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

  VOLUME 2, NUMBER 5                                      MAY 1995


  This month: The future of targeted communications
              Worldviews in community networking
              Internet discussion groups suck
              Privacy politics after Oklahoma City


  Welcome to TNO 2(5).

  No matter what happens, my book manuscript is going in the mail
  to New York on June 10th.  Therefore, the primary purpose of this
  issue of TNO is to get a bunch of thoughts off my mind so I can
  get back to my revising.  The articles are shorter, the topics
  are more far-flung, and the tone is grouchier than usual.  I also
  have a particularly odd set of recommendations.  I'll let you
  know when the book comes out.

  Here is the quote of the month.  Truer words were never spoken:

    "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 of the Christian Coalition
        Time Magazine, 5/15/95, page 35

  Hey liberals!  What have you done lately to support the training
  of activists for your favorite cause?  If the answer is "nothing"
  then it's time to get your act together.


  Your Personal Message Environment.

  I've been engaged in a lot of technodystopian fantasizing about
  something I will call your Personal Message Environment (PME).
  You already have a PME, but it will grow much more sophisticated
  with the progress of two important trends: the rapid spread of
  devices for tracking people, cars, and objects; and the rapid
  interlinking of all the world's databases through networking.

  What is your PME?  As you go through the day, a large number of
  messages are aimed at you by organizations that have an economic
  interest in your knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes.  These
  messages include advertising, but they also include PR (which
  often influences the writing of newspaper articles and many
  other more neutral-seeming messages without you knowing it), the
  things that sales people say to you in stores, the things your
  boss says to you at work, and so on.  The organizations that
  aim these messages at you have a powerful interest in what they
  call "targeting" -- getting their messages to the right people,
  and getting the right message to each person.  And the more they
  know about you, the more effectively they can target a message
  to you.

  This is an economic choice, of course, so the degree of
  targeting (that is, the degree to which messages are tailored
  to individuals) will be determined by the costs and the payoff
  associated with each successive degree of tailoring.  The costs
  include the costs associated with learning about you, keeping
  track of you, deciding what message it would be most remunerative
  to deliver to you, actually delivering the message to you, and so
  on.  In practice, of course, most messages are delivered to large
  categories of people (e.g., the viewers of a television program)
  based on ideas about their average attributes (e.g., their ages,
  genders, and incomes).

  But new efficiencies in the collection and movement of personal
  information may change things.  As the costs of learning about
  you, tracking you, and delivering specialized messages to you
  go down, it follows that the degree of tailoring may increase.
  Let us imagine what this would be like if greatly extrapolated.
  Suppose that TRW or Equifax had a generalized real-time personal
  information server that organizations could both contribute
  to and draw upon.  This service would require a fee, of course,
  but the computers would all be talking to one another on the
  net, constantly bidding for information and making targeting
  judgements on the fly based on current market conditions.  This
  information will be available anywhere, anytime that a machine
  has an opportunity to deliver a message to you.  When might these
  opportunities arise?

   * Sales and customer service.  Sales people will be able to
  get a rundown on you before they talk to you, as soon as they
  find out your personal identifier.  They might find out, for
  example, which related products you have bought in the past,
  the composition of your family, your line of work, and so forth.
  They will say that this is all "to serve you better".  That might
  be slightly true but mostly it's baloney.  What it will really
  let them do is tailor their sales pitches to your perceived
  level of sophistication and other factors relevant to the sales
  negotiation (how good a negotiator is this person?  how much does
  s/he know about the product?  how badly does s/he need to buy?
  how much can s/he afford to spend).  All of this will put you at
  a relative disadvantage during the negotiation process.

   * Roadside advertising.  If your car-of-the-near-future uses
  AVI-based toll collection, GPS-based tracking, or any other
  mechanism that makes its location known to TRW or Equifax's
  far-flung network of real-time information providers, then
  this information can be merged with other information about you
  to tailor a variety of messages.  Roadside advertising signs,
  for example, could change from minute to minute depending upon
  the demographics of the people who are driving by right at that
  specific moment.  The signs might advertise different products
  from moment to moment, or they might provide different pitches
  for the same product.  When people of a certain ethnic group
  drive by, change the sign to portray such people enjoying the
  product and exclaiming its virtues in that group's own idiom.

   * Customized product literature.  Nowadays product literature
  is printed in huge batches and given out indiscriminately to
  anybody in certain large categories of potential customers.
  In the future, though, on-the-spot custom printing will make it
  possible to print literature tailored to the people you're giving
  it to, based on the information that the great web of automatic
  interchange of personal information has accumulated about them.
  Marketers and brochure designers will learn how to design whole
  families of brochures, each one generated from a grammar of
  tailored possibilities and laid out automatically in software.

   * Video monitors in public spaces.  Airport waiting rooms have
  acquired large numbers of video monitors in the last few years,
  many of which are tuned to a CNN channel designed specifically
  for airport waiting rooms.  But hey, the airlines know who is
  waiting in those rooms, so why not automatically schedule content
  on those monitors that fits the aggregate attributes of those
  people?  To assist with this process, a new type of marketing
  will arise: real-time marketing.  Marketing people will sit at
  computer monitors which display relevant attributes of particular
  groups of people, together with a set of automatically generated
  heuristic analyses of the economic arguments for various message
  patterns, and they'll decide, "okay, let's go for the upscale
  car ads and conservative political news show for the forty-seven
  affluent people on this flight who are headed to the Hawaiian
  golf tournament, and forget about the others because they're
  too mixed a group to pin down".  Such decisions will need to
  be made thousands of times a day, but the decisions will be
  monitored and gradually automated using expert systems.

   * Anything you get in the mail.  This is already pretty far
  along, as a quick phone call to R. R. Donnelley Information
  Services in Chicago can readily verify for you.  The primary
  constraint here is automatic content generation and small-batch
  printing, and both technologies are advancing quickly.  Soon the
  primary constraint will be the expertise for tailoring messages
  based on second- and third-order attributes of individuals, not
  just the half a dozen major market segments that old-fashioned
  marketing focuses on, so that literally thousands of different
  pitch letters, brochures, etc will go out to different people as
  a routine matter.

   * Point-of-sale advertising.  This is also pretty far along
  as well at a lot of supermarket chains.  But they have not gone
  very far in mixing supermarket and non-supermarket information.
  Sure, if you buy Pepsi then you get Coke coupons -- big deal.
  But think about it: there you are, standing at a known location
  on the face of the earth.  The cash register ought to be able
  to send out a call on the net: "Hey everyone, we found her!
  Anybody got any messages for her that you feel like delivering
  in a supermarket checkout environment?"  At this point some more
  automatic bidding will take place: the amusement park is willing
  to pay $0.02 to print you a coupon, the concern promoter is
  willing to pay $0.09 to give you the upcoming concert schedule
  for the bands whose albums you've bought recently at the record
  store, and the day-care center is willing to pay $0.16 to
  give you a map showing that it's located right along the route
  from your job to your house.  The day-care center will win the
  bidding, and the map will get printed out and handed to you as
  a matter of course.

  You get the idea.  Like all such scenarios, this one mixes both
  good and bad.  Maybe you really will be grateful to hear about
  this conveniently located day-care center.  But how do you feel
  about being tracked in real time in this fashion?  Will you be
  able to turn it off?  What will society be like when everyone
  effectively lives in a separate message environment from everyone
  else?  And how will people mess with the system?  Maybe you can
  borrow the tracking devices belonging to someone with a different
  race, class, and gender for a week.  Won't that be an education?


  Ties That Bind.

  At the beginning of May I attended the unbelievably virtuous Ties
  That Bind conference, organized by Steve Cisler at Apple Computer.
  It's a conference for community networking people, and you will
  rarely meet a more interesting, dedicated, action-oriented group
  of people in your life.  I went there because I want to do some
  kind of research project on the forms of association that go with
  computing -- user groups, for example, as well as BBS's, computer
  clubs, and informal networks of people who share expertise as
  part of their daily interactions.  I hunted down a dozen or so
  of the people attending the conference, explained my project,
  and asked them what I should be looking for.  The answers were
  wonderfully interesting and diverse, and you will no doubt be
  reading about them in TNO as things go along.

  In this particular article, though, I want to describe the range
  of ideas I thought I saw at this conference.  What I found most
  interesting was the painful process of technology-driven kinds
  of innovation starting to merge with preexisting worlds of people
  who are committed to helping communities.  Roughly speaking, I
  saw three traditions of thinking and action on this subject:

   * Marketing.  Besides Steve Cisler, the other driving force
  for the conference was Mario Marino.  Mario made some money in
  the computer industry and he has set up a foundation to help the
  community networking movement revitalize the public institutions
  of the country.  This is wonderful and Mario is a great guy whose
  heart is in the right place.  In listening to him, it's clear
  that his worldview comes from selling computers to people.  It's
  a marketing style of thinking: you have a product, but nobody has
  any obligation to even give you the time of day unless you learn
  *their* agendas and *their* interests and *their* language and
  learn to explain the virtues of your product in *those* terms.
  This is a good message for computer people to hear, because it is
  easy to get into a rut where you are convinced that computers are
  the future and anybody who doesn't agree with you is exhibiting
  "resistance to technology" or "resistance to change" et cetera.

   * Nonprofits.  The world of nonprofit organizations is enormous
  and far-flung, with its own magazines and consultants and career
  ladders and gossip networks.  It's quite a significant part of
  the economy.  One large segment of it consists of professional
  foundation people: the people who read grant proposals and give
  money out to the ones that seem best thought out and most aligned
  with the foundation's mission.  These are folks who spend much
  of their lives saying "no" to people, and if they are doing
  their jobs then they also spend much of their lives explaining
  what sorts of proposals they are looking for.  They have evolved
  a whole discourse about communities and community development
  and so on, and they view computer networks as one piece in this
  much larger preexisting puzzle.  In particular, they don't even
  want to hear about your community networking project unless you
  have teamed up with real organizations that are delivering real
  services to real people.  This too is a good message for computer
  people to hear.

   * Community organizing.  This last tradition was not so
  visible on stage as the other two, but in my opinion it is the
  most important.  People have been organizing their communities
  since the beginning of time, but the modern American traditions
  of community organizing come from Saul Alinsky, who pioneered
  a relatively rough-and-tumble style of organizing in Chicago
  and whose followers have subsequently calmed down and gotten
  more sophisticated, and from Martin Luther King and the people
  around him, who went for a more spiritual, long-term, culturally
  oriented style of organizing.  Both styles have much to offer.
  What's most significant about them is their emphasis on power and
  empowerment.  Computer networks are useless if people are feel
  intimidated around technology and technical people.  And they
  are *also* useless if people are too demoralized to use them for
  any particular project that benefits their community and makes
  people feel like they have some kind of control over their lives.

  I found it exciting and intellectually challenging to watch
  the people at this conference absorb these orientations toward
  computers and community, and test them all in the light of their
  own experiences as librarians, teachers, nonprofit workers, and
  active citizens.  I hope that their experiences meshing the world
  of computers with the real world of people's lives will spill
  over into everyplace else that people use computers.

  The single most exciting thing I saw at the conference was
  a presentation from Carmen Sirianni and Doug Schuler about
  the Civic Practices Network, a nonpartisan project to pool
  the experiences and expertise of people involved in community
  organizing projects through the WorldWide Web.  The current URL
  for the CPN is  http://fount.journalism.wisc.edu/cpn/cpn.html
  but it says it will change to  http://cpn.journalism.wisc.edu/
  Check it out.


  Internet heat death.

  Over the past several months, I have been growing steadily more
  impatient with Internet discussion groups.  The Internet has a
  lot of potential, but I have come to the conclusion that most
  of that potential is being squandered.  Much of what people are
  doing on the net is great.  But much is not.  Here is a common
  dysfunctional pattern: some people decide to "start a discussion
  group".  So they create a mailing list, put a bunch of people on
  it, and say "okay, let's have a discussion".  Maybe they'll send
  out something interesting to "get discussion started".  Several
  things proceed to happen:

   * Since nobody really knows what the list is for, the direction
     it takes will often be heavily influenced by the first two
     messages that go out on it -- that is, the initial discussion
     starter and the first issue that someone raises in response.
     The harder these first two people try to "start discussion" by
     being stimulating and controversial, the more powerfully they
     will set the agenda for the list.  People will react to those
     initial points, and other people will react to those points,
     and the whole discussion will be sucked into one of fifteen
     standard conversations that everybody in that world has had

   * This initial explosion of messages will cause many people to
     panic and say "help! you're flooding my mailbox! get me off
     this list!"

   * Notwithstanding the excessively narrow focus of the initial
     discussion, the people on the list will come up with five
     different ideas about what the list is supposed to be for
     -- without it ever occurring to them that alternative ideas
     exist.  They then start grouching at one another for abusing
     the list.  Or even worse, they start scowling inwardly at one
     another for abusing the list without ever raising the issue --
     or not raising it until they're full of anger and resentment
     about it.

   * Nobody can decide when to take a branch of the discussion
     "off-line" to private messages.  This problem is especially
     bad on those systems which do not have a concept of a "thread"
     (roughly, a series of messages with the same Subject line),
     so that people can choose not to receive any more messages
     on a given thread.  But of course, most mail-readers on the
     Internet (as opposed to Usenet or the Well, for example) have
     no such concept.

   * After an initial burst of discussion, the list falls into
     something resembling heat death.  The level of traffic goes
     down, and nobody is sure what to do next.  Everybody was just
     reacting to other people's messages anyway, so zero traffic
     becomes a stable pattern.

   * The next step, after a couple months of silence, is for
     someone to post a political action alert to the list --
     whereupon a batch of people will try to get themselves off.
     But of course they did not save the automatically generated
     message that explained how to do this, and the intervening
     silence has removed any sense of concern for the well-being
     of the list, so they do it by sending messages to the whole
     list.  This, of course, causes other people to do the same
     thing, whereupon someone tries to prevent this effect from
     snowballing by sending out a helpful, constructive message
     like "hey, you idiots! didn't your mama teach you anything?
     why don't you just unsubscribe by sending a message to

  Internet discussion groups can work well despite these dynamics,
  but only in special circumstances.  For example, it helps if
  the community on the list has a steady stream of external events
  to react to.  Since the list operates in a mostly reactive mode,
  they'll always have something to talk about.  The sustained level
  of traffic might be high, but then people will leave the list
  until it settles down to a level that suits the people who remain
  behind.  Another scheme that works well is to have a list which
  is oriented almost exclusively to one-shot announcements -- but
  then that's not a discussion list anymore.

  Mostly, though, Internet discussion lists do not work very well.
  Very often the problem, in my experience, is that people are
  being lazy: trying to set up a discussion list in order to avoid
  the hard work of building a community, agreeing on purposes and
  goals, establishing a structure and timetable, and so on.  Often
  they rationalize this laziness by appealing to the libertarian
  ethos of the net: structure means constraint means domination.
  Lots of people believe that, but it's not true.  It's not even
  true if you're a libertarian: structure imposed from the outside
  may imply constraint and domination, but structure agreed from
  within a group through a legitimate consensus-building process
  should not.  In my experience, though, lots of people who tend
  toward libertarian sentiments just talk about the virtues of
  association without actually learning how to cooperate and build
  things with real, live other people.  This spirit of politically
  noble laziness is dragging down the Internet.

  In fact, the people who helped me articulate these phenomena work
  mostly with kids.  Mike Cole <mcole@ucsd.edu> and Olga Vasquez
  <ovasquez@weber.ucsd.edu> in my department, for example, run
  after-school computer clubs for kids.  They learned early on that
  you can't just provide a bunch of computer activities and helpful
  college students and tell the kids of have fun and learn lots.
  Instead, you need to provide a structure of some kind that is
  intrinsically rewarding and offers a sense of where you currently
  are in a larger picture.  So, for example, each computer program
  comes with an activity sheet -- an actual sheet of paper with
  easy, medium, and hard challenges for using the program.  Also,
  the kids are constrained in which programs they can use by a
  floorplan through they move a game piece (a "creature"): when
  they do well at one program, they get to move to an adjacent
  "room" of their choice.  Now some people will say that this is
  more grown-up domination of kids.  I say that kids need friendly,
  flexible structures to scaffold their development.  If you think
  you can get kids learning real stuff in a totally unstructured
  environment, you go ahead and do it.  Let us know when you
  succeed.  We'll stop by and have a look, and ten bucks says
  that you're actually training the kids to obey a whole range of
  hidden control trips while pretending to be free and spontaneous.

  Margaret Riel <mriel@weber.ucsd.edu> has done similar things
  on a larger scale over the Internet with networks of teachers
  across the globe.  They don't just connect the kids by e-mail
  to scientists at the South Pole: first they set up a whole
  elaborate curriculum, covering several topics from math to
  science to literature, so that the children have read and written
  and talked and listened about the South Pole for weeks, comparing
  notes with one another as they hit the library and type in their
  work.  All of this structure means that everybody knows where
  they are going, everybody is ready for what happens next, and the
  whole activity has a natural point of closure.

  What the Internet needs is a vocabulary of structures for e-mail
  discussion lists.  Nobody should bother creating a list until
  they have a good reason for it that everybody has signed onto.
  This will mean doing some consultation, building consensus, and
  accepting that communities take time to grow.  It will also mean
  having a definite goal and structure for the list, including
  a statement of the conditions under which the list will have
  achieved its purpose and be shut down.  Of course, nobody should
  *force* people to run their lists this way.  But it would be most
  excellent if decent standards could be established within which
  people can create software to support such things.  Sure, plenty
  of companies sell conferencing systems to organizations whose
  people are required to do things together.  But that doesn't
  mean that those people actually go through the social processes
  needed to use the systems at all productively, and it certainly
  doesn't mean that the benefits of those systems become widespread
  on the Internet.

  A lot of the problem, then, has to do with technical standards
  and the like.  But the problem is also cultural.  Many people
  have lost, or never learned, the skills for working together.
  Although the 1960's counterculture is out of fashion now, it
  put a *lot* of effort into learning how to build community, how
  to organize and empower people, how to run things democratically,
  how to fight fair, and how to be a powerful human being without
  having to exercise power over other people.  In my opinion, the
  net needs these skills badly.  And so does the rest of the world.
  People who believe in liberty ensure an authoritarian world
  unless they teach people how to organize themselves through their
  own efforts, and the problem of using the net productively might
  be an occasion to rediscover this.


  How the world works.

  Speaking of the New York Times, what the heck has happened to
  the Times' Business section?  They've moved all the information
  technology news to Monday, which is fine, but the rest of the
  week they seem to have switch some of their focus away from
  serious business reporting to fluffy personal finance articles.
  In the past I would often spend upwards of two hours reading
  the Sunday Business section alone.  But today's Business section
  (5/29/95) has this trivia quiz about the Dow Jones Industrial
  Average and an article about couples who fight about whether to
  invest in commodity futures or no-load mutual funds.  Come on.

  I suppose I might find this interesting if I had any money in
  the bank, but I don't.  I just want to understand how the world
  works, and serious business reporting is an important part of
  that.  Business Week is too driven by PR and Forbes is too driven
  by ideology.  The Wall Street Journal is okay, but it doesn't
  have nearly enough feature articles about industry structures.
  Thus the New York Times actually filled an important gap, in my

  So, hey, Times, if you're listening -- enough of this stuff.
  Let's have some articles on real stories, like the continuing
  operational changes inside the global banking industry, the
  dark underside of union-management "cooperation", the emerging
  transnational class structure of East Asia, the revolution in
  work measurement, the new right-wing labor law in New Zealand,
  and the rapid integration of all the world's databases through
  computer networking.


  Further thoughts on the Oklahoma City bombing.

  Now that the dust has started to settle, the jury has reached
  a tentative verdict in the case: the Oklahoma City bombing was
  a successful terrorist operation.  Terrorists don't expect that
  anybody will actually applaud their violence, and they are not
  surprised when politicians across the spectrum use words like
  "deplorable tragedy".  Instead, they usually want to do three
  things: (1) get publicity for their cause, (2) provoke a wave
  of repression that will provide ammo for organizers of sedition,
  and (3) force politicians to take a stand on polarized issues.

  Well, number (1) is easy.  Number (2): Bill Clinton, who decided
  in the earliest days of his candidacy to give the authoritarian
  "national security" establishment whatever it wants as the price
  for pursuing his social programs and industrial policy, has put
  the terrible Omnibus Antiterrorism Act on the front burner in
  Congress, most recently pushing against the Republicans for wider
  authority for wiretapping.  The far right is going nuts about
  this bill, which is about the best organizing tool they could ask
  for -- short of another Waco.  Number (3): Newt Gingrich, in the
  early days when everyone was being pushed to take sides, came out
  forcefully talking about Americans who fear the government.  Not
  just "oppose" or "distrust" but "fear".  Case closed.

  In watching the new press spotlight on far-right organizing in
  the US, it suddenly hit me one day: the US has become a third
  world country in one more sense.  I recall a discussion in the
  1980's about third world countries, particularly in the Middle
  East, where popular political discourse is often thick with
  rumors about what the CIA must be up to.  The talking heads
  put this down to the fevered Arab mind and all of that, never
  thinking that these people might be responding rationally to a
  world that really was full of CIA covert operations -- if not
  necessarily the same ones discussed in the rumors.  But now
  we have just the same thing in the United States, with people
  claiming to have spotted black helicopters belonging to the
  United Nations invasion force and speculating at great length
  about intricate government conspiracies of all sorts.  These
  rumors are surely false, but what reality are they a rational
  response to?

  I was on a radio show in Kansas City talking about privacy
  recently; its host was an avuncular guy who did not seem
  particularly ideological.  But he was so hung up on weird,
  dystopian scenarios (computer chips planted in our heads by the
  government, machines watching you 24 hours a day in your house,
  etc) that the conversation kept falling flat whenever I would
  try to discuss a *real* threat to privacy, no matter how serious.
  Did this guy have the pulse of his listeners?  That's his job,
  after all.

  Be this as it may, the issue of civil liberties seems suddenly
  to have flipped political polarities.  I have gotten some notes
  about my privacy work from people I would not invite to dinner,
  and the LA Times tells me that Oliver North had Ira Glasser from
  the ACLU on his show and grunted approvingly the whole time.  The
  ACLU has made some strange calls in recent years, but I must say
  I still respect their willingness to go to bat for all kinds of
  pariahs -- from pornographers to tobacco companies to militias.
  Conservatives have been talking about free speech and other civil
  liberties a great deal lately.  The real test is whether they
  can apply those principles to anybody except conservatives who
  are being repressed by liberals.  So far I have seen little to
  impress me on this score, but I have an open mind.


  Wish list.

  Lots of people have had the following idea: build an ordinary
  software application like a spreadsheet, but include an extra
  program that runs in the background, watches your patterns of
  usage, and then periodically tries to teach you things or creates
  new commands that capture common patterns in your interaction
  with the system.  I can see the motivation for such systems
  in my own experience: very often I'll accidentally learn about
  some feature of a program that I wish I'd known about years ago.
  Sometimes I'll actually take the user's manual home and flip
  through it at bedtime in case some feature pops out and catches
  my eye ("oh hey, I could use that for when I do such-and-such"),
  but usually I have better things to do at bedtime.  Maybe such
  schemes will find their niches, then, but I'm skeptical.  At the
  same time, it seems to me that something similar might work much
  better: the key is using the net to get some people in the loop.

  So let's build the same background watching program, but forget
  trying to make that program "smart".  Instead, have the program
  summarize all the interesting bits and pieces of patterns and
  statistics that it notices and ship them off across the net to
  someone whose job is to study usage patterns for that particular
  program.  Or maybe that person's job is to study usage patterns
  for a particular category of users, like accountants or truck
  drivers or teachers.  Then that person might be "on call" for the
  users.  If a particular user feels the need to learn something
  new, or is feeling irritated about some aspect of the system,
  they can push a button or enter a menu command and enter a verbal
  description of what's bothering them and what kind of guidance
  they might like.  A few minutes later they'll get a phone call
  (or a voice connection over the net) from a real person who has
  been listening to their voice message and studying their usage
  pattern.  Maybe that person can suggest a few features to try
  out.  The program itself could come with little canned demos of
  each feature, or the on-line advisor could select a canned demo
  that's customized in some way to this users's characteristics.

  This is not so far different from the kinds of customer support
  that companies now provide.  It assumes net connectivity between
  customer and company, which isn't so hard, and it assumes that
  the product has the necessary architecture to communicate the
  relevant aspects of its state, including the usage pattern
  information that the background program has noticed, over the
  net to the on-line advisor.  The difference is that the advisor
  is now helping the user learn the system -- not from scratch,
  but incrementally, one or two features at a time.  This kind
  of incremental learning is valuable because it is responsive
  to the user's actual use patterns and because it is slowed down
  to a rate that real human beings can digest.  It might also be
  much cheaper than generalized troubleshooting-oriented customer
  support because the issues are more focused and less confusing,
  the outcome is more specific, and the process is sufficiently
  standardized that software can generate a lot of the necessary
  information automatically.  On the other hand, maybe the on-line
  advisor will end up being basically a sales person, or at least
  will be instructed to stay on the lookout for opportunities to
  convince users that they need to buy some extra software rather
  than just learning a new feature of the software they already

  Maybe we'll have a lot of services like this in the future --
  people whose job is to process certain kinds of information from
  users all over the world using the net.  Last month, for example,
  my "wish list" suggested having students' term papers copy edited
  by people in India.  And so maybe we'll have a whole class of
  people who do this kind of work.  It might be good work in some
  ways: a continual set of fresh puzzles and challenges, extremely
  flexible work schedule, no heavy lifting, enough variety in the
  physical interaction with the machine that doing it ten hours a
  day isn't going to destroy your hands, and so on.  On the other
  hand, it's basically piecework.  What is the career path for such
  workers?  Do they learn valuable skills on the job that they can
  use to get into more remunerative kinds of work?  Will the labor
  market be extremely competitive due to the ability of people all
  over the earth to join the workforce just by switching on their
  computers and plugging into the net?  Serious questions.


  This month's recommendations.

  GNU Emacs for the Mac.  That's right!  The most excellent Marc
  Parmet <parmet@cs.cornell.edu> has ported the one true text
  editor, GNU Emacs, to the Apple Macintosh.  Despite some small
  hassles, I could not possibly be happier.

  Organic milk.  I'm serious.  Like most people, I support organic
  farming in the abstract but don't end up buying a lot of the
  stuff in practice.  Lately, though, I've been drinking organic
  milk, and I am amazed at how much better it is than regular
  industrial milk -- which, I am now realizing, is basically this
  tasteless white liquid.  It costs about 50% more but it's worth
  every penny.  Ask your local store to carry it.  The dairy that
  supplies my local supermarket is Natural Horizons Inc, PO Box
  17577, Boulder CO 80308.

  Deborah Madison, The Greens Cookbook, Toronto: Bantam, 1987.
  Some cookbooks, starting with Elizabeth David's epochal works
  on French country cooking, aim to discover, revive, adapt, and
  interpret a classical tradition.  Others are semiotic displays,
  inventing "traditions" that mobilize the familiar signs of a
  geographic region in the form of food on a plate.  This whole
  spectrum is governed by a tussle over authenticity that's enough
  to make me take Jean Baudrillard seriously for hours at a time.
  But in my experience, precisely one cookbook is a true work of
  transcendent genius, and that's "The Greens Cookbook".  It is
  a vegetarian cookbook that is infused by a deep and serious
  and respectful attention to vegetables -- not to the *idea* of
  vegetables, or to spectacles or commodities flown in from the
  greenhouse, but to the actual cucumbers and the actual beans.
  And to actual kitchens, with their left-over leaves and rinds
  that can be made into soup stock, and to the seasons of the year.

  Andrew Feenberg and Alastair Hannay, eds, Technology and the
  Politics of Knowledge, Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
  1995.  This is the best edited collection of articles on the
  critical philosophy of technology.  Every article is a valuable
  contribution to scholarship on the subject.  It's not easy
  reading, but it definitely an improvement on the utopian and
  dystopian versions of technological determinism that pervade
  much of the literature on, for example, computing in society.

  Ceanne DeRohan, Right Use of Will, Santa Fe: Four Winds, 1986.
  Lately I've been on a campaign to read the most challenging works
  on psychology and ethics that I can find, and this one has got to
  take the cake.  It is part of a genre that I never, ever thought
  I would take seriously: the new age "channeling" literature that
  is supposedly dictated by various spiritual entities.  This one
  in particular is supposed to have been dictated word-for-word by
  God, and it is full of the stilted diction and strange allegories
  about Atlantis and environmentalism that characterize the genre.
  But if you can get past that stuff, I swear, it actually is quite
  brilliant underneath.  It is not for beginners.  It's about the
  Will, the part of you that wants to do things.  Most people have
  large parts of their Will in a box somewhere, either because they
  had to conform to someone else's stuff as kids, or because they
  ended up in a twelve-step program, convinced that all their Will
  wants to do is drink and get into dysfunctional relationships.
  DeRohan, or God, believes that you aren't healthy until you
  have gotten all the pent-up emotional wounds out of your system,
  whereupon you will only want to do things that are basically
  good.  Why is this?  I can't summarize the explanation, but
  it involves a long of very interesting stuff about denial that
  makes a lot of sense to me.  You'll have to decide for yourself.


  Company of the month.

  This month's company is:

  Metasystems Design Group
  2000 North 15th Street, Suite 103
  Arlington, Virginia  22201

  phone: (703) 243-6622
    web: http://www.tmn.com/0h/MetaNet/bro-mdg.html

  I met Lisa Kimball from Metasystems Design Group and read the
  company's literature at the Ties That Bind conference, and let
  me tell you, these folks are a breath of fresh air.  They are
  organizational consultants who will help you get yourself on
  the net -- while making absolutely sure that you understand that
  getting yourself on the net, all by itself, is probably not the
  answer to your question.  The net is great, but your organization
  will only get real work done over the net if you have a structure
  for the work with a flexible set of roles and expectations.  A
  lot of people try to solve problems by getting everyone on the
  net, and then when it doesn't work the blame the net because
  it's easier than looking inward at the organizational pathologies
  that were actually causing the problems.  In my opinion, the net
  community needs a lot of help from people with real, sane ideas
  about organizations and communication -- like these folks.

  Do contact them if you're interested in learning more.  But as
  always, I ask you not to contact them unless your interest is
  fairly serious, since I wouldn't want companies who get listed
  in TNO to get a batch of random, useless mail.  Thanks a lot.



  The Copyright Clearance Center is on the Web.  This is a good
  thing because it now costs way too much to clear a copyright
  when assembling a course reader for students.  This is a disaster
  in small courses whose readers contain large numbers of short
  articles.  Anything that gets the transaction costs down for
  these readers will help a lot -- I hope they get on-line payment
  going soon.  Their URL is  http://www.directory.net/copyright

  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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