T H E N E T W O R K O B S E R V E R
VOLUME 1, NUMBER 9 SEPTEMBER 1994
This month: The epidemiology of Unix
Imagining the future of labor markets
The infrastructure of public relations
Books about writing
E-mail addresses for gay activists
Welcome to TNO 1(9).
This month's issue includes a couple of articles by the editor.
First is a commentary upon a savagely humorous new book based
on the UNIX-HATERS mailing list, leading to a discussion of how
unfortunate technical standards can become entrenched. Unix is
merely a nuisance mess, but many other standards are downright
dangerous, and an understanding of the social dynamics of
standards might avoid further dangers in the future.
Then comes a deliberately frightening scenario about the future
of information-intensive labor markets. As computers decrease
the transaction costs associated with hiring, and as networks
increase the geographic scope over which firms can hunt for
people to do specific units of work, human labor may become
radically commodified through standardization. What's your
cheerfulness rating? The point of this exercise is not concrete
prognostication, but rather restretching our imaginations. Big
Brother provides one dystopian vision of institutional abuses of
computing, but many other scenarios are possible.
The epidemiology of Unix.
According to The UNIX-HATERS Handbook (a funny but serious new
book from IDG Books in San Mateo, California, edited by Simson
Garfinkel, Daniel Weise, and Steven Strassman):
Unix is a computer virus with a user interface.
Maybe you have to be a computer person to get the humor in this,
but I personally find it all too funny. UNIX-HATERS is a mailing
list begun in 1987 by an MIT Media Lab graduate student named
Mike Travers, so that people worldwide who spend far too much
time struggling with the Unix operating system could compare
notes and engage in rude, exasperated flaming. Over time the
UNIX-HATERS list distributed a remarkably large number of very
nasty, very well-informed messages, which three members of the
list have now included in a book. Although they are listed as
editors, in fact they wrote a great deal of additional text,
within which the UNIX-HATERS messages are for the most part
simply illustrations. (They even included one small message of
mine, about one version of the Unix "rm" command.)
Unix is not literally a computer virus, of course, but the
analogy is striking. Unix was written by a couple of guys who
needed a simple operating system to enable them to do something
else. From there it grew and spread exponentially, gathering
a bewildering variety of additional hacks and variant versions
which have successfully resisted numerous attempts to impose
order and standards upon them. Why? One reason is that anyone
could get it basically for free -- including its source code.
But the more fundamental reason is that Unix filled a niche --
lacking a standard operating system for "workstation" computers,
everyone found it easier to incrementally adapt Unix to their
purposes than to buy something else or write it from scratch.
The history of Unix, then, is not a matter of conscious design
and planning but of ceaseless mutation and multiplication.
This is the sense in which Unix is like a virus.
I was utterly absorbed the UNIX-HATERS book. When one of the
editors, Simson Garfinkel, sent me a draft, I sat right down
and read it pretty much straight through, marking typos and
accumulating a batch of written comments. I had better things
to be doing, to be honest, but there was something compelling
about the ceaseless barrage, page after page, of outrageous
stories about Unix functionality, including dozens of instances
of bad design that had bitten me over the years. The book is
written in an exaggeratedly nasty style which actually somehow
works, perhaps because the undead Unix is the product of no
The scope of The UNIX-HATERS Handbook is almost exclusively
technical. These are computer people whose sense of good design
has been offended, and they are exacting revenge in the name
of much better operating systems that have been relegated to
the software museum by the haphazard spread of viral standards.
And indeed, for sheer harmless moral outrage, the book is hard
My own questions about Unix, though, are more institutional.
If Unix is a virus, surely we need an epidemiology. Just as
the spread of human viruses is abetted through the mechanics
of air ducts, the civil engineering of sanitation, the culture
of sexuality, and the economics of pharmaceuticals, likewise
the spread of technical standards is influenced by a variety
of non-technical factors relating to the technology's place in
the larger world. Why did Unix spread? One important reason,
at least in the early days, was the many separate choices of
individual programmers who just needed to get individual systems
running -- Unix was quick and easy if you knew how everything
worked and just needed to make forward progress.
In the long run, though, a more important factor was the decision
of companies like Sun Microsystems to aggressively promote Unix
as a standard. When a new market niche opens, like the emerging
niche for workstation computers that Sun nearly dominated for
a long time, quality doesn't matter nearly as much as speed --
how fast you can get products to market. Sun could take Unix
off the shelf, promote it as a standard, cut prices like mad, and
promise to fix the problems later. In economic terms this was an
entirely rational decision. Part of the reason for this, though,
was that very many of the people who bought Suns were not aware
of the high costs of Unix system maintenance which ate up much of
the savings on the hardware. This includes the hidden costs of
the legions of frustrated system users and programmers trying to
overcome the numerous manifestations of Unix's bad design -- or
more precisely, its lack of design. Many of these hidden costs
are hidden because their victims simply weren't aware that the
world could be organized in any other way.
Unix, of course, is simply an extreme example of something that
happens a lot with technical standards. Take the familiar QWERTY
keyboard, which is well known to be ergonomically inferior to
other designs but which persists because it's next to impossible
to get millions of people sufficiently coordinated to make the
shift. Given that the world is full of QWERTY keyboards, someone
deciding to learn to type is best-advised to learn QWERTY typing.
Once they've learned QWERTY typing, it's hard to convince anyone
that it's worth learning Dvorak typing, or any other optimized
typing scheme. Keyboard manufacturers, for their parts, are
facing a world in which most typists know the QWERTY system and
not any other. Thus the QWERTY standard remains entrenched just
because it got established and keeps reproducing itself. With
Unix, of course, the situation is much worse because of the
ceaseless mutations it undergoes. But the principle is similar.
So who do we arrest for causing the Unix epidemic? How about
the executives at Sun and other similar companies? Did they
have reasonable alternatives? Probably not. The lesson, I
think, is to be extremely aware of the rise of new standards.
If we want things done right, we need to make noise quickly,
at the beginning of the cycle, before something random becomes
entrenched. The consequences can be severe. With Unix it's
just a matter of cost and inconvenience. But with other types
of systems it's also a matter of civil liberties. Consider the
vast number of systems that collect personal information indexed
by a personal identifier such as a Social Security Number. Did
those systems really have to work that way? Could they have
used cryptography to protect individuals from abuse of their
information, and to give individuals more control over the
ways in which their information was used? Yes, most likely
they could. So why didn't they? One answer is profit, since
secondary uses of personal information so often bring in good
But another answer is that the systems were designed that way
by default -- since that kind of plain, explicit representation
is what programmers are taught in school. We'll probably always
need legislation to make sure that information is not abused.
But perhaps a better, longer-term answer is to change education
in computer science so that privacy-protection methods such as
cryptography are taught in the earliest classes and integrated
into the design methodologies of systems analysis -- rather than
being stuck on in non-standard ways afterward.
Science fiction and social choice.
Today our society must make, very rapidly, a large number
of difficult choices about technology. Distributed computing
technology is changing with particular speed right now, and the
consequences of its diverse uses are finally starting to be felt
on a large scale. Technical standards and market structures are
nearly impossible to roll back once they become entrenched, so it
is important to try to imagine ahead of time what the future will
bring. This is not just -- or even mostly -- a technical matter.
It is more a matter of social imagination: what kinds of social
and institutional dynamics will emerging technologies enter into?
Many technical people of my acquaintance rebut this question with
the lame answer that such things are impossible to anticipate,
so why try? One "why" is that it matters, and another is
that, colorful counterexamples notwithstanding, we actually can
anticipate a great many things reliably enough to make important
choices now. This is the zone where science fiction intersects
with sociology. (Why does "science fiction" connote stories set
in the future or an irretrievable past, whereas "sociological
fiction" connotes either nothing at all or stories set in the
present day?) Let us call it the "technosocial imagination" and
think hard about it, because we're going to need it.
The technosocial imagination, like all kinds of imagination,
is profoundly influenced by the past. In particular, it is
deeply influenced by precedents and by metaphors. It is a
notorious fact that ideas about the future, when investigated
in retrospect, invariably turn out to have been ways of working
through situations in the present. This isn't so bad, but it's
unfortunate when it distorts choices about technology that really
do matter for something. We can defend ourselves against this
effect, at least to some degree, by using the tools of critical
analysis to make explicit the structure of our ideas about these
things, thereby making possible the conscious investigation of
When it comes to distributed computer technology, perhaps the
single most important precedent and metaphor conditioning our
technosocial imagination is "Big Brother" -- George Orwell's
fictional abstraction of the totalitarian societies of the mid
twentieth century, drawing on historical experiences of the
secret police going back a long ways. The idea of computers
maintaining extensive databases about your purchases and
finances, your work activities, and your personal life certainly
sounds, on first blush, like Big Brother at work.
But Big Brother has his limitations as a structuring metaphor for
the technosocial imagination. In TNO 1(7) I explained one reason
why this is so, namely that computers don't work by looking at
things. They work by languages, and applied computing isn't just
a matter of watching you but of restructuring your activities
(either obviously or subtly over time) so that they afford
"parsing" in terms that given computer systems can represent
to themselves. Another problem with Big Brother is that it is
a metaphor of state action and thus has limited applicability to
analyses of the market. The secret police really does exist and
I wouldn't want to minimize it. But it's not what's driving the
social structuring of distributed computer technology right now.
Here I would like to start developing some alternative forms of
technosocial imagination to encourage reasoning about distributed
computer technology. To speak of "forms of imagination" rather
than "theories" is to announce a cultural intervention rather
than an academic exercise, though these two activities clearly
overlap. More concretely, to speak of "forms of imagination" is
to beg forgiveness for extrapolation, exaggeration, abstraction,
and simplification. Metaphors are blunt instruments: they order
some elements of reality in simple and compelling ways while
pushing all the other elements to the margins. Thoughtful people
apply them with care, heuristically, as a stimulus to critical
reflection and a generator of hypotheses and questions that might
be addressed to material reality, both through formal experiment
and through the lived experiences of the people to whom the stuff
That said, I want to extrapolate some things that are going on
in the labor market right now. It's clear that a great deal is
going on in labor markets, but people disagree about *what* is
going on. Temporary work is found in areas where it formerly was
not. New kinds of piecework are called "consulting". Contract
manufacturing has become more prominent in the global division of
labor as low-skill (and, increasingly, high-skill) manufacturing
has drifted from formerly industrial countries to formerly
nonindustrial ones. It is not an extreme exaggeration to say,
as did the cover story of a recent issue of Fortune (9/19/94),
that we're looking at the "end of the job". What I think is
safe to say is that we're looking at an increasing heterogeneity
of contractual relationships in the workplace, both in the
relationships between organizations (e.g., partnerships) and
between organizations and individuals.
Computer networks alone did not cause these developments, and it
is hard to determine precisely what contribution they have made.
But in some sectors, as TNO 1(8) pointed out, "human resources"
has encountered informational economies of scale that have made
it possible for companies like McDonald's to contract much of
their labor needs (finding, hiring, paying, and firing employees)
to outside firms. These firms employ extensive testing and
try to "match" people to jobs in a rationalized way on a large
Where could this go? Business management literature in the
last decade has placed increasing emphasis on the role of
ideological control in workplaces. The idea is that, in order
to "empower" people to make decisions based on local knowledge,
it is necessary to indoctrinate them (they often use these words,
ideological and indoctrinate) with the company's "philosophy"
and "values" and "culture". Many managers now say things like
"we hire people who share our values" -- that means that they
employ some kind of personality testing (either through formal
tests or more informal kinds of screening) to hire people who
fit a certain personality profile, for example "cheerful", "work
ethic", "team player", and so forth.
Imagine a system in which such tests become standardized on a
large scale. If you want a job anywhere in the bottom four
fifths of the economy (or, in a different way, in the top three
percent) then you'll regularly take a batch of personality tests
and your scores will be stored in databases. Employers, using
statistical evidence gathered through pervasive work monitoring
to correlate personality factors to job performance, contract for
labor using this database. When this system becomes large enough
it will move beyond the simple idea of a "match" between the job
and the person. Instead, different personality traits will have
market values. In such a world, one might reasonably expect, a
high "cheerfulness" rating will be a fairly valuable commodity
that will fetch a premium on the market, with a high score for
"sullen efficiency" trading at a modest discount.
A functioning market in human personality traits will go a long
way to maximizing the efficiency of a wide variety of industries
-- and not just service work. The people who design jobs and
the machines that hire people to fill them will be able to make
economic calculations: one kind of restaurant, for example, might
require its employees to be rapid learners and good at managing
conflict, where another might require them to be docile and
susceptible to being pressured, and the relative labor costs
associated with these attributes might be factored into choices
about what kind of restaurant to open where.
In such a world, a temporary agency will operate very much
like a commodity market like the ones that sell pork bellies
in Chicago. No doubt it will become possible to trade futures
in human labor, for example futures in solemnity or aggression
whose values might be affected by the introduction of new
psychopharmaceuticals. Large companies will be able to purchase
long-term contracts to lock in their labor prices, but a spot
market will remain for those purchasers whose sustained needs are
In such a market, people will be able to make better economic
decisions about altering their personalities. Investments in
psychotherapy will be much better quantified, and "retreats"
and "workshops" that promise "transformational" changes in one's
basic philosophy and values, already a substantial industry, will
begin to advertise much more openly and lose much of their (often
well deserved) reputations as cults. It'll be like test cramming
courses only much more so: "my cheerfulness on the RDPM scale is
now in the 98th percentile, and I owe it all to Lifespring!".
The precise structure of the new rationalized labor market will
be affected by many things -- or, I should say more precisely, it
will interact with many other factors. Among these is the extent
to which jobs -- actually, the newly fashionable phrase is "work
that needs to be done" -- can be broken down into easily learned
units that might be assigned to what we now call "temporary"
workers. In past times, and indeed for the most part in the
present day, this end has been achieved principally through the
fragmentation of jobs into time-and-motion-measured units. But
it can be achieved through a combination of many other factors of
well: increasing standardization of the skills, standardization
of the ideologies of work (this effect was formerly achieved by
professions, but professions used to have a certain amount of
autonomy and solidarity that they are rapidly losing), increases in
the potential hiring pool for each job by permitting work to be done
remotely via computer networks and the like, and work monitoring
through computers and otherwise.
What will it be like to live in such a world? It is hard to
say for certain. It depends in large part on whether, and in
what ways, and to what depths, people actually believe in the
particular ideologies that are in demand in the market. If they
really do believe these things then they will be happy until
they are driven into the ground by the stresses of overwork and
continual changes of jobs. I expect, though, that most people
will be in a middle ground, neither believing the stuff nor not
believing it, but rather driven by the market to learn to animate
its outer forms without having much time to critically examine
any of it.
This would all be sad. Will it happen? I can point at quite
a few signs and rumors that it's on its way, but I really don't
know. The point of the exercise is not to make a prediction
that can be scored correct or incorrect someday, but rather to
shake up our technosocial imaginations. This unhappy scenario
is far from Big Brother but just as unpleasant. If it doesn't
have quite the same bite, that's because quite a few people have
full-time jobs justifying such things by arguing against abundant
evidence that the unfettered market necessarily provides the best
of all possible worlds. The motto of this newsletter is that
the market is like the police: of course you need it, but if it
becomes the central organizing principle of your culture then
you're in deep trouble. And that's my conclusion here: computers
are cultural artifacts as much as they are technical ones, and
they lend themselves to cultural engineering just as much as they
do to technical engineering. That's not a necessary connection,
since computers can probably be used in different ways in
different worlds, but it's a wholly plausible connection in the
world that is emerging before our eyes today.
Is it what we want? We still have time to decide.
This month's recommendations.
Andrew L. Friedman, Computer Systems Development: History,
Organization and Implementation, Chichester, UK: Wiley, 1989.
This is a detailed, utterly astute history of computer systems
development, based on a sequence of three stages: building
programs that satisfy specs, developing specs that correspond to
structures of work, and designing user interfaces that people can
use. He predicts the emergence of a fourth stage: concern with
interactions between structures of computing and structures of
William Strunk Jr and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, third
edition, New York: Macmillan 1979. I've read a lot of books
about how to write, but this is the book I keep coming back to.
It contains a simple, clear ideology of language based on the
slogan "omit needless words". Just reading it won't make you a
great writer. But reading it at bedtime on writing days can work
wonders -- once you set to writing again the next day, you'll
start to notice the truth of its simple rules, whereupon you
can look for your own personal way to apply the spirit of those
rules. Far from constraining your writing to artificial norms,
you'll probably find that this process helps you bring out your
own voice. Even better, try picking just one of the rules (for
example, its injunction to use active verbs) and go through every
sentence of your current draft. If you're like me (and many of
my students), you'll be amazed at the radical changes that this
simple procedure can bring to your prose.
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer
Within, Boston: Shambhala, 1986. Another manual for writers,
as different from Strunk and White as it could possibly be, but
just as useful. Goldberg is a Buddhist writing instructor in
New Mexico whose speciality is a very personal kind of fiction
writing, but whose methods can be extended to all other kinds
of writing as well. She suggests stirring up your writerly
self by engaging in a kind of automatic writing that circumvents
your efforts to make your writing "good", fashionable, according
to the rules, and so forth. She also offers plenty of useful
general-purpose advice about writing that should make valuable
bedtime reading for anyone who is, say, stuck on a dissertation.
Company of the month.
This month's company is:
1515 Broadway, 32nd Floor
New York, New York 10036
+1 (212) 832-9400, fax (800) 793-9313
Producing a newspaper or news program costs money. One way
to save money is to use predigested news "stories" from PR
agencies. Oscar Gandy calls this an "information subsidy".
This practice, while commonplace since early in this century,
has grown ever more pervasive, to the degree that a whole
elaborate infrastructure has grown up to implement it. Perhaps
the single most important element in that infrastructure is PR
Newswire, which allows organizations engaged in public relations
to have their materials delivered to news organizations
worldwide. A customer can choose from a variety of "newslines",
corresponding to a given geographic region, industry, ethnic
group, or whatever, including both mainstream newspapers and more
specialized publications. Their coverage is truly amazing. For
example, you can get your 300-word press release to the national
news agency and all major media in Bangladesh for US$265.
They'll send photos, and they'll store your own letterhead in
their computer for repeated notices.
The fact is that news organizations use these materials. Now,
nobody can complain when the materials in question are simple
matters of fact. The problem starts when the news organizations
do not -- whether to save money or to avoid offending potential
sponsors or because they simply don't care -- dig beneath the
"spin" on the stories they get from the PR Newswire to see what
other framings of the story might better inform the public.
So you might want to learn more about PR Newswire by getting
their literature. But don't harass them. Only get it if you
really want to read it. Thanks a lot.
Mike Sunderland <email@example.com> was pleased by my
comments about language in e-mail that mistakenly tends to
presuppose that the sender and reader are in the same country.
Extending my main example, the phrase "this country", he points
out that commonly used phrases such as "this summer" tend to
presuppose that the sender and reader are in the same hemisphere.
Al Gore's National Performance Review now has some web pages.
Have a look at http://www.npr.gov/ and ignore the huge bit maps.
The Office of the (US) Secretary of Defense now has a web page
as well. Much fun. Aim your WWW client at http://www.osd.mil/
In a neat bit of symmetry, the Survival Research Laboratories
(which stages allegorical demonstrations of mechanized warfare
on city streets) is on the net now as well. The URL is
The August 8th issue of the direct marketing industry journal
"DM News" reports that "Affinity Marketing Group is offering the
29,888-name Hillary Haters list", which consists of individuals
who "despise anything and everything to do" with Bill and
Hillary Clinton. Affinity says that these folks are "proven
supporters of patriotic and ultra-right wing causes, campaigns
and committees and ... are pro-military, anti-gay, pro-gun,
anti-welfare, pro-American and anti-foreigner". You can reach
Affinity at PO Box 2409, Fairfax VA 22031, phone (703) 978-4927,
fax (703) 978-7832.
The Institute for the Study of Civic Values' gopher contains
many things relevant to community networking and community
development. Aim your gopher at gopher.civic.net port 2400
From a unix prompt: gopher gopher.civic.net 2400
Here, courtesy of firstname.lastname@example.org via a very useful on-line
newsletter on e-mail an government published by Jim Warren
<email@example.com>, is a list of e-mail addresses for groups that
are fighting anti-gay ballot initiatives:
* Oregon's No on 13 Campaign (formerly Save Our Communities PAC)
is at: firstname.lastname@example.org .
* Idaho's No on 1 Coalition is at: NoProp1ID@aol.com .
* The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund is at: email@example.com .
* Digital Queers is at: firstname.lastname@example.org .
* National Gay & Lesbian Task Force is at: email@example.com .
* Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation is at:
* International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission is at:
I wandered through the local VA hospital the other day and
happened upon an issue of "Atomic Veterans Newsletter" for
veterans who got sick from being exposed to US nuclear weapons
tests. It's fascinating. The address is NAAV, PO Box 4424,
Salem MA 01970-6424. Membership (including a subscription to
the magazine) is $15 a year, but it sounds like they might only
accept memberships from people who were actually exposed to
radiation. You might want to check it out anyway.
My favorite palindrome is: Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas.
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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