T H E  N E T W O R K  O B S E R V E R

  VOLUME 2, NUMBER 7                                     JULY 1995


     "You have to organize, organize, organize, and build and
      build, and train and train, so that there is a permanent,
      vibrant structure of which people can be part."

          -- Ralph Reed, Christian Coalition


  This month: Community and democracy


  Welcome to TNO 2(7).

  This issue of TNO consists mostly of an unusually long article
  that draws together many of the themes that previous issues have
  been developing.  I hesitate to call it a "theory of democracy"
  because that seems too grand and because I'm not entirely certain
  of its originality.  It is partly a reaction to my reading of
  Friedrich Hayek, partly an interpretation of the literatures on
  the associational basis of society, and partly a routine account
  of public relations.  Along the way I offer some first thoughts
  about the place of computer networking in the basic democratic
  machinery of society.  I have not tried to follow this theme all
  the way through, though.  Perhaps others will wish to do this.

  In order to keep this issue (just) under 50K bytes, I have kept
  the recommendations this month to a single book that relates to
  the theme of the article.  I know for a fact that we'll have many
  more excellent things in next month's issue.

  Ralph Reed's profound quote, already cited in TNO 2(5), has
  returned as TNO's permanent motto.  I hope that you will read
  it afresh every month and ponder its meaning.  The political
  movement that Reed represents is winning fair and square, and
  Reed's quote explains as succinctly as possible why this is.
  Do you agree with him?  Are acting as though you agree with him?
  The whole purpose of TNO is to be useful to people who agree with
  what Reed is saying and who believe that technology can be part
  of the much larger project of reviving the values of democracy.


  Community and democracy.

  For some reason not wholly clear to me, I have a powerful need to
  understand how the professional world works and then to explain
  it to anyone who cares to listen.  On one level this project is
  political: what elites inherit through their upbringing, almost
  more importantly than money and contacts, is a system of advanced
  social skills whose nature is systematically hidden from everyone
  else.  These skills may be largely tacit in nature; I cannot
  tell for sure.  Making them explicit for myself, bit by bit and
  year by year, has made the world look completely different to me.
  Perhaps above all, I am continually impressed by the extent to
  which everything in the world is a collaborative construction of
  far-flung networks of people.  Sometimes this is obvious: a car
  is built by hundreds or thousands of people organized by markets
  and hierarchies.  But sometimes it is not obvious at all: words,
  sentences, conversations, speeches, memos, papers, and meetings
  are likewise "built" by enormous networks of people.  Mikhail
  Bakhtin described some of these phenomena as they manifest
  themselves in literary texts; this article offers some informal
  first thoughts on the machinery through which collective voices
  arise in real life.  (For a slightly more formal version of
  one part of this story, see my paper entitled "Institutional
  circuitry", to appear in _Information Technology and Libraries_.)

  Let's define a "community" to be a set of people who occupy
  analogous locations in social or institutional structures.  This
  is not the ordinary use of the term "community", and it will take
  a moment to explicate it fully.  First some examples.  The people
  who are in charge of the parking lots on American university
  campuses are a community.  The Republicans who ran for elected
  offices in the 1994 elections were also a community.  The repair
  technicians at a photocopier company form a community.  The
  business people who are implementing or planning to implement
  "reengineering" programs in their companies form a community.
  And so do the children in a particular grade school classroom.
  The fire fighters who drive a given model of fire truck form a
  community.  The folks who live in a given political jurisdiction
  form a community, of course.  The "locations" in these examples
  vary widely.  They are notable for their relationships: virtually
  every parking lot manager has a community of parkers and a police
  department to contend with; virtually every Republican candidate
  has a Democratic opponent to contend with; virtually every copier
  repair technician has customers to contend with; and so forth.
  Everyone might belong to a variety of different communities,
  and these communities can be defined in broader or narrower
  terms (the community of San Diego residents versus the community
  of California residents; drivers of Mack fire trucks versus all
  fire fighters; etc).  The locations might correspond to formal
  institutional titles or they might not; but in every case
  they correspond to a relatively stable universe of structural
  relationships, and this is what makes them "locations".

  We can readily observe some patterns among these communities.
  The community members have certain interests in common.  The
  institutions are also structured to effectively place them in
  competition with one another in certain ways.  These shared and
  conflicting interests are "objective" in the sense that they are
  imposed by the institutions; this is a distinct from the question
  of how the people themselves understand their interests.

  Another pattern is that the members of a community are frequently
  in ongoing communication with one another.  This is clear enough
  when the members are routinely brought together into a shared
  physical space.  But it is also true when the members' physical
  locations are distant.  One purpose of clubs, unions, Friday
  evening drinking groups, and professional societies is to bring
  the members of a community together periodically.  It is by
  no means inevitable, however, that the members of a community
  will interact.  Nor is it inevitable *how* they will interact.
  I will call these things the community's "forms of association".
  Note that a community can have elaborate forms of association
  without any two of its members ever being in the same place --
  they can associate over the phone, through talk radio, through
  magazines, through the Internet, through the efforts of a
  small number of outsiders who carry news of one another from
  place to place, or whatever.  In practice numerous modalities
  of association may be combined in customary ways.  Forms of
  association are contingent -- they could be different than they
  are -- and they are historical -- they arise through concrete
  processes that leave their marks.  And, of course, they are
  relational -- they depend in crucial ways on the ensemble of
  relationships that constitute a given location.

  This is very abstract, so let's make it concrete through a day in
  the life of your average manager.  Managers the world over have
  highly developed forms of association.  These vary by country,
  sector, organizational level, and so forth, but they bear family
  resemblances due to the basic workings of bureaucracy.  Managers
  live dangerous lives -- in some sense anyway.  Credit and blame
  are constantly being assigned for large, complicated processes
  over which nobody has full control.  Decisions must be made
  that depend on more information than any single individual could
  ever master, and they must be articulated and defended in terms
  that orient to a constantly shifting set of political alliances.
  It is not surprising, then, that managers exhibit a powerful
  orientation to the experience and thinking of others in their
  community.  The university campus parking lot managers, for
  example, will be well aware of the practices on other campuses.
  They will maintain an elaborate topography of these campuses;
  they will know which ones are considered to be on the cutting
  edge of parking lot management.  If one campus decides to try
  setting parking prices according to a market-based allocation
  mechanism, for example, then all of the others will be watching.
  This "watching" will be subserved by a variety of mechanisms,
  many of them well-institutionalized: consultants, newsletters,
  rumor mills, and so on.

  In many ways this is a good system since it permits people to put
  their heads together.  It is what Ed Hutchins calls "distributed
  cognition": thinking that is distributed across a whole network
  of people rather than just being located in one person's head.
  If you ask how the University of Walla Walla made its decision
  about how to charge for parking spaces, you cannot formulate a
  serious answer without appealing to some collective construct
  such as the community of university campus parking lot managers.
  It is worth noting that this picture forces us to revise, or at
  least amend, the picture of the economics of knowledge in the
  newly influential work of Friedrich Hayek.  Hayek depicted the
  economy as a sprawling network of people who know their own local
  conditions extremely well, all dealing with one another through
  the arm's-length mediation of the price system.  But the reality
  isn't much like this.  Of course, people are arranged in some
  kind of social network -- that's almost a tautology.  But they
  also put their collective heads together in ways that have a lot
  more regularity than Hayek's extreme localism can admit.  These
  collective minds do have their economics, and money certainly
  changes hands in the conferences and newsletter subscriptions
  that subserve the process, but this whole architecture is not
  just a sprawling mass, and it is not just a "spontaneous order"
  of localized market arrangements.

  The analysis to this point also makes clear what the majority of
  Internet discussion groups are really for.  Even those of us who
  use the Internet intensively have been too heavily influenced
  by reporters' representations of it, which (as I remarked in the
  introduction to TNO 2(6)) have focused on those areas of the net
  that reporters can easily peek into -- especially the murky mess
  of Usenet.  The whole bogus issue of "rudeness on the Internet"
  derives from that bias.  What it ignores is the thousands upon
  thousands of discussion groups for professions and subprofessions
  and subsubprofessions of all sorts.  Here, for example, are some
  excerpts of a *big* directory of discussion lists for librarians,
  all arbitrarily taken from the Bitnet section of the directory:

    ARCLIB-L@IRLEARN.UCD.IE        Irish and UK Architectural
    CALIBK12@SJSUVM1.SJSU.EDU      California K-12 Librarians
    CALL-L@UNB.CA                  Canadian Academic Law
    CIRCPLUS@IDBSU.IDBSU.EDU       Circulation and Access
    CIRLNET@RUTVM1.RUTGERS.EDU     Community of Industrial
                                   Relations Librarians
    EXLIBRIS@RUTVM1.RUTGERS.EDU    Rare Books and Special
    LABMGR@UKCC.UKY.EDU            Academic Microcomputer Lab
    LIBIDAHO@IDBSU.IDBSU.EDU       Idaho Libraries and Librarians
    SHARP-L@IUBVM.UCS.INDIANA.EDU  History of the Printed Word
    TQMLIB@CMS.CC.WAYNE.EDU        Total Quality Management for

  (See gopher://info.lib.uh.edu:70/00/tools/netinfo/library for
  much more.)  These forums may not be promising places to troll
  for a colorful story, but they are where the real action is
  sociologically.  Imagine what the world would be like if every
  community -- in the sense of the term I'm using here: the
  people who share a certain institutional location -- had its
  own Internet discussion group.  Of course, various factors will
  influence whether the people in a given community would actually
  benefit from an Internet discussion group:

    * how numerous they are
    * how often they have questions that pertain to that particular
    * how fast the world around them is changing
    * the forms of association that they have in common (or don't)
    * how much conflict is currently going on in the institutional
      relationships that define the location
    * how much conflict is going on among the community members
    * whether they share a common language
    * what kind of access to the technology they have
    * whether they have access to sufficiently compatible systems
    * and so on

  So far I have made it sound as though everyone in a community
  plays an equivalent role in the community's collective thinking.
  But this is rarely the case.  The actual division of labor in a
  given community will depend on many aspects of its relationships
  and its history, and these will have to be studied concretely
  in each case to get a full understanding.  But some patterns
  do recur.  The patterns I have in mind are driven by change and
  pertain to the role of innovators and leaders.  Innovation in
  professions is often (but not always) surrounded by an ideology
  according to which brilliant individuals come up with "new ideas"
  through hard work, innate genius, sparks of creativity, and so
  forth, so that one might regard it as mysterious that someone
  else didn't come up with the same "new ideas" years or decades or
  centuries earlier.  My experience has been that it rarely works
  this way.  Instead, innovators are people who (as common idioms
  put it) "see which way things are going" and "get ahead of the
  curve".  As the world changes, everyone in a given community
  is going to face a common problem.  And in practice, particular
  individuals position themselves as the thought leaders in
  relation to those changes.  The thought leader's role is to get
  on top of an issue: see it coming, gather positions and arguments
  about it, network with people who are relevant to it in various
  ways, and articulate it in terms that supply useful raw materials
  for individual community members' own thinking in their own
  situations.  This, of course, is not an easy task, and the social
  capital that these folks accumulate is usually well earned.  The
  conditions that permit individuals to play this thought-leader
  role vary, and different people bring different strengths and
  strategies to the job.  Networking like mad helps a lot; if you
  notice the same issue coming up repeatedly in conversations with
  community members, and if the community members do not realize
  how common the issue is, then that's an opportunity to do a
  service for both oneself and the community.  Although original
  thinking on the matter is an advantage, all that is needed to be
  helpful is to assemble everyone else's thinking in some useful

  Thought leaders accumulate capital in a variety of ways.  Some
  of these are straightforwardly financial, as when they earn money
  for books and magazine articles, as consulting fees, or through
  grants.  But the capital can take other forms.  Most especially,
  community members' willingness to commit resources to expose
  themselves to a synthesis of thinking on an emerging issue gives
  the thought leaders an opportunity to expand their professional
  networks in the course of organizing conference panels and the
  like.  This social capital is then convertible into other forms of
  capital in a wide varieties of -- usually unforseen but usually
  unsurprising -- ways.  Professional communities in particular
  have routinized much of this process: whole genres of writing and
  interaction are devoted to it and whole publications are often
  devoted to uncompensated articles written by people trying to
  establish themselves as thought leaders.  It is rare for anybody
  to be taught the "moves" through which one accumulates capital
  in these worlds, or the "moves" through which various kinds of
  capital are converted into one another in the course of a career.
  People go through whole careers without quite understanding the
  process, while other people have a highly cultivated instinct
  for it.  Why is this?  Part of the reason, as I mentioned above,
  pertains to social class: if you watched your parents live their
  lives through the associational forms of distributed cognition
  through which thought leaders acquire capital, then you will
  probably grow up with a tacit awareness of the phenomena and a
  powerful head start in learning the skills.  But it's not all a
  matter of social class.  Some people who did not grow up around
  successful professionals have good professional-skills mentors
  in college -- this is one of the purposes of public higher
  education, and it's a purpose that public universities should
  much be much more explicit about serving.  A few others manage
  to get themselves into productive apprenticeship relationships
  to masters of the craft in their jobs.  Other people manage to
  get the idea in one world by working through rough analogies
  to processes of distributed cognition and capital accumulation
  through thought leadership in worlds with different class
  structures -- local politics, labor unions, social competition
  through parties and the like, street gangs and organized crime,
  support groups, lodges, social movement organizing, and so on.
  My point, though, is that not enough people ever get these things
  explained to them, and that this is a powerful and remediable
  force for social inequality.

  In sketching the physiology of communities' collective thought
  processes, I have tacitly opposed two extreme models: one where
  all community members play the same role, communicating amongst
  themselves equally and symmetrically, and one where a thought
  leader is the sole go-between among all the community members.
  The reality, of course, is more complicated, and it's important
  to be aware of that complexity.  In particular, it's important
  to be aware of the associational forms through which community
  members circulate bits and pieces of thinking among themselves.
  In Julian Orr's studies of photocopier repair people, these
  associational forms involved telling "war stories" about ugly
  copier repair problems, an activity best conducted with the
  aid of alcoholic beverages.  Business people engaged in public
  controversies circulate stories as well, but they do so within
  a different practice based on public relations; the stories are
  all crafted to provide support for an agenda of "messages" that
  the community (having done the necessary political solidarity
  work within itself) wishes to get across to particular publics.
  (A "public", in PR jargon, is precisely a community that stands
  in a specific structural relation to one's own community: for
  example, a company's publics might include customers, regulators,
  neighbors, activists, journalists, and union officials.)  I have
  referred to this circulation of structured interactional "stuff"
  as an "institutional circuitry".  This circuitry is often partly
  professionalized, for example when an industry association sends
  its members a "manual" of facts and stories and quotes that they
  can use when articulating an industry perspective in one site of
  public debate or another.  Institutional circuitry is defined by
  the genres of the "stuff" that circulates in them; stories that
  photocopier repair people tell among themselves sound different
  from stories that managers tell among themselves because they
  serve different purposes -- that is, they are located differently
  in the larger system of institutional relationships.

  This discussion of stories should remind us that, in speaking of
  community "thinking" and "cognition", I have simplified things
  by losing sight again of the relational nature of the structural
  locations that define communities.  Everyone lives their life in
  a set of institutional locations, and every situation that arises
  in life (or, at least, every situation of any significance) is
  defined (to some significant degree) in relation to these other
  locations.  This is particularly clear in the case of an industry
  political voice (the example in my _Information Technology and
  Libraries_ paper concerns the cattle industry).  But it's also
  clearly the case for bureaucrats, whose professional lives are
  spent fashioning language for a stable universe of structurally
  related others.  The photocopier repair people, likewise, spend
  much time discussing how to "fix the customer" as well as how to
  fix the machine, and this "fixing" is conducted through language
  -- language that nobody could fashion very well on their own,
  by pure improvisation.  People are often not aware of the extent
  to which the associational forms of their communities serve the
  purpose of fashioning a collective voice.  They may not even
  be aware of the crucial role of these associational forms in
  gathering words for their own individual use back "home" in their
  interactions with their familiar environment of structurally
  related others.  The associational forms, after all, probably
  serve other purposes as well, including plain old relaxation, the
  chance to "talk through" the feelings brought on by troublesome
  events, the exchange of mutually interesting facts (for example
  through "gossip"), and so forth.  The fact is, though, that we
  are all members of communities that possess complex mechanisms
  for the collective construction of a voice.  Our voices are not
  simply our own.  That is not to say that we are all puppets who
  say what we are told -- such a system wouldn't work anyway.  Nor
  is it to say that we are conformists who hide behind the average
  because it's safe -- though some of this is often prudent.  Nor
  is it to say that we are conspiratists consciously plotting the
  most expedient utterances to use in manipulating others -- though
  clearly some of this goes on from time to time.  To get started,
  the mechanisms I am describing require nothing more than simple,
  basic, disorganized self-interest: people trying to deal with
  their own local situations, discovering that others can provide
  resources that help with this, associating with them for simple
  mutual benefit, and then easing into the genres of interaction
  and the institutional mechanisms that formalize the process
  and help it scale up.  In practice, of course, we inherit these
  associational forms and institutions from others -- which is to
  say, we enter a given community's world by being socialized into
  them.  We may permit ourselves to be socialized into these things
  because we see the cognitive advantages of it, or we might have
  other reasons for joining in.  The bottom line, though, is that
  the community's institutional circuitry can grow quite complex
  without anybody ever understanding it, much less designing it.

  It is important to discuss these things for many reasons.  I have
  already mentioned one of them: that mastery of many communities'
  associational forms is unequally distributed, and this inequality
  helps reproduce other kinds of inequality.  But I think that
  another reason is even more important, and this pertains to the
  conjunction of topics that defines TNO: networks and democracy.
  The roots of democracy lie in associational forms: people learn
  solidarity or division through their associational involvements;
  communities that can manage to think, speak, and act collectively
  can defend their interests much better than the ones that cannot;
  people who define their communities of shared interests in narrow
  ways will fare differently from people who define their interests
  in broad ways; communities that can form working alliances with
  other communities based on shared interests will fare better than
  those that cannot; and so forth.  Too often we think of democracy
  in formal terms, as something that happens every couple of years
  at the ballot box.  But democracy is something that happens all
  the time in society; it is the everyday process through which
  people negotiate their relationships with one another.  Such
  negotiations may appear to our untrained eyes -- and the eyes
  of the law and the economists -- as historyless improvisations
  between isolated individuals, but they're not.  Even if it were
  possible for isolated individuals to negotiate with one another,
  considerable advantages will accrue to whichever individual then
  decides to go off and get involved in a community of people who
  occupy analogous structural locations in society.  The reason
  for this is obvious: by participating in such a community, an
  individual gets access to the thinking of many other people --
  people who have probably faced similar negotiations already.  As
  a general rule, I've found, any community that preaches against
  this broadly democratic conception of society will in fact be
  discovered to practice it with terrific vigor.  And, of course,
  anybody who can convince you to abandon your associational
  forms without also abandoning their own will have an enormous
  negotiating advantage over you forever afterward.

  Now that the stakes here are becoming clear, it is possible to
  investigate a further question: which associational forms are
  best?  Is it always good to share stories?  What kind of stories?
  Is it always good for a community to have thought leaders who
  accumulate social capital by gathering the community's thinking
  on an issue of widespread concern among its membership?  What
  roles should various media play?  What are the best genres to
  employ for various purposes in these media?  Part of my great
  fascination with public relations is that it is precisely a
  profession that asks these questions in a reasonably general way.
  I have already remarked on a number of the basic concepts of PR
  -- publics, messages, facts -- that fit alarmingly well with the
  theory of democracy that I am presenting.  This is, of course,
  not accidental.  PR originated around the turn of the century
  as part of a broader movement to rationalize society through the
  establishment of professions -- an openly antidemocratic rule of
  experts.  The job of PR experts was to mediate between the large
  corporations (which were a brand-new phenomenon in those days)
  and the public, maintaining their own kind of social harmony by
  "engineering consent" for the goals of their employers.  Since
  democracy would not go away, the point was to intervene in the
  tissue of society in a systematic way.  The basic logic of PR
  -- measure the current perceptions of certain strategic publics,
  formulate messages to address to those publics, collect facts
  that support those messages, circulate both the messages and
  facts through a variety of channels, measure the perceptions
  again, and restart the cycle -- has changed little since those
  days.  Those underlying concepts have been applied to different
  venues, and more complex strategies have been built on top of
  the basic cycle, but the cycle itself persists.  What is more,
  generations of business people have been socialized into the way
  of thinking that PR developed.  The circulation of messages and
  facts in business is endless, and to the unaided eye it can seem
  like second nature.  Indeed, to the unaided eye it can seem like
  nothing special at all: just the telling of interesting stories,
  the exchanging of didja-know facts, the revealing of personal
  opinions, and so forth.  I find the temptation to emulate these
  practices nearly overwhelming, and I teach a course on PR out of
  my personal commitment to immerse myself in things that horrify
  and fascinate me.  We don't always think of PR as a political
  practice: what's political about promoting a new movie, talking
  to the reporters when a dead body is found in a hotel room,
  calling up the stock analysts when your Asian operations have
  just taken a hit from a currency devaluation, or chatting with
  the neighbors while you're planning to expand your factory?  But
  in the properly broad sense of "democracy" that I've described
  here, these are all professionalized democratic practices in a
  way that is perfectly continuous with the polling of electorates,
  fashioning of messages, collation of supporting facts, and
  circulation of talking points by political parties.  Reading the
  conservative press, for example, I am convinced that the American
  conservative movement is staffed by people with rigorous training
  in PR methods -- and that the liberal movement generally is not.
  The associational forms of the conservative movement -- parts of
  which I described in TNO 2(1) -- are, in this sense, perfectly
  continuous with the PR operations of businesses and industry
  associations.  The PR people promoting a new car probably don't
  have much contact with the Republican Party central office, but
  they are part of the same sprawling institutional circuitry.
  The operating principles of this circuitry do not proceed from
  any centrally directed conspiracy; rather, they proceed from the
  associational forms fashioned by public relations and applied
  to one part of society after another.  From this perspective,
  the great virtue of facts and messages is that they flow very
  efficiently indeed through this circuitry -- little modules of
  discourse that can be endlessly recombined for a wide variety of
  purposes in different locations.

  The profession of public relations demonstrates the extraordinary
  power of putting names on things.  If you were to read a textbook
  of public relations the way you read a textbook of mathematics or
  social theory -- trying to appreciate the complexity and subtlety
  of its inner conceptual logic -- then you would be disappointed
  and probably perplexed as well.  Nothing in a PR textbook is
  at all conceptually difficult, and this contributes to the poor
  reputation that the profession suffers within academia and the
  world of scientific and technical research.  But PR was never
  intended as a theory that can be appreciated in isolation from
  reality.  Like much business-oriented theorizing, the purpose of
  PR is to provide structures of perception, analysis, and action
  that are useful in actual situations, in the full complexity of
  their details and their background.  It is incredibly powerful
  to ask, "who are this organization's most significant publics?",
  and to actually make a list of them, and then to ask, "which
  of these publics can do us the most help or harm?", and then to
  figure that out based on everyone's knowledge of the industry and
  the personalities and the precedents, and then to ask "do we know
  what perceptions each of these most consequential publics has
  about us?", and then to find out what these perceptions are and
  write them down, and then to ask "what messages would we like to
  get across to those people", and then to collect a batch of facts
  that supports each of those messages, and so forth.  No rocket
  science is required at any of these steps, just the substantive
  knowledge that answers the questions and the professionalized
  savvy -- accumulated through the professional institutions that
  PR people have created amongst themselves using precisely the
  mechanisms that I have already described here -- that keeps the
  whole process on track.

  Putting names on things, then, permits PR people (and the people
  who have partially internalized the PR way of doing things by
  being exposed to it over time) to do several useful things: it
  lets them orient to the world in a way that helps articulate
  valuable information; it helps them to marshal substantive,
  location-specific knowledge within an orderly structure; and
  it permits comparisons and contrasts to be drawn to partially
  analogous "cases" that have arisen in PR practice in other
  places and times.  But more fundamentally, putting names on
  things permits these people to see, and to openly and rationally
  discuss, their contingent nature.  One community, which does
  not possess the conceptual tools of PR, might have a certain
  repertoire of messages for which it circulates supporting
  facts by means of its various associational forms.  But another
  community, which *does* possess those tools, will be able to ask
  itself, are these the messages that we really want to be getting
  across now?  Has the world changed in such a way that we want
  to get different messages across?  Of course, communities often
  do adapt to significant changes by formulating and propagating
  new messages without having an explicit concept of "message".
  The point is that, other things being equal, having the concept
  makes the process vastly more efficient.

  Is the inevitable conclusion, then, that every community in the
  world should hire PR people and instil in itself the associational
  forms of business and conservative political activism?  I'm not
  sure that would be such a bad idea, but I'm also not sure it's
  the right lesson.  The broader lesson is about consciousness --
  which simply means, the concrete, day-to-day awareness of how the
  world works.  Putting names on things confers a certain degree
  of consciousness of them, for the simple reason that it makes
  their contingent nature apparent.  When we locate the essence of
  democracy in cultural forms, we run up against a clash of values:
  if they are to successfully negotiate their way in a democratic
  world, communities must possess and routinely use the skills of
  association, and (it turns out) these skills include the skills
  of adapting one's messages strategically in a changing world.
  But we do not normally speak of cultures as carrying this
  kind of self-consciousness and adaptive flexibility.  Instead,
  when we stand to praise cultures, we tend to speak of them as
  sources of memory, meaning, strength, resiliency, and continuity.
  We do not think of PR as a kind of culture, or as a producer of
  anything that deserves to be referred to as culture, and for many
  reasons: PR is shallow, culture is deep; PR has methods, culture
  has contents; PR produces whatever meaning is expedient, culture
  gathers things together within a common fabric of meaning;
  PR's practitioners don't really believe what they are saying,
  culture's participants can hardly help but believe what they
  have been socialized into; PR requires a community to coordinate
  its messages through hierarchical control, culture coordinates
  messages in a decentralized way by grounding them all within a
  shared system of meanings; PR is a tool of power, culture is a
  tool of resistance.  Such, anyway, is the popular stereotype of
  PR (which I have to say I largely share) and the anthropological
  stereotype of culture (which I regard as dangerously half-true).

  The concept of associational forms, then, has a hard job to do.
  Successful associational forms must not simply circulate a given
  repertoire of ideas; they must also facilitate the collective
  rethinking of the world.  The problem is not that associational
  forms actively *prevent* people from rethinking the world;
  people are pretty darn smart, and they have an extensive capacity
  to comprehend new propositions.  But, to the extent that their
  participants do not appreciate their contingent nature, cultures
  do have their inertia.  Metaphors, for example, readily generate
  whole elaborate worldviews that can be extraordinarily persuasive
  and extraordinarily difficult to see beyond -- so long as one
  does not appreciate that other generative metaphors are possible.
  Practices and procedures, once codified and taught as repertoires
  of ways-we-do-things, can likewise stop seeming contingent: one
  can imagine changing this practice or that procedure, but it is
  much harder to imagine changing the conceptual system underlying
  the rule-book unless one knows that that conceptual system *is*
  and can see it as even *capable* of being changed.  The question
  is, do a given community's associational forms facilitate the
  reproduction of its understandings of the world or the conscious
  reconceptualization of those understandings?  This, it seems to
  me, is the central challenge for democratic practice in our time.


  Wish list.

  Can we do away with the concept of "deleting" something?  Much of
  the computer-using world lives in permanent fear of accidentally
  "hitting the wrong button" and losing their work.  This is not a
  simple phenomenon, but one part of the problem is the concept of
  "deleting" a file.  You're probably familiar with this concept
  -- indeed, you're probably so familiar with it that it might be
  hard to imagine how else anything might work.  But now that we
  can plan on having serious processor speed and storage capacity
  to work with, let's back up and rethink some basic metaphors.
  The metaphor of a "file" has been around since the earliest days
  of operating systems.  The technical idea is that disk space is
  an enormously long series of functionally identical words, some
  of which are allocated to storing particular files while others
  remain "free".  Dynamic memory allocation works the same way,
  though disk space is usually allocated in artificial blocks of
  2^n bytes, where n might be 10 or 12, whereas memory is most
  often allocated in blocks of a single word or byte.  The basic
  algorithms for all of this were codified in Donald Knuth's "The
  Art of Computer Programming", and subsequent algorithms gained
  efficiency by arranging things in fancy balanced trees.

  The problem for the ordinary user is the binary paradigm: free
  versus allocated.  At any given time you have some definite set
  of files, each of which occupies some disk space.  If you want
  a file to stay around, you leave it alone.  If you want it to
  go away, you delete it, whereupon the operating system tosses
  the corresponding disk space back into the "free" pool.  Trouble
  arises, of course, when you delete something accidentally or
  when you want something back that you've deleted.  Getting back
  deleted files is for many people almost the defining experience
  of computer use, and untold thousands of people have desperately
  hunted down the nearest computer guru in their social network
  to recover lost files.  This experience confirms all of the
  worst and most disempowering expectations about the esoteric
  and basically hostile nature of computers.  Peter Norton, by
  all accounts the loveliest computer nerd you'd ever want to meet,
  made good money providing a software version of this salvation,
  and his advertising traded heavily on the image of himself as
  your computer-guru buddy whose rock-solid-reliable utilities
  will save your butt in an emergency if it can be saved at all.

  Maybe we can now rethink these things?  Some half-measures
  are already common, like "undelete" schemes and the Macintosh's
  "trash can".  But can we do better?  I've long fantasized about
  enormous offshore storage media warehouses where old files
  migrate -- fully automated CD-ROM jukeboxes the size of aircraft
  hangers, where all of my old files lie, fully encrypted, just
  in case I want to poke back through them.  Old files wouldn't be
  deleted; they'd just fade into the background, and after awhile
  it might take a minute to get them back.  And the metaphors would
  change to give this concept some intuitive force.  I just can't
  figure out what the right metaphor would be.

  Maybe we can also rethink the concept of an application.  The
  traditional idea is: when you log in or power up, no applications
  are running; but then you open some applications, use them for
  a while, write out new files reflecting your new work, close
  them all, and log out or power down.  Generations of computer
  users have lived in constant terror of this model, afraid that
  a disk crash or wrong move will cause them to -- and you've heard
  this phrase a hundred times -- "lose my work".  As the technology
  started maturing, more application programs started automatically
  storing your work in the background.  But they didn't change the
  underlying model, which draws a qualitative distinction between
  the file on the disk and the running application in memory.  But
  let's ask, what purpose does this distinction serve beyond the
  convenience of systems programmers?


  This month's recommendations.

  Sara M. Evans and Harry C. Boyte, Free Spaces: The Sources of
  Democratic Change in America, Chicago: University of Chicago
  Press, 1986.  This is a brief, plain-language history of
  democratic social movements in the United States.  Its central
  theme, indicated in its title, is that popular democratic
  organizations have sometimes provided the "free spaces" that are
  necessary for people to express themselves politically.  These
  spaces are partly physical -- coffee houses and the like -- and
  they are partly institutional -- clubs and associations of all
  kinds.  The authors, long-time intellectuals of the progressive
  populist movement, are equally critical of the right, which
  has long attempted to define popular associations as divisive
  bulwarks of the established order, and the left, which has been
  influenced by Marx's disastrous theory that traditional forms
  of association are inevitably swept away by a generalized form
  of solidarity created by a common experience of wage labor.
  In seeking to revalue organizations like the Farmers' Alliances
  and the Knights of Labor, Evans and Boyte wish to paint a picture
  of an endlessly self-renewing democratic tradition -- one that
  provides models and symbols upon which contemporary movements
  can draw in their own reinvention of democracy.  Their effort
  enjoys all of the strengths and suffers all of the complexities
  of social history: it evokes a sense of the cultural traditions
  that provided the necessary background of the successes of the
  most visible organizers, yet it also continually risks idealizing
  movements that contained their own inequities.  Nonetheless, I
  think that everyone who cares about the state of democracy should
  study these traditions.  Sure, none of those clunky old decades
  enjoyed the benefits of new communications technologies.  But
  we can easily get too impressed with those technologies and
  forget the basics -- starting with the fact that democracy is
  a phenomenon of cultural forms and skills, not a phenomenon of
  technology.  It is this fact that shines through most clearly in
  histories like this one.


  Company of the month.

  This month's company is:

  Amazon.com Books


  Amazon Books is the first on-line company that I've mentioned
  in this slot because it's the first on-line company that I've
  actually bought anything from.  They're a mail-order book company
  who have a million-book inventory catalogued and accessible
  through a clunky but workable WWW interface.  This interface,
  which you can use without registering as a customer or providing
  a password, is a useful resource even if you don't buy the books.

  Will Amazon.com and companies like it further erode the position
  of local independent booksellers?  Not soon, I imagine, simply
  because not enough people are on the Web and the local bookstore
  is still good for hanging out and for browsing the actual words
  in the books.  But I do think that independent bookstores will
  have to redouble their efforts to grow beyond being "just"
  bookstores to become centers of intellectual and political
  life for their communities.  Can the net play any part in this
  process?  Maybe, if it helps mediate a broader and more complex
  range of relationships between bookstores and their customers,
  including ones not necessarily directed to selling books.  Some
  independent bookstores are on the web.  (See the web pages of the
  Midnight Special Bookstore in Santa Monica for an index to these.
  Their URL is  http://www.cinenet.net:80/msbooks/  and if you know
  of any independent bookstores with web pages that they haven't
  linked to, do let them know.)

  Usually I end this department with a friendly reminder that only
  the serious should only write away for the (presumably paper, but
  often now CD-ROM as well) literature of the month's company.  But
  amazon.com, of course, represents itself just fine on-line, and I
  doubt if unserious visitors have any chance of clogging their web



  Regarding my "wish list" in TNO 2(6), several people wrote to
  report that many voice-mail systems *do* permit callers to leave
  voice messages regardless of whether the recipient is available
  to answer the phone.  I am told that this feature is commonly
  called "stealth mail".  As you might expect, though, every system
  invokes the feature in a different way, and you often cannot know
  which system your recipient is using.  As a result, most of these
  features might as well not exist.  Hurrah for standards.

  Several librarians also commented on my wish list for library
  catalogues.  I am told that indexing tables of contents is very
  much on the minds of cataloguers, whereas indexing book reviews
  to the books themselves is a lower priority than connecting
  electronic catalogs to other kinds of on-line resources.  This
  is strange to the ears of someone trained in computer science,
  since the first thing you learn in computer science is to put
  names on *everything*.  We refer to these names as data types
  and object classes rather than indexes, but that's the principle.
  Of course, this same principle causes all kinds of problems when
  what's being named is human beings and their activities.  That's
  the sense, I've argued, in which invasion of privacy is inherent
  in the traditional practices of computer science.  Many of my
  "wish list" wishes concern this problem -- either wanting to
  extend the logic of universal naming to things that don't have
  privacy interests, like book reviews, and to withdraw it from
  people, who *do* have privacy interests.

  Web picks:

  The Global Democracy Network is at  http://www.gdn.org/

  Ellen Spertus' "Meta-Index for Non-Profit Organizations" is at

  The Chile-Heads are at  http://www.netimages.com/~chile/

  Some militia supporters have taken to writing online reviews of
  press coverage of the militia movement.  This is an interesting
  practice, pioneered in the aggressive style by the "Accuracy
  in Media" Newsletter and in the genteel style by "Forbes Media
  Critic".  These dispassionate analysts almost invariably discover
  that coverage supportive of their views is fair and balanced and
  that coverage not supportive of their views is biased and shoddy.

  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 1995 by the editor.  You may forward this issue of The
  Network Observer electronically to anyone for any non-commercial
  purpose.  Comments and suggestions are always appreciated.

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