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

  VOLUME 1, NUMBER 5                                      MAY 1994


  This month: How to help people use computers
              The unfortunate "frontier" metaphor
              E-mail and global non-profit organizations
              Crusade against misleading bouncemail
              New tracking technologies


  Welcome to TNO 1(5).

  This issue includes an article by Arun Mehta about the role
  of electronic mail in global non-profit organizations such as
  Amnesty International.  Democracy means including everyone in
  making the decisions, and maybe we can become more democratic by
  learning how to use e-mail as part of running our organizations.
  You have to get together in person eventually, of course, so it's
  a matter of finding the arrangement of work that makes the most
  of the scarce and valuable travel resources available to people
  who aren't affiliated with elite institutions.

  Also in this issue is another how-to, this time addressed to
  computer people who find themselves involved in helping others
  to use computers.  Much "helping" does more harm than good, but a
  few simple guidelines can make a huge difference in how much the
  person learns by being helped and whether his or her self-esteem
  is supported or warped by the experience.

  Finally, I've included a longish meditation on the metaphor
  of "cyberspace" as a kind of "frontier".  As networks spread
  in our communities, it becomes much more reasonable to adopt
  different metaphors that describe the multiple and complicated
  intersections between the network and the rest of the world.


  Cyberspace turned inside out.

  It's common to refer to the net as a "frontier".  With all due
  respect to the good works of the Electronic Frontier Foundation,
  I find this metaphor unfortunate.  It draws upon a whole set
  of myths of the Old West: the idea that the West was empty when
  the Europeans found it, the idea that the West was developed by
  rugged entrepreneurs without the assistance or intervention of
  the government, the notion that the West needed to be civilized,
  and so forth.  The electronic frontier is not something we find;
  it's something we make.  And it's not someplace far away; it's
  right here in front of us.  The term "cyberspace" is unfortunate
  for the same reason; the net is not a separate space, different
  in kind from other spaces, sealed off from the corporeal world
  and obeying different laws.

  To counteract this notion of cyberspace as a higher and purer
  dimension of reality, I think it's useful to investigate the
  ways in which the net interpenetrates the more conventional
  geographies of societies and communities.  I've had the chance
  to do just that over the last month in my role as program chair
  of the CPSR Annual Meeting, which will be held in San Diego on
  October 8th and 9th of this year.  (The formal announcement of
  this meeting will be ready soon.)  For this year's meeting, we
  want to look at the ways in which socially responsible computer
  people can work with their communities, and particularly with the
  professionals whose job it is to use information for the good of
  those communities -- librarians, educators, public health people,
  community organizers, and so forth.

  Unfortunately, the university where I work, UC San Diego, is both
  physically and socially isolated from the community of San Diego.
  Certain parts of the university have extensive ties to the elite
  networks of business and government in the region, but my sense
  is that most folks in San Diego have only the vaguest idea what
  UCSD is.  That's partly because UCSD is on a mesa in the middle
  of a wealthy neighborhood ten miles north of downtown.  But it's
  also partly because of the institutional barriers that separate
  universities from American society in general.

  Organizing this meeting, then, has been a fine opportunity to
  call around town and find out what people are doing with computer
  networks.  Even though San Diego does not have a community
  networking movement as such, nonetheless I began to get a sense
  of a community starting, in a decentralized way, to hum with

   * San Diego, for example, has about 1100 BBS's (computer
  bulletin boards), a substantial portion of which can exchange
  messages with one another.

   * Attempts are being made, some of them with the help of
  the San Diego Computer Society, to get community councils and
  neighborhood watch groups and the like onto BBS's.

   * The BBS's are used intensively by local military people to
  exchange information on the practical details of life in the

   * Several commercial Internet service providers are in

   * The colleges and universities are all on the Internet, as are
  many high-tech companies.  The school district is ethernetting
  all its middle schools to the district office.

   * The local World Trade Center is about to connect to a global
  network of its counterparts.

   * The local Catholic Charities long operated a BBS to coordinate
  the work of public and private social service agencies in the
  county; the county government is installing a higher-technology
  network to carry on this work.

  The list goes on.  Part of what's so impressive about it is the
  complicated and remarkably seamless mix of initiative: individual
  volunteers, non-profit organizations, businesses selling access
  to the net, businesses using networks to do their business,
  schools and universities, the military, and so forth.  And it's
  not a frontier anywhere; it's just San Diego being San Diego.

  One manifestation of this interconnection is the success of a
  speakers' series we organized this spring in order to stir up
  interest in the annual meeting.  The series' publicist, Dave
  Noelle, did marvelous work making posters and sending them around
  to newspapers in the usual way, but we also attracted quite a
  few people through e-mail messages that had gotten passed along
  through the city's networks.  Furthermore, I was surprised to
  discover that several of our audience members had heard of me
  through the simple Internet facilities I operate in a couple
  spare hours a week.

  This is obviously a very small beginning, but it contrasts
  mightily with my experience the first fifteen years I was on the
  Internet (some of them, obviously, before it was even called the
  Internet).  In those early days, I was a member of the world of
  academic computer research, mostly as a graduate student at an
  elite laboratory funded by the US military.  I and my cohort of
  fellow net users thought of ourselves as simultaneously central
  and peripheral: being at MIT and places like that, we were
  obviously central to something.  Yet our research was so "pure",
  and so few concrete demands were ever placed on us, that we
  could think of ourselves as wholly inconsequential.  We could do
  absolutely whatever we pleased on the net, perfectly confident
  that none of it would have any consequences in the real world --
  the world where people have real jobs, go broke, get sued, get
  elected, get fired, and so forth.  All of this is changing, of
  course, and I think that a lot of the shock and horror that these
  changes are evoking have their origin in this particular kind of
  relationship to the world -- privileged yet detached, central yet
  isolated, plugged in yet disconnected.

  This is not to say that I approve of each of the manifestations
  of the Internet's sudden intersection with its surrounding
  reality.  Massively broadcast advertisements, large-scale flame
  wars, exclusion of outsiders from mailing lists, vandalism (as
  opposed to good clean hacking), lawsuits filed over net messages,
  and so forth are all unfortunate.  But they are not unfortunate
  because they represent invasions of a pure, disembodied nirvana.
  They're just unfortunate in the same way as war and rudeness and
  reaction and greed are unfortunate.  They obey the same laws,
  they are part of the same system, and they are all part of us,
  just as we are part of them.  To heal them is not to defend a
  siege but rather to heal the world in which we live.

  But the ideology of cyberspace is not restricted to these ideas
  about the Internet.  I think that it reflects something much
  deeper, something that I have heard David Noble call "masculine
  transcendentalism".  It's a sort of spiritual system.  We
  might, schematizing outrageously, try contrasting two types of
  spirituality: immanent and transcendental.  Immanent spirituality
  seeks connection with the fullness of things as they are: most
  often with nature, though conceptions differ.  Transcendental
  spirituality seeks to rise above things as they are and to purify
  the self by leaving behind corporeal reality, and particularly
  the human body, for a higher and more abstract reality.  These
  kinds of spiritual practice are very roughly gender-coded,
  with immanent spirituality often being associated with women's
  practices such as witchcraft and transcendent spirituality often
  being associated with men's practices such as certain types of
  ascetic meditation.  These assignments are obviously far from
  iron-clad, but nonetheless they can take on great force within
  the context of particular cultures.

  In tracing the emergence of science, Noble suggests that the
  urge toward mathematization in science is structured as a variety
  of masculine transcendentalism: the urge to raise reality to
  a higher and purer plane.  Be this as it may (and I do believe
  that it has a great deal of truth to it), his theory applies
  alarmingly well to the fantasy-systems around computers.  The
  fantasies around virtual reality, for example, are textbook
  cases of masculine transcendentalism: the escape from the body
  to an alternative world which is perfectly orderly, perfectly
  under control, and perfectly responsive to the gestures of
  its inhabitants.  Gibson's Neuromancer, which has provided the
  vocabulary for a great deal of such fantasizing, was written
  precisely as a critique of this fantasy-system.  (In fact, he
  says, in an interview in the San Francisco Bay Guardian that
  I have lost, that he was motivated to write the book by D. H.
  Lawrence's literary celebrations of bodily pleasure as a way of
  knowing the world.)

  Cyberspace, too, is a form of masculine-transcendentalist fantasy
  system.  Note the easy confluence between the transcendentalism
  and the metaphor-system of invasion and colonization implicit in
  the metaphor of a "frontier".  In each case, loosely connected
  networks of militant individualists venture out to impose order
  on previously unruly territories while simultaneously passing
  beyond the former constraints of physical geography and social
  entanglement.  So long as this transition is incomplete, the
  pioneer lives the dual lives described in Vernor Vinge's "True
  Names": one of me grows out there in cyberspace while the other
  of me atrophies down here in the world.

  This is not to say that networks are useless.  Far from it.
  But in understanding their huge potential, I would urge us to
  adopt a different set of metaphors, an immanent conception of the
  net, that emphasizes the complex and multiform interweavings of
  electronic community and geographic community, e-mail discussion
  group and profession, database and landscape.  We don't really
  see these effects so long as participation in computer networking
  is sparse: if you're the only person on your block that's on the
  net then you will experience the net in one way; if *everybody*
  on your block is on the net then you will experience the net
  in another way.  Every community learns its own way of carrying
  on conversations in several media at once, and every individual
  comes to terms with the digital dimension of his or her social
  identity in his or her own particular way, with particular
  strategies born of the thousand kinds of creativity and agency
  that opportunity and adversity nurture within us.  In the end,
  all of us become -- indeed, all of us already were -- hybrids, or
  cyborgs in Donna Haraway's vocabulary, living our lives in many
  spaces at once.


  How to help someone use a computer.

  Computer people are generally fine human beings, but nonetheless
  they do a lot of inadvertent harm in the ways they "help" other
  people with their computer problems.  Now that we're trying to
  get everyone on the net, I thought it might be helpful to write
  down in one place everything I've been taught about how to help
  people use computers.

  First you have to tell yourself some things:

   * Nobody is born knowing this stuff.

   * You've forgotten what it's like to be a beginner.

   * If it's not obvious to them, it's not obvious.

   * A computer is a means to an end.  The person you're helping
     probably cares mostly about the end.  This is reasonable.

   * Their knowledge of the computer is grounded in what they can
     do and see -- "when I do this, it does that".  They need to
     develop a deeper understanding, of course, but this can only
     happen slowly, and not through abstract theory but through
     the real, concrete situations they encounter in their work.

   * By the time they ask you for help, they've probably tried
     several different things.  As a result, their computer might
     be in a strange state.  That's not their fault.

   * The best way to learn is through apprenticeship -- that is,
     by doing some real task together with someone who has skills
     that you don't have.

   * Your primary goal is not to solve their problem.  Your primary
     goal is to help them become one notch more capable of solving
     their problem on their own.  So it's okay if they take notes.

   * Most user interfaces are terrible.  When people make mistakes
     it's usually the fault of the interface.  You've forgotten how
     many ways you've learned to adapt to bad interfaces.  You've
     forgotten how many things you once assumed that the interface
     would be able to do for you.

   * Knowledge lives in communities, not individuals.  A computer
     user who's not part of a community of computer users is going
     to have a harder time of it than one who is.

  Having convinced yourself of these things, you are more likely to
  follow some important rules:

   * Don't take the keyboard.  Let them do all the typing, even
     if it's slower that way, and even if you have to point them
     to each and every key they need to type.  That's the only way
     they're going to learn from the interaction.

   * Find out what they're really trying to do.  Is there another
     way to go about it?

   * Attend to the symbolism of the interaction.  Most especially,
     try not to tower over them.  If at all possible, squat down
     so your eyes are just below the level of theirs.  When they're
     looking at the computer, look at the computer.  When they're
     looking at you, look back at them.

   * If something is true, show them how they can see it's true.

   * Be aware of how abstract your language is.  For example, "Get
     into the editor" is abstract and "press this key" is concrete.
     Don't say anything unless you intend for them to understand
     it.  Keep adjusting your language downward towards concrete
     units until they start to get it, then slowly adjust back up
     towards greater abstraction so long as they're following you.
     When formulating a take-home lesson ("when it does this and
     that, you should check such-and-such"), check once again that
     you're using language of the right degree of abstraction for
     this user right now.

   * Whenever they start to blame themselves, blame the computer,
     no matter how many times it takes, in a calm, authoritative
     tone of voice.  When they get nailed by a false assumption
     about the computer's behavior, tell them their assumption was
     reasonable.  Tell *yourself* that it was reasonable.  It was.

   * Never do something for someone that they are capable of doing
     for themselves.

   * Don't say "it's in the manual".  (You probably knew that.)


  The role of e-mail in democratic decision-making.

  Arun Mehta

  The following is based on my experience with Amnesty International
  (AI) and other organizations, and is entirely my personal opinion.

  Democracy is clearly more than the best way to run a country.
  It can also have a significant role in the functioning of a
  non-profit organization. Organizations such as AI that take
  important decisions relating to strategy, direction, structure
  and finances in a democratic manner find that it helps them to
  remain relevant and reflect the consensus of their membership,
  foster commitment and enthusiasm, have little trouble in throwing
  up fresh leaders, and, not least, be great to work in.

  For democracy to work at an international level, a very high
  degree of networking and information flow is necessary for
  consensus-building. AI for instance, could, at the same time,
  try to sort out how decentralised decision-making should be in
  a million-strong organization so as to enhance effectiveness
  without losing cohesion, whether homosexuals should be treated as
  prisoners of conscience (on which people from different religious
  and cultural backgrounds have radically divergent views) and
  at the same time find ways to cope with and grow in a world
  of collapsing blocs, in which the spectrum of human rights
  violations is inexorably widening. To achieve consensus at an
  international level is hard, but it becomes even harder when
  the participants in the debate are unequal in their ability to

  In parts of the world where the membership is small, typically
  in developing countries, the means for full participation are
  often lacking. Fewer members means less specialisation, so the
  committed few are snowed under in paper relating to a variety
  of issues. It is hard enough to file all the paper, let alone
  respond to it. Often in such countries, phone lines are a luxury,
  so devoting one to fax is difficult, and reception often poor.
  With lesser resources, where each fax or long-distance phone
  call is a major expense, there is often reluctance to spend
  money on internal matters as opposed to the "real" work that the
  organization is supposed to be doing.  As a result, information
  flow is mostly unidirectional, i.e. to developing countries,
  rather than from them.

  Organizations such as AI spend large sums of money in bringing
  national representatives to international meetings where
  important issues are debated and decided. However, the poorer
  cousins often cannot effectively participate, lacking the
  prior discussion and debate back home. Also, people living
  in developing countries earn a lot less than do those in the
  economically advanced countries, and therefore are less able
  to travel internationally. Visits to international meetings
  are therefore rare treats, and those that go are often the best
  political manipulators, not necessarily the most capable ones
  for the relevant issues.  Therefore, third-world participation
  in democratic decision-making is often close to being token. This
  is a great pity, because a diversity of informed opinion is an
  essential part of democracy.

  While not a panacea, e-mail and related technologies can
  help alleviate these problems to a significant degree. With
  dial-up access, it is not necessary to dedicate a phone line.
  Error-correcting modems eliminate transmission errors, making
  e-mail the most reliable form of international communication,
  particularly when people on the move and different time zones
  are involved. Software to automate cataloging, archival and
  redistribution, and simplify responding, is fairly common.
  E-mail is more private than mail that can be opened, tampered
  with, censored, what have you. And, of course, e-mail is cheaper.
  Most importantly, whatever comes in via e-mail is processable
  by computer, so that data from different parts of the world
  can  easily be consolidated, or text put together into a
  final document. Small wonder, then, that organizations like
  AI have been making considerable use of E-mail in the last few
  year, benefiting from dramatic improvements in communications
  infrastructure in many parts of the globe. Yet, their use
  of other means of communication and expenditure on travel to
  international meetings remains high.

  E-mail cannot replace face-to-face meetings in the process of
  consensus-building and decision-making. E-mail, news groups,
  etc. one can opt out of. A meeting compels attention. What e-mail
  does do is prepare the ground - exchange of views, internal
  discussion, etc. can prune the agenda down to the really thorny
  issues: no time is wasted.  In the preliminary discussion on
  e-mail, only those who feel strongly are active, the rest listen
  in as long as are interested. But come decision-making time,
  when there has to be give and take to breach divergent positions,
  everyone must focus. That can only happen with busy people if
  they are physically removed from their immediate environments.

  Clearly, then, people who cannot travel are at a disadvantage
  in international discussions. But the degree of disadvantage
  can be reduced if those who travel make a more serious effort at
  communicating their experiences with those who do not. Therefore,
  while a changeover to largely e-mail based communication can
  bring about almost revolutionary change in the functioning of an
  organization, it does require a significant shift in attitude and
  style of working, a process that is insufficiently understood.

  Many non-governmental organizations could benefit tremendously
  from a more effective use of e-mail by its international
  membership or associated organizations - people doing medical
  research and collecting data in different parts of the world,
  for instance.  It therefore would be useful if a study could
  be undertaken on what might be the best way to encourage
  organizations to move in this direction.


  Crusade against misleading bouncemail.

  In TNO 1(3) I announced my crusade against unintelligible,
  misleading "bouncemail", those messages that mailers send you
  when they can't deliver your mail.  Bad bouncemail is a social
  menace because it confuses newcomers, who frequently respond
  by sending multiple copies of their messages to a huge list of
  people and finally complain, "I keep getting this error message
  saying my message wasn't delivered".  Here's a particularly bad
  one, from the mailer at io.salford.ac.uk.  I've actually edited
  out a lot of extra header stuff.  The original was 35 lines long.
  (The mailer actually did a number of other things wrong, too,
  such as failing to use the Errors-To: field to send this thing.)

    Date: 12 May 94 4:38
    From: postmaster@salford.ac.uk
    To: rre-request@weber.ucsd.edu
    Subject: Returned Mail
    X-Diagnostic: Mail coming from a daemon, ignored
    X-Diagnostic: Possible loopback problem
    X-Envelope-To: rre-request

    Your mail was not be delivered to any recipients:

    The header from your original message is reproduced below

    Date: Wed, 11 May 1994 12:13:40 -0700
    From: Phil Agre <pagre@weber.ucsd.edu>
    To: rre@weber.ucsd.edu
    Subject: Nelson Mandela's address on his inauguration


  This month's recommendations.

  Robert Britt Horwitz, The Irony of Regulatory Reform: The
  Deregulation of American Telecommunications, New York: Oxford
  University Press, 1989.  An absolutely lucid, if slightly
  disorganized, account of the history of telecommunications
  regulation in the United States.  It has a particularly clear
  theoretical account of regulation of market infrastructure
  industries, of which telecommunications is an example.  Now that
  telecommunications regulation is a critical issue in Congress
  and a matter of widespread public debate, Horwitz's book is an
  indispensable background reference.

  Kim Bobo, Jackie Kendall, Steve Max, Organizing for Social
  Change: A Manual for Activists in the 1990s, Washington: Seven
  Locks Press, 1991.  Networking and community-building are not
  just things that happen on the Internet.  Increasingly, people
  are integrating their Internet use into other activities, other
  organizations, and other social movements, and they're learning
  that using the Internet well requires a world of skills that
  grow out of long traditions of organizing.  This is a good manual
  of organizing for social causes that encodes these traditions.

  Bill Cantor, ed, Experts in Action: Inside Public Relations, New
  York: Longman, 1984.  This is an anthology of case studies about
  a different kind of social organizing: using public relations
  methods to mobilize people for a cause.  The assumptions and
  methods are strikingly different, though not entirely, and the
  various case-studies are eye-opening and often instructive.

  Richard Broxton Onians, The Origins of European Thought about
  the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate: New
  Interpretations of Greek, Roman and kindred evidence, also of
  some Basic Jewish and Christian Beliefs, Cambridge: Cambridge
  University Press, 1954.  A marvelously eccentric account of
  archaic Greek beliefs about a wide variety of things, including
  the mystical significance attached to the synovial fluid in the
  knees.  It's still in print, or at least it was in print a couple
  of years ago -- three cheers for Cambridge University Press.


  Company of the month.

  This month's company is:

  Savi Technology
  260 Sheridan Avenue
  Palo Alto, California  94306

  phone +1 (415) 328-4323
  fax               -4407

  This year has brought an explosion of tracking technologies:
  devices that keep a distributed computer system apprised in real
  time of the whereabouts of a person, automobile, or package, or
  the status of a social or technical process.  Savi Technology
  makes a particularly straightforward kind of tracking device,
  the radio-based "Savi-Tag" which can be affixed (for example)
  to crates in a warehouse.  The tags emit their identity codes
  and receivers on the walls keep track of the codes and maintain
  a database of the tags' locations.  The tags have fairly general
  computers inside, and can be customized for a variety of digital
  interactions between the tags and the central computer.

  Tracking technologies promise to be big business.  Savi is
  well-positioned in this business in that the US Department of
  Defense has designated their system as its radio tag standard.
  This is big news, because the military has been at the forefront
  of deployment of high-technology logistics systems, and this
  technology and the people who manage it have recently been
  migrating to private industry as well.  For example, Savi says
  that its radio tags have been used extensively in the military's
  operations in Somalia.  Savi has also used its system as the
  basis of an Automatic Vehicle Identification (AVI) system for
  automobile toll collection.

  So I recommend that you write Savi and ask for product
  information on their tracking systems.  I do not, however,
  recommend that you harass them.  Only get the literature if
  you're genuinely interested in reading it.  Thanks a lot.



  Several people wrote to comment on my article about the political
  action alert on ocean noise.  Most of them assured me that you
  probably *can* in fact be sued for libel for forwarding something
  to a mailing list.  I'm sure they're right.  I hadn't intended
  to make any broad, general statement on the subject.  All I meant
  to say was that the particular message I forwarded was similar to
  numerous other communications that have been found not libelous
  in American courts over the last several years.

  In TNO 1(4) I plugged "Race, Poverty, and the Environment", a
  terrific journal from the Earth Island Institute.  Art McGee
  <amcgee@netcom.com> tells me that they can be reached online at
  earthisland@igc.apc.org or atwork@igc.apc.org.

  Check out the Institute for Global Communications gopher at
  gopher.igc.apc.org and the British Broadcasting Corporation
  WorldWide Web page at http://www.bbcnc.org.uk/.  The scary new
  GATT treaty is on the WorldWide Web too.  The URL for it is:
  http://ananse.irv.uit.no/trade_law/gatt/nav/toc.html.  Also,
  check out the Internic's Internet Network News, whose URL is:

  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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