T H E N E T W O R K O B S E R V E R
VOLUME 2, NUMBER 5 MAY 1995
This month: The future of targeted communications
Worldviews in community networking
Internet discussion groups suck
Privacy politics after Oklahoma City
Welcome to TNO 2(5).
No matter what happens, my book manuscript is going in the mail
to New York on June 10th. Therefore, the primary purpose of this
issue of TNO is to get a bunch of thoughts off my mind so I can
get back to my revising. The articles are shorter, the topics
are more far-flung, and the tone is grouchier than usual. I also
have a particularly odd set of recommendations. I'll let you
know when the book comes out.
Here is the quote of the month. Truer words were never spoken:
"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 of the Christian Coalition
Time Magazine, 5/15/95, page 35
Hey liberals! What have you done lately to support the training
of activists for your favorite cause? If the answer is "nothing"
then it's time to get your act together.
Your Personal Message Environment.
I've been engaged in a lot of technodystopian fantasizing about
something I will call your Personal Message Environment (PME).
You already have a PME, but it will grow much more sophisticated
with the progress of two important trends: the rapid spread of
devices for tracking people, cars, and objects; and the rapid
interlinking of all the world's databases through networking.
What is your PME? As you go through the day, a large number of
messages are aimed at you by organizations that have an economic
interest in your knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes. These
messages include advertising, but they also include PR (which
often influences the writing of newspaper articles and many
other more neutral-seeming messages without you knowing it), the
things that sales people say to you in stores, the things your
boss says to you at work, and so on. The organizations that
aim these messages at you have a powerful interest in what they
call "targeting" -- getting their messages to the right people,
and getting the right message to each person. And the more they
know about you, the more effectively they can target a message
This is an economic choice, of course, so the degree of
targeting (that is, the degree to which messages are tailored
to individuals) will be determined by the costs and the payoff
associated with each successive degree of tailoring. The costs
include the costs associated with learning about you, keeping
track of you, deciding what message it would be most remunerative
to deliver to you, actually delivering the message to you, and so
on. In practice, of course, most messages are delivered to large
categories of people (e.g., the viewers of a television program)
based on ideas about their average attributes (e.g., their ages,
genders, and incomes).
But new efficiencies in the collection and movement of personal
information may change things. As the costs of learning about
you, tracking you, and delivering specialized messages to you
go down, it follows that the degree of tailoring may increase.
Let us imagine what this would be like if greatly extrapolated.
Suppose that TRW or Equifax had a generalized real-time personal
information server that organizations could both contribute
to and draw upon. This service would require a fee, of course,
but the computers would all be talking to one another on the
net, constantly bidding for information and making targeting
judgements on the fly based on current market conditions. This
information will be available anywhere, anytime that a machine
has an opportunity to deliver a message to you. When might these
* Sales and customer service. Sales people will be able to
get a rundown on you before they talk to you, as soon as they
find out your personal identifier. They might find out, for
example, which related products you have bought in the past,
the composition of your family, your line of work, and so forth.
They will say that this is all "to serve you better". That might
be slightly true but mostly it's baloney. What it will really
let them do is tailor their sales pitches to your perceived
level of sophistication and other factors relevant to the sales
negotiation (how good a negotiator is this person? how much does
s/he know about the product? how badly does s/he need to buy?
how much can s/he afford to spend). All of this will put you at
a relative disadvantage during the negotiation process.
* Roadside advertising. If your car-of-the-near-future uses
AVI-based toll collection, GPS-based tracking, or any other
mechanism that makes its location known to TRW or Equifax's
far-flung network of real-time information providers, then
this information can be merged with other information about you
to tailor a variety of messages. Roadside advertising signs,
for example, could change from minute to minute depending upon
the demographics of the people who are driving by right at that
specific moment. The signs might advertise different products
from moment to moment, or they might provide different pitches
for the same product. When people of a certain ethnic group
drive by, change the sign to portray such people enjoying the
product and exclaiming its virtues in that group's own idiom.
* Customized product literature. Nowadays product literature
is printed in huge batches and given out indiscriminately to
anybody in certain large categories of potential customers.
In the future, though, on-the-spot custom printing will make it
possible to print literature tailored to the people you're giving
it to, based on the information that the great web of automatic
interchange of personal information has accumulated about them.
Marketers and brochure designers will learn how to design whole
families of brochures, each one generated from a grammar of
tailored possibilities and laid out automatically in software.
* Video monitors in public spaces. Airport waiting rooms have
acquired large numbers of video monitors in the last few years,
many of which are tuned to a CNN channel designed specifically
for airport waiting rooms. But hey, the airlines know who is
waiting in those rooms, so why not automatically schedule content
on those monitors that fits the aggregate attributes of those
people? To assist with this process, a new type of marketing
will arise: real-time marketing. Marketing people will sit at
computer monitors which display relevant attributes of particular
groups of people, together with a set of automatically generated
heuristic analyses of the economic arguments for various message
patterns, and they'll decide, "okay, let's go for the upscale
car ads and conservative political news show for the forty-seven
affluent people on this flight who are headed to the Hawaiian
golf tournament, and forget about the others because they're
too mixed a group to pin down". Such decisions will need to
be made thousands of times a day, but the decisions will be
monitored and gradually automated using expert systems.
* Anything you get in the mail. This is already pretty far
along, as a quick phone call to R. R. Donnelley Information
Services in Chicago can readily verify for you. The primary
constraint here is automatic content generation and small-batch
printing, and both technologies are advancing quickly. Soon the
primary constraint will be the expertise for tailoring messages
based on second- and third-order attributes of individuals, not
just the half a dozen major market segments that old-fashioned
marketing focuses on, so that literally thousands of different
pitch letters, brochures, etc will go out to different people as
a routine matter.
* Point-of-sale advertising. This is also pretty far along
as well at a lot of supermarket chains. But they have not gone
very far in mixing supermarket and non-supermarket information.
Sure, if you buy Pepsi then you get Coke coupons -- big deal.
But think about it: there you are, standing at a known location
on the face of the earth. The cash register ought to be able
to send out a call on the net: "Hey everyone, we found her!
Anybody got any messages for her that you feel like delivering
in a supermarket checkout environment?" At this point some more
automatic bidding will take place: the amusement park is willing
to pay $0.02 to print you a coupon, the concern promoter is
willing to pay $0.09 to give you the upcoming concert schedule
for the bands whose albums you've bought recently at the record
store, and the day-care center is willing to pay $0.16 to
give you a map showing that it's located right along the route
from your job to your house. The day-care center will win the
bidding, and the map will get printed out and handed to you as
a matter of course.
You get the idea. Like all such scenarios, this one mixes both
good and bad. Maybe you really will be grateful to hear about
this conveniently located day-care center. But how do you feel
about being tracked in real time in this fashion? Will you be
able to turn it off? What will society be like when everyone
effectively lives in a separate message environment from everyone
else? And how will people mess with the system? Maybe you can
borrow the tracking devices belonging to someone with a different
race, class, and gender for a week. Won't that be an education?
Ties That Bind.
At the beginning of May I attended the unbelievably virtuous Ties
That Bind conference, organized by Steve Cisler at Apple Computer.
It's a conference for community networking people, and you will
rarely meet a more interesting, dedicated, action-oriented group
of people in your life. I went there because I want to do some
kind of research project on the forms of association that go with
computing -- user groups, for example, as well as BBS's, computer
clubs, and informal networks of people who share expertise as
part of their daily interactions. I hunted down a dozen or so
of the people attending the conference, explained my project,
and asked them what I should be looking for. The answers were
wonderfully interesting and diverse, and you will no doubt be
reading about them in TNO as things go along.
In this particular article, though, I want to describe the range
of ideas I thought I saw at this conference. What I found most
interesting was the painful process of technology-driven kinds
of innovation starting to merge with preexisting worlds of people
who are committed to helping communities. Roughly speaking, I
saw three traditions of thinking and action on this subject:
* Marketing. Besides Steve Cisler, the other driving force
for the conference was Mario Marino. Mario made some money in
the computer industry and he has set up a foundation to help the
community networking movement revitalize the public institutions
of the country. This is wonderful and Mario is a great guy whose
heart is in the right place. In listening to him, it's clear
that his worldview comes from selling computers to people. It's
a marketing style of thinking: you have a product, but nobody has
any obligation to even give you the time of day unless you learn
*their* agendas and *their* interests and *their* language and
learn to explain the virtues of your product in *those* terms.
This is a good message for computer people to hear, because it is
easy to get into a rut where you are convinced that computers are
the future and anybody who doesn't agree with you is exhibiting
"resistance to technology" or "resistance to change" et cetera.
* Nonprofits. The world of nonprofit organizations is enormous
and far-flung, with its own magazines and consultants and career
ladders and gossip networks. It's quite a significant part of
the economy. One large segment of it consists of professional
foundation people: the people who read grant proposals and give
money out to the ones that seem best thought out and most aligned
with the foundation's mission. These are folks who spend much
of their lives saying "no" to people, and if they are doing
their jobs then they also spend much of their lives explaining
what sorts of proposals they are looking for. They have evolved
a whole discourse about communities and community development
and so on, and they view computer networks as one piece in this
much larger preexisting puzzle. In particular, they don't even
want to hear about your community networking project unless you
have teamed up with real organizations that are delivering real
services to real people. This too is a good message for computer
people to hear.
* Community organizing. This last tradition was not so
visible on stage as the other two, but in my opinion it is the
most important. People have been organizing their communities
since the beginning of time, but the modern American traditions
of community organizing come from Saul Alinsky, who pioneered
a relatively rough-and-tumble style of organizing in Chicago
and whose followers have subsequently calmed down and gotten
more sophisticated, and from Martin Luther King and the people
around him, who went for a more spiritual, long-term, culturally
oriented style of organizing. Both styles have much to offer.
What's most significant about them is their emphasis on power and
empowerment. Computer networks are useless if people are feel
intimidated around technology and technical people. And they
are *also* useless if people are too demoralized to use them for
any particular project that benefits their community and makes
people feel like they have some kind of control over their lives.
I found it exciting and intellectually challenging to watch
the people at this conference absorb these orientations toward
computers and community, and test them all in the light of their
own experiences as librarians, teachers, nonprofit workers, and
active citizens. I hope that their experiences meshing the world
of computers with the real world of people's lives will spill
over into everyplace else that people use computers.
The single most exciting thing I saw at the conference was
a presentation from Carmen Sirianni and Doug Schuler about
the Civic Practices Network, a nonpartisan project to pool
the experiences and expertise of people involved in community
organizing projects through the WorldWide Web. The current URL
for the CPN is http://fount.journalism.wisc.edu/cpn/cpn.html
but it says it will change to http://cpn.journalism.wisc.edu/
Check it out.
Internet heat death.
Over the past several months, I have been growing steadily more
impatient with Internet discussion groups. The Internet has a
lot of potential, but I have come to the conclusion that most
of that potential is being squandered. Much of what people are
doing on the net is great. But much is not. Here is a common
dysfunctional pattern: some people decide to "start a discussion
group". So they create a mailing list, put a bunch of people on
it, and say "okay, let's have a discussion". Maybe they'll send
out something interesting to "get discussion started". Several
things proceed to happen:
* Since nobody really knows what the list is for, the direction
it takes will often be heavily influenced by the first two
messages that go out on it -- that is, the initial discussion
starter and the first issue that someone raises in response.
The harder these first two people try to "start discussion" by
being stimulating and controversial, the more powerfully they
will set the agenda for the list. People will react to those
initial points, and other people will react to those points,
and the whole discussion will be sucked into one of fifteen
standard conversations that everybody in that world has had
* This initial explosion of messages will cause many people to
panic and say "help! you're flooding my mailbox! get me off
* Notwithstanding the excessively narrow focus of the initial
discussion, the people on the list will come up with five
different ideas about what the list is supposed to be for
-- without it ever occurring to them that alternative ideas
exist. They then start grouching at one another for abusing
the list. Or even worse, they start scowling inwardly at one
another for abusing the list without ever raising the issue --
or not raising it until they're full of anger and resentment
* Nobody can decide when to take a branch of the discussion
"off-line" to private messages. This problem is especially
bad on those systems which do not have a concept of a "thread"
(roughly, a series of messages with the same Subject line),
so that people can choose not to receive any more messages
on a given thread. But of course, most mail-readers on the
Internet (as opposed to Usenet or the Well, for example) have
no such concept.
* After an initial burst of discussion, the list falls into
something resembling heat death. The level of traffic goes
down, and nobody is sure what to do next. Everybody was just
reacting to other people's messages anyway, so zero traffic
becomes a stable pattern.
* The next step, after a couple months of silence, is for
someone to post a political action alert to the list --
whereupon a batch of people will try to get themselves off.
But of course they did not save the automatically generated
message that explained how to do this, and the intervening
silence has removed any sense of concern for the well-being
of the list, so they do it by sending messages to the whole
list. This, of course, causes other people to do the same
thing, whereupon someone tries to prevent this effect from
snowballing by sending out a helpful, constructive message
like "hey, you idiots! didn't your mama teach you anything?
why don't you just unsubscribe by sending a message to
Internet discussion groups can work well despite these dynamics,
but only in special circumstances. For example, it helps if
the community on the list has a steady stream of external events
to react to. Since the list operates in a mostly reactive mode,
they'll always have something to talk about. The sustained level
of traffic might be high, but then people will leave the list
until it settles down to a level that suits the people who remain
behind. Another scheme that works well is to have a list which
is oriented almost exclusively to one-shot announcements -- but
then that's not a discussion list anymore.
Mostly, though, Internet discussion lists do not work very well.
Very often the problem, in my experience, is that people are
being lazy: trying to set up a discussion list in order to avoid
the hard work of building a community, agreeing on purposes and
goals, establishing a structure and timetable, and so on. Often
they rationalize this laziness by appealing to the libertarian
ethos of the net: structure means constraint means domination.
Lots of people believe that, but it's not true. It's not even
true if you're a libertarian: structure imposed from the outside
may imply constraint and domination, but structure agreed from
within a group through a legitimate consensus-building process
should not. In my experience, though, lots of people who tend
toward libertarian sentiments just talk about the virtues of
association without actually learning how to cooperate and build
things with real, live other people. This spirit of politically
noble laziness is dragging down the Internet.
In fact, the people who helped me articulate these phenomena work
mostly with kids. Mike Cole <firstname.lastname@example.org> and Olga Vasquez
<email@example.com> in my department, for example, run
after-school computer clubs for kids. They learned early on that
you can't just provide a bunch of computer activities and helpful
college students and tell the kids of have fun and learn lots.
Instead, you need to provide a structure of some kind that is
intrinsically rewarding and offers a sense of where you currently
are in a larger picture. So, for example, each computer program
comes with an activity sheet -- an actual sheet of paper with
easy, medium, and hard challenges for using the program. Also,
the kids are constrained in which programs they can use by a
floorplan through they move a game piece (a "creature"): when
they do well at one program, they get to move to an adjacent
"room" of their choice. Now some people will say that this is
more grown-up domination of kids. I say that kids need friendly,
flexible structures to scaffold their development. If you think
you can get kids learning real stuff in a totally unstructured
environment, you go ahead and do it. Let us know when you
succeed. We'll stop by and have a look, and ten bucks says
that you're actually training the kids to obey a whole range of
hidden control trips while pretending to be free and spontaneous.
Margaret Riel <firstname.lastname@example.org> has done similar things
on a larger scale over the Internet with networks of teachers
across the globe. They don't just connect the kids by e-mail
to scientists at the South Pole: first they set up a whole
elaborate curriculum, covering several topics from math to
science to literature, so that the children have read and written
and talked and listened about the South Pole for weeks, comparing
notes with one another as they hit the library and type in their
work. All of this structure means that everybody knows where
they are going, everybody is ready for what happens next, and the
whole activity has a natural point of closure.
What the Internet needs is a vocabulary of structures for e-mail
discussion lists. Nobody should bother creating a list until
they have a good reason for it that everybody has signed onto.
This will mean doing some consultation, building consensus, and
accepting that communities take time to grow. It will also mean
having a definite goal and structure for the list, including
a statement of the conditions under which the list will have
achieved its purpose and be shut down. Of course, nobody should
*force* people to run their lists this way. But it would be most
excellent if decent standards could be established within which
people can create software to support such things. Sure, plenty
of companies sell conferencing systems to organizations whose
people are required to do things together. But that doesn't
mean that those people actually go through the social processes
needed to use the systems at all productively, and it certainly
doesn't mean that the benefits of those systems become widespread
on the Internet.
A lot of the problem, then, has to do with technical standards
and the like. But the problem is also cultural. Many people
have lost, or never learned, the skills for working together.
Although the 1960's counterculture is out of fashion now, it
put a *lot* of effort into learning how to build community, how
to organize and empower people, how to run things democratically,
how to fight fair, and how to be a powerful human being without
having to exercise power over other people. In my opinion, the
net needs these skills badly. And so does the rest of the world.
People who believe in liberty ensure an authoritarian world
unless they teach people how to organize themselves through their
own efforts, and the problem of using the net productively might
be an occasion to rediscover this.
How the world works.
Speaking of the New York Times, what the heck has happened to
the Times' Business section? They've moved all the information
technology news to Monday, which is fine, but the rest of the
week they seem to have switch some of their focus away from
serious business reporting to fluffy personal finance articles.
In the past I would often spend upwards of two hours reading
the Sunday Business section alone. But today's Business section
(5/29/95) has this trivia quiz about the Dow Jones Industrial
Average and an article about couples who fight about whether to
invest in commodity futures or no-load mutual funds. Come on.
I suppose I might find this interesting if I had any money in
the bank, but I don't. I just want to understand how the world
works, and serious business reporting is an important part of
that. Business Week is too driven by PR and Forbes is too driven
by ideology. The Wall Street Journal is okay, but it doesn't
have nearly enough feature articles about industry structures.
Thus the New York Times actually filled an important gap, in my
So, hey, Times, if you're listening -- enough of this stuff.
Let's have some articles on real stories, like the continuing
operational changes inside the global banking industry, the
dark underside of union-management "cooperation", the emerging
transnational class structure of East Asia, the revolution in
work measurement, the new right-wing labor law in New Zealand,
and the rapid integration of all the world's databases through
Further thoughts on the Oklahoma City bombing.
Now that the dust has started to settle, the jury has reached
a tentative verdict in the case: the Oklahoma City bombing was
a successful terrorist operation. Terrorists don't expect that
anybody will actually applaud their violence, and they are not
surprised when politicians across the spectrum use words like
"deplorable tragedy". Instead, they usually want to do three
things: (1) get publicity for their cause, (2) provoke a wave
of repression that will provide ammo for organizers of sedition,
and (3) force politicians to take a stand on polarized issues.
Well, number (1) is easy. Number (2): Bill Clinton, who decided
in the earliest days of his candidacy to give the authoritarian
"national security" establishment whatever it wants as the price
for pursuing his social programs and industrial policy, has put
the terrible Omnibus Antiterrorism Act on the front burner in
Congress, most recently pushing against the Republicans for wider
authority for wiretapping. The far right is going nuts about
this bill, which is about the best organizing tool they could ask
for -- short of another Waco. Number (3): Newt Gingrich, in the
early days when everyone was being pushed to take sides, came out
forcefully talking about Americans who fear the government. Not
just "oppose" or "distrust" but "fear". Case closed.
In watching the new press spotlight on far-right organizing in
the US, it suddenly hit me one day: the US has become a third
world country in one more sense. I recall a discussion in the
1980's about third world countries, particularly in the Middle
East, where popular political discourse is often thick with
rumors about what the CIA must be up to. The talking heads
put this down to the fevered Arab mind and all of that, never
thinking that these people might be responding rationally to a
world that really was full of CIA covert operations -- if not
necessarily the same ones discussed in the rumors. But now
we have just the same thing in the United States, with people
claiming to have spotted black helicopters belonging to the
United Nations invasion force and speculating at great length
about intricate government conspiracies of all sorts. These
rumors are surely false, but what reality are they a rational
I was on a radio show in Kansas City talking about privacy
recently; its host was an avuncular guy who did not seem
particularly ideological. But he was so hung up on weird,
dystopian scenarios (computer chips planted in our heads by the
government, machines watching you 24 hours a day in your house,
etc) that the conversation kept falling flat whenever I would
try to discuss a *real* threat to privacy, no matter how serious.
Did this guy have the pulse of his listeners? That's his job,
Be this as it may, the issue of civil liberties seems suddenly
to have flipped political polarities. I have gotten some notes
about my privacy work from people I would not invite to dinner,
and the LA Times tells me that Oliver North had Ira Glasser from
the ACLU on his show and grunted approvingly the whole time. The
ACLU has made some strange calls in recent years, but I must say
I still respect their willingness to go to bat for all kinds of
pariahs -- from pornographers to tobacco companies to militias.
Conservatives have been talking about free speech and other civil
liberties a great deal lately. The real test is whether they
can apply those principles to anybody except conservatives who
are being repressed by liberals. So far I have seen little to
impress me on this score, but I have an open mind.
Lots of people have had the following idea: build an ordinary
software application like a spreadsheet, but include an extra
program that runs in the background, watches your patterns of
usage, and then periodically tries to teach you things or creates
new commands that capture common patterns in your interaction
with the system. I can see the motivation for such systems
in my own experience: very often I'll accidentally learn about
some feature of a program that I wish I'd known about years ago.
Sometimes I'll actually take the user's manual home and flip
through it at bedtime in case some feature pops out and catches
my eye ("oh hey, I could use that for when I do such-and-such"),
but usually I have better things to do at bedtime. Maybe such
schemes will find their niches, then, but I'm skeptical. At the
same time, it seems to me that something similar might work much
better: the key is using the net to get some people in the loop.
So let's build the same background watching program, but forget
trying to make that program "smart". Instead, have the program
summarize all the interesting bits and pieces of patterns and
statistics that it notices and ship them off across the net to
someone whose job is to study usage patterns for that particular
program. Or maybe that person's job is to study usage patterns
for a particular category of users, like accountants or truck
drivers or teachers. Then that person might be "on call" for the
users. If a particular user feels the need to learn something
new, or is feeling irritated about some aspect of the system,
they can push a button or enter a menu command and enter a verbal
description of what's bothering them and what kind of guidance
they might like. A few minutes later they'll get a phone call
(or a voice connection over the net) from a real person who has
been listening to their voice message and studying their usage
pattern. Maybe that person can suggest a few features to try
out. The program itself could come with little canned demos of
each feature, or the on-line advisor could select a canned demo
that's customized in some way to this users's characteristics.
This is not so far different from the kinds of customer support
that companies now provide. It assumes net connectivity between
customer and company, which isn't so hard, and it assumes that
the product has the necessary architecture to communicate the
relevant aspects of its state, including the usage pattern
information that the background program has noticed, over the
net to the on-line advisor. The difference is that the advisor
is now helping the user learn the system -- not from scratch,
but incrementally, one or two features at a time. This kind
of incremental learning is valuable because it is responsive
to the user's actual use patterns and because it is slowed down
to a rate that real human beings can digest. It might also be
much cheaper than generalized troubleshooting-oriented customer
support because the issues are more focused and less confusing,
the outcome is more specific, and the process is sufficiently
standardized that software can generate a lot of the necessary
information automatically. On the other hand, maybe the on-line
advisor will end up being basically a sales person, or at least
will be instructed to stay on the lookout for opportunities to
convince users that they need to buy some extra software rather
than just learning a new feature of the software they already
Maybe we'll have a lot of services like this in the future --
people whose job is to process certain kinds of information from
users all over the world using the net. Last month, for example,
my "wish list" suggested having students' term papers copy edited
by people in India. And so maybe we'll have a whole class of
people who do this kind of work. It might be good work in some
ways: a continual set of fresh puzzles and challenges, extremely
flexible work schedule, no heavy lifting, enough variety in the
physical interaction with the machine that doing it ten hours a
day isn't going to destroy your hands, and so on. On the other
hand, it's basically piecework. What is the career path for such
workers? Do they learn valuable skills on the job that they can
use to get into more remunerative kinds of work? Will the labor
market be extremely competitive due to the ability of people all
over the earth to join the workforce just by switching on their
computers and plugging into the net? Serious questions.
This month's recommendations.
GNU Emacs for the Mac. That's right! The most excellent Marc
Parmet <email@example.com> has ported the one true text
editor, GNU Emacs, to the Apple Macintosh. Despite some small
hassles, I could not possibly be happier.
Organic milk. I'm serious. Like most people, I support organic
farming in the abstract but don't end up buying a lot of the
stuff in practice. Lately, though, I've been drinking organic
milk, and I am amazed at how much better it is than regular
industrial milk -- which, I am now realizing, is basically this
tasteless white liquid. It costs about 50% more but it's worth
every penny. Ask your local store to carry it. The dairy that
supplies my local supermarket is Natural Horizons Inc, PO Box
17577, Boulder CO 80308.
Deborah Madison, The Greens Cookbook, Toronto: Bantam, 1987.
Some cookbooks, starting with Elizabeth David's epochal works
on French country cooking, aim to discover, revive, adapt, and
interpret a classical tradition. Others are semiotic displays,
inventing "traditions" that mobilize the familiar signs of a
geographic region in the form of food on a plate. This whole
spectrum is governed by a tussle over authenticity that's enough
to make me take Jean Baudrillard seriously for hours at a time.
But in my experience, precisely one cookbook is a true work of
transcendent genius, and that's "The Greens Cookbook". It is
a vegetarian cookbook that is infused by a deep and serious
and respectful attention to vegetables -- not to the *idea* of
vegetables, or to spectacles or commodities flown in from the
greenhouse, but to the actual cucumbers and the actual beans.
And to actual kitchens, with their left-over leaves and rinds
that can be made into soup stock, and to the seasons of the year.
Andrew Feenberg and Alastair Hannay, eds, Technology and the
Politics of Knowledge, Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
1995. This is the best edited collection of articles on the
critical philosophy of technology. Every article is a valuable
contribution to scholarship on the subject. It's not easy
reading, but it definitely an improvement on the utopian and
dystopian versions of technological determinism that pervade
much of the literature on, for example, computing in society.
Ceanne DeRohan, Right Use of Will, Santa Fe: Four Winds, 1986.
Lately I've been on a campaign to read the most challenging works
on psychology and ethics that I can find, and this one has got to
take the cake. It is part of a genre that I never, ever thought
I would take seriously: the new age "channeling" literature that
is supposedly dictated by various spiritual entities. This one
in particular is supposed to have been dictated word-for-word by
God, and it is full of the stilted diction and strange allegories
about Atlantis and environmentalism that characterize the genre.
But if you can get past that stuff, I swear, it actually is quite
brilliant underneath. It is not for beginners. It's about the
Will, the part of you that wants to do things. Most people have
large parts of their Will in a box somewhere, either because they
had to conform to someone else's stuff as kids, or because they
ended up in a twelve-step program, convinced that all their Will
wants to do is drink and get into dysfunctional relationships.
DeRohan, or God, believes that you aren't healthy until you
have gotten all the pent-up emotional wounds out of your system,
whereupon you will only want to do things that are basically
good. Why is this? I can't summarize the explanation, but
it involves a long of very interesting stuff about denial that
makes a lot of sense to me. You'll have to decide for yourself.
Company of the month.
This month's company is:
Metasystems Design Group
2000 North 15th Street, Suite 103
Arlington, Virginia 22201
phone: (703) 243-6622
I met Lisa Kimball from Metasystems Design Group and read the
company's literature at the Ties That Bind conference, and let
me tell you, these folks are a breath of fresh air. They are
organizational consultants who will help you get yourself on
the net -- while making absolutely sure that you understand that
getting yourself on the net, all by itself, is probably not the
answer to your question. The net is great, but your organization
will only get real work done over the net if you have a structure
for the work with a flexible set of roles and expectations. A
lot of people try to solve problems by getting everyone on the
net, and then when it doesn't work the blame the net because
it's easier than looking inward at the organizational pathologies
that were actually causing the problems. In my opinion, the net
community needs a lot of help from people with real, sane ideas
about organizations and communication -- like these folks.
Do contact them if you're interested in learning more. But as
always, I ask you not to contact them unless your interest is
fairly serious, since I wouldn't want companies who get listed
in TNO to get a batch of random, useless mail. Thanks a lot.
The Copyright Clearance Center is on the Web. This is a good
thing because it now costs way too much to clear a copyright
when assembling a course reader for students. This is a disaster
in small courses whose readers contain large numbers of short
articles. Anything that gets the transaction costs down for
these readers will help a lot -- I hope they get on-line payment
going soon. Their URL is http://www.directory.net/copyright
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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