T H E N E T W O R K O B S E R V E R
VOLUME 1, NUMBER 5 MAY 1994
This month: How to help people use computers
The unfortunate "frontier" metaphor
E-mail and global non-profit organizations
Crusade against misleading bouncemail
New tracking technologies
Welcome to TNO 1(5).
This issue includes an article by Arun Mehta about the role
of electronic mail in global non-profit organizations such as
Amnesty International. Democracy means including everyone in
making the decisions, and maybe we can become more democratic by
learning how to use e-mail as part of running our organizations.
You have to get together in person eventually, of course, so it's
a matter of finding the arrangement of work that makes the most
of the scarce and valuable travel resources available to people
who aren't affiliated with elite institutions.
Also in this issue is another how-to, this time addressed to
computer people who find themselves involved in helping others
to use computers. Much "helping" does more harm than good, but a
few simple guidelines can make a huge difference in how much the
person learns by being helped and whether his or her self-esteem
is supported or warped by the experience.
Finally, I've included a longish meditation on the metaphor
of "cyberspace" as a kind of "frontier". As networks spread
in our communities, it becomes much more reasonable to adopt
different metaphors that describe the multiple and complicated
intersections between the network and the rest of the world.
Cyberspace turned inside out.
It's common to refer to the net as a "frontier". With all due
respect to the good works of the Electronic Frontier Foundation,
I find this metaphor unfortunate. It draws upon a whole set
of myths of the Old West: the idea that the West was empty when
the Europeans found it, the idea that the West was developed by
rugged entrepreneurs without the assistance or intervention of
the government, the notion that the West needed to be civilized,
and so forth. The electronic frontier is not something we find;
it's something we make. And it's not someplace far away; it's
right here in front of us. The term "cyberspace" is unfortunate
for the same reason; the net is not a separate space, different
in kind from other spaces, sealed off from the corporeal world
and obeying different laws.
To counteract this notion of cyberspace as a higher and purer
dimension of reality, I think it's useful to investigate the
ways in which the net interpenetrates the more conventional
geographies of societies and communities. I've had the chance
to do just that over the last month in my role as program chair
of the CPSR Annual Meeting, which will be held in San Diego on
October 8th and 9th of this year. (The formal announcement of
this meeting will be ready soon.) For this year's meeting, we
want to look at the ways in which socially responsible computer
people can work with their communities, and particularly with the
professionals whose job it is to use information for the good of
those communities -- librarians, educators, public health people,
community organizers, and so forth.
Unfortunately, the university where I work, UC San Diego, is both
physically and socially isolated from the community of San Diego.
Certain parts of the university have extensive ties to the elite
networks of business and government in the region, but my sense
is that most folks in San Diego have only the vaguest idea what
UCSD is. That's partly because UCSD is on a mesa in the middle
of a wealthy neighborhood ten miles north of downtown. But it's
also partly because of the institutional barriers that separate
universities from American society in general.
Organizing this meeting, then, has been a fine opportunity to
call around town and find out what people are doing with computer
networks. Even though San Diego does not have a community
networking movement as such, nonetheless I began to get a sense
of a community starting, in a decentralized way, to hum with
* San Diego, for example, has about 1100 BBS's (computer
bulletin boards), a substantial portion of which can exchange
messages with one another.
* Attempts are being made, some of them with the help of
the San Diego Computer Society, to get community councils and
neighborhood watch groups and the like onto BBS's.
* The BBS's are used intensively by local military people to
exchange information on the practical details of life in the
* Several commercial Internet service providers are in
* The colleges and universities are all on the Internet, as are
many high-tech companies. The school district is ethernetting
all its middle schools to the district office.
* The local World Trade Center is about to connect to a global
network of its counterparts.
* The local Catholic Charities long operated a BBS to coordinate
the work of public and private social service agencies in the
county; the county government is installing a higher-technology
network to carry on this work.
The list goes on. Part of what's so impressive about it is the
complicated and remarkably seamless mix of initiative: individual
volunteers, non-profit organizations, businesses selling access
to the net, businesses using networks to do their business,
schools and universities, the military, and so forth. And it's
not a frontier anywhere; it's just San Diego being San Diego.
One manifestation of this interconnection is the success of a
speakers' series we organized this spring in order to stir up
interest in the annual meeting. The series' publicist, Dave
Noelle, did marvelous work making posters and sending them around
to newspapers in the usual way, but we also attracted quite a
few people through e-mail messages that had gotten passed along
through the city's networks. Furthermore, I was surprised to
discover that several of our audience members had heard of me
through the simple Internet facilities I operate in a couple
spare hours a week.
This is obviously a very small beginning, but it contrasts
mightily with my experience the first fifteen years I was on the
Internet (some of them, obviously, before it was even called the
Internet). In those early days, I was a member of the world of
academic computer research, mostly as a graduate student at an
elite laboratory funded by the US military. I and my cohort of
fellow net users thought of ourselves as simultaneously central
and peripheral: being at MIT and places like that, we were
obviously central to something. Yet our research was so "pure",
and so few concrete demands were ever placed on us, that we
could think of ourselves as wholly inconsequential. We could do
absolutely whatever we pleased on the net, perfectly confident
that none of it would have any consequences in the real world --
the world where people have real jobs, go broke, get sued, get
elected, get fired, and so forth. All of this is changing, of
course, and I think that a lot of the shock and horror that these
changes are evoking have their origin in this particular kind of
relationship to the world -- privileged yet detached, central yet
isolated, plugged in yet disconnected.
This is not to say that I approve of each of the manifestations
of the Internet's sudden intersection with its surrounding
reality. Massively broadcast advertisements, large-scale flame
wars, exclusion of outsiders from mailing lists, vandalism (as
opposed to good clean hacking), lawsuits filed over net messages,
and so forth are all unfortunate. But they are not unfortunate
because they represent invasions of a pure, disembodied nirvana.
They're just unfortunate in the same way as war and rudeness and
reaction and greed are unfortunate. They obey the same laws,
they are part of the same system, and they are all part of us,
just as we are part of them. To heal them is not to defend a
siege but rather to heal the world in which we live.
But the ideology of cyberspace is not restricted to these ideas
about the Internet. I think that it reflects something much
deeper, something that I have heard David Noble call "masculine
transcendentalism". It's a sort of spiritual system. We
might, schematizing outrageously, try contrasting two types of
spirituality: immanent and transcendental. Immanent spirituality
seeks connection with the fullness of things as they are: most
often with nature, though conceptions differ. Transcendental
spirituality seeks to rise above things as they are and to purify
the self by leaving behind corporeal reality, and particularly
the human body, for a higher and more abstract reality. These
kinds of spiritual practice are very roughly gender-coded,
with immanent spirituality often being associated with women's
practices such as witchcraft and transcendent spirituality often
being associated with men's practices such as certain types of
ascetic meditation. These assignments are obviously far from
iron-clad, but nonetheless they can take on great force within
the context of particular cultures.
In tracing the emergence of science, Noble suggests that the
urge toward mathematization in science is structured as a variety
of masculine transcendentalism: the urge to raise reality to
a higher and purer plane. Be this as it may (and I do believe
that it has a great deal of truth to it), his theory applies
alarmingly well to the fantasy-systems around computers. The
fantasies around virtual reality, for example, are textbook
cases of masculine transcendentalism: the escape from the body
to an alternative world which is perfectly orderly, perfectly
under control, and perfectly responsive to the gestures of
its inhabitants. Gibson's Neuromancer, which has provided the
vocabulary for a great deal of such fantasizing, was written
precisely as a critique of this fantasy-system. (In fact, he
says, in an interview in the San Francisco Bay Guardian that
I have lost, that he was motivated to write the book by D. H.
Lawrence's literary celebrations of bodily pleasure as a way of
knowing the world.)
Cyberspace, too, is a form of masculine-transcendentalist fantasy
system. Note the easy confluence between the transcendentalism
and the metaphor-system of invasion and colonization implicit in
the metaphor of a "frontier". In each case, loosely connected
networks of militant individualists venture out to impose order
on previously unruly territories while simultaneously passing
beyond the former constraints of physical geography and social
entanglement. So long as this transition is incomplete, the
pioneer lives the dual lives described in Vernor Vinge's "True
Names": one of me grows out there in cyberspace while the other
of me atrophies down here in the world.
This is not to say that networks are useless. Far from it.
But in understanding their huge potential, I would urge us to
adopt a different set of metaphors, an immanent conception of the
net, that emphasizes the complex and multiform interweavings of
electronic community and geographic community, e-mail discussion
group and profession, database and landscape. We don't really
see these effects so long as participation in computer networking
is sparse: if you're the only person on your block that's on the
net then you will experience the net in one way; if *everybody*
on your block is on the net then you will experience the net
in another way. Every community learns its own way of carrying
on conversations in several media at once, and every individual
comes to terms with the digital dimension of his or her social
identity in his or her own particular way, with particular
strategies born of the thousand kinds of creativity and agency
that opportunity and adversity nurture within us. In the end,
all of us become -- indeed, all of us already were -- hybrids, or
cyborgs in Donna Haraway's vocabulary, living our lives in many
spaces at once.
How to help someone use a computer.
Computer people are generally fine human beings, but nonetheless
they do a lot of inadvertent harm in the ways they "help" other
people with their computer problems. Now that we're trying to
get everyone on the net, I thought it might be helpful to write
down in one place everything I've been taught about how to help
people use computers.
First you have to tell yourself some things:
* Nobody is born knowing this stuff.
* You've forgotten what it's like to be a beginner.
* If it's not obvious to them, it's not obvious.
* A computer is a means to an end. The person you're helping
probably cares mostly about the end. This is reasonable.
* Their knowledge of the computer is grounded in what they can
do and see -- "when I do this, it does that". They need to
develop a deeper understanding, of course, but this can only
happen slowly, and not through abstract theory but through
the real, concrete situations they encounter in their work.
* By the time they ask you for help, they've probably tried
several different things. As a result, their computer might
be in a strange state. That's not their fault.
* The best way to learn is through apprenticeship -- that is,
by doing some real task together with someone who has skills
that you don't have.
* Your primary goal is not to solve their problem. Your primary
goal is to help them become one notch more capable of solving
their problem on their own. So it's okay if they take notes.
* Most user interfaces are terrible. When people make mistakes
it's usually the fault of the interface. You've forgotten how
many ways you've learned to adapt to bad interfaces. You've
forgotten how many things you once assumed that the interface
would be able to do for you.
* Knowledge lives in communities, not individuals. A computer
user who's not part of a community of computer users is going
to have a harder time of it than one who is.
Having convinced yourself of these things, you are more likely to
follow some important rules:
* Don't take the keyboard. Let them do all the typing, even
if it's slower that way, and even if you have to point them
to each and every key they need to type. That's the only way
they're going to learn from the interaction.
* Find out what they're really trying to do. Is there another
way to go about it?
* Attend to the symbolism of the interaction. Most especially,
try not to tower over them. If at all possible, squat down
so your eyes are just below the level of theirs. When they're
looking at the computer, look at the computer. When they're
looking at you, look back at them.
* If something is true, show them how they can see it's true.
* Be aware of how abstract your language is. For example, "Get
into the editor" is abstract and "press this key" is concrete.
Don't say anything unless you intend for them to understand
it. Keep adjusting your language downward towards concrete
units until they start to get it, then slowly adjust back up
towards greater abstraction so long as they're following you.
When formulating a take-home lesson ("when it does this and
that, you should check such-and-such"), check once again that
you're using language of the right degree of abstraction for
this user right now.
* Whenever they start to blame themselves, blame the computer,
no matter how many times it takes, in a calm, authoritative
tone of voice. When they get nailed by a false assumption
about the computer's behavior, tell them their assumption was
reasonable. Tell *yourself* that it was reasonable. It was.
* Never do something for someone that they are capable of doing
* Don't say "it's in the manual". (You probably knew that.)
The role of e-mail in democratic decision-making.
The following is based on my experience with Amnesty International
(AI) and other organizations, and is entirely my personal opinion.
Democracy is clearly more than the best way to run a country.
It can also have a significant role in the functioning of a
non-profit organization. Organizations such as AI that take
important decisions relating to strategy, direction, structure
and finances in a democratic manner find that it helps them to
remain relevant and reflect the consensus of their membership,
foster commitment and enthusiasm, have little trouble in throwing
up fresh leaders, and, not least, be great to work in.
For democracy to work at an international level, a very high
degree of networking and information flow is necessary for
consensus-building. AI for instance, could, at the same time,
try to sort out how decentralised decision-making should be in
a million-strong organization so as to enhance effectiveness
without losing cohesion, whether homosexuals should be treated as
prisoners of conscience (on which people from different religious
and cultural backgrounds have radically divergent views) and
at the same time find ways to cope with and grow in a world
of collapsing blocs, in which the spectrum of human rights
violations is inexorably widening. To achieve consensus at an
international level is hard, but it becomes even harder when
the participants in the debate are unequal in their ability to
In parts of the world where the membership is small, typically
in developing countries, the means for full participation are
often lacking. Fewer members means less specialisation, so the
committed few are snowed under in paper relating to a variety
of issues. It is hard enough to file all the paper, let alone
respond to it. Often in such countries, phone lines are a luxury,
so devoting one to fax is difficult, and reception often poor.
With lesser resources, where each fax or long-distance phone
call is a major expense, there is often reluctance to spend
money on internal matters as opposed to the "real" work that the
organization is supposed to be doing. As a result, information
flow is mostly unidirectional, i.e. to developing countries,
rather than from them.
Organizations such as AI spend large sums of money in bringing
national representatives to international meetings where
important issues are debated and decided. However, the poorer
cousins often cannot effectively participate, lacking the
prior discussion and debate back home. Also, people living
in developing countries earn a lot less than do those in the
economically advanced countries, and therefore are less able
to travel internationally. Visits to international meetings
are therefore rare treats, and those that go are often the best
political manipulators, not necessarily the most capable ones
for the relevant issues. Therefore, third-world participation
in democratic decision-making is often close to being token. This
is a great pity, because a diversity of informed opinion is an
essential part of democracy.
While not a panacea, e-mail and related technologies can
help alleviate these problems to a significant degree. With
dial-up access, it is not necessary to dedicate a phone line.
Error-correcting modems eliminate transmission errors, making
e-mail the most reliable form of international communication,
particularly when people on the move and different time zones
are involved. Software to automate cataloging, archival and
redistribution, and simplify responding, is fairly common.
E-mail is more private than mail that can be opened, tampered
with, censored, what have you. And, of course, e-mail is cheaper.
Most importantly, whatever comes in via e-mail is processable
by computer, so that data from different parts of the world
can easily be consolidated, or text put together into a
final document. Small wonder, then, that organizations like
AI have been making considerable use of E-mail in the last few
year, benefiting from dramatic improvements in communications
infrastructure in many parts of the globe. Yet, their use
of other means of communication and expenditure on travel to
international meetings remains high.
E-mail cannot replace face-to-face meetings in the process of
consensus-building and decision-making. E-mail, news groups,
etc. one can opt out of. A meeting compels attention. What e-mail
does do is prepare the ground - exchange of views, internal
discussion, etc. can prune the agenda down to the really thorny
issues: no time is wasted. In the preliminary discussion on
e-mail, only those who feel strongly are active, the rest listen
in as long as are interested. But come decision-making time,
when there has to be give and take to breach divergent positions,
everyone must focus. That can only happen with busy people if
they are physically removed from their immediate environments.
Clearly, then, people who cannot travel are at a disadvantage
in international discussions. But the degree of disadvantage
can be reduced if those who travel make a more serious effort at
communicating their experiences with those who do not. Therefore,
while a changeover to largely e-mail based communication can
bring about almost revolutionary change in the functioning of an
organization, it does require a significant shift in attitude and
style of working, a process that is insufficiently understood.
Many non-governmental organizations could benefit tremendously
from a more effective use of e-mail by its international
membership or associated organizations - people doing medical
research and collecting data in different parts of the world,
for instance. It therefore would be useful if a study could
be undertaken on what might be the best way to encourage
organizations to move in this direction.
Crusade against misleading bouncemail.
In TNO 1(3) I announced my crusade against unintelligible,
misleading "bouncemail", those messages that mailers send you
when they can't deliver your mail. Bad bouncemail is a social
menace because it confuses newcomers, who frequently respond
by sending multiple copies of their messages to a huge list of
people and finally complain, "I keep getting this error message
saying my message wasn't delivered". Here's a particularly bad
one, from the mailer at io.salford.ac.uk. I've actually edited
out a lot of extra header stuff. The original was 35 lines long.
(The mailer actually did a number of other things wrong, too,
such as failing to use the Errors-To: field to send this thing.)
Date: 12 May 94 4:38
Subject: Returned Mail
X-Diagnostic: Mail coming from a daemon, ignored
X-Diagnostic: Possible loopback problem
Your mail was not be delivered to any recipients:
The header from your original message is reproduced below
Date: Wed, 11 May 1994 12:13:40 -0700
From: Phil Agre <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Nelson Mandela's address on his inauguration
This month's recommendations.
Robert Britt Horwitz, The Irony of Regulatory Reform: The
Deregulation of American Telecommunications, New York: Oxford
University Press, 1989. An absolutely lucid, if slightly
disorganized, account of the history of telecommunications
regulation in the United States. It has a particularly clear
theoretical account of regulation of market infrastructure
industries, of which telecommunications is an example. Now that
telecommunications regulation is a critical issue in Congress
and a matter of widespread public debate, Horwitz's book is an
indispensable background reference.
Kim Bobo, Jackie Kendall, Steve Max, Organizing for Social
Change: A Manual for Activists in the 1990s, Washington: Seven
Locks Press, 1991. Networking and community-building are not
just things that happen on the Internet. Increasingly, people
are integrating their Internet use into other activities, other
organizations, and other social movements, and they're learning
that using the Internet well requires a world of skills that
grow out of long traditions of organizing. This is a good manual
of organizing for social causes that encodes these traditions.
Bill Cantor, ed, Experts in Action: Inside Public Relations, New
York: Longman, 1984. This is an anthology of case studies about
a different kind of social organizing: using public relations
methods to mobilize people for a cause. The assumptions and
methods are strikingly different, though not entirely, and the
various case-studies are eye-opening and often instructive.
Richard Broxton Onians, The Origins of European Thought about
the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate: New
Interpretations of Greek, Roman and kindred evidence, also of
some Basic Jewish and Christian Beliefs, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1954. A marvelously eccentric account of
archaic Greek beliefs about a wide variety of things, including
the mystical significance attached to the synovial fluid in the
knees. It's still in print, or at least it was in print a couple
of years ago -- three cheers for Cambridge University Press.
Company of the month.
This month's company is:
260 Sheridan Avenue
Palo Alto, California 94306
phone +1 (415) 328-4323
This year has brought an explosion of tracking technologies:
devices that keep a distributed computer system apprised in real
time of the whereabouts of a person, automobile, or package, or
the status of a social or technical process. Savi Technology
makes a particularly straightforward kind of tracking device,
the radio-based "Savi-Tag" which can be affixed (for example)
to crates in a warehouse. The tags emit their identity codes
and receivers on the walls keep track of the codes and maintain
a database of the tags' locations. The tags have fairly general
computers inside, and can be customized for a variety of digital
interactions between the tags and the central computer.
Tracking technologies promise to be big business. Savi is
well-positioned in this business in that the US Department of
Defense has designated their system as its radio tag standard.
This is big news, because the military has been at the forefront
of deployment of high-technology logistics systems, and this
technology and the people who manage it have recently been
migrating to private industry as well. For example, Savi says
that its radio tags have been used extensively in the military's
operations in Somalia. Savi has also used its system as the
basis of an Automatic Vehicle Identification (AVI) system for
automobile toll collection.
So I recommend that you write Savi and ask for product
information on their tracking systems. I do not, however,
recommend that you harass them. Only get the literature if
you're genuinely interested in reading it. Thanks a lot.
Several people wrote to comment on my article about the political
action alert on ocean noise. Most of them assured me that you
probably *can* in fact be sued for libel for forwarding something
to a mailing list. I'm sure they're right. I hadn't intended
to make any broad, general statement on the subject. All I meant
to say was that the particular message I forwarded was similar to
numerous other communications that have been found not libelous
in American courts over the last several years.
In TNO 1(4) I plugged "Race, Poverty, and the Environment", a
terrific journal from the Earth Island Institute. Art McGee
<email@example.com> tells me that they can be reached online at
firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Check out the Institute for Global Communications gopher at
gopher.igc.apc.org and the British Broadcasting Corporation
WorldWide Web page at http://www.bbcnc.org.uk/. The scary new
GATT treaty is on the WorldWide Web too. The URL for it is:
check out the Internic's Internet Network News, whose 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 1994 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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