Some notes about cheap pens, information design, open source software,
my first online death threat, and what it means about civil society.

To answer a frequently asked question, the acronym "fwiw" means "for
what it's worth".  It's Internet jargon.  And "tx" means "thanks".
Some anti-technologists claim that these abbreviations are symptoms
of an Internet-induced decay of language.  Such people are boring.

While we're at it, my name is pronounced AY-gree, with the accent on
the first syllable.  The original Norwegian name, Aakre, whose "Aa"
is supposed to be written as an A with a circle over it, is pronounced
something sort of like AW-kreh.  (I can't even approximate it myself.)
It derives from the name of a village about 100 miles north of Oslo:

More on cheap pens.  (People keep calling them "disposable", which
isn't very nice at all.)  I have been impressed lately with the
endless profusion of new pen models from Pilot.  I presume that they
are engaged in a characteristic Japanese competitive strategy called
"product churning" -- blanketing the market with different designs
(see John Heskett, The growth of industrial design in Japan, in John
Zukowsky, ed, Japan 2000: Architecture and Design for the Japanese
Public, Munich: Prestel Verlag, 1998).  In any case, let us consider
some of the models that I've come across most recently.

Start with the Hi-Techpoint V5C.  You may recall my recommendation of
the Precise Rolling Ball V7, a new generation of Pilot's pioneering
liquid-ink pen, the secret of whose smooth handling (in contrast to
the scratchy V5) is that it delivers a great deal of ink.  Well, that
now seems like eons ago.  The Hi-Techpoint V5C is so advanced that it
provides even smoother handling without even having to disgorge vast
quantities of ink.  In fact, it took me a couple of days to accustom
myself to it: it writes so smoothly that my hand wasn't getting the
feedback that normally enables it to determine whether the pen is in
contact with the page.

Another liquid-ink Pilot, the equally remarkable P-700 fine, produces
a different effect: it is somehow both firmly in contact with the page
and frictionlessly walking across it.  One doesn't feel the tip of the
pen dragging across the page, just a sense of the page itself.  This
is the first of the new breed of liquid-ink pens that doesn't come
with a window showing the ink inside the pen, although its faux-marble
design and serrated grip will probably seem old after a while.

The Pilot V-corn, which also uses liquid ink, looks like an improved
version of the V-ball.  It provides a more solid sense than the others
that the tip of the pen is writing a line on the paper.  Although it
doesn't write as smoothly as the Precise Rolling Ball V7, the solid
feeling is reassuring: the tip doesn't feel fragile.  It won't break.

You may also recall my pleasure with the ultra-wide-tip Super-GP 1.2
traditional viscous-ink pen that Stephan Somogyi sent me from the
Kinokuniya in San Francisco.  When I finally went to the Los Angeles
branches of Kinokuniya (two of them), I picked up a Super-GP 0.7.
It is, as Stephan had warned me, not the same relevation as the 1.2
mm model.  But it's a good pen, with one of the better rubber grips.
I was surprised that, like the 1.2, the 0.7 wants to be held more
vertically than some of the others in order to avoid a scratching

An RRE reader aimed her Web browser at the Levenger Web site and
ordered me a set of Pilot G-2 07 spring-loaded retractables.  These
are particularly high-quality traditional-ink (or maybe gel) pens in
red, blue, and black, with refills.

Finally there's the strange Pilot Hi-Tec-C.  It doesn't carry a tip
size measurement, but it looks and feels like it's 0.5 mm or perhaps
even smaller, maybe even 0.3 mm.  It works remarkably well for the
very fine line it creates.  (It also makes a mockery of the often much
wider pens that boast of being "fine" or "extra fine" or "micro".)
Even though it is made of transparent plastic, I can't tell what kind
of ink it uses.  The ink isn't visibly sloshing around, but it feels
like liquid ink to write with.  I suspect that some of these new pens
employ compressed air to keep the ink flowing, in preference to the
highly fallible baffle system that regularly causes liquid-ink pens
to barf all over your fingers, but I have no way to substantiate this.

At Kinokuniya I also got some non-Pilot pens.  You may recall that I
listed them all in my notes from December 15th.  I won't go into the
ones whose novelty is more the packaging or the funny colored ink.
That leaves the truly inferior Uni Lakubo, a conventional-ink pen that
seems incapable of writing a solid line on the page, and the Uni-Ball
Signo, which despite looking similar to the Super-GP is in reality
just a relatively good example of the traditional, high-friction
style of pen, not worth going out of your way for.

And that's it -- my latest haul of cheap pens.

Speaking of industrial design, I have been running a graduate seminar
this quarter informally entitled "Theories of Design".  Our premise
is that many quite distinct design disciplines are all converging
around information technology, and that a new discipline is emerging
that synthesizes them all.  Rather than attempt that synthesis our
first time out, we're simply spending one week on each of the existing
disciplines, with the aim of comparing and contrasting their methods
and ideas, and especially conceptions of users and information.  I'll
send out the syllabus once I finish annotating it.  In the meantime,
let me observe that the territory of user-interface design is rapidly
being invaded by interesting people from industrial design, graphic
design, and (partly a subset of graphic design) information design.
Quite a few books have been published in these areas in the last few
years, publishers having been influenced no doubt by the remarkable
success of Edward Tufte's (self-published) books on charts and graphs
etc.  Here, just to give you a rough idea, is an indiscriminate sample
of the recent books that I've seen, from several different genres:

  Paul S. Adler and Terry A. Winograd, eds, Usability: Turning
  Technologies into Tools, Oxford University Press, 1992.

  Peter Anders, Envisioning Cyberspace: Designing 3d Electronic
  Spaces, McGraw-Hill, 1999.

  Mike Baxter, Product Design: A Practical Guide to Systematic Methods
  of New Product Development, Chapman and Hall, 1995.

  Robert Blaich, Product Design and Corporate Strategy: Managing the
  Connection for Competitive Advantage, McGraw-Hill, 1993.

  Bob Cotton and Richard Oliver, Understanding Hypermedia 2.000:
  Multimedia Origins, Internet Futures, second edition, Phaidon Press,

  Ken Coupland and Robert Appleton, eds, Graphis Web Design Now, 1:
  An International Survey of Web Design, Graphis Press, 1998.

  Peter Droege, ed, Intelligent Environments: Spatial Aspects of the
  Information Revolution, Elsevier, 1997.

  Liz Faber, The Internet Design Project: The Best in Graphic Art on
  the Web, Universe, 1998.

  Liz Faber, Computer Game Graphics, Watson-Guptill, 1999.

  Jennifer Fleming, Web Navigation: Designing the User Experience,
  O'Reilly, 1998.

  Neil A. Gershenfeld, When Things Start to Think, Holt, 1999.

  Graphis New Media 2, William Morrow, 1999.

  Robert L. Harris, Information Graphics: A Comprehensive Illustrated
  Reference: Visual Tools for Analyzing, Managing, and Communicating,
  Management Graphics, 1996.

  Tim Harrower, The Newspaper Designer's Handbook, fourth edition,
  McGraw Hill, 1998.

  Steven Heller and Karen Pomeroy, Design Literacy: Understanding
  Graphic Design, Watson-Guptill, 1997.

  Richard Hendel, On Book Design, Yale University Press, 1998.

  Justin Henderson, Museum Architecture, Rockport, 1998.

  D. K. Holland, Roger Whitehouse, Stephan Geissbuhler, and Deborah
  Sussman, eds, Signs and Spaces, Rockport, 1994.

  Nigel Holmes, The Best in Diagrammatic Graphics, Rotovision, 1993.

  Robert E. Horn, Visual Language: Global Communication for the 21st
  Century, MacroVe Press, 1999.

  Robert Jacobson, ed, Information Design, MIT Press, 1999.

  Kai Krause, ed, In Your Face: The Best of Interactive Interface
  Design, Rockport, 1996.

  Paul Kunkel, AppleDesign: The Work of the Apple Industrial Design
  Group, Graphis, 1997.

  James Andrew LaSpina, The Visual Turn and the Transformation of the
  Textbook, Erlbaum, 1998.

  Peter Lunenfeld, ed, The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media,
  MIT Press, 1999.

  Sara O. Marberry, ed, Healthcare Design, Wiley, 1997.

  Eric K. Meyer, Designing Infographics, Hayden, 1997.

  Paul Mijksenaar, Visual Function: An Introduction to Information
  Design, Princeton Architectural Press, 1998.

  Nobuo Nakagaki, ed, Diagram Graphics 2, Books Nippan, 1995.

  Donald A. Norman, The Invisible Computer: Why Good Products
  Can Fail, the Personal Computer Is So Complex, and Information
  Appliances Are the Solution, MIT Press, 1998.

  Nobuoki Ohtani, Suzanne Duke, and Shigenobu Ohtani, Japanese Design
  and Development, Gower, 1997.

  Martin Pawley, Terminal Architecture, Reaktion Books, 1998.

  B. Martin Pedersen, ed, Graphis Diagrams 2: The International
  Showcase of Diagram Design and Technical Illustration, Graphis
  Press, 1997.

  B. Martin Pedersen, ed, Graphis Product Design 2, Graphis Press,

  Otto Riewoldt, Intelligent Spaces: Architecture for the Information
  Age, King, 1997.

  Karen A. Schriver, Dynamics in Document Design: Creating Texts for
  Readers, Wiley, 1996.

  Milly R. Sonneman, Beyond Words: A Guide to Drawing Out Ideas, Ten
  Speed Press, 1997.

  James Glen Stovall, Infographics: A Journalist's Guide, Allyn and
  Bacon, 1997.

  John A. Thackara, Winners! How Today's Successful Companies Innovate
  by Design, Cromwell, 1997.

  Graziella Tonfoni, Information Design: The Knowledge Architect's
  Toolkit, Scarecrow Press, 1998.

  Edward R. Tufte, Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities,
  Evidence and Narrative, Graphics Press, 1997.

  Karl T. Ulrich and Steven D. Eppinger, Product Design and
  Development, McGraw-Hill, 1995.

  Willem Velthoven and Jorinde Seijdel, eds, Multimedia Graphics: The
  Best of Global Hyperdesign, Chronicle Books, 1996.

  Howard Wainer, Visual Revelations: Graphical Tales of Fate and
  Deception from Napoleon Bonaparte to Ross Perot, Copernicus Books,

  Roger Walton and Baird Duncan, Cool Sites: Freeze-Framed and Down
  Cold, Hearst, 1998.

  Peter Wildbur and Michael Burke, Information Graphics: Innovative
  Solutions in Contemporary Design, Thames and Hudson, 1998.

  Terry Winograd, ed, Bringing Design to Software, Addison-Wesley,

  Richard Saul Wurman, Information Architects, edited by Peter
  Bradford, Graphis Press, 1996.

I don't mean to suggest that user-interface design -- the tradition
that flows from Vannevar Bush to Ivan Sutherland and Doug Englebart
to Ben Shneiderman's textbook to the current wave of "information
appliances" and "ubiquitous computing" -- is going to disappear or
become obsolete.  My point, rather, is that radical increases in
screen resolution and processor power will enable graphic designers
to do much more sophisticated things with bitmapped displays, and
that advanced infrastructures for untethered computing will enable
industrial designers to invent a wide range of devices that invisibly
exchange information with the rest of the world, and that these fields
both have vast and wonderful skills that complement the skills of the
user-interface people.  I'm not the first person to notice this, of
course, but I do like it a great deal.

Like most people, I've been pleased to see Linux at least appearing
to catch fire over the last few weeks.  Everyone is impressed with the
amazing new Linux model of software development, and everyone seems
puzzled by it.  The press often compares it to the counterculture of
the sixties.  But perhaps I can offer a different perspective.  What
the Linux people have done, much to their credit, is to reinvent the
peer-review mechanisms of the scientific community.

Why do the open-source enthusiasts produce more software at a higher
quality faster than the market does?  Software is information, and
information has properties that frustrate the operation of markets.
Market participants need to evaluate the quality of goods, but it's
hard to evaluate the quality of software without looking at the source
code, and it's hard to have a market in software if the source code is
open to inspection.  It thus makes more sense to look at software as
a public good.  A public good is a good that is nonrivalrous (anyone
can use it without interfering with anyone else's ability to use it)
and nonexcludable (it's hard to prevent anyone from using it).  And
the scientific community's institutions of peer reviewed publication
are precisely a machine that very efficiently produces public goods.
(See Martyne M. Hallgren and Alan K. McAdams, The economic efficiency
of Internet public goods, in Lee W. McKnight and Joseph P. Bailey,
eds, Internet Economics, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997.  See also Peter
Kollock's chapter in "Communities in Cyberspace", the book that he
edited with Marc Smith.)

>From this perspective, software is so often bad because of the
irrational prejudice in favor of markets, which undermines confidence
in and funding for peer-reviewed open source software long enough to
permit low-quality market-driven closed source software to establish
network effects.  Markets work when they work, but it is wrong to
claim, as so many people do, that markets are the only effective means
of coordinating human activity.  The peer-review institutions of open
source software, long stereotyped as the territory of lonely geeks,
should be seen in their proper historical light as another chapter in
the march of human knowledge.  And they should be supported publicly,
just as we support the production of other kinds of public goods.
Of course, public support might lead us to another big government
boondoggle such as the Internet, but if the alternative is Windows
3000, perhaps it's a chance we can take.

The great majority of RRE subscribers are kind and generous human
beings who send me a steady trickle of nice messages about how much
they appreciate all of the work they imagine me to invest in running
the list.  These expressions of support presumably help me to deal
with the minority of RRE subscribers who feel called upon to act out
their internal dramas on me.  Even though I never mention most of
these jerks on the list, not least because I am sometimes guilty of
taking out my annoyance at them on people who don't deserve it, I
probably convey an exaggerated sense of the importance of the jerks
relative to that of the nice people.  Nonetheless, in the spirit of
the Buddhist admonition to be grateful to everyone for the lessons
they have to teach you, let me tell you about the especially abundant
week I've been having.  My point is not to dwell on the indignities
of my online life, which are miniscule indeed in the big scheme of
things.  Rather, I want to use these stories gather together a number
of themes that I have been developing here.

To start with, I received my first death threat.  Here's the story.
A few months ago, I received a message from someone presenting himself
as a scholar in Turkey.  Although the message was not real coherent,
I took him to be inviting me to speak at a conference about Jurgen
Habermas' work on the public sphere.  The message did not seem at all
unusual; I put the seeming incoherence down to cultural differences
and bad English.  I responded by declining the invitation, explaining
that I have not written in that area, and thought no more about it.
Imagine my surprise, then, when the guy wrote me back with a long
stream of Turkish profanities, likening me to the mother of a dog and
so forth, and accusing me of lying about my not having written on the
subject of his conference.

He was wrong, of course.  I've written about public debate, and I've
mentioned Habermas' views on technology, but in no way am I a Habermas
scholar.  Heck, a lot of Habermas scholars aren't Habermas scholars.
Habermas scholarship is a little like math: you aren't a mathematician
unless you wake up in the morning, every morning, thinking about math.
Likewise you aren't a Habermas scholar unless your life is organized
around studying Habermas' endless series of stream-of-consciousness
tomes.  Now, I'll readily admit that Habermas is smarter than any ten
people you've ever met.  (If you want a sample of this that's written
in accessible language, check out Habermas' response to his critics
in Craig Calhoun, ed, Habermas and the Public Sphere, MIT Press, 1992.
You'll see the guy chew up and spit out fifteen serious scholars and
then adduce a critique of his own work that's considerably smarter
than the whole lot of them put together.)  So I suppose that Habermas
scholarship is a worthwhile activity.  Just not for me.

In any case, it is not every day that I am assaulted with long streams
of Turkish profanity.  Still thinking that the guy was a legitimate
scholar, if a perhaps little overwrought about something, I foolishly
wrote back, rebuking him and asking to be done with it.  Big mistake.
At first he apologized for his reaction, which only served to sustain
me in my denial.  And so I replied, politely this time but even more
foolishly, whereupon the guy now descended into an obsessional spiral,
with periodic messages embroidering on his fantasy of having been lied
to.  At length I allowed myself to be provoked into saying, "you're a
nut, go away".  Now you and I, in our sane moments, know that telling
a crazy person to go away is precisely what you do if you want to have
something to complain about.  Accordingly, six weeks later, I received
the following (parental discretion advised): "I did not forget. I am
coming. I will collapse you, asshole!"

Okay, so I got a death threat.  This was a first for me; I had been
threatened with death by a would-be hate-criminal on a street in
Venice, California, believe it or not, but the worst I had managed
to attract in twenty years online was a message that stated, in its
entirety, "You are a dirty communist" -- to be taken seriously as
a death threat in many countries, but not here.  So I wrote to the
ill-tempered fellow's service provider and asked them how we should
proceed.  They sensibly sketched two routes: reporting the matter to
my local law enforcement agency or having the service provider deal
with it as a violation of their terms of service.  Given that the guy
is most likely in Turkey and thus beyond the reach of the LAPD, I'll
probably do the latter.

The lesson here concerns the ways in which we allow ourselves to
be victimized.  I've written about this topic before, for which see
The Internet is a big screen onto which we can project whatever we
happen to have in our heads, and many Internet suers are out there
promiscuously hooking up with endless numbers of slobs whose neurotic
compulsions complement their own.  This can make the Internet into
a real pit sometimes, and I have become unhappy with public spaces
on the net that, for one reason or another, are unable to maintain
boundaries against this sort of thing.

I want to dwell on this notion of boundaries.  Boundaries arise as
an issue on the Internet in several ways.  The most common relates
to jurisdictional boundaries: the legal system needs to decide which
court should hear a given case, and that can be difficult when the
action occurs in an online "place" whose infrastructure and personnel
are spread across numerous physical jurisdictions.  No solution to
this problem is particularly compelling: the proposal that something
called cyberspace should be regarded as a jurisdiction unto itself
is simply world government by a fancy name, and the proposal that
cyberspace be regarded as a large set of distinct and competing
jurisdictions implausibly tries to reinscribe into cyberspace the
same impermeable boundaries that have already been declared obsolete
in the physical world.  It follows that the problem of jurisdiction
over Internet-related disputes has no single solution, and that the
problem can only be usefully formulated in relation to the particular
institution (banking, commerce, etc) in whose electronic dimension a
given conflict took place.

Boundaries are also an issue in privacy terms.  The rosy predictions
of neoclassical economics famously presuppose a situation called
perfect information, in which everyone effectively knows everything
that could possibly affect their economic decisions.  And since
neoclassical economists famously wish to include the entire realm of
human decision-making within their sphere of concern, it follows that
the rosy predictions of neoclassical economics require every single
person on planet Earth to possess a quite intimate knowledge of every
other person on planet Earth with whom they could possibly interact
in any meaningful way.  But, as any healthy person well knows, it's
not healthy for everyone in the world to know all about you.  This
kind of sickness is often promoted by people who twistedly asking
you what you have to hide, but it's still a sickness.  One type of
boundary, then, is informational: who knows what about you, and what
degree of effective choice you have in the matter.  Of course, nobody
has an absolute legal and moral right to secrecy about every matter
in their lives, particularly when those matters affect other people.
Nonetheless, it is practically a commonplace in legal scholarship, if
not always of the law, that proper human life and development requires
a considerable sphere of informational control around oneself.

Another type of boundary concerns the things that people are allowed
to do to you.  People whose boundaries have routinely been invaded,
for example through a formative pattern of physical or mental abuse,
will often develop the assumption, conscious or unconscious but self-
fulfilling in either case, that they deserve to be taken advantage of.
These people will allow others to lie to them, to steal from them, to
take credit for their work, to make fun of them, to assault them, and
so on.  Refusal to be treated in these ways should not be confused
with the tendency to lash out at any perceived slight -- this kind of
pathology, after all, has the same underlying cause as its opposite.

Good boundaries, in this sense, are permeable.  Someone with good
boundaries can easily, quickly, and accurately shift between opening
and closing their defenses, letting people in or keeping them out as
their intuition and reason require.  They can stand up to aggression,
they can walk away from bad deals, and they can distinguish both
publicly and privately between fairness and unfairness.  Authoritarian
and libertarian forms of culture are both built on the norm of
allowing one's boundaries be invaded, the first from a misguided sense
of worthlessness, and the latter from a misguided sense of niceness.
In the sixties, a refusal to be abused was a "hang-up"; now, in a
particularly twisted abuse of language, it's "victimhood".  Democratic
culture, on the other hand, is founded on the values and skills that
are required to solve problems collectively while maintaining one's
own boundaries and respecting those of others.  Living democratically
is difficult, of course, but that's only because recovering one's
health from the depredations of authoritarian and libertarian culture
is difficult.

These notions of boundaries can also be applied to groups.  On this
topic, let me recommend two articles:

  Larry Hirschhorn and Thomas Gilmore, The new boundaries of the
  "boundaryless" company, Harvard Business Review 70(3), 1992, pages

  David J. Phillips, Defending the boundaries: Identifying and
  countering threats in a Usenet newsgroup, The Information Society
  12(1), 1996, pages 39-62.

Hirschhorn and Gilmore's article concerns the internal workings
and external relationships of cross-functional "teams" in business.
In the old days, their story goes, relationships among the different
functions in an business (marketing, manufacturing, legal, etc) were
exceedingly distant, with the result that a great deal of bad work
was done: product designs that couldn't be manufactured, manufacturing
plans that couldn't be financed, business strategies that were
unrelated to the wants of the customers, and so on.  Each function
spoke its own language and pursued its own agendas, and coordination
happened, if at all, amidst the Byzantine politics of vice-presidents.

That's all changing, Hirschhorn and Gilmore tell us, because companies
whose people talk to one another produce happier customers than
companies that do not.  And the most common procedure is to throw
individuals from different functions into "teams" with collectively
defined goals.  Hirschhorn and Gilmore observe that this situation
requires team members to establish two boundaries: the boundary that
maintains the integrity of their team and the boundary that maintains
the integrity of their functional group.  These dual boundaries
create a nonstop tension for everyone involved, but the tension is
actually beneficial inasmuch as it prevents either of the potentially
conflicting boundaries from hardening into an impermeable shield.
The happy balance between the group members' loyalties may not come
automatically, but it is a business skill like any other, and it
can be taught and learned.  That's the theory, anyway.  One takes
these things with a grain of salt, but it's suggestive in any case.

Phillips' article concerns the strategies by which the members
of a newsgroup defended themselves against an influx of uncultured
barbarians who did not care to learn or uphold the group's existing
norms of interaction.  A terribly interesting phenomenon, remarked
upon in Howard Rheingold's "The Virtual Community" and then in more
formal statements such as John Coate's "Cyberspace Innkeeping" (in
the book that Doug Schuler and I edited, as well as several of the
chapters in "Communities in Cyberspace"), is the precise combination
of technical and social mechanisms that are required to manage this
situation.  A harder question is the combination of personal and
group attributes that an online community requires to employ these
mechanisms to positive effect.  It probably matters, for example,
whether any members of the group actually care enough about the
forum to make the effort, perhaps because the forum is sponsored
by some organization whose success they have a personal investment
in.  It probably also matters whether the group members have good
boundaries as individuals.  And it probably matters whether the online
forum in question draws its membership from a social group that has a
well-developed sense of collective identity in the larger world.

Whatever the case, we are all familiar with online forums that
maintain excellent boundaries and online forums whose boundaries are
very poor indeed.  Questions of responsibility arise: when an online
forum is unable to contain the disruptions caused by unschooled
newcomers and other barbarians, whose fault is it?  As with all such
things, it helps to distinguish between two kinds of responsibility:
moral and practical.  People who trash online forums are morally
responsible for what they do, as are members of online forums who
are too rigid to accommodate themselves to the adjustment pains and
cultural differences of legitimate newcomers.  Moral responsibility
is hard to apportion fairly in most real-life situations, despite
the arrogant certainties of authoritarian culture, and so it is here.

Practical responsibility is usually just as difficult and just as
complicated as the moral kind.  This is true even when, and indeed
especially when, the barbarians in question are not maladjusted
newcomers but the kind of Visigoth wannabes who go around deliberately
destroying unmoderated newsgroups.  (It is only liberal and women's
groups that are routinely trashed in this fashion?  Just wondering.)
When a forum's boundaries prove indefensible against the assaults of
the Visigoths, who keeps hanging around?  And what's wrong with them?
Those who keep hanging around amidst the emotional garbage-heap of
the Visigoth invasions will protest, accurately, that it's unfair for
them to be obliged to surrender their forum to moral wrongdoers.  Yes,
it's unfair.  But that doesn't explain why these boundaryless people
stick with it, even when they have no chance of doing anything about
it, and even though they usually have good odds of establishing a
working forum using different technology -- technology, that is,
that provides the mechanisms that are needed to allow the group to
build and maintain effective boundaries.  Such people, I would submit,
are responsible in a practical sense for their own problems, and
reasonable people will only have a certain measured degree of sympathy
for their partly self-inflicted plight.

I am saying all of this, as you might expect, because I am leading
up to my second unpleasant interaction of the week.  This time I think
I am completely innocent, although perhaps I am again deluded.  Here
is what happened.  One day I received an e-mail message from a person
who wanted me to look at a long series of obscene taunts that had
been posted in a newgroup concerned with New Age topics.  The message
was not clear about why I was being asked to look at this stuff; it
seemed vaguely accusatory without explicitly accusing me of anything.
I replied by saying, "um, are you accusing me of something, asking
me to do something, or what?", and forgot about it.  It didn't matter,
because it turned out that my answering machine was already burdened
with a voicemail message from this person, who seemed to be vaguely
(not to mention anonymously) threatening me with legal action.

Idiot that I am, I returned the call.  In short order I found myself
talking to a confused person who, obviously upset at being slandered
in a public newsgroup, poured out a long, muddled story that somehow
led up to my name.  Just as with the e-mail, I was being spoken to in
an accusatory tone of voice, even though no very definite accusation
was being made.  I said, "look, if you're accusing me of something
then I need to hear it from your attorney; otherwise stop treating me
like you are".  That seemed to snap her out of it somewhat, whereupon
I led her step by step through her incoherent tale.  After prolonged
grilling and painstaking clarification of the meanings of technical
terms, it turned out that someone had been sending obscene messages
about her to an unmoderated newsgroup that she frequented, that
these messages were routed through an anonymous remailer housed at
UC Berkeley, and that someone associated with this anonymous remailer
had a hyperlink on one of his Web pages that pointed at one of my
Web pages.  I had to explain that the chain of connections she had
described to me was extremely remote, and that she did not have the
faintest reason even to be talking to me, much less accusing me of
things.  Furthermore, I explained with sincere incredulity, it would
be in everyone's best interest if she immediately stopped trying to
discuss New Age topics in unmoderated news groups.  Presumably as a
New Age person she could comprehend the concept of attracting negative
energy into her life, no?  Presumably she could comprehend that New
Age people start their rituals by drawing a circle around themselves
in order to signify their need for healthy boundaries, and that
discussing New Age topics in an unmoderated newsgroup was therefore
like performing such rituals in the middle of shopping mall, no?
Well, that's what she was doing, and it was a really bad idea, and she
should stop it.  I wasn't actually clever enough to say all of those
things, but I said most of them.

Idiot that I am, I figured that that was the end of it.  The next
day, by pure coincidence, I happened to run a Dejanews search on myself
as a means of avoiding some work, whereupon I discovered that this
same individual had -- get this -- posted the entire contents of my
home page to the newsgroup where the obscene messages about her had
appeared, with the evident meaning in context being that I had been
responsible for them.  This was apparently too much even for the other
boundaryless people who insisted on hanging out in that group, and she
had been rebuked, albeit in passing.  It was only after an extended
back-and-forth of e-mail, however, that I was able to extract a public

Do I bear any practical responsibility for this assault?  Not darn
much, I don't think.  This person found her way to me because I've
spent several years trying in my own small way to spread good sense on
the Internet, with the result that some of my words have become woven
into small corners the vastness of the Web.  And one consequence of
this is that the small subset of Internet users who are splashing
their inner confusions around will happen, simply by chance, to splash
some of them onto me.  What else am I supposed to do?  Keep quiet?
Confine my writing to scholarly journals that no more than two hundred
people will ever read?  What I can do is to name the problem, and
that's what I'm doing here.  And in doing so, perhaps I can contribute
a deeper consciousness of boundaries to Internet culture

But the Internet is not a spaceship cut loose from the big world.  The
Internet is very much embedded in the cultural crossfire of society
in 1999, and it's ultimately that larger society that will learn and
value good boundaries, or else tear them down.  Which brings me to
the last of my stories of online obnoxiousness for the week.  You
may recall that I distributed the text of a talk that Michael Curry
has been kind enough to contribute to the seminar series that our
department organizes.  Michael is a geographer and a serious scholar
of the old school, and his talk exhibited the erudition and clarity
that makes the old school at its best worthwhile.  Despite this, the
first (and so far the only) response that I received to Michael's
talk was a message, written in the snide jargon that is so fashionable
today, mocking college professors in general because Michael, having
cited Aristotle's works using dates from the 1940's and 1950's, was
held to be unaware that Aristotle actually wrote his works a real long
time ago.  This guy evidently didn't know that it is the long-standing
practice of scholars to cite a work by the date of the edition one
has consulted, as opposed to the date when it was written, and I doubt
very much if he cared.  If I really got upset, he's probably one of
those people who would say, "Guess I touched a nerve!".

The guy who disparaged Michael Curry's scholarship reminded me of
the survey that found that fans of conservative talk radio regarded
themselves as the most informed group in society, whereas in fact the
survey showed them to be the least informed.  The guy's purpose was
to laugh in the face of a college professor, and the arbitrariness
and ignorance of his message was most certainly part of its intended
effect, which was to contribute to the sense of helplessness that so
many people feel in the face of a relentless chorus of fully empowered
jerks.  Despite its pretense of populist good cheer, therefore, this
sort of thing is pure authoritarianism.  It doesn't work its desired
effect on people who have good boundaries, of course, but then the
whole point of authoritarianism is that all but the powerful are so
continuously brutalized that they don't have good boundaries.  That
way their sensitivity to continued assault can itself be mocked as --
that word again -- "victimhood".

What lessons can we learn from these phenomena?  It seems to me that
Internet culture is going through a profound shift that has yet to
be clearly articulated.  It is analogous to the same shift that is
bringing back ballroom dancing in American culture.  Ballroom dancing
is a formal protocol for public interaction that allows people to
touch one another without anything going wrong.  It can be contrasted
with the formless style of dancing that emerged in the 1960's, which
is libertarian in its refusal to prescribe anyone's movements, but
which is unsatisfying because the lack of prescription makes it unsafe
for people who don't know one another to touch each other while they
are dancing.  Ballroom dancing is similar to a 12-step support group
such as Alcoholics Anonymous, which allows people to engage in very
personal conversations without anything going wrong.  To take another
analogy, people in some places in Northern Europe are trying to turn
the aforementioned Jurgen Habermas' ideas about fair communication
into an interactional protocol for the democratic conduct of all
institutional spheres of life.  In each case the underlying problem
is the same: people want to engage in relatively intimate interactions
while also opening the door to anyone who wants to join.

Here, then, is the intrinsic tension: interactions require boundaries;
one way to establish boundaries is to regulate membership in the
group of people who are interacting; but if you don't want to regulate
membership then the alternative is to employ a system of interactional
protocols.  This tension can be resolved in a wide variety of ways,
and the Internet provides a significant amount of support for each one
of them.  Membership can be regulated by controlling which addresses
are added to a mailing list, or simply by keeping the list a secret.
Interaction can be regulated, albeit crudely, the filtering action of
a moderator.  Still, it seems to me that the tension around regulation
of online interaction is deeply bound into the organizing myths of the
medium.  Take, for example, the practice of naming a Usenet newsgroup (just to make up an example).  The implication is that
anybody who wants to talk about Polish law has a right to join the
group.  In some ways this is a good thing: someone who is interested
in Polish law can learn a simple protocol for tracking down a group
where other people with that interest are gathered.  So the convention
of openness helps people to connect.  But it also creates a serious
problem, given that provocateurs can easily claim that their rights
are being violated whenever someone tries to prevent them from trashing
the group.  This happens every day.

An alternative would be to name the groups differently.  Instead of
being called, the group might be called "The Warsaw
Club" or something even more meaningful than that to those interested
in the topic.  The name would now emphasize that this is just one
group about Polish law, that it is an existing institution, a going
concern.  Newcomers would have more of an expectation that the group
already had its rules, its traditions, and so on.  The possibility
would be wide open for individuals to create other groups, perhaps
with other political slants or interactional styles, without anybody
having to enter into conflict about privileged ownership of the name.  It would still be easy to provide tools that
connect people to the online groups that interest them, while also
eliminating many of the overly-standardized expectations that people
currently have about the rights and responsibilities that they will
enjoy as members of the group.  In particular, it will be possible
for groups to define themselves in a much greater diversity of ways
in terms of the institutional field in which the group is embedded.
Some online groups will be sponsored by particular organizations,
others will be informally defined as being intended for members of
a particular organization, or for dissidents from that organization,
and so on.  The Internet's governing myths, "cyberspace" for example,
are far too oblivious to the Internet's embedding in the larger world,
and this kind of renaming would be a small start at a change.

To be sure, a great deal of this is already happening.  The governing
myths of the Internet pay disproportionate attention to the Internet's
public forums, and to Usenet, which has no necessary connection to the
Internet but is usually treated as part of "the Internet" as a social
phenomenon.  This is partly because of media attention -- it is easier
to monitor public forums than private ones -- and partly because of
beginners' manuals -- which naturally focus on public forums as well.
While we should certainly maintain the values of the public sphere,
it seems to me that something important is lost when too much emphasis
is placed on the Internet's very narrow conception of it.  The public
sphere is not a place where anybody at all has the right to walk in
any conduct themselves wherever they like.  It's more complicated than
that.  Of course, there do exist public places where a free society
does give everyone a very broad latitude, not least because governments
cannot be trusted to make rules about what should go on in such places.
Nonetheless, the health of a democratic society does not depend simply
on the lack of regulation in public places.  It depends more basically
on the people generally being both willing and able to associate with
one another in effective ways.  Association is not just interaction
in public places.  It is also the creation of a wide variety of other
kinds of places, including dance halls, support group rooms, meeting
tables, and so on.

The notion of "place" in Michael Curry's talk is helpful here.  A
"place" for Michael is not a set of coordinates in Cartesian space.
Places, rather, are defined by habits and customs -- by what one does
in them.  If you and I meet regularly at a particular cafe, where
we've evolved certain ways of greeting and ordering and drinking
and discussing and paying, then we've made the cafe into a place
for ourselves.  All actions of any value occur in places, because
it is the place that gives an action its human significance.  Places,
moreover, cannot be the object of rational engineering, nor can they
be wholly defined by spelling out rules; they have to grow and evolve,
and once they've done so they begin to define their participants in
more and deeper ways than anybody can be aware of.  An online forum
is perfectly capable of being a place in this sense, but it is not a
place until its participants do actually settle down into a functional
system of customs and habits for their interactions there.  The care
that an online forums' participants oftentimes exhibit for the ongoing
well-being of the "community" is usefully understood, in this sense,
as care for a place.  The question then arises of what makes a place
good -- efficient, equitable, safe, effective for some instrumental
purpose, etc.

Part of the fallacy of the public discussion group on the Internet,
then, is the notion that one can have a discussion without having
a place.  Usenet newsgroups, for example, are non-places almost
by definition.  Even when people try hard to make them into places,
they are far too exposed to forces that tear places down and thereby
destroy their value.  Here is the basic tension: you can have a place
that is open to anyone, or you can free yourself from formal protocols
of interaction, but it's very hard to do both.  To the libertarian
mindset, of course, formal protocols of interaction sound like laws
that have been exogenously imposed by a government, but the important
lesson is that the protocols that I am talking about wouldn't
work if that's what they were.  They are, rather, part of culture,
or to put it another way, they are inscribed in and by institutions.
Ballroom dancing is a set of cultural forms, the particular dance
moves being part of a long symbolic conversation that works in part
because its origins are lost to history, and it is also a set of
institutional forms, such as the dance hall and the dance school,
each with its protocols of interaction.  The skills of association
-- networking, building consensus, running a meeting, arguing
without fighting, defending the boundaries of the group, allowing
for difference, and so on -- are likewise embedded in cultures and
institutions.  Precisely because the protocols cannot be designed
rationally or simply imposed by the government, it matters a great
deal whether a given society retains and transmits the skills of
association and the repertoire of institutional forms -- called civil
society -- that through which this happens.  The Internet holds great
promise as a tool for the maintenance and expansion of civil society,
but the organizing myths of the Internet can also undermine civil
society if the technology is seen to substitute for, or encourages
forgetting of, the skills of association that neither technology nor
government can provide.

Some URL's.

CIO magazine endorsement of Linux

Win 98 Privacy Issue: Worse Than You Thought

Establishing Big Brother using Covert Channels and Other Covert Techniques

The Architectures of Mandated Access Controls

Technology Source on educational computing

articles on the Microsoft Registration wizard ID number flap,4586,2221330,00.html

Conference on the Social and Ethical Impacts of Information and
Communication Technologies, Rome, 6-8 October 1999

a slick but very strange right-wing news service

Waiting for the Revolution (article on computers and productivity)

Pathfinder Museum

article on Intel's use of standards

FAQ on social security numbers

article on "technofascism" in Upside

comparison shopping sites for books

articles about Microsoft's antitrust PR

article about the Internet for PR people

Biometrics in Human Services

Social Security: Government and Commercial Use of the Social Security
Number is Widespread

Nurturing Neighborhood Nets

web sites that only work with Pentium III machines

Is Open Source a Libertarian Fantasy or Revival of Sixties Radicalism?

Community College Distance Learning Network

PrivaSeek "infomediary" for privacy protection

The Cost of Digital Image Distribution: The Social and Economic
Implications of the Production, Distribution and Usage of Image Data

International Conference on Geographic Information and Society

California Digital Library

Electronic Civil Disobedience and the World Wide Web of Hacktivism

Junkbusters privacy links

American Journalism Review's Newslink (large index of online newspapers)

NSA organizational chart

Jean-Louis Gassee on the Microsoft case

bibliofind used books

The Whitewater "Oppo"

Microsoft Passport Piques Privacy Concerns

open online radio archive