Yesterday's Tomorrow

Philip E. Agre
Department of Information Studies
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California 90095-1520

Times Literary Supplement, 3 July 1998, pages 3-4.

This Web version restores the article's section headings and includes several references that the TLS version omits.

Copyright 1998 by the author.

Please do not quote from this version, which may differ slightly from the version that appears in print.

For those who have seen the printed version in TLS, please know that I am not responsible for the tagline under the title that reads "The advance of law and order into the utopian wilderness of cyberspace". This is a good statement of the cliche that I argue against.


1 Introduction

One day last fall I received a phone call from a federal prosecutor. She was trying the case of a troubled young man who had sent an e-mail message filled with vile ethnic slurs to sixty Asian-American college students, vowing to hunt them down and kill them. At the trial, the defense produced an expert witness who testified that the young man's message was "a classic flame", and that no reasonable person should have felt threatened by it (Maharaj 1997). The prosecutor, though experienced in the matter of death threats, had never encountered this notion before, and, bewildered, was calling around to find an expert who could testify to the contrary the next morning at 9AM. I was booked, so she found someone else. Yet the case resulted in a hung jury, and the prosecutor only obtained a conviction at the retrial by introducing further evidence of the young man's malicious intent beyond what, to her, was the plain meaning of his e-mailed words (Maharaj 1998).

This story may symbolize our changing understanding of the Internet and its place in society. What was news to the prosecutor is a commonplace to academics: the sense that events on the Internet are not quite real, or real in a different way, in a place apart called cyberspace that operates on different principles than the corporeal world. The concept of cyberspace, however, may have had its day. The Internet is only now, and only slowly, becoming integrated with the institutional world around it, and it is increasingly evident that the very notion of cyberspace is an artifact of this transient situation. This development has significant consequences. It no longer suffices to ask "what effect will the Internet have on ...?". Rather, we must comprehend the institutional world from which the Internet arose, and the many and various institutional worlds with which the Internet now coevolves, and make sense of the technology in that dynamic context. It's a big job, to be sure, but its outlines are becoming visible in the literature.

2 Cyberspace as American culture

Cyberspace, clearly, is a utopian idea that stands in the main line of a long millennialist tradition. Its prophets see it leveling hierarchies, dispersing power, and bringing peace and prosperity to the world. This kind of secularized religion has often shaped engineers' imaginations (see, for example, Noble 1997). And one particularly American aspect of cyberspace is its understanding of community. The word "community" has summed up Americans' hopes for their country ever since the colonial period, and its utopian connotations continue to influence American political culture today.

At the dawn of the cyberspace era, around 1994, many observers remarked on its recurring use of colonialist tropes -- electronic frontiers, the civilizing of cyberspace, and so on. And indeed, the concept of cyberspace has developed along similar lines to what Jack Greene has called The Intellectual Construction of America (1993). Quoting the Dutch historian Henri Baudet, Greene said that America had become a place

"onto which all identification and interpretation, all dissatisfaction and desire, all nostalgia and idealism seeking expression could be projected" (page 25).
Indeed, he cites evidence that Thomas More had America in mind when, shortly thereafter, he initiated the European utopian tradition. Nothing becomes so dated as yesterday's tomorrow, however, and Greene points out that
"[the] early utopias, like European perceptions of Amerindians, were all heavily shaped by older European intellectual traditions. Almost without exception they looked backward to Europe's 'own ideal past' rather than forward into some wholly novel world of the future" (page 28).
"virtually every one of the new English colonies established in America ... represented an effort to create in some part of the infinitely pliable world of America ... some specific Old World vision for the recovery of an ideal past in a new and carefully constructed society" (pages 54-55).
Such are the origins of the American ideal of community. In Barry Shain's account, this ideal had two counterposed moments. One was the freedom of conscience that figures so heavily in what he calls The Myth of American Individualism (1996). The other, disproving the myth, was the reformed-Protestant communitarianism that produced in each separate community an almost totalitarian order of invasive social control. Freedom of conscience, he argues, was not the freedom to rebel against this order, but rather the freedom to leave one such community and settle in another. If this picture of society is not overtly present in the writings of the tiny elite who wrote the Constitution, he argues, that only illustrates a distinctively American tension between a localist communitarianism and a nationalist individualism. Whatever its use as historiography, Shain's account illuminates many contemporary conflicts, from the internal politics of the Republican party to the emerging war over Internet content filtering in community institutions such as schools and libraries.

3 The fall of cyberspace

Causal connection or no, the intellectual construction of both America and cyberspace has proceeded along similar lines: utopian visions projected onto a putatively blank space in the form of consciously designed communities. Of course, in each case the original and more rigorous utopias eventually gave way to a greater focus on money-making. Yet in each case too, the original conception of discrete, self-regulating, homogeneous communities of intimates has continued to shape both thought and practice in profound ways. In academic research on cyberspace, we see this in the focus upon assumed identities and the peculiar practice of studying online communities without finding out who their participants are.

Yet this is changing. Research on organizational computing (e.g., Orlikowski 1993) provides one model for work that investigates online relationships in terms of their embedding in some larger context. And as the technologies of cyberspace migrate into organizational practice, they are made to shed their aura of irreality -- business people now explain that MUD, originally designating Multi User Dungeon, actually stands for Multi User Domain, or Dimension, or something like that.

An example of the internal tensions of cyberspace theories can be found in the influential work on cyberlaw by David Johnson and David Post (1997). For them, cyberspace is a place -- a legal jurisdiction unto itself -- whose boundary can be found in "the screens and passwords that separate the virtual world from the 'real world' of atoms" (page 3).

Although framed in the language of contemporary libertarianism, Johnson and Post's theory tracks the historians' America in some detail. They envision cyberspace as a population of distinct "spaces" or "territories" -- that is, self-governing communities. Individuals can move freely from one community to the next, resulting in a sort of market in government. This market will only function correctly, however, if the rules chosen by one community have no consequences for other communities. This requires strict regulations on the movement of information across borders. The problem, of course, is that much information will cross borders in people's minds. The supposed residents of cyberspace in fact perpetually straddle at least two jurisdictions -- their online communities and the province where their corporeal selves are sitting. Someone who defames another in an online community with weak laws also harms that same person's reputation in other jurisdictions.

Johnson and Post's border problems get worse as the Internet becomes integrated into the world around it. Why should a corporate intranet, for example, be reckoned part of cyberspace? And where are the borders of cyberspace when the Internet protocols begins flowing in cars and kitchen appliances? The borders between cyberspace and real life are less obvious than they seem, and they are getting less distinct every day.

4 Individuals and institutions

And so a transition is in the works, from a utopian understanding of the Internet to an understanding based on the technology's place in the larger institutional world. By "institutions" is meant the fundamental set of arrangements from which typified human relationships are built. Institutional phenomena are understood using various metaphors -- as the connective tissue, rules of the game, nervous system, or the grammar of human relationships. As Paul David has pointed out, an institution such as the corporation or the family can remain stable in its workings for centuries, even as particular corporations and families come and go. The concept of institution entered the social analysis of computing partly in an attempt to explain the famous productivity paradox -- the longstanding difficulty of demonstrating clear-cut productivity improvements from industry's vast investments in information technology. One explanation for this mystery, John King has suggested, is that information technology can only have a profound impact when institutions change. Institutions, however, are built deeply into laws, customs, language, installed bases of technology, and much else, and so they change only very slowly. The story of information technology, on this account, is one of history's great episodes of an irresistable force meeting an immovable object.

Several literatures have described the evolution of institutions. One economic tradition, descended from John Commons (1924), portrays the common law, for example, as the outcome of successive episodes of collective bargaining among social groups. Another recent tradition, descending from Ronald Coase (1960) and Douglass North (1990), views economic institutions as successive approximations to the idealizations of neoclassical economics. Pitting themselves against individualistic economics, sociologists such as Walter Powell and Paul DiMaggio (1991) have described the diverse mechanisms that lead to isomorphism among the organizations in a given institutional field. Political scientists have described the design of political institutions, and are designing new institutions in several emerging democracies (e.g., Goodin 1996). These literatures provide powerful means of understanding the interactions among economics, law, organizational form, social structure, and custom through which institutions evolve. What they lack, thus far, is a sophisticated account of the interaction between institutional structures and information infrastructure. (See, however, Mark Casson's remarkable Information and Organization, 1997.)

How, then, to proceed? To begin with, disputes over technology are frequently disputes about institutions. Robin Mansell (1995), for example, has observed that electronic commerce protocols are the object of ongoing contests over the biases of the electronic playing field of the market. Information technology has also revived ideas like plebiscitary democracy; such proposals, however, founder on technical difficulties such as authentication. They also neglect the practical work of politics: technology does help to distribute political information, but intermediaries such as interest groups and legislative staffs are still required to analyze it. And controversies about Web content filtering ultimately concern the family, as children gain new abilities to establish social connections, for good or ill, beyond their parents' control.

5 Relationships and boundaries

In setting rules for social relationships, institutions also define the very category of the person. This is clear, for example, from Austin's (1962) observation that the import of an utterance depends on its institutional context. People become who they are largely through relationships with others, and information technology increasingly establishes the ground rules under which relationships are negotiated. Yet, as the daily newspaper makes clear, the negotiation of human relationships over the Internet is in crisis. The Internet is currently providing its users with inadequate technical means of constructing the personal boundaries that make relationships possible. Let us consider some examples:

First, computer viruses, those fragments of malicious and self-replicating code that sneak into into otherwise benign programs. Personal computers are prone to infection because their inventors assumed that people would use them in isolation from others. Partly as a result, PC operating systems did not incorporate the well-understood security mechanisms of earlier time-sharing systems. Real people use their computers in a much more social way than the designers imagined, and yet they enjoy little technological protection against the hazards of sharing software.

Second, privacy problems on the WorldWide Web. People using the Web are often anxious, and reasonably so, because they cannot see the information that is exchanged between their browser and a given Web site. This omission is an artifact of history: the Web's "client-server" model of computing originated in settings where the institutional relationship between client and server was well-known and fixed. Such is not the case, however, on the Web, where the client-server model has been generalized into a platform for an arbitrary variety of relationships.

Third, unsolicited bulk e-mail, or spam. Paper junk mail, annoying though it is, is naturally regulated by the cost of sending it. The Internet, however, lacks this useful limitation of the physical world. As a result, the metaphor of e-mail is starting to break down, and computer scientists are investigating mechanisms for establishing boundaries around one's electronic mailbox.

Fourth, content filtering. In the non-virtual world, our habitual patterns of life limit our exposure to novelty. Whole categories of publications never enter our lives unless we intentionally propel ourselves into an unaccustomed aisle of the bookstore. Web browsers, however, are capable of bringing anybody into contact with anything on little notice. It sounds convenient to have the whole world at one's fingertips, but in practice one learns to appreciate the relatively stable connections of our meatspace lives. Automatic filtering of Web content is an understandable response, but the filtering process is proving cumbersome, controversial, and error-prone. As a result, the Web is now growing a new generation of mediating institutions that fit more stably into a user's daily routines.

In sum, the Internet's ability to establish arbitrary connections instantly is proving a bit much. Institution-building on the net has hardly begun, and a central issue in defining these institutions is the social organization of boundaries: allocating the power to define them and set them.

6 Networks and institutions

Personal boundaries are a small-scale institutional issue, but information technology is also participating in large-scale institutional changes. Little is known about these changes, but a few conjectures may focus the issues.

How does information technology lead to institutional change? Many people believe that new information technologies will bring massive, qualitative, discontinuous changes in institutions such as higher education. This might be called the creative destruction model, after Schumpeter's (1942) picture of entrepreneurial upstarts displacing hidebound incumbents in markets. But Schumpeter was speaking of firms, not institutions. Institutions are so deeply woven into the larger social order that their wholesale replacement may well be impossible. Contrast, then, the digestion model: participants in an existing institutional selectively appropriate a new technology to do more of what they are already doing -- old roles, old practices, and old ways of thinking. The selective amplification of particular functions then disrupts the equilibrium of the existing order, giving rise to a new equilibrium. Which model applies is of course an empirical matter. But the simple existence of alternative models may forestall premature conclusions.

How do technical architectures evolve? Information technologies evolve in part through advances in processing speed, bandwidth, and screen resolution. But these improvements tell us little about the qualitative organization of technical systems. Textbooks present the modularity of technical systems as the product of ahistorical design norms, but the modularity of real systems interacts with the market (Clark 1985). Consider the victory of the IBM model of personal computing over the Apple Macintosh. The IBM brand name was one factor, but another was IBM's fortuitous decision to standardize the PC's components and to open them to competition. As the PC began to dominate the market, the firms that participated in the PC model all began to enjoy overwhelming economies of scale that reinforced the PC's position and ensured Apple's defeat. A similar dynamic may help the Internet replace the telephone system: the Internet decouples functions that the phone companies bundle together. Ceteris paribus, then, the market wants functionalities on different layers to be decoupled whenever significant economics of scope arise for the application of one layer to different purposes.

How are professions changing? Knowledge-intensive work has long been organized in a matrix, with professions cross-cutting organizations. Yet the relationship between organizations and professions has begun to shift. The private sector is undergoing two seemingly contradictory phenomena: concentration and outsourcing. Firms are merging at unprecedented rates, while functions as complex as information systems management are contracted out on a large scale. Both of these developments serve, roughly speaking, to increase the homogeneity of the activities that take place within a firm. Among the many causes of this trend is distributed information technology: if two firms in the same industry are merged, then activities that distribute information to all points in the firm, such as personnel policies or payroll software, become more efficient. The distinction between organizations and professions may therefore collapse. Already many of the traditional functions of the American Medical Association, for example, have been taken over by the bureaucracies of large HMO's. The result is an emerging global corporatism.

7 Standards and rules

Larry Lessig (1997) and Joel Reidenberg (1998) have observed that the technical standards embodied in digital media effectively establish rules: the software that underwrites human relationships also regulates them. The law is conservative in its approach to social rule-setting. And information technology, despite its revolutionary reputation, is likewise conservative. The development of technical practice resembles that of the common law: designers react to problems and then periodically systematize their accumulated experience. Information technology is conservative in another way: once entrenched in a sufficient proportion of the installed base, compatibility standards tend to persist in the marketplace (Katz and Shapiro 1994). The resulting network effects and economies of scale give competition among standards a winner-take-all character.

In these ways and more, markets for information technology increasingly resemble legislatures that set rules for a whole population. Legislatures also increasingly resemble markets, and this convergence between the institutional dynamics of economics and politics is already a daily fact of life in the computer industry. The deeper phenomenon is the agenda-setting by which our global society articulates its values and embodies them in its institutions and its information technologies. This process intertwines activities in many sites, and it already far exceeds the simple imagination of the utopians. To engage in the process, we need a post-utopian imagination that embraces the complexity of human institutions and a critical technical practice that embraces the coevolution of institutions and technologies. Both the imagination and the practice can be dimly seen taking form around us.

* References

J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962.

Mark Casson, Information and Organization, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

Kim B. Clark, The interaction of design hierarchies and market concepts in technological evolution, Research Policy 14, 1985, pages 235-251.

Ronald H. Coase, The problem of social cost, The Journal of Law and Economics 3, 1960, pages 1-44.

John R. Commons, Legal Foundations of Capitalism, New York: Macmillan, 1924.

Robert E. Goodin, ed, The Theory of Institutional Design, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Jack Greene, The Intellectual Construction of America, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

David Johnson and David Post, The rise of law on the global network, in Brian Kahin and Charles Nesson, eds, Borders in Cyberspace: Information Policy and the Global Information Infrastructure, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997.

Michael L. Katz and Carl Shapiro, Systems competition and network effects, Journal of Economic Perspectives 8(2), 1994, pages 93-115.

Larry Lessig, What things regulate speech, available through Cyberspace Law Abstracts,

Davan Maharaj, UC Irvine Internet hate crime case ends in mistrial, Los Angeles Times, 22 November 1997.

Davan Maharaj, Anti-Asian E-mail was hate crime, jury finds, Los Angeles Times, 11 February 1998.

Robin Mansell, Standards, industrial policy and innovation, in Richard Hawkins, Robin Mansell, and Jim Skea, eds, Standards, Innovation and Competitiveness: The Politics and Economics of Standards in Natural and Technical Environments, Aldershot, England: Edward Elgar, 1995.

David Noble, The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention, New York: Knopf, 1997.

Douglass C. North, Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Wanda J. Orlikowski, Learning from Notes: Organizational issues in groupware implementation, The Information Society 9(3), 1993, pages 237-250.

Walter W. Powell and Paul J. DiMaggio, eds, The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Joel Reidenberg, Lex Informatica: The formulation of information policy rules through technology, Texas Law Review 96, 1998, pages 553-593.

Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1942.

Barry Shain, The Myth of American Individualism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.