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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future
    Issue #15      Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates         April 11, 1996
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    ####  Don't forget the $5000 SPIDER OR FLY? deadline: April 30, 1996  ####
    *** Editor's note
          Redefining NETFUTURE
    *** A child's world (David Hakala)
          This child knows his own priorities
    *** A quick guide to the politics of cyberspace, pt. 5 (Richard Sclove)
          An activist's hope for the future
    *** Dealing reasonably with cyberhate (Rob Slade)
          How important are the kooks?
    *** Advertising and the pressure to upgrade (Mike Fischbein)
          The relation between computers and bell-bottoms
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Editor's note

    A small handful of readers have expressed to me their dismay about the failure of NETFUTURE to develop into anything like a genuine discussion group. I expressed my own doubt about this from the beginning, since I have never seen how it is possible to sustain a genuine and profitable discussion among thousands--or even among tens--of participants, whether on or off the Net. Certainly all the various substitutes for such discussion are painfully evident in the various precincts of the Net.

    Something in me, however, has wanted to achieve a discussion-like quality whenever possible. I now see this as a mistake. Among other things, it puts me in the untenable position of 1) tyrannizing over the discussion; or 2) abandoning the discussion to USENET-style lack of focus; or 3) redefining the content of the discussion in the relatively narrow, technical, cut-and-dried terms that have served so well to keep the well-known and useful RISKS forum on track. None of these fits my own original intentions or (if I read things right) the wishes of most subscribers.

    The upshot of it is that, after far too long a hesitation, I'm now fully committed to NETFUTURE as a "newsletter and forwarding service." I take full responsibility for it, and it will succeed or fail based on whether I'm able to create, solicit, or find--and then forward--items that interest others. My aim, following tendencies already evident in past issues of NETFUTURE, will be to fill a niche badly underserved to date. It will no more be an editorially neutral forum than is any other worthwhile publication of opinion.

    I will continue to rely as heavily as possible on submissions from readers--including submissions that respond to other submissions. But they will be used because they fit the criteria of this particular forwarding service, not simply because they help to maintain the pretense of a meaningful discussion.

    In all this I have been greatly encouraged by the strong indications of interest and support coming from readers. You have my thanks. I hope you will bear with this effort for a few more issues, to see what sort of material shows up on your screen. (And, by all means, consider supplying or pointing to any material you consider of value.)


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    *** A child's world

    From David Hakala (david.hakala@boardwatch.com)

    I've chronicled the online ecology since 1988 and now edit a magazine on the subject, so I'm pretty far gone in the Addiction. But my son, Tony, keeps me from slipping into final dissolution. Now 5, he started "helping" me answer e-mail at age 2. I leapt at his interest in "life" online, expecting to show him the wonders of the universe and make him a millionaire before he hit puberty. Predictably, I've become the pupil in Remedial Real World.

    The vital lesson Tony's taught me is this: Cyberspace is not REAL fun! He won't touch it except as a not-too-important supplement to some delightfully messy, smelly and slightly dangerous adventure we've already had together.

    Crayfish are a classic example. We'll spend six hours catching the critters, visiting all his pals to show them off and watching them drip pond scum on the living room rug. Only after we have to send them home will he explore the 300-species collection at the Univ. of Texas' Web server. And no compulsive staring at the byte-counter while the images download; we use that time to sing and wrestle.

    Last week he pitched me a "great idea" that would make us both "rich and famous." He'll write kids' books and I'll do the "grownup magazines." But online publishing is "no fun;" we're going to "put them in our backpacks and go all over the world and SEE people" to peddle our wares. That DOES sound better to me!

    I wrote a story about our online experiences which can be found at http://www.boardwatch.com/mag/95/aug/bwm26.htm. (Diabetics should load up on insulin first!)

    David Hakala,
    Editor at Fault
    Boardwatch Magazine
    Celebrating over 100 monthly editions!
    303-973-6038 voice

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    *** A quick guide to the politics of cyberspace, pt. 5

    Copyright 1996 by Richard E. Sclove (loka@amherst.edu).

    This is the fifth and final installment of our interview with Dr. Sclove, executive director of the Loka Institute (Amherst, Mass.) and author of Democracy and Technology (New York: Guilford Press, 1995). For information about how to contribute to the work of the Loka Institute, see the end of the interview.

    SLT: Your mention of Rachel Carson may show how intertwined our concerns are, for, on the one hand, the environmental movement's (relative) success surely reflects how a kind of "environmental consciousness" (and conscientiousness) has taken root in the populace at large--compared, say, to six or seven decades ago. And, on the other hand, high-level policies have been put in place that embody some of this consciousness institutionally. It's hard to imagine either taking place without the other.

    What are the most inspiring examples you can think of that point us toward a healthy development of technology?

    RES: I'll give three quick examples, involving: (a) introducing a real citizen voice into technology policy making; (b) democratizing research; and (c) harnessing telecommunications capabilities to help rebuild face- to-face social life.

    Citizen Voice in Policy Making

    One of my favorite examples of introducing everyday citizens' concerns into science & technology policy deliberations is the European "consensus conference." For instance, the Danish Board of Technology (a government agency) does it by picking a complex, controversial issue (such as telecommunications or biotechnology policy) that will soon be coming up for Parliamentary debate. Next they select a random panel of Danish citizens--folks with no expertise or prior interest in the topic--and also assemble a balanced steering committee of experts and knowledgeable stakeholders.

    The Board goes on to arrange two background weekends to help bring the lay panel up to speed on the issue. Then they hold a 4-day public forum in which the layfolk cross-examine expert witnesses and stakeholders, deliberate for a day, and then announce their own judgments to a national press conference. The process is lovely, and has helped stimulate informed popular debate throughout the nation and, in several cases, directly influenced legislation.

    I have a short article about consensus conferences (entitled "Democratizing Technology") in the Summer, 1995 issue of In Context magazine, and a longer one due out in the July, 1996 issue of Technology Review. The Loka Institute is currently exploring several options for trying to organize a pilot consensus conference in the U.S.

    Democratic Research

    For beginning to steer research toward areas of popular concern, I love the example of the Dutch "science shop" system. Over the past 20 years, professors and students at Dutch universities have established a national network of 50 community research centers. The centers accept inquiries from community groups, nonprofit organizations, workers, and local governments. Easy questions are typically referred to undergraduates, who get course credit for undertaking a small study. Difficult questions often become masters and PhD theses.

    Each year the Dutch shops provide answers to 2,500 questions. They've analyzed environmental contaminants, workplace safety, reasons why Amsterdam teens won't talk with social workers, the economic potential for an independent women's radio station, the political and fundraising impact if Amnesty International were to publish more graphic photos of political torture, and so on. About 60 percent of the studies turn out to involve methodologies from the social sciences and humanities; the rest involve natural science or engineering.

    Here in the U.S. there are actually quite a few similar efforts--often employing participatory research methodologies, which can help ensure that research is fully responsive to community concerns. For example, there's the Policy Research Action Group in Chicago, the Applied Research Center in Oakland, the Highlander Research & Education Center in Tennessee, and nonprofit John Snow, Inc., in Boston. But we don't yet have a dense, cohesive, popularly accessible national system analogous to what exists in the Netherlands. (Allowing for the difference in population between the U.S. and the Netherlands, Americans would have to be completing about 42,000 community-based research projects annually to be operating on a par with the Dutch!)

    For that reason, the Loka Institute is currently spearheading an effort to establish a National Community Research Network (NCRN) in the U.S. Our long-range vision is to incubate a decentralized, democratic alternative to the current $25 billion-per-year national laboratory system, which is substantially an anachronistic holdover from World War II and the Cold War.

    For more information, see "Putting Science to Work in Communities," my March 31, 1995 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, pp. B1-B3. To participate in planning an NCRN, subscribe to the Loka Institute "scishops" listserv. Just send an e-mail message to listserv@ncsu.edu with a blank subject line and the message text: "Subscribe scishops (your name)"


    For potentially saner development and use of telecommunications capabilities, I like the idea of "communiversities" (the term was coined by my friend Scott Bernstein, president of Chicago's Center for Neighborhood Technology). Instead of watching corporations cut overhead costs by forcing employees to telecommute in isolation from home, imagine changing zoning laws (which today often mandate strict separation of residential and commercial activities) and, as needed, providing tax incentives for every neighborhood to set up a local telecommuting center. That way you can avoid commuting long distances but work in a collegial setting, and also economize on secretarial/administrative support, xerox and fax machines, and other tools of the trade.

    But the "commmuniversity" also provides high-grade local access to the "info superhighway"--and thus functions as a neighborhood branch library and information center. Now take it a few steps further: offer some evening workshops and adult education classes, day care, a coffee shop or tavern with live music in the evenings, maybe a rudimentary health club, support services for the elderly...let your imagination fly. This would be using telecommunications to help rebuild and revive face-to-face social life, while also securing the cosmopolitan benefits of translocal communication and social networking. Sounds to me a whole lot more appealing than the present thrust toward social atomization and crass commercialism!

    For other inspiring stories about democratizing research and technology, check out my new book, Democracy and Technology. For instance, Chapter 10, "Everyone Contributes," discusses examples of laypeople participating directly in technological research & development. The book is available in paperback from Guilford Press: e-mail (info@guilford.com) or, in the U.S., call toll free 1-800-365-7006.

    And to receive monthly "Loka Alerts" concerned with democratizing science and technology, send an email request to: Loka@amherst.edu

    Steve, this has been fun. Thanks!


    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    To make a tax-deductible contribution to the Loka Institute's Technology and Democracy Project, write a check drawn in U.S. dollars to "Proteus/Loka" and mail it to: The Loka Institute, PO Box 355, Amherst MA 01004 USA. You can also contact the Institute at loka@amherst.edu to find out more.

    I should add that neither I nor NETFUTURE is affiliated in any way with the Loka Institute. I hope to bring you interviews with other interesting thinkers in the future.


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    *** Dealing reasonably with cyberhate
    Response to "Cyberhate in Canada" (NF-10)

    From Rob Slade (roberts@mukluk.hq.decus.ca)

    > B'Nai Brith says anti-Semitic harassment in Canada is on the rise
    > because of an "exponential growth of cyberhate."

    I've noticed quite a surge in the past year. In particular, I have seen postings in soc.culture.canada, but I have also seen postings in quite unrelated groups. (There was one instance in alt.comp.virus, a very interesting choice, that seemed to be strongly related to the hate/white supremist groups, and stated that Texas had finally got up the guts to secede from the Union.)

    I certainly find it disturbing, and distasteful, but I'm of two minds as to whether it is important. Certainly it tends to reinforce a long time observation: as the net expands, the idiots are flocking in. On the other hand, are they doing anything more than talking to themselves? I wouldn't like to see the stuff go unchallenged, but it tends to be pretty clear to any reader that the hatemongers are singularly lacking in both education and intelligence.

    I would, very strongly, suggest that, rather than going to the media with complaints which may get distorted in various ways, the concerned groups dedicate some resources to challenging this slime online. A few FAQs, built on facts, and some careful, thoughtful and above all, restrained responses will have an enormous effect. alt.comp.virus is a case in point. When started, it was a definite vx (virus exchange) hangout, with virus source being posted freely and most participants loudly extolling the right to write, and spread, viruses. Less than a year of postings by antiviral researchers have largely changed that. Virus source is hardly ever posted (even though the group is unmoderated), and, while the calls for virus trades do go on, the majority of traffic is questions to, and answers from, the people who obviously do have something to contribute.

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    *** Advertising and the pressure to upgrade
    Response to "We relate to technology as to an archetype" (NF-14)

    From Mike Fischbein (mfischbe@fir.fbc.com)

    Is it possible that the "pressure to upgrade, upgrade, upgrade" is the same as the pressure that moves us from short hair and narrow ties to long hair and wide ties, or short dresses to long? Could it possibly be that the vendors of dresses, or ties, or haircuts, or computers (or computer manuals, for that matter), are trying to increase demand for their various products? Of course, the best way of convincing someone is to get them to think it's their own idea, so it probably would be hard to find explicit advertising for clothing or computers. I'll see if I can find any as soon as I get through this Bloomingdale's insert. Wait, there's a CompUSA tabloid here as well...

    No, the fact that Microsoft spent about five times as much advertising their latest OS as they did on actually developing it probably has absolutely nothing to do with the "pressure to upgrade, upgrade, upgrade." Nope, it obviously is inherent in computer technology. I wonder where my bell-bottoms went?

    Mike Fischbein mfischbe@fir.fbc.com CS First Boston

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    Mike --

    A few decades ago a furor over "planned obsolescence" (particularly in automobiles) helped to kick off the consumer activist movement. Our discussion about employees resisting automatic software upgrades makes me wonder whether the forces of planned obsolescence haven't largely re-gathered themselves and snuck up on us from behind (encouraged, no doubt, by our own cooperation). What is the high-tech industry if not a massive, concerted experiment in accelerating planned obsolescence to the extreme?


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    *** About this newsletter

    Copyright 1996 by The Nature Institute. You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes. You may also redistribute individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url and this paragraph are attached.

    NetFuture is supported by freely given reader contributions, and could not survive without them. For details and special offers, see http://netfuture.org/support.html .

    Current and past issues of NetFuture are available on the Web:


    To subscribe or unsubscribe to NetFuture:

    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #15 :: April 11, 1996

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