T H E N E T W O R K O B S E R V E R
VOLUME 2, NUMBER 9 SEPTEMBER 1995
"You have to organize, organize, organize, and build and
build, and train and train, so that there is a permanent,
vibrant structure of which people can be part."
-- Ralph Reed, Christian Coalition
This month: A historical perspective on cyberspace
Sundry concepts and practices of democracy
Welcome to TNO 2(9).
This month's issue features an article by Langdon Winner about
the historical precedents for the United States' current public
debate about the future of telecommunications technology. He
observes that decisions about technology aren't just about the
machinery; they're about the whole way of life -- both the daily
practices and the conceptions of ourselves as individuals and
as a country -- with which the machinery is deeply intertwined.
And there's more. The recommendations this month range from pop
music to hard-core economics to Rambo studies, and this month's
wish list tries to imagine how the Web might become part of our
lives in ways that really matter.
My commentary on Ralph Reed's quote is long enough this month
that I've formatted it as a separate article (the first one).
A footnote. Conservative legal scholars and radio rhetors have
convinced many Americans that a liberal cabal has effected a sort
of coup d'etat by interpreting the Constitution in an overbroad
fashion that does not accord with its letter or original intent
(two different ideas frequently blurred together), and it has
become common to hear people growling dismissively that "I can't
find that in the Constitution". So it's an interesting exercise
to find all of those passages of the Constitution that have been
interpreted overbroadly in order to protect property rights.
Take, for example, Article I, section 8, clause 8, the Patent
and Copyright clause, which states: "The Congress shall have
Power ... To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by
securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive
Right to their Respective Writings and Discoveries." Note what
is not included here. As Miller and Davis point out in their
summary of intellectual property law,
Pursuant to the constitutional clause, Congress adopted a
copyright statute in 1790 and ... has substantially revised or
rewritten the copyright law four times -- in 1831, 1870, 1909,
and 1976. As new forms of expression became commercially
important, the copyright law was revised or rewritten to
protect the exploitation of those technologies. In 1802
Congress added prints to the works subject to protection. The
1831 law added musical compositions to protected subject matter
and the 1870 revision added such things as paintings, statues,
and other fine arts to the list of copyrightable works (Miller
and Davis, "Intellectual Property", pages 283-284).
What gives Congress the power to pass such laws? The answer, of
course, is that emerging technological changes required that the
underlying motivation of the relevant Constitutional language
be extrapolated to fit the new conditions. But that whole
theory of Constitutional jurisprudence is now going out of style.
Justices Scalia and Thomas, if they are true to their philosophy,
will vote to strike down copyright protections for paintings
at their first opportunity. (Heck -- the framers knew all about
paintings. If they meant to include them they'd have mentioned
them explicitly. While we're at it, where does Congress get
off permitting copyright of fictional works? They clearly bear
no relationship to the framers' stated intent to "promote the
Progress of Science and useful Arts".) If they have any guts
then they'll also vote to strike down copyright protection for
literary works that are only realized in electronic form, which
are only "Writings" in a modern, figuratively elaborated sense
of the term that differs radically from the meaning that the
word "Writings" had for the guys who wrote the Constitution.
Ralph Reed on the skills of democracy.
In his capsule guide to democracy, Ralph Reed mentions the
necessity of training. He thinks it is important to conduct
actual formal lessons in democratic practice: organizing events,
listening to people's concerns and issues, running meetings,
framing issues, building coalitions, writing opinion pieces,
working with the press, speaking in public, resolving conflicts,
and so forth. Of course, many amazing people have improvised
their own perfectly workable -- even brilliantly innovative --
ways of doing these things. But nobody is born with such skills
and most of us will never invent them from scratch. Therefore,
if you want to build a coherent political movement then you need
to provide people with training.
In Reed's world training is often spoken of in terms of
"leadership", and organizations such as his invest real effort
and resources in the whole process of leadership training:
identifying promising activists, getting them hooked up with
networks of movement supporters, involving them in internships
and other sorts of apprenticeships in the concrete activities
of political work, sending them to training schools, placing
them with suitable positions (whether paid or volunteer) in the
movement's network of organizations, connecting them to steady
sources of information (especially the facts to help support
current movement arguments and case studies of effective tactics
by other movement activists), and keeping in touch with them for
the long haul. The money that goes into these activities could
otherwise have gone into more immediately urgent issue-driven
work, but these organizations have made a conscious choice
to invest in the future by devoting significant resources to
training even if that means losing some fights in the short term.
I emphasize all of this so strongly because the world of Internet
and telecommunications activism places so little emphasis on
training. Wowed by the technology, impressed by our new power
to communicate instantly and cheaply with like-minded folks
throughout the world, we often neglect to build the larger and
more complex skills within which any given technology is simply
one piece, one tool, one resource. In short, there's a big
difference between forwarding e-mail and building a political
movement around your values. This talk about politics can seem
old-fashioned in the libertarian environment of the net, but my
concern is that it will stop seeming old-fashioned once the half-
a-dozen seriously authoritarian bills now steaming through the
US Congress become law and suddenly the wolves are at the door.
We don't have to let things get that far. Some extraordinary
schools, like the Highlander School, the Midwest Academy, and the
Organizing Institute, are keeping alive the skills of democracy
that promote liberty and justice for all. At the CPSR Annual
Meeting last year we had some two-hour workshops on political
skills. And such workshops are frequently run at Computers,
Freedom, and Privacy conferences as well. What's the next step?
Who will we be in cyberspace?
Department of Science and Technology Studies
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
[Adapted from an address given to the Conference on Society
and the Future of Computing in Durango, Colorado, June 1995.
A longer version will be published in The Information Society's
special issue about the conference (volume 12, number 1).]
Viewed at a distance, Americans must sometimes seem
compulsively restless as we continually reinvent ourselves.
The propensity to personal and social reinvention goes back to
our earliest days. The colonists' successful war against King
George III was also a revolution in political culture, one that
overthrew monarchy as a tightly woven fabric of human relations.
The leaders of the uprising, the founding fathers, built
political, legal, and economic institutions based on models
adapted from the ancient republics. Individual liberty and
consent of the governed were now the guiding principles, but
political institutions were to depend upon the guidance of a
small group of enlightened, virtuous men. It did not take long
for this republican conception to itself be challenged by rules,
roles and relations far more democratic in character. By the
early nineteenth century, Americans were busily affirming that
the promise of the country was for the mass of common working
people to achieve material prosperity and genuine self-government
In sum, a lifetime that stretched from 1750 to 1820 would
have undergone three radically different ways of defining
who a person was in the larger order of things. Times of rapid
transformation, then, are not new to us. Today's zealots for
the information age and cyberspace often insist that we are
confronted with totally unprecedented circumstances that require
rapid transformation of society. Perhaps so, but we Americans
are past masters in reinventing ourselves and sometimes proceed
thoughtfully to good effect.
Since the middle nineteenth century, episodes of social
transformation have focused as much upon people's relationship
to technological systems as they have to political institutions.
To invent a new technology requires society to invent the kinds
of people who will use it, with new practices, relationships and
identities supplanting the old. We who care about the future of
society, therefore, need to go beyond questions about the utility
of new devices and systems, beyond even questions about economic
consequences. One must also ask:
1. Around these instruments, what kinds of bonds, attachments
and obligations are in the making?
2. To whom or to what are people connected or dependent upon?
3. Do ordinary people see themselves as having a crucial role
in what is taking shape?
4. Do people see themselves as competent to make decisions?
5. Do they feel that their voices matter in making decisions
that will affect family, workplace, community, nation?
These issues about selfhood and civic culture should always be
addressed as technological innovations emerge. If we limit our
attention to their uses and market prospects, we ignore their
most consequential feature, the conditions that affect people's
sense of identity and community.
These questions arise forcefully with the digital transformation
of a wide range of material artifacts interwoven with social
practices. People are saying in effect: Let us take what
exists now -- bank tellers, music recordings, teachers -- and
restructure or replace it in digital format. Many preexisting
cultural forms have suddenly gone liquid, losing their former
shape as they are retailored for computerized expression and
opening the way for new patterns to solidify. This is vast,
ongoing experiment whose ramifications no one fully comprehends.
The process has generated waves of enthusiasm from entrepreneurs,
organizational innovators, artists, and others. The old bromides
of Alvin Toffler's simplistic wave theory of history, almost
forgotten until recently, have been revived by the right wing
manifesto, "Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for
the Knowledge Age". (Dyson, et al) Such millennial expectations,
often arise during times of technological and social change,
and they are accompanied by all kinds of "mythinformation" --
for example the assumption that information machines is somehow
inherently democratic (Winner, 1986).
Along with the excitement come misgivings. Digital liquification
is also liquifying economic structures, educational institutions,
and communities. Whole vocations -- secretaries, phone
operators, bank tellers, postal clerks -- have been abolished
or drastically reduced. The level of real wages for much of
the population has declined -- including the wages of technical
professionals (Bell) as firms lay off high salaried managers and
technical staff and hire younger, cheaper workers right out of
college. Informated knowledge bases permit firms to experiment
with audacious programs in restructuring and reengineering.
Business gurus -- Tom Peters, Daniel Burrus, Michael Hammar,
James Champy, and the like -- prefer to see these upheavals
as an exhilarating challenge. Thus, Peters advises people in
the throes of career change to embrace "perpetual adolescence"
(Peters, 301). Other observers describe these developments as
potentially a disastrous "end of work" and "end of career" for
much of the population (Bridges, Rifkin, Glassner). Whatever
the case, basic conditions of human identity and association
are being redefined. Who will we become as such developments
run their course? What kind of society and political order will
Perhaps we should consider historical chapters in which
technological transformation involved profound alterations and
momentous choices for self and society. Several recent studies
have explored what is distinctive about human selfhood in modern,
industrial society. Diverse scholars -- David Hounshell, Terry
Smith, Jeffrey Meikel, David Noble, Adrian Forty, Ruth Schwarz
Cowan, Dolores Hayden, Roland Marchand, David Nye, David Harvey,
and others -- have looked at the first half of twentieth century
America, noticing such developments as the Ford assembly line,
scientific management, and infrastructures for electricity,
water, transit, telephone, radio, and television, and asking
how they achieved the form they did, how the populace received
them, how the consumer economy came to be equated with the good
life, and how advertising, industrial design, public relations,
and education helped shape public opinion and channel social
These authors have found that power to decide how technologies
were introduced was far from evenly distributed. Those
who had the wherewithal to implement new technologies often
molded society to match the needs of emerging technologies and
Social control was most overt in workplaces, where employees were
often seen as malleable, subject to the routines and disciplines
of work. This attitude was clearly displayed in the paternalism
of F.W. Taylor's Principles of Scientific Management. "In the
past the man has been first"; Taylor explained, "in the future
the system must be first" (Taylor, 7). As the industrial
workplaces were organized, people were mobilized not only
for productive tasks, but for fairly stable, predictable,
reproducible identities as well. Virtues appropriate to the
development of machines -- productive order, efficiency, control,
forward looking dynamism -- became prevailing social virtues as
Industrial leaders like Henry Ford, Henry Luce and Alfred Sloan
tried to mobilize people not merely as producers, as consumers
as well. By the 1920s corporate planners offered images and
slogans that depicted identities, attitudes and lifestyles that
could guide people home life and leisure. Industrial design,
advertising, and corporate sponsored journalism and public
education combined with industrial planning to promote a series
of social role identities in photos, newspaper and magazine
articles, and school text books (Marchand). In Michael
Schudson's apt summary, "Where buying replaced making, then
looking replaced doing as a key social action, reading signs
replaced following orders as a crucial modern skill" (Schudson,
Historians Roland Marchand and Terry Smith note the widely
displayed tableaux vivants of modern life, combinations of
advertising text and photography that from the 1920s to 1950s
the executive in the office tower;
the worker in the clean, well-organized factory;
the housewife in her appliance filled kitchen;
children surrounded with goods for the little ones;
the automobile driver speeding along a wide open highway.
These images projected novel possibilities for living in modern
society. They told a story in which people's orderly role
in production was to be rewarded with an equally orderly role
in consumption. Of course these efforts did not completely
determine people's lives. But the experience of societies
such as those of contemporary Europe where consumerism does not
yet dominate understandings of self, family and society helps
us appreciate the artificiality of these strategies of social
control. The advertisements and tableaux vivants always depicted
the future as something whole and inevitable. People were to be
propelled forward by larger forces into a world that rational,
dynamic, prosperous, and harmonious.
Those making choices about social priorities and investments had
no desire to make the planning of sociotechnical innovations more
inclusive. The broad umbrella of "progress" enabled economic and
political elites to defuse public criticism. During the 1920s
through the 1950s there were almost no popular forums in print or
elsewhere in which the meaning of the new technologies and their
consequences could be discussed, criticized, or debated.
The ultimate promise of modern society was held to be individual,
material satisfaction. Missing from the picture was any
attention to collective goods and problems. Thus, buying and
driving this automobile would give the driver and family members
a sense of thrill and belonging. The automobile was always
shown on highways miraculously free of other vehicles, well-paved
roads that seemed to extend infinitely. As a 1930s ad for ethyl
gasoline proclaimed: "There's always room out front" (Marchand,
Another key finding concerns the design of artifacts. Looking
at the novelties that bombarded them, everyday folks were apt
to find the transformations complex and confusing. Design thus
often concealed the complexity of devices, systems and social
arrangements, making them appear simple and manageable -- thereby
rendering them less intelligible. In advertising as well,
extremely simple solutions were proposed for complicated, real
world problems. Eventually some of those problems -- congestion,
pollution, urban and environmental decay -- emerged as difficult
issues, made even more vexing by having been ignored for decades.
As we ponder horizons of computing and society today, it seems
likely that American society will reproduce some of the basic
tendencies of modernism.
-- unequal power over key decisions about what is built and
-- concerted attempts to enframe and direct people's lives
in both work and consumption;
-- the presentation of the future society as something
-- the stress on individual gratification rather than
collective problems and responsibilities;
-- design strategies that conceal and obfuscate important
realms of social complexity.
Such patterns kind persist because the institutions of planning,
finance, management, advertising, education, and design that
originally shaped modernity are still powerful. Occasional
calls for resistance and reform have mostly been neutralized or
absorbed: the push for ecological limits is repackaged as "Green
consumerism" and demands for participation in workplace decisions
rechanneled to become "empowerment" through the use of personal
computers. Possibilities for self-conscious social choice
and deliberate social action are often sidetracked to become
obsessions with the purchasing and possessing of commodities.
It is doubtful, however, that today's information systems
will simply reproduce the terms of previous decades. Many of
the "modern" forms of selfhood and social organization seem
ill-suited for conditions that increasingly confront Americans in
the workplace and elsewhere. For example, the focus of personal
identity upon holding an job seems a relic of the industrial past
(Glassner). Much blue collar and clerical work is now temporary.
Even well educated technical professionals must now define
themselves as contractors able to move from project to project
among many organizations. The assumption in computer-centered
enterprises is no longer that of belonging to any enduring
framework of social relations. How people will recreate selfhood
when everyone is expendable, could become a more serious issue
than even the decline of real wages.
Another crisis concerns where and how people will experience
membership. For modernism the prescribed frame for social
relations was that of city and suburb. But today, for
significant parts of society, attachment is no longer defined
geographically at all. Many activities of work and leisure take
place in global, electronic settings. The symbolic analysts
of today's global webs of enterprise are shedding traditional
loyalties, leaving everyone else to suffer in decaying cities
(Reich). Such attitudes are found in 1990s cyberlibertarianism
as represented, for example, in "Cyberspace and the American
Dream" and in much of the hyperventilated prose of Wired
magazine. These authors fiercely desire market freedom and
unfettered self-expression with no sense of owing anything
to geographically situated others. Valued now are protean
flexibility, restless entrepreneurialism and a willingness
to dissolve social bonds in the pursuit of material gain. Of
course, this breast-thumping individualism conceals many social
conflicts. Many of those enthralled with globalization as
the wellspring of economic vitality also bemoan "the weakened
family", "collapse of community", and "chaos of the inner
cities", failing to notice any connection.
Many, of course, expect that people will use the Internet to
forge new social relationships and identities, including ones
that might bolster local community life. But right now it's
anyone's guess what sorts of personalities, styles of discourse,
and social norms will ultimately flourish in these new settings.
Will digital media sustain healthy attachments to persons
both near and far away? Or will distance foster insouciance,
resentment and mutual contempt? Mid-1990s Internet news groups,
for example, certainly do not resemble the kinds of interpersonal
respect, civility and friendship that traditional, geographically
based communities require (Winner, 1995).
We can predict, though, that American society will continue to
exclude ordinary citizens from key choices about the design and
development of new technologies, including information systems.
Industrial leaders present as faits accomplis what otherwise
might have been choices open for diverse public imaginings,
investigations and debates. In magazine cover stories, corporate
advertising campaigns and political speeches, announcements of
the arrival of the Information Superhighway and similar metaphors
are still pitched in the language of inevitability. Here it
comes: the set-top box!
People doing research on computing and the future could have a
positive influence in these matters. If we're asking people to
change their lives to adapt to new information systems, it seems
responsible to solicit broad participation in deliberation,
planning, decisionmaking, prototyping, testing, evaluation
and the like. Some of the best models, in my view, come from
the Scandinavian social democracies where social and political
circumstances make consultation with ordinary workers and
citizens a much more common practice than it is in the United
States (Sandberg et al). Such models have been seldom tried in
the United States.
Yet even the modest forms of citizen response found in the
tightly controlled contexts of market testing are revealing. The
American public never warmed to the enormous push for HDTV in the
1980s, for example. More recently, companies hyping interactive
TV have found that "consumers yawned in the face of its most
hotly promoted applications -- movies-on-demand and interactive
home shopping" (Caruso). What seems to excite people -- as
socially concerned computer professionals have long anticipated
-- are open architecture networks of many-to-many communication
in which people can produce information products with a
distinctive personal stamp. Corporate designers have gone back
to the drawing boards, setting aside the push for set-top boxes,
and are now perfecting cable modems (Caruso).
Yet many leaders in the computing and telecommunications industry
still seem intent on enforcing corporate closure on information
systems, capturing those markets, and placing their distinctive
brand on people's lives. As Caruso observes: "the telephone
companies..., preparing [their own] networks and services, agree
that fiber co-ax is the right design". How reassuring; evidently
the "right design" is headed our way and again we have not had to
lift a finger.
But why should we settle for effrontery so blatant? Research
developments in computing ought to involve the public in
activities of inquiry, exploration, dialogue, and debate. Here
computer professionals could exercise much-needed leadership.
We can pretend to follow "where the technology is taking us",
to social outcomes "determined by market forces", but the
fact is that deliberate choices about the relationship between
people and new technology are made by someone, somehow, every
day. Professionals with insight into the choices that matter
must express their knowledge and judgments to a broad public.
Otherwise they may find themselves employed as mere ranch hands,
helping fit the citizenry with digital brass rings.
As the twentieth century draws to a close, it is evident that,
for better or worse, the future of computing and the future
of human relations -- indeed, of human being itself -- are
now thoroughly intertwined. We need to seek alternatives,
social policies that might undo the dreary legacy of modernism:
pervasive systems of one-way communication, preemption of
democratic social choice corporate manipulation, and the
presentation of sweeping changes in living conditions as
something justified by a univocal, irresistible "progress".
True, the habits of technological somnambulism cultivated over
many decades will not be easily overcome. But as waves of
over-hyped innovation confront increasingly obvious signs of
social disorder, opportunities for lively conversation sometimes
fall into our laps. Choices about computer technology involve
not only obvious questions about "what to do", but also less
obvious ones about "who to be". By virtue of their vocation,
computer professionals are well-situated to initiate public
debates on this matter, helping a democratic populace explore
new identities and the horizons of a good society.
Trudy E. Bell, Surviving in the Reengineered Corporate
Environment: the Freelance Engineer, IEEE Power Engineering
Review, May 1995, pages 7-11.
William Bridges, Jobshift: How to Prosper in a Workplace Without
Jobs, Addison-Wesley, 1994.
Denise Caruso, Digital commerce: On-line browsing got you down?
Don't get mad, get cable, The New York Times, 5 June 1995, page
Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of
Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave, Basic
Esther Dyson et al, Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna
Carta for the Knowledge Age, Release 1.2, Washington: Progress
and Freedom Foundation, August 22, 1994.
Adrian Forty, Objects of Desire, Pantheon Books, 1986.
Barry Glassner, Career Crash: America's New Crisis and Who
Survives, Simon & Schuster, 1994.
David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the
Origins of Cultural Change, Blackwell, 1989.
Dolores Hayden, The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of
Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities,
MIT Press, 1981.
David A. Hounshell, From the American System to Mass Production,
1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the
United States, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.
Jeffrey L. Meikle, Twentieth Century Limited: Industrial Design
in America, 1925-1939, Temple University Press, 1979.
David F. Noble, America By Design: Science, Technology and the
Rise of Corporate Capitalism, Knopf, 1977.
David E. Nye, Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New
Technology, 1880-1940, MIT Press, 1990.
Tom Peters, The Pursuit of Wow!: Every Person's Guide to
Topsy-Turvy Times, Vintage Books, 1994.
Robert B. Reich, The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for
21st-Century Capitalism, Knopf, 1991.
Jeremy Rifkin, The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor
Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era, G.P. Putnam's Sons,
Ake Sandberg, et al., Technological Change and Co-Determination
in Sweden, Temple Univ. Press, 1992.
Michael Schudson, Advertising: The Uneasy Persuasion, Basic
Terry Smith, Making the Modern: Industry Art and Design in
America, University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Frederick Winslow Taylor, The Principles of Scientific
Management, Harper & Brothers, 1911.
Langdon Winner, "Mythinformation," in The Whale and the Reactor,
University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Langdon Winner, Privileged communications, Technology Review,
Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, Knopf,
I have two wishes this month, one serious and one not. I find
that the wish list generates more correspondence than the rest
of TNO put together, and that the more plausible, near-term
sorts of wishes generate the most -- often of the form, "here's
something that already exists that's sort of like what you want".
I will eventually get around to summarizing this correspondence
in TNO's follow-up department. In the meantime, I have resolved
to make my wishes more speculative. The point is not necessarily
to suggest tomorrow's products but to stimulate thinking both
about the technology and about wishes themselves.
The union movement is starting to face up in a serious way to
the global integration of the economy. Computer networks should
obviously help with this process, for the same reason that they
help industry globalize in the first place. E-mail is the simple
place to start; it should provide a straightforwardly useful tool
for making contacts among union people in different countries.
It hardly solves all of the problems of cultural differences and
so on, but it does help. What help could move advanced network
Let me sketch a scenario. It may not be entirely plausible, but
perhaps it will help stimulate thinking. Imagine a WorldWide Web
application that maps out the global flow of manufacturing parts
and components. The system would maintain a database that could
be edited from anywhere in the world. (One would need suitable
version controls and the like to make it open but still resist
sabotage.) People who work in a given plant could create entries
for the parts that their plant takes in, including identification
of each supplier. Standard part numbers could be used, building
on conventions already used in employers' own systems. When
a contract negotiation approaches, special effort could be put
into mapping the upstream and downstream flow of parts. This
map could be annotated with useful information, like whether the
plants providing or using the parts are union shops, in which
case contact information could be provided for local officers
and stewards. When a supplier's shop is non-union, the map could
provide contact information for knowledgeable union people in the
same geographic area, or for organizers who have tried or are now
trying to organize that shop. This information could obviously
be useful in establishing relationships up and down the stream
of production, as well as alerting union members to look out for
poor quality in parts coming from non-union shops.
Such a system could have a broad range of uses. The pages that
represent particular plants could be annotated with background
information about history, financial information about the firm,
pictures of local working conditions, documentation of the lives
of the employees, contacts for cultural activities and exchanges,
and so on. Globally agreed standards for working conditions
could be established and applied, and suitable measures (perhaps
from 1 to 10) could be attached to each plant. A web crawler
could then continually traverse the map, comparing these numbers
and calculating various measures of the resulting products. A
product that was all-union from start to finish along all supply
chains might receive a 10; a product made primarily with prison
labor in China might receive a 1. The map could also provide
raw material for excellent multimedia presentations about where
various products come from and the conditions under which they
My second wish is for a life-expectancy server. You would call
up a Web form that asks for a batch of demographic and lifestyle
information, and it would tell you in statistical terms how
much longer you have to live (for example, "at the rate you're
going, you have 17.3 +/ 3.1 years left"). It could even offer
a commentary about how much the outcome would change if you gave
up smoking, moved to the country, carried a gun, improved your
relationships, and so on. Once all that information was stored,
you could then have a continual update on your life expectancy
delivered to the bottom of your computer screen, with the seconds
ticking off. Of course, a prediction down to the seconds would
have to ignore the error bars, but it would be a graphic reminder
nonetheless. The seconds might tick at different rates, or
they might even tick backwards as updated predictive information
becomes available or as you pass major milestones for various
types of risks. When you updated your web page to indicate that
you've changed a risk factor, the time remaining at the bottom of
your screen would change accordingly. (By the way, I've heard of
novelty clocks that work this way, but they didn't take so much
information into account, and they didn't automatically benefit
from advances in actuarial prediction.) Some technical issues
do arise; privacy, for example. You wouldn't want to include
any personal identifiers on your web page, and you'd want the
information sent to your screen through a cryptographically
protected channel that disguised your identity. It might even be
a nice demonstration of the power of such methods.
This month's recommendations.
Charles T. Clotfelder and Michael Rothschild, eds, Studies of
Supply and Demand in Higher Education, Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1993. I think that the professoriat needs to wake
up and get ready for a political, economic, and technological
revolution in the way that universities operate. I plan to write
about this in future TNO's, but for the moment let me recommend
that you go off and read this volume, particularly the editors'
chapters. The neoclassical emphasis on supply and demand curves
for human capital hardly begins to reckon with the phenomenon of
credentialism, whereby the economic value of a diploma depends
in large part on the reputation of the institution as opposed to
the direct utility of the learning one acquires there. But it's
important to be aware of the development of economic discourse
about universities -- because economics will be the primary
legitimate way of talking about education before you know it.
James William Gibson, Warrior Dreams: Violence and Manhood in
Post-Vietnam America, New York: Hill and Wang, 1994. An amazing
book about the paramilitary culture that erupted in the United
States after the end of the Vietnam War. Gibson traces the
construction of masculine identity through movies about war and
the actual experience of war, documenting the sudden, extreme
change in each at the end of Vietnam. The new cultural forms,
shaped by Rambo and Chuck Norris and Soldier of Fortune magazine,
are expressed in everything from "paintball" war games to the
militia movement to new patterns of mass murder. Although
clearly not a member of the new subculture, Gibson is remarkably
sympathetic to the men whose evil experiences led to it, and he
is quite unimpressed with the gun control advocates who oppose
them. It's too bad he didn't wait another year to finish his
book so that he could cover the most recent developments; in any
event it's required reading for anybody with an interest in the
development of the extreme right and the new politics of guns and
violence in the United States.
Brad Miner, ed, Good Order: Right Answers to Contemporary
Questions, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995. According to
its cover blurb, "Whether you are a conservative gearing up for
the next election and want the right ammunition, or are undecided
and want to know where conservatives stand on the key issues of
our time, _Good Order_ is the right book to discover the Right's
best ideas." Get it? Right:right::left:wrong? Okay. Although
I've read a great deal of conservative literature, I figured that
this volume, which presents itself as "the agenda for today's
conservative", might give me a sense of closure -- a sense that
I can explain what the current American conservative movement
believes. Did it? Well, I can certainly recommend this book
to liberals who have been in denial, shuddering in horror when
those talk radio shows come on and instead getting all their news
about conservatism from Planned Parenthood. The book is not just
a philosophical statement, of course, but an instrument for the
consolidation of a political coalition. Cultural and economic
conservatives are both accommodated, with some acknowledgement
of tension but little attempt at intellectual reconciliation.
This shows up clearly in the book's deep ambivalence about
democracy, freedom, orthodoxy, and reason, all of which can be
found both celebrated and cautioned against in its introduction
and thirteen chapters. The book's organizing theme, for example,
is "order" -- and not, say, "liberty" or "freedom" or "choice".
An early quote from Evelyn Waugh happily asserts that class
divisions are inevitable, and the book's front cover consists of
a strangely cropped picture of a smirking geek in a suit and tie,
looking quite pleased at the idea of a divinely ordained social
order in which he's on top. Quick personal responses to some
of the individual authors: G. K. Chesterton (writing on religion
and society) is a fabulous writer of the old school; Richard John
Neuhaus (religion and the state) is a calculating sophist of the
new school; James Q. Wilson (community and crime) is sensible
enough so long as he keeps this "order" thing within bounds,
which he mostly does; Carol Iannone (feminism) is a maliciously
unfair hack polemicist; Richard Weaver (private property) is
downright archaic in his conservative anticapitalism, and I
congratulate the editor for having the guts to include him;
George Gilder (economics) is always fun to read precisely because
of his habit of taking a single simple idea and extrapolating it
to the moon; Charles Murray (welfare) has a gift for intertwining
good sense and dangerous nonsense so tightly that one despairs of
ever separating them; Russell Kirk (Constitutional jurisprudence)
would have a weak case, except that I've never heard a liberal
really explain what's wrong with it; George Will (term limits)
is a smart guy and fights fair; Thomas Sowell (education) never
fails to make me feel like I've been kicked by a mule; and the
late Allan Bloom (sex) just seemed to make things up, driven
by obsessions I can't quite understand. You may have different
views. The important thing, particularly for people who do not
share conservative values, is to read the stuff and learn how to
argue with it. I don't just mean convincing yourself that it's
confused or rolling your eyes and exchanging of-course-we-know-
what's-wrong-with-that looks with your friends. I mean actually
learning to argue with it in public. I'll bet you'll find this
a lot harder than you think -- and that you'll be better for it.
As you might expect, several computer scientists responded to my
article in TNO 2(6) announcing the death of their field. Some
were upset, even to the point of nastiness, by the "political"
tone of my list of "imperatives" for the field. I'll admit that
I could have framed that article in a way that did not directly
offend the value-neutral conception that the field of computer
science has of itself. But I don't feel bad about this because
I don't think that computer science is value-neutral, or that it
ought to be. Another point of frequent comment was my assertion
early on that industry not academia drives the research agenda in
computer science. Some argued that the customers of the computer
industry drive the research agenda, since they're the ones making
choices and spending money after all. But I think it's important
to see that this does not follow, in two senses. The first is
that customers, individually and as a whole, have varying degrees
of understanding of what they are buying and the consequences
of technology for their lives, and many serious chronic problems
with computers are only now being sorted out because customers
have learned enough by now to know what they can get. But even
if we grant that the market just gives customers what they want,
there still remains the question of who in practice articulates
the concepts and strategies for developing the technology. When
an industry is organized on a strictly cost-competition basis,
or when it has limited economies of scale, companies cannot
afford much R&D and the intellectual initiative will probably
pass elsewhere, usually to universities. On the other hand,
neither of these has never been the case in computing, and I
was inaccurate in suggesting that the initiative in computer
research ever lay wholly in universities. The military, for
example, has always been an important player as well. All I
meant was that the initiative has shifted to industry to a much
greater degree, except in theoretical areas.
The AFL-CIO's successful Organizing Institute is on the Web at
And LaborNet is on the Web at http://www.igc.apc.org/labornet/
Factsheet Five, the magazine of 'zines, is on the Web at
The EFF net culture pages can be found at
UCSD's Connect program has an interesting page about its programs
for local business at http://darwin1.ucsd.edu:8000/connect/
AlterNet has a good index of information about the far right on
the web at http://www.igc.apc.org/an/
A good source of racism information is http://www.almanac.bc.ca/
And Douglas Giles' amusing "GOP In-Fighting Update" can be found
Hippest site on the web: http://www.suck.com/suckreviews/
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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