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The Community Machines

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The Community Machines

----------------------------------------------------------------------------
You may distribute the text of this article freely, but I would
        appreciate knowing about anything interesting that you do with them.

                                              Tom Maddox
                                              [email protected]

----------------------------------------------------------------------------


Reports from the Electronic Frontier:
The Community Machines

Tom Maddox <[email protected]>


        --A nation? says Bloom.  A nation is the same
people living in the same place.
        --By God, then, says Ned, laughing, if that's
so I'm a nation for I'm living in the same place
for the past five years.
        So of course everyone had the laugh at Bloom
and says he, trying to muck out of it
        --Or also living in different places.
        --That covers my case, says Joe.

        As Leopold Bloom discovers, it is not so
simple to say exactly what we mean when we try to
talk about some of the fundamental ideas that bind
us.  Nationality is one issue here, in  Ulysses,
but in fact the xenophobic Irishmen of what is
usually called the "Cyclops" episode really want to
deny membership to  Jews in general and Leopold
Bloom in particular not only in the Irish nation
but also and more importantly in the Irish
community.  

        Which means they're trying to deny to others
an abstract but essential part of our shared
humanity.  David W. Minar and Scott Greer say, in
The Concept of Community:

Community is indivisible from human actions,
purposes, and values.  It expresses our vague
yearnings for a commonality of desire, a
communion with those around us, an extension
of the bonds of kin and friend to all those
who share a common fate with us.

        Such a notion of community has become common
coin online lately.  People cite approvingly the
creation of new communities through the new
possibilities for communication offered by CMC,
computer-mediated communication.  Mitch Kapor,
Lotus 1-2-3 tycoon and co-founder of the Electronic
Frontier Foundation, says:

        New communities are being built today. 
You cannot see them, except on a computer
screen.  You cannot visit them, except through
your keyboard.  Their highways are wires and
optical fibers; their language a series of
ones and zeroes.
        Yet these communities of cyberspace are
as real and vibrant as any you could find on a
globe or in an atlas.  Those are real people
on the other sides of those monitors.  And
freed from physical limitations, these people
are developing new types of cohesive and
effective communities--ones which are defined
more by common interest and purpose  than by
an accident of geography, ones on which what
really counts is what you say and think and
feel, not how you look or talk or how old you
are.
                Big Dummy's Guide to the Internet (1993,
1994)

        However, there's more at work here than new
technologies.  Equally important is the social
context in which the new technologies have come
into play.  As numerous social and political
commentators have said at length and in their
various ways, the United States has become a nation
of increasingly more isolated and deracinated
individuals, alienated selves deprived of many of
the comforts and conveniences of traditional
community.  And one doesn't have to refer to such
narrowly focused notions as "the lonely crowd" or
"the organization man" to agree that we live in a
world more mobile, fragmented, and uncertain than
our parents and theirs before them.  More and more
of us have come to accept as usual a condition in
which most or many of our friends and family live
far away, as we accept that we may have to pick up
our immediate families and move to another city,
state or country to work or get an education.  We
have enlarged our individual possibilities but at
the cost of lasting communal ties.

        In addition, many of us find ourselves
alienated from the communities we live in whatever
our length of stay.  Our aspirations, interests,
and ambitions can effectively isolate us from the
mainstream life of smaller communities in
particular.  The would-be artist, musician or
dancer; the sf fan, nerd, or radical--such folks
and others can find themselves at odds with what
they perceive to be the mores and habits of their
community, and so they seek a spiritual home, a
place of communion with others who share their
anomie and consequent longing.

        As a result, we find community where we can. 
Organizations come into being around work and
interest, and they give us things that our daily
lives cannot.  SF fans organize and attend
conventions, but so do doctors, lawyers, used car
salesmen, and advocates of sado-masochistic sex. 
However, whatever gratification we find at such
gatherings, we quickly become aware of their
fleeting nature.  For some small time we've got
coaches and footmen, but all too quickly we're back
to pumpkins and mice.  The overall problem remains: 
whatever our particular concatenation of
circumstances, many of us live in a condition
somewhat detached from the communities we inhabit--
citizens in economic, political, geographic and
demographic terms, but outlanders of the spirit,
strangers in any given strange land.

        It's in this context that the advent of
widespread computer-medicated communication
(henceforth CMC) has to be understood.  We seek our
kind in cyberspace because we find so few of them
in real space and time.  This context also explains
some of the quasi-visionary, implicitly or
explicitly utopian tone of the discussions of
online community--Kapor's tone and content are
typical in this regard.  With regard to all such
affirmations of the joys of online community,
however, I find myself wondering whether they speak
for a liberating technology, or perhaps for a '90s
version of the "Gernsbach Continuum," the
ubiquitous, bloodless portrait of things to come
offered so often this century by technophiles and
social planners and parodied so nicely by William
Gibson.

        Let me make clear that I do not doubt Kapor's
good intentions, merely the completeness and
accuracy of his vision.  Continuing on with his
description of online communities, he says:

        The oldest of these communities is that
of the scientists, which actually predates
computers.  Scientists have long seen
themselves as an international community,
where ideas were more important than national
origin.  It is not surprising that the
scientists were the first to adopt the new
electronic media as their principal means of
day-to-day communication.
        I look forward to a day in which
everybody, not just scientists, can enjoy
similar benefits of a global community.

As do I.  

        However, I remember that the scientists who
first adopted the new electronic media often did so
because they were developing it for the Department
of Defense in one of its many guises.  Howard
Rheingold, who believes along with Kapor in the
power and importance of online communities, says,
in The Virtual Community:  Homesteading on the
Electronic Frontier (Addison--Wesley Publishing
Company, 1993):

CMC was following the same path of diffusion
that computer technology had followed ten to
twenty years before:  first developed as part
of weapons-related research, computers and
networks soon proved valuable and then
affordable first to scientific researchers
outside weapons research, then to big
businesses, then to small businesses, and then
to citizens.  

I am reminded of the adage that when one sups with
the Devil, one should bring a long spoon, and I am
worried at the ease with which many people have sat
down to these particular dinners.

        On this and other matters, Rheingold's book is
of considerable interest.  He has been online since
1985, a very long span in the compressed history of
widespread CMC, and he has extensive first-hand
experience with some of the most interesting and
characteristic online cultures, the WELL (Whole
Earth 'Lectronic Link) in particular.  I've met him
briefly a couple of times and seen quite a few of
his postings on the WELL, and I can testify that
he's a very nice guy, one temperamentally well--
suited to making friends online and to appreciating
those friendships.

        In fact, his book gives the best taste of life
online of any I have seen.  His most intimate
experiences have been with the WELL, but he also
gives adequate histories of the rise of the BBS
community in general and Tom Jennings's FidoNet in
particular, of Usenet, MUDs, MOOs, and MUSEs, of
Dave Hughes's Big Sky Telegraph and the Electronic
Frontier Foundation, of Japan's TWICS and France's
Minitel.  Rheingold seems to have been everywhere
and talked to everyone who has moved and shaken the
online communities.

        Also, as editor of the Whole Earth Review and
long-time counterculture citizen, Rheingold is not
just another purveyor of virtual snake oil.  He is
concerned about the possibilities of individual
loss of privacy and freedom latent in CMC and
specially concerned about the intrusions of big
government and big business into the net.  He says,

The transition from a government-sponsored,
taxpayer-supported, relatively unrestricted
public forum to a privately owned and provided
medium has accelerated recently, and this
transition might render moot many of the
fantasies of today's true believers in
electronic democracy and global online
culture.

And he concludes his book with this call to
informed online citizenship:

Instead of falling under the spell of a sales
pitch, or rejecting new technologies as
instruments of illusion, we need to look more
closely at new technologies and ask how they
can help build stronger, more humane
communities--and ask how they might be
obstacles to that goal. . . .Armed with
knowledge, guided by a clear, human-centered
vision, governed by a commitment to civil
discourse, we the citizens hold the key lever
at a pivotal time.  What happens next is
largely up to us.

How could one possibly object to such an honorable
and good-hearted call?

        Well, alas, I must.  By way of focusing my
objections, let me quote Neil Postman, itinerant
anti-technologist, from a speech he gave in 1990 to
the German Informatics Society (Gesellschaft Fuer
Informatik) in Stuttgart.  He makes the following
ill-tempered comments on the evolution of CMC:

Through the computer, the heralds say, we will
make education better, religion better,
politics better, our minds better--best of
all, ourselves better.  This is, of course,
nonsense, and only the young or the ignorant
or the foolish could believe it. 
        [. . .]
As things stand now, the geniuses of computer
technology will give us Star Wars, and tell us
that is the answer to nuclear war.  They will
give us artificial intelligence, and tell us
that this is the way to self-knowledge.  They
will give us instantaneous global
communication and tell us this is the way to
mutual understanding.  They will give us
Virtual Reality and tell us this is the answer
to spiritual poverty.  But that is only the
way of the technician, the fact-mongerer, the
information junkie, and the technological
idiot.

While I'm not convinced by many of Postman's
analyses, which often seem driven by an
unreasonable desire to live in the Middle Ages, I
find this particular line of reasoning convincing. 
Over the years the "geniuses of computer
technology" have promised too many things and, as I
mentioned, have sat down at too many dinners with
too many devils for us to trust them.  They have
also shown a persistent inability to see what
people will in fact do with their devices--an
inability for which I do not blame them specially,
because other people, such as those in my line of
work, science fiction, didn't do much better.  

        Also, in rebuttal to Rheingold's claim that
"what happens next is largely up to us," I have to
say, not really. 

[T]he clock was invented by men who wanted to
devote themselves more rigorously to God; and
it ended as the technology of greatest use to
men who wished to devote themselves to the
accumulation of money.  Technology always has
unforeseen consequences, and it its not always
clear, at the beginning, who or what will win,
and who or what will lose.

Technologies have their own dynamics, and we are
often propelled along by them, will-we nil-we, to
destinations we didn't even know existed.  

        Furthermore, we haven't looked at some of the
less attractive qualities of the communities that
are evolving.  For instance, online communities
tend to be almost entirely male-dominated.  While
I'm reasonably sure that the percentage of women
online has increased in recent years, they remain a
small minority, and their presence in a particular
group almost always highlights how adolescent,
geeky, and masculine online communities remain.  To
put the matter shortly, women are routinely
harassed both sexually and otherwise, and generally
made to feel that many of their of their
fundamental concerns are alien.  This syndrome does
not hold universally, but it holds generally, and I
see very little evidence online of radical and
widespread change in this matter--which is to say
that now and for the near future, the experience of
virtual communities will be problematic for women.

        More generally, technocratic, elitist, and
sexist behavior characterize life online in
unacknowledged ways, and there's a whole literature
about denial that explains just how harmful 
failures to recognize such truths can be. 

        But I'm not anti-virtual communities or anti-
CMC or anti-the quasi-utopian efforts of people
like Kapor and Rheingold.  Rather I'm convinced by
the history of humankind's relationship to
technology that we must always be aware of our
status as sorcerer's apprentices, always on the
verge of losing control.  At the same time, we must
remain aware that vast industries exist whose
purpose is to package our needs and sell us
commodified gratification for them, thus rendering
us emotionally stunted and intellectually
stupefied.

Online News:  

        The United States Senate has established an
online presence in the form of an ftp server on the
Internet, ftp.senate.gov.  As is usual with such
sites, you login as anonymous and give your e-mail
address as password.  Senators Stevens of Alaska
and Kennedy of Massachusetts have files available
at the present time under the directories
/member/ak and member/ma respectively.  I assume
others will follow.

        Bruce Sterling has made available online the
entire text of his last book, The Hacker Crackdown. 
It can be downloaded free from the WELL Gopher
(gopher.well.sf.ca.us) and the Electronic Frontier
Foundation ftp site (ftp.eff.org).  He has several
other documents there as well, all prefaced by the
following "Acceptable Use Policy," which I believe
is interesting enough to quote at length:

        The documents on this disk are not
commodities.  They're not for sale.  They are
not part of the "information economy."  Some
of them were part of the commercial economy
once, in the sense that I got paid for writing
some of them, but they've since been
liberated.  You didn't have to pay any money
to get them.  If you did pay anything to see
this stuff, you've been ripped off.  If you
didn't get this data for free, send me some e-
mail and tell me about it.  Information
*wants* to be free. And I know where you can
get a lot more.

        You can copy them.   Copy the hell out of
them, be my guest.  You can upload them onto
boards or discussion groups.  Go right ahead,
enjoy yourself.

        You can print them out.

        You can photocopy the printouts and hand
them around as long as you don't take any
money for it.

        But they're not public domain.  You can't
copyright them.  Attempts to pirate this stuff
and make money from it may involve you in a
serious litigative snarl; believe me, for the
pittance you might wring out of such an
action, it's really not worth it.  This stuff
don't "belong" to you.  A lot of it, like the
Internet electronic zines I've included,
doesn't "belong" to me, either.  It belongs to
the emergent realm of alternative information
economics, for whatever *that's* worth.  You
don't have any right to make this stuff part
of the conventional flow of commerce.  Let
them be part of the flow of knowledge: 
there's a difference.  Don't sell them.  And
don't alter the text, either; that would be a
hopelessly way-dork move.  Just make more, and
give them to whoever might want or need them.

        Now have fun.

So find yourself a gopher connection to the WELL or
an ftp connection to EFF and grab a bunch of
Sterling (as it were) prose.  

        Also at EFF, you can find a recent recension
of The Big Dummy's Guide to the Internet, which in
addition to containing the full text of the Kapor
article I quote above, also is one of the better
guides to the Internet available online.

        Consumer News:  (This is a spot for notes
about software, hardware, firmware, wetware, or
etceteraware that I've found interesting lately).  

        My hunt continues for the perfect database for
freeform data, and I've lately found two
interesting contenders.  

        At the simple end of things there's Dyno
Notepad (from Portfolio Software, 10062 Miller
Avenue, Cupertino, CA 95014), a rewritten version
of Acta (later Acta 7), one of the simplest and
best outliners for the Macintosh.  Dyno Notepad
came to me on a single disk with no accompanying
documentation, and I found I wasn't missing
anything.  The program has two help screens that
effectively summarize not only the program's
commands but also its structuring ideas, the
elements of computer outlining.  It is in short a
slick piece of work:  cheap, fast, and easy to use.

        And then there's Arrange, a big bucks database
from Common Knowledge, Inc., Palo Alto, CA.  It has
extensive online documentation and a good-sized
manual and will do just about anything to any kind
of information that you can imagine--if you can
figure out how to make the program perform.  The
program ought to make some sort of big industrial
noise when it loads up to indicate its rather
alarming capabilities.  Using it I find myself very
tentatively trying out various ways of structuring
and retrieving data, and sometimes I can make
things happen the way I want them to and sometimes
I can't.  So I'll have to get back to you on this
one because I'm not sure that I am willing to put
in the time necessary to learn how to control this
thing.

        Meanwhile I still wish for simple tools for
the Macintosh like a few that exist in the MSDOS
world--for instance, a text reader with the speed
and power of Vernon Buerg's List, a freeform
database with the speed and ease of Tornado Notes.

E-Mail Address:  [email protected]

=======================================================================
This document is from the WELL gopher server:
            gopher://gopher.well.com

Questions and comments to: [email protected]