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
  Communications Act.

  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:

  Action Technologies
  1301 Marina Village Parkway, Suite 100
  Alameda, California  94501

  (510) 521-6190

  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
  was original.

  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
  <consensus@netcom.com> is:


  They have some stuff there now, and I'm told that lots more
  is coming. Their primary email address is bkpub@aol.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
      'cd pub/advice'
      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                                pagre@ucla.edu
  Department of Information Studies
  University of California, Los Angeles         +1 (310) 825-7154
  Los Angeles, California  90095-1520                FAX 206-4460
  Copyright 1994 by the editor.  You may forward this issue of The
  Network Observer electronically to anyone for any non-commercial
  purpose.  Comments and suggestions are always appreciated.

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