T H E N E T W O R K O B S E R V E R
VOLUME 1, NUMBER 4 APRIL 1994
This month: Advanced social skills on the net
The Internet public sphere
Workflow technology and cooperative work
Welcome to TNO 1(4).
This issue of TNO contains two brief articles by the editor.
The first is an edited version of my comments at CFP'94 about
the role of advanced networking skills in building a democratic
culture. The second is a case study of the responsibility of
network mailing list operators in a world where both well- and
ill-informed e-mail messages can circle the globe in hours.
Also included are TNO's regular features. The recommendations
this month are all high-quality newsletters -- I recommend that
you subscribe to them, and if you have technical skills then
I also recommend that you see if they'd like any help getting
themselves an Internet presence. In general I think it's a good
idea to help virtuous people and organizations get on the net.
Networking and democracy.
[This is an edited version of my comments on the panel that
Steven Hodas organized at the Fourth Computers, Freedom, and
Privacy Conference in Chicago in March 1993.]
Our task today is to understand and shape the tremendous changes
that 1994 is bringing to the institutions of communication. Not
only are new forms and media of communication flourishing, but we
in the United States are also witnessing the most comprehensive
overhaul of telecommunications regulation since the 1934
It is fitting, then, to turn for guidance to the leading public
philosopher of that era, John Dewey. Dewey was writing in a time
when the meaning and practice of democracy were actively debated,
and when broad segments of society were actively involved
in shaping the social organization of communication and its
institutions. "Of all affairs", Dewey said, "communication is
the most wonderful". (All quotes are from "The Public and Its
Problems".) People are constantly engaged in shared activities,
but it is communication that makes a community by putting names
on things, giving them a public reality, and allowing them
to be reflected upon and discussed. "Knowledge", Dewey says,
"is a function of association and communication; it depends
upon tradition, upon tools and methods socially transmitted,
developed, and sanctioned." Human relationship and human
communication, in other words, are skills, and these skills must
be passed down within a culture and must be taught and learned
if the culture is to maintain its democratic character.
In fact, Dewey asserts, "The prime condition of a democratically
organized public is a kind of knowledge and insight which does
not yet exist." Democracy is something that must be actively
built, and we can build it by discovering and teaching the skills
of human communication. Although these skills are important
and subtle even in the most non-technological of worlds, I would
like to suggest that the rapid expansion of computer networking
provides us with a tremendously important opportunity to reflect
on human communication and its place in democracy, and to build a
network culture that provides everyone with the skills necessary
to act as a fully drawn agent in society.
The need for such skills is evident to anyone engaged in network
interactions today. Active listening skills are needed to help
ensure productive network discussions; conflict resolution skills
are needed to help avoid flame wars; negotiation skills are
needed to facilitate local self-regulation of network communities
as opposed to external law-making; networking skills are needed
so that people can share their experience and energy with others
with similar situations and goals; and community-building skills
are needed so that democracy can operate from the bottom up and
not be corrupted from the top down.
I want to briefly describe two experiments in teaching what
I call "advanced social skills" on the net. The great thing
about the net is that you can learn advanced social skills even
if you don't have any basic social skills, since there is little
need for the kind of clever improvisation required at cocktail
My first experiment in codifying advanced social skills is an
essay called "Networking on the Network". It's written mainly
for graduate students, though the underlying ideas apply more
widely. It's about creating an intellectual community for
yourself by approaching relevant people, exchanging papers with
them, and keeping in touchw ith them on the net and elsewhere
later on. Nobody is born being able to do this, and graduate
schools' haphazard efforts to teach it help to reproduce the
social stratification of research communities by giving a special
advantage to people who grew up in places where such skills were
actively being practiced. I wrote the first draft of this last
year, and Peter Neumann kindly mailed it to the four corners of
the earth through the Risks Digest. Since then I have received
numerous suggested improvements, including some valuable
suggestions for people who are not based at elite institutions in
industrialized countries, but who can nonetheless employ the net
to engage in dramatically better professional networking than
they could before.
Here we see the net playing two roles, as a site for democratic
communication skills to be practiced, and also as a site for
those skills to be articulated, written down, and shared with a
global community. Note that "Networking on the Network" is not
a manual of etiquette; its central concern is not with preventing
anti-social behavior, but rather with providing people with the
tools they need to do something they want to do, namely build
professional communities for themselves. These tools are not
just about the net. To the contrary, they place the net in the
context of a specific set of institutions and their particular
workings and underlying social logics.
Why aren't such things written down more often? Sometimes they
are, though there is little market for the books because so few
formal courses are taught about them, and because hardly anybody
is told that such skills exist. Or else these skills are
disparaged as "politics" and "knowing people" and thus made to
seem inaccessible or unimportant. But they are neither. I think
the reason they are so often glossed over is what I call the
Expert Effect: experts have usually forgotten what it is like to
be a beginner. That's why manuals for computer systems so often
fail to address the first questions that beginning users actually
have. In general, textbooks tend to start with Chapter Three,
omitting a whole layer of practical skills and tacit social
understandings of how those skills are embedded in cultures and
institutions. As a result, the only people who can genuinely
understand the materials in the textbook are the lucky few
who have picked up the necessary pre-understandings through
apprenticeship, or through the heroic cognitive feat of figuring
it all out from scratch. By writing down these background
understandings, as best we can anyway, and making them widely
available, we can give access to a much wider range of people.
My second experiment was a shorter essay called "The Art of
Getting Help". This was provoked by complaints about the
unfortunate practice among some network-enthusiastic teachers of
telling students to engage in research by posting basic questions
to listservs and newsgroups. The original impulse is good, but
what's missing is the skill of asking questions -- the art of
getting help. I see the need for this skill most painfully in
the undergraduates I teach, many of whom cannot ask for help
without feeling as though they are subordinating themselves to
someone. Some of them are even afraid to ask a librarian for
help, for fear of asking a stupid question.
The power relations of conventional education have misled
these students. The truth, of course, is that needing help is
an ordinary, routine part of any activity that is not totally
spoon-fed. Nobody is born knowing, for example, that it helps
to ask not "can you do this for me?" but rather "how can I do
this for myself?". (If they can do it for you, they'll probably
just do it. And if not then you've asked a less threatening
question.) By writing such things down and circulating them
widely on the net, I hope to provide students with the experience
of being competent, resourceful agents in the world, capable of
finding out what they need and thus capable of finding their own
way in the world rather than submitting to someone else's.
These are just two experiments, of course, and many more are
needed. A few basic ideas about listening, for example, go a
long way. Likewise a few basic ideas about negotiating, and a
few basic skills about reaching consensus. What would happen if
we wrote them down and circulated them widely? Obviously many
such things have been written down in books, and publicizing
those books is a good thing to do. But a lot of people are
specifically interested in communicating on the net, so it
would be great if all of those ideas could be adapted to network
use. At the same time, it's important to emphasize that the net
is not an end in itself, and that all such activities should be
understand against a broader background, including other media
and other institutions.
In conclusion, I see at least two big differences between 1934
and 1994. In 1934, the culture of democracy was much more vital
in the United States. This vitality was reflected in the public
debate of that era, its flowering of popular organizations of
all types, and in the public-interest model of communications
that was embedded in the 1934 Communications Act. In 1994, by
contrast, American democracy is suffering from the top to the
bottom. The rule of money and pundits in Washington is not a law
of nature; it is not inevitable. Rather, it fills a vacuum left
by the decline of democratic culture, a trend caused in part by
the educational practices that so disempowered by students.
The second difference, though, is more heartening. We can see
now, I think, the possibility of a renaissance of democracy
enabled both by new communications media, most particularly
computer networks, and by the renewed interest in practical
communication skills. The skills of using the net to get things
done in your own life and your own community are also the skills
of democracy. We can use these skills to rebuild democracy,
and to organize ourselves around the necessity of a democratic
definition of the institutions of human communication.
The Internet public sphere: A case study.
Regular readers of TNO will be aware that I run a mailing list
called The Red Rock Eater News Service (RRE) and that I am quite
interested in the nature and ethics of political action alerts
on the Internet. Recently I received in my mailbox a message
raising alarms about an experiment being proposed at the Scripps
Institute of Oceanography (which, as it happens, is located
at the same university as I am, although I have never had any
dealings with them). The basic idea was to put some big speakers
on the ocean floor, make some loud noises, and measure them at
great distances. I had previously seen some magazine articles
reporting concerns that this experiment might harm some fish
and sea mammals by adding to the already considerable level of
artificial noise under the ocean. In particular, it has been
argued that some whales might be deafened, thus preventing them
from engaging in social life and probably thereby killing them.
Having read these articles, I passed this message about the SIO
experiment along to RRE without having read it very well. This was
probably a mistake. The message was, whatever the justice of its
cause might have been, confused in a fairly straightforward way
about what a "take" means in the arcane language of the bureaucracy
of ecological matters. (It doesn't just refer to killing a
creature, but to affecting it in any way.) Now, if RRE were a
private, inconsequential mailing list then this would not matter.
The fact, though, is that RRE now has well over 1100 subscribers in
34 countries. (Here, by the way, are the country codes: at au be
br ca ch cz de dk es fi fj fr hu ie il in it jp kr mx nl no nz pt se
sg si th tr tw uk us za. Does anybody know what "at" and "si" are?)
These 1100 subscribers, moreover, are extremely diverse in their
occupations and connections, so that something sent out over RRE
is capable of finding its way to the four corners of the networked
world in a few hours. The message in question, indeed, was already
quite widely distributed on the net by the time I encountered it,
and the issue had already been covered (I am told) on CNN, so that
the relevant laboratory and agencies were already overwhelmed by
complaints of varying degrees of reasonableness.
I received a number of complaints, too, all of them polite and
some of them lengthy and articulate, about my having forwarded
this message so widely. I won't provide details of these notes
or their authors, but nonetheless I think it is useful to address
the issues they raised.
I should also mention that I received two responses to the
original message. One was a set of notes that an oceanographer
at SIO, Susan Hautala, took at a presentation of one of the
scientists whose proposal was being disputed. These notes had
originally been sent to a small local list of oceanographers, but
had rapidly spread around the network in the wake of the original
message. The second response was a message by Pim van Meurs that
included a deposition that had been filed by John Potter during
a hearing on the experiment. Although I believe in providing
equal time to people whose actions are disputed on the net, I
had originally hesitated to pass Hautala's message along to RRE
since it seemed informal and thus possibly unreliable. After some
prodding from a few RRE subscribers, I sent Hautala a note asking
whether I could use her message. She expressed surprise that her
message was in wide circulation (it had evidently been circulated
without her permission), but she gave me permission to circulate
a *revised* version of it. I passed along the van Meurs/Potter
message more readily, since it seemed much more obviously legit,
declaring it the end of the topic.
Most of the time, though, I wasn't sure what to do. What were
my responsibilities? Did I even *have* any responsibilities?
I am way too busy to spend any real time on such things, and I
certainly didn't want to get caught up in anything that was going
to take more than five minutes to resolve. It might be helpful
to distinguish legal, moral, and pragmatic issues.
* Legal issues. Was someone being libeled? If so, who was
doing the libeling? Can someone running a mailing list be guilty
of libel simply for passing along someone else's message? Well,
in this case it's clear to me that nobody committed libel. The
courts, at least in the United States, have repeatedly thrown
out libel suits against people who raise environmental questions
about proposed projects -- on straightforward First Amendment
grounds. Of course, the message also went out to 33 other
countries besides the United States, and I know that many people
wonder about the relevant legal issues. But given that all the
parties to the dispute were in the United States, I'd be amazed
if other countries' laws applied, or at least made any difference
for practical purposes.
* Moral issues. Is it morally wrong to pass along an
inaccurate message about someone? Surely I can't be responsible
for fact-checking everything I forward on a mailing list.
On the other hand, it's easy to imagine scenarios where it
would clearly be wrong to forward something, so it's at least
a reasonable question. But in what sense is it wrong? By
passing a message along to RRE, I'm only saying that it's on the
net and I found it interesting, not that I endorse it. Indeed
I've passed along several items which I clearly do not endorse.
(I recently received an issue of a Republican Party publication
called "Rising Force" -- I think that was the name -- and I would
have passed it along to RRE if it hadn't been so unintelligibly
formatted.) Of course, some people -- such as network newcomers,
which statistically includes a majority of people on the net
-- might not realize that forwarding does not imply endorsement.
And even if they did, that wouldn't be enough in itself to morally
exonerate me. The only lesson I can draw is to be careful and to
tell stories that promote further thinking.
* Pragmatic issues. A common argument was, we'd better try
to regulate such unruly behavior on the net because otherwise
someone outside the net might regulate us instead. But I
really cannot buy this argument at all. First, I wonder if the
likelihood of outside regulation has much to do with the reality
of network life, as opposed to some media image of network life.
Heaven knows that the attitude of much American law enforcement
toward "hacking" has little to do with its reality. Second, if
some outside force is going to try to regulate the net, then we
should not be doing its job for it. It's better to have overt
censorship than to practice self-censorship, since the former
can be openly argued against and resisted. I *do* think that
it's important to engage in cultural self-regulation of the net.
The purpose of this cultural self-regulation is not to avoid
official regulation from the outside, but rather to help preserve
the net as a potential space for the rebuilding of democracy.
For example, readers of TNO may recall my discussion of political
action alerts in TNO 1(1).
Perhaps the main lesson I've drawn from this ocean-noise episode
is that it might be good, other things being equal, to refrain
from forwarding any political action alerts that don't conform,
at least in spirit, to the guidelines I advocated in that
article. (I should mention, though, that a couple of readers
observed that I overlooked the most important guideline for
such alerts: get your facts straight!) I wouldn't want these
guidelines to become laws or rules or anything like that --
that shouldn't be necessary, and it wouldn't work anyway. But
if we can publicize the ethical and useful ways of doing things,
then those might attain a cultural authority that would be more
constructive than any rules could ever be.
This month's recommendations.
This month's recommendations are all newsletters that I regard
highly and that have unfortunately small circulations. So first
you might consider subscribing to them. And second, if you are
involved with computer networks and are located anywhere near
them, you might consider calling them up and offering to help
them establish a presence on the Internet. Most of them are
low-budget operations, mostly written by volunteers, so they
might not care about whether their writing gets distributed for
free, especially given the large audience it can reach on the
net compared to the clumsy world of paper. Of course, maybe they
don't *want* to be on the net, but it's worth a try. In general,
I think it's a good thing to try to help worthy organizations get
themselves on the net -- maybe there's a worthy organization near
you that could use your help in this regard.
The Public Eye, published quarterly by Political Research
Associates, 678 Massachusetts Avenue Suite 702, Cambridge
MA 02139, USA. $29/year for individuals and non-profits, $39
for other organizations, and $19 for students and low-income
individuals. Calm, thorough reports on various movements
in conservative politics. Recent issues have discussed black
conservatives and the Christian Reconstruction movement.
Race, Poverty, and the Environment, published quarterly by the
Earth Island Institute, 300 Broadway Suite 28, San Francisco, CA
94133-3312, USA. $15/year, $30 for institutions, and free for
low-income individuals and community groups. Each issue focuses
on a particular topic relating to environmental issues facing
communities of color.
Labor Notes, published monthly by the Labor Education and
Research Project, 7435 Michigan Avenue, Detroit, MI 48210, USA.
+1 (303) 842-6262. $15/year or $25/year if you can afford it.
A newsletter of the US democratic union movement, with news about
union reform and innovative organizing campaigns.
Unclassified, published six times a year by the Association
of National Security Alumni, c/o Verne Lyon, 921 Pleasant
Street, Des Moines, IA 50309, USA. $20/year. Articles about
the national security system by people who used to work in it.
They're doing some of the best Freedom of Information Act work
Rethinking Schools, published four times during the school year,
1001 E Keefe Avenue, Milwaukee, WI 53212, USA. $12.50/year or
$20/2 years. Terrific articles about school reform by teachers
and others, based on real experience and broad social perspective.
Voces Unidas, quarterly newsletter of the SouthWest Organizing
Project, Southwest Community Resources, 211 10th Street SW,
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87102, USA. +1 (505) 247-8832. $10/year
or more if you can afford it. Community organizing in New
Mexico, largely around environmental and labor issues.
Company of the month.
This month's company is:
1301 Marina Village Parkway, Suite 100
Alameda, California 94501
Action Technologies is a company that puts into action some of
the unusual views about computing and work that Terry Winograd
and Fernando Flores described several years ago in their book
"Understanding Computers and Cognition" (Ablex, 1986). At the
end of that book they described the initial ideas for a system
known as The Coordinator, which was a "groupware" tool meant to
help people in a business coordinate their work through a kind
of structured e-mail. The Coordinator wasn't just a computer
program. It was a whole ideology of work, language, and human
relationships. The idea was that work interactions go wrong
when people are unclear about what "speech acts" they intend to
perform by their various utterances -- and, by extension, their
e-mail messages. Therefore, The Communicator provided facilities
for labeling e-mail messages as, for example, "requests". The
Coordinator was rather rigid in practice and has taken a certain
amount of abuse, but the idea of bringing deep philosophical
ontologies to the design of computer systems for people to use
The ActionWorkflow system is the successor to the Coordinator.
It is based on a more elaborate ontology of human interaction,
based on the commitments that people make to one another as they
pass documents and work objects around as part of a division of
labor. The system works best where the work is already fairly
well structured; its purpose is to clarify that structure and
then to keep track of it in real time, providing assorted extra
facilities like databases, work measurement, and so forth.
Installing the ActionWorkflow system in a given work environment
is more than a matter of clicking on an icon, the company doesn't
just send you a shrink-wrapped box. To the contrary, getting
ready to use the system is a philosophical adventure, in which
consultants speaking formidable languages engage in ontological
analysis and encode their results within the system's schemata,
using a graphical language that represents the various work flows
and the various human relationships in which they are embedded.
This use of philosophical concepts to achieve a deep integration
between software and human life may sound arcane, even weird, but
in my view it is a profound insight and a portent in many ways of
things to come. Work efficiency these days isn't just a matter
of reorganizing the physical activities of work; it also involves
reorganizing the worldviews of workers. And the ActionWorkflow
system depends on this kind of restructuring of thought just as
much as it depends on the restructuring of action.
So I recommend that you write a letter to Action Technologies
and request product information on the ActionWorkflow system.
Read it both as a manifesto of industrial efficiency and as a
manifesto of philosophical missionaries. I am NOT recommending,
though, that you harass the people. Only request the information
if you really want to read it. Thanks.
TNO 1(3)'s company of the month, Berrett-Koehler Publishers,
now has a WWW page. The URL, courtesy of Christopher Allen
They have some stuff there now, and I'm told that lots more
is coming. Their primary email address is email@example.com, and
the address for their Internet person, Patricia Anderson, is
In TNO 1(3) I suggested that someone should put together a guide
to all the net's files of Frequently Asked Questions. Someone
has recently done this for Usenet FAQ's, and you can see the
results by feeding the following URL to your WWW client:
Marie desJardins has written something entitled "How to Be a
Graduate Student". It's along the lines of the how-to's that I
praised in TNO 1(1). Here are her instructions for fetching it:
"The paper is available by ftp at ftp.erg.sri.com. There
is a latex file (advice.tex), with two additional input
files (advice.bbl, the BibTeX bibliography, and named.sty, a
bibliography style file), and a postscript version (advice.ps).
To get the paper:
ftp to ftp.erg.sri.com, login as anonymous, and give your
e-mail address as the password
use the 'get' command to take whichever files you want.
To generate the latex output, copy the first three files, run
'latex advice,' then 'bibtex advice,' then latex twice more to
incorporate all of the references."
Phil Agre, editor firstname.lastname@example.org
Department of Information Studies
University of California, Los Angeles +1 (310) 825-7154
Los Angeles, California 90095-1520 FAX 206-4460
Copyright 1994 by the editor. You may forward this issue of The
Network Observer electronically to anyone for any non-commercial
purpose. Comments and suggestions are always appreciated.
Go back to the top of the file