies want to use to deliver "interactive"
video services. Of course, only a few percent of the population
understand this distinction. But that's a good start, and more
can be done to spread the word.
(10) Information technologists must recognize that the success
of democracy depends most crucially on citizens' experience of
empowerment and skills of organizing.
All this talk about democracy, though, can get shallow. Langdon
Winner has pointed out the sometimes facile connections between
information, knowledge, power, and democracy that often make
the issues seem easier than they are. In the end, what really
matters is whether people feel empowered to organize themselves
to exert some control over their own lives. The best technology
you can possibly build is useless unless people have these social
and political skills and feel that it would make some difference
to try using them. Perhaps learning how to use the net can be
an occasion to reinvent the skills of democracy, and perhaps
the skills of democracy will help us understand what kinds of
information infrastructure we should be building next.
The conservative culture wars.
After the Internet community and civil libertarians spent months
busting their butts trying to defeat the Communications Decency
Act, Newt Gingrich just about killed it with one breath. Never
mind that the bill was introduced by a retiring Democrat; the
real political action around the CDA was among conservatives.
By threatening to shut down the whole Infobahn in the name of
morality, the Act precisely diagnosed a huge division within the
The conservatives have assembled a formidable coalition around
an anti-government agenda. But simmering beneath this relatively
smooth surface is a cultural division between authoritarians
and libertarians. Once the conservative coalition destroys the
liberal establishment -- for example by sending the auditors from
hell after every liberal non-profit organization that ever got a
dime from the government -- then American politics will turn into
a subterranean battle between these two forces. Each side will
call itself conservative, but they will mean different things
by the term. Most corporate leaders, for example, are economic
conservatives and cultural libertarians who want opportunities
for their daughters and worry that nationalist xenophobia will
interfere with the country's participation in the global economy.
Many of them are concerned that Pat Robertson and his followers
might actually believe the things he writes in his books.
Likewise, the ideological libertarians who define the culture
of the high tech world are generally focused on entrepreneurship,
contemptuous of government economic intervention, supportive
of gay rights, and more interested in freedom for kids than
in patriarchal family values. The problem, of course, is that
these folks don't have the votes. Libertarian think tanks have
unprecedented visibility, but that just means that their ideas
are selectively harvested in support of a culturally conservative
agenda. Privatization, yes -- but forget about legalizing drugs.
The people who run the Republican Party -- including the pundits
and theorists and the conservative foundations who fund them --
are well aware that conservative Christians control dozens of
state Republican party organizations, and they take great care
to make the ideology appeal to them. This leads to some strange
results -- for example, the libertarian conservative magazine
The National Review has run articles fretting over university
radicals' antipathy to science *and* explaining the threat to
society posed by the theory of evolution.
The Exon bill provided another such result. Its main grassroots
support came from the Christian Coalition, whose lobbyists were
squarely focused on pedophiles "stalking" children on the net.
Now, I happen to believe that pedophiles are real and dangerous.
But did the Christian Coalition people understand that the Exon
bill would have basically no effect against pedophiles, who are
surely smart enough to confine themselves to innocent-sounding
interactions in cyberspace? I don't know. While the Senate
debate was going on, it was certainly frustrating to have people
(small numbers of them to be sure) respond to the Voters' Telecom
Watch alerts on the CDA with messages like, "So you're against
decency?". On the other hand, why did it take the Exon bill for
the major net providers to address people's concerns by getting
visible about their efforts to implement real technical solutions
to the potential problems? This issue will be back.
Computing as a popular technology.
Computing, perhaps more than any other technology in history,
is a popular technology. By "popular" I don't mean "popular"
as in "so-and-so is a popular movie star". Instead I mean the
original sense of the word -- "of the people". Although we think
of computers as impossibly esoteric, the fact is that ordinary
people have begun to take hold of computing at a tremendous rate.
Computing is a highly plastic technology, meaning that its forms
can be changed and adapted endlessly, and it is time to start
tracing all the ways in which people taken hold of computing
for their own purposes and have then had an influence on their
design. Here are a few:
* User groups. People are getting together in groups for mutual
assistance, exchanging software, grouching about bugs, helping
one another find good deals and avoid bad deals, and so forth.
User groups are becoming powerful distribution channels in the
market, like the buyers' cooperatives that have been an important
part of community organizing forever.
* Resistance. People can put up a fuss when computers are used
to invade their privacy or otherwise offend them. Sometimes this
resistance is organized, as when telephone workers have tried to
reduce surveillance of their work by managers. Sometimes it is
spontaneous and unorganized, as when people avoid entering data
into machines, use the machines in a superficial manner, modify
the programming to suit them, and so on.
* Free software. Lots of free software is circulating in the
world, much of it written by people who just want to share. A
program circulated on the Internet can be used by many thousands
of people in short order, and a whole volunteer distribution
system has arisen.
* Market choice. As individual consumers, people can buy stuff
that's good and refuse to buy stuff that's lousy. To do this, of
course, they need to talk to one another. As computer knowledge
diffuses through communities and social networks, markets will
have to respond better to people's needs. Informed people can
also make a difference in their workplaces by politicking for the
purchase of good systems that support productivity rather than
lousy ones that drive people crazy.
* Guerilla networking. Fidonet began as a political project
to provide cheap digital communications to everyone. Regardless
of what you think of its quality control, Usenet is very much a
democratic "underground". Hundreds of social movements across
the political spectrum are getting on the net, supported by
specialized organizations such as the Institute for Global
Communications. Thousands and thousands of individual computer
enthusiasts have set up BBS's in their communities, often with
the intention of serving particular interest groups such as SF
readers or labor unionists.
* Interest-group organizing. The 1994 Communications Act, which
failed in the last minutes of that Congress despite bipartisan
support, was shaped in some ways by a remarkably broad alliance
of public interest groups, many of which coordinated their
efforts under the umbrella of the Telecommunications Policy
Roundtable. Similar projects have begun regionally. Other
groups, such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center and
Voter's Telecom Watch, have fought legislation that would have
antidemocratic effects on information infrastructure, and a wide
variety of people have responded to their calls for political
action on these issues.
* Community networking. As I reported in TNO 2(5), people
building computer networks to support their communities are
rapidly learning what it takes to actually serve people with
technology. Their experience will increasingly feed back into
the design of software to support communities.
I think this is a pretty impressive list. Many others will
disagree, either because they think that technology charges
forward according to its own internal logic or because they
think that the whole world is totally dominated by corporations.
There's a grain of truth in each of these assertions, of course,
but if we believe them then we might as well give up now. It's
important to believe that people can act together to take some
control over their lives, not only because it's a necessary
belief to stay sane -- but also because it's true.
Lately I've been noticing a new variety of junk mail on the net,
much more sophisticated than the noisy Canter-and-Siegel variety
and much more worrisome for that reason. I call this new junk
mail "stealth spam". It's e-mail that seems to be addressed
to me as an individual, but which could equally well have been
addressed to hundreds or thousands of other people. It achieves
this effect through vagueness: "we've heard your name as a good
person to talk to", "I think you might find this interesting",
and so on. The big problem with these messages is that it takes
real work to determine whether they are junk or not, and they
increase the risk that actual/real/serious messages might get
mistaken for junk. This has happened to me at least once so far.
And these "stealth spam" messages are not all from obscure shady
operators. At least one was sent by a salesman from Silicon
Graphics -- a salesman who will rue the day he heard about the
Internet if he bothers me again.
I've seen some other variants. Someone sent a message to the
Risks Digest, for example, recounting the good experience he had
had with a negative ion machine. Later on, someone else sent a
message to Risks explaining that the first message was identical
to others that had been posted to many other lists, and that the
sender in fact sells ion machines. The new spin was that these
messages weren't sent all at once, but were rather dribbled out
to one list after another very slowly.
This phenomenon has set me thinking about genres. Paper junk
mail is usually easy to distinguish from paper non-junk mail.
Why is this? One reason is that it's very hard to make paper
junk mail truly indistinguishable from paper non-junk mail. So
in order to make sure their mail gets read and not tossed out
straightaway, the paper junk mail people have evolved a highly
distinctive genre of document, based on elaborate theories and
much experimentation, that mutates the traditional business letter
genre with special uses of color and formatting and postscripts
and inserts -- and even those yellow sticky notes whose generic
name is a trademark.
Why doesn't this happen with electronic junk mail? Maybe it's
because, courtesy of the wonder of digital technology, you
can make electronic junk mail that's indistinguishable from
electronic non-junk mail. This is a real problem.
One more note on the Oklahoma City bombing.
Over the few weeks, I am told, right-wing activists and
journalists will unveil their fully matured conspiracy theories
about the Oklahoma City bombing. The original theories were
pretty wacky, but the latest ones are starting to edge into the
realm of plausibility.
Here's a composite: The BATF, and maybe the FBI as well, wanting
to create terrorist threats to justify their budgets, decided to
frame someone from the militia movement. So they got some fringe
characters and fixed them up with provocateurs who pretty much
did all the work. The plan was to arrest the guy(s) on the site
early in the morning before the bomb blew up. But something went
wrong; the guy(s) arrived late and actually managed to carry out
the plan. The bomb, furthermore, created much more damage than
it had any right to. The reason for this is that a bunch of
explosives were stored in the basement of the building, having
been kept there by BATF people who were practicing (somehow --
this bit isn't clear to me) for the operation. These explosives
were set off by the original explosion and were responsible for
much of the structural damage to the building.
Okay, so that's the theory. At least it's one theory; I'm sure
that I will get a bunch of messages elaborating or changing or
criticizing this version one way or another. Aside from the mass
of circumstantial evidence, all of which may be true or not true
or covered up or not covered up, this theory is within the realm
of plausibility because things like this have happened before.
You can go back as far in history as you like and pick your
favorite examples. Take, for instance, the Earth First! people
who were arrested getting set to blow up an electrical pylon;
those folks were pretty thoroughly set up by a government agent.
(That does not in itself mean that they were not guilty of a
crime, but it does change the picture.) Of course, right-wing
activists are not likely to appeal to this precedent, or to the
whole long history of government sabotage and harassment against
left-wing activists, violent and nonviolent alike. Instead,
they will frame the conspiracy in terms of their theory that the
United States is actually a socialist dictatorship in which the
Constitution has long been nullified. And they will get a lot
of deliberate but indirect cover for this view from mainstream
politicians and pundits. At least that's what I predict, based
on what I've heard on the net. What if their facts are even half
This month's wishes are small things that have been bothering me
forever. It's just possible that they have not been done because
nobody ever thought of them.
On-line library catalogs are great. I cannot imagine how anybody
did research without them. Their biggest hole, in my experience,
is that they do not include tables of contents for edited volumes
or anthologies. I can issue commands to search for journal
articles by a given author, but I would also like to search for
book chapters by that author.
I also devoutly wish that I had an easy way to obtain all of
the published reviews of a given book -- or at least a list of
citations to all of the reviews. To do this, of course, it would
be necessary for on-line periodical catalogs to know what book
is actually being reviewed in a given article. In practice, the
name of the book being reviewed simply appears in the title of
the review, without the machine having an actual pointer to the
book's own catalog entry.
Ever tried to cancel a subscription to a magazine? Why does it
take six to eight weeks to change your address? Magazines do not
care much about their subscription operations, and I'm convinced
that they outsource them to the lowest fly-by-night bidder no
matter how poor the service. After all, they've got your money,
so why pay any attention to you afterward? We'd all like to
think that this is a short-sighted strategy, but maybe the market
just isn't interested in fixing this particular problem. In case
it is, though, maybe on-line services are part of the solution.
It would be nice to check on my magazine subscriptions through a
nice GUI interface; this approach may even increase single-copy
sales. Of course, there's the security problem ...
I read a lot of newspapers and magazines, and often I wish to
save a pointer to a particular article for future reference. If
all newspapers and magazines are someday published in electronic
form then this will be easy, though a lot of other things will
become hard. As it is, I have to save the publication, throw it
in a box in my office, and then pay somebody to make photocopies
that I can use later in my research or for class readers. This
is cumbersome and expensive, so I only do it when I'm pretty
sure I want to use the article again. Another approach would be
for each article to carry, perhaps above the title somewhere, a
discreet barcode-like set of dots or lines that I could scan with
a simple scanner that could be about the size of two credit cards
back-to-back. Then periodically I could aim the scanner at my
personal computer and press a button, whereupon it would download
all the codes it had scanned recently through an infrared LED.
My computer would then look these codes up in a general database
over the net and tell me how much it would cost to have a copy of
each article neatly printed up and mailed to me.
It bothers me when someone takes a perfectly good paper directory
(phone book, Books in Print, parts catalog, etc) and puts it on a
computer with one of those low-tech search engines where you have
to type in some of the fields, and then it offers to show you a
few of the entries in the database. Unless you frequently need
to do sideways searches (like looking people up by their phone
numbers), this is unbelievably worse than the interface you
get with the paper version, which lets you scan whole pages of
entries quickly. Why can't the computer-based interfaces look
more like the paper interface? Why can't we get whole pages,
nicely formatted, to appear on our screens, easily flippable
forward and backward? Maybe we couldn't get that when the
computers all had 286-grade processors, but starting soon even
your basic Nintendo will have more than enough computing power
to get us back to the decent interface we started out with. I'm
hardly the first person to complain about this, but maybe now is
the time to really raise heck about it.
I am so accustomed to e-mail that I often think of the telephone
as a variant of e-mail rather than the other way around. (Stop
laughing. I'll bet you do this too.) In particular, I often
wish that I could call someone and get their voicemail even if
they are present and able to answer the phone. Why? Because
sometimes the message I have for them is not urgent and requires
no dialogue, so that it's better for the recipient to hear it
when they're ready to get messages. As it is, when someone picks
up the phone we have to do a little negotiation about whether
my message is more important than whatever my phone call has
interrupted. So it would be nice if I could push an extra button
on the phone, or dial an easy prefix (one that's written down on
a simple, clear reference card that's posted right on the phone)
that will ensure that I get the voicemail instead of the person.
This month's recommendations.
Carl F. Cargill, Information Technology Standards: Theory,
Process, and Organizations, Digital Press, 1989. It seems to me
that the future of the networked world depends to a great extent
on the market dynamics of technical standards. Once a standard
becomes entrenched in the marketplace, it's very hard to change.
Just look at ASCII, for example. The market needs standards
because products have to work together. But entrenched standards
can also create monopolies, retard technical progress, foreclose
technical possibilities, facilitate invasions of privacy, or
limit the options available for participation in society. So
I encourage everyone to become aware of information technology
standards. This is the basic book on the subject. It's not
the most inherently thrilling topic in the world, but the book is
written in a clear, simple fashion that is rooted in the author's
experience. It has no references, though, which is irritating.
Other interesting authors on the strange economics of standards
are Paul David and Brian Arthur.
Richard Saul Wurman, Access Guides. Yet more proof, if any were
needed, that architects are cooler than normal people. Although
they have started to drift back toward the breathless tone of
their competitors in recent years, the Access guides are still
the only "tour guides" that you would want for the city you live
in. Their claim to fame is that they are organized spatially,
so that you can open them to the block you're currently standing
on and find out what's there. They include lots of architectural
information and generally reliable restaurant and shop reviews.
They aren't cheap, but I keep finding that each volume pays for
itself the first day I use it. Think of it as the paper version
of "augmented reality"; the fantasy is that someday these guides
will be software for your heads-up display and the whole world
will be annotated the way it is for the Terminator.
Maritza Pick, How To Save Your Neighborhood: The Sierra Club
Guide to Community Organizing, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books,
1993. This is the best all-around practical guide to community
organizing that I have seen lately. What would it be like to
apply its lessons to an Internet community? Or to organize your
geographic community over telecommunications policy issues like
cable television regulation, library facilities and hours, or
local government information?
Review of Jeff Smith's "Managing Privacy: Information Technology
and Corporate America", University of North Carolina Press, 1994.
[Despite having published several of my book reviews, Wired
magazine wouldn't publish this one. I gather that the phrase
"serious and thoughtful analysis of corporate policy-making"
didn't push the right buttons for them.]
"Managing Privacy" is a serious and thoughtful analysis of
corporate policy-making about privacy. Based on interviews
with managers and observers in several pseudonymous American
banking and insurance firms, its centerpiece is a simple but
valuable model of organizational responses to privacy issues.
Smith argues that the firms he investigated have generally
dealt with privacy issues in an improvised, decentralized, and
inconsistent way until provoked into action by some external
threat -- usually the possibility of new regulatory legislation.
Lacking such a threat, he observes that individual managers
have little incentive to explore responsible privacy policies.
He pulls few punches in describing the inadequate approaches to
privacy at most of the companies. Few have adequate policies
to protect sensitive personal information from being used
improperly. And he interviews focus groups of ordinary citizens
to document the magnitude of the danger facing these firms:
many people are outraged when informed about the practices of
companies they deal with. If the public became widely informed
about these practices, regulatory legislation would clearly
become more likely.
He uses his analysis to motivate some solutions. Since he
believes that the threat of regulation is the motivating force
behind the implementation of good privacy policies, he proposes
that the United States set up a data protection commission.
This commission would not have authority to license firms that
maintain files of personal information. Instead, it would
oversee the creation of industry-wide privacy standards, so the
threat of regulation would be available but not normally acted
Despite the rigors of these arguments, Smith's book is
fundamentally sympathetic to the dilemmas that confront both
companies and individual managers in addressing privacy issues.
He retains a tacit faith in the efficacy of internal privacy
policies even though genuinely responsible policies might
decrease the companies' revenues. Of course, some companies have
adopted reasonably substantive privacy-protection policies to
avoid public displeasure. Yet in emphasizing the reactive nature
of corporate policy-making, Smith underestimates the amount of
perfectly proactive obfuscation that certain companies exert
on privacy issues through their public relations programs.
Smith's book helps us cut through some of this fog, but much work
remains to be done. If we really want to control our personal
information, first we'll have to clear our minds of the soothing
language that is circulated by companies involved in privacy
Company of the month.
This month's company is:
New Society Publishers
New Society Educational Foundation
4527 Springfield Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19143
phone: (800) 333-9093
In TNO I have continually argued that democracy is fundamentally
a cultural matter, and that the Internet community can contribute
to a revival of democracy by spreading the skills of community
and organizing. Some of the best practical books on these skills
have come out of church-based movements for peace and social
justice. New Society Publishers produces some of the best books
in the genre, and if you have a serious interest in learning more
then I encourage you to write for a catalog.
My complaints about Internet discussion groups in TNO 2(5)
drew mixed reactions. Some people thought I was saying that
*all* Internet discussion groups exhibit the pathologies I was
complaining about. That's not so. An awful lot of them do, and
what needs explaining is the ones that do not. Some groups are
successful, as I pointed out, because they have a steady stream
of external events to react to, so that endless back-and-forth
discussions about last week's news get forgotten in favor of
fresh events. What are the other dynamics that make groups work?
And more importantly, what structures can groups adopt that make
these dynamics work right?
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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