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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future
    Issue #32      Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates      November 10, 1996
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    *** Editor's note
          Locking Ourselves in to Standards
          The Net As Centralizing Force
    *** Arguing about privacy (Phil Agre)
          Privacy is not secrecy
    *** Response to Agre (Stephen L. Talbott)
          A healthy private sphere requires a healthy public sphere
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Editor's note

    Locking Ourselves in to Standards

    Universities are trying to figure how best to tap into Internet II, with its new, higher-speed "backbone network." Princeton University vice president, Ira Fuchs, warned his colleagues: "It's not as simple as `You change the backbone and all will be well.' For individual users to take full advantage of this change in the infrastructure, you'll have to change everything.'"

    "Change everything." Do these words ring a bell in your mind? What strangely re-echoes through my mind are those complaints about "customer lock-in" from the bad old days before standards. The problem then was that one could not shift particular software or hardware purchases from one vendor to another without replacing entire systems; you had to change everything.

    The problem today is...well, pretty much the same thing, except that now it operates on a grander scale. Where once we were bound to the products of a particular company--and before that to individual product lines within a company--now we are increasingly indentured to industry-wide and even global standards from which there is no apparent escape even at great expense.

    Yes, there are advantages to standards and open systems. We gain an ability to conduct business ever more widely, and in some terms at least, more efficiently. But what brings us this advantage is a technical system whose underlying logic becomes steadily more universal, more finely rationalized, more precisely articulated--and therefore harder to escape once the logical cement "sets". The "everything" in "you'll have to change everything" reaches toward...everything.

    So we escape our parochial bonds only to find ourselves locked in more decisively at a cosmopolitan level. Unfortunately, while the local constraints were easy to notice--if only because the competing vendors advertised side by side in the trade rags--the global ones begin to seem like necessity. "That's just the way the world is." We lose sight of the choices that have led us step by step to close off future options.

    This is actually that same "fundamental deceit of technology" to which I pointed in NF #1. The issue in that earlier article was the improvement of telephone answering systems by means