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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future
    Issue #7       Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates      February 14, 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  ####
    *** Eating spam in the House and Senate
          But our representatives are fighting back
    *** Declaration of mindlessness in cyberspace
          Is the Net the current drug of choice?
    *** Committing ourselves to tinkerers (Stephen L. Talbott)
          When emptiness rules
    *** A quick guide to the politics of cyberspace, pt. 2 (Richard Sclove)
          The cybernetic Wal-Mart effect and other concerns
    *** Web chaos and personal responsibility (Dale Lehman)
          The real problem is dehumanization
    *** Sour grapes from Mr. Ciolek (Chris Howard)
          The web may compare favorably to TV and newspapers
    *** Going with the flow (Kevin Jessup)
          From Luddite to Extropian
    *** Soft speech on the Net (Carl Wittnebert)
          The transforming potential of restraint
    *** Monks consecrate cyberspace (Eleanor Wynn)
          Monastery participates in `24 Hours in Cyberspace'
    *** It may be too late (John Thienes)
          NETFUTURE is a contrary zephyr in an arctic gale
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Eating spam in the House and Senate

    Electronic democracy advocates are celebrating the new "Mailbot" service that allows us, with a single keystroke, to distribute an email message to every emailable member of the U.S. House and Senate. Of course, when they do that to us, it's called "spamming." But that, I suppose, is only because there's a slight presumption that you and I might occasionally have to read our email. No such presumption is necessary for our elected representatives--at least, we should hope not, if we would like them to get any work done. And, indeed, the Mailbot announcement I came across mentioned that "you will get a lot of (automated) acknowledgments from Congress."

    So, our bots are talking to their bots in the electronic agora. Pericles, rest easy; the prospects for self government are looking up.


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    *** Declaration of mindlessness in cyberspace

    Following the signing of the telecommunications bill, John Perry Barlow, former Grateful Dead songwriter and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, issued "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace." It begins,

    Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.
    It's further downhill from there. Cyberspace, we learn, is "naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us." Not, of course, that there are no problems, but "we will identify them and address them by our means. We are forming our own Social Contract. This governance will arise according to the conditions of our world, not yours. Our world is different."

    You'll find all the obligatory stuff here. For example, "We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth." Even the Golden Rule figures--as the reigning law of cyberspace. The only thing missing is flowers sticking out of FBI modem ports.

    Needless to say, this kind of thing gets great "air time" throughout cyberspace. It's worth thinking about: the pompous vacuities that, during the Sixties, could only be sustained with the aid of LSD and pot are now effortlessly sustained by sober Netheads. What does this tell us about the character of the Net?


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    *** Committing ourselves to tinkerers
                             When Emptiness Rules
                              Stephen L. Talbott
    A remarkable truth, scarcely noticed, underlies all the ongoing drama of cyberspace. The jockeying for position by slickly named megacorporations, the unquenchable eructation of high-tech news and analysis from both trade and general presses, the struggle by millions of bemused citizens to figure out how their lives relate to the online world, and the endless billions of dollars in research monies that drive the entire, purposeful chaos -- these express a single, gray fact.

    The fact is a simple one, though devastating in its implications: what generates all this thundering activity is a mere tinkering with logic. Find the right college student, closet him in a room for six months with a supply of Jolt, a screen and keyboard, and a silicon box full of logical tinker toys, then sit back and wait for the cultural earthquake.

    It will come. We now experience such earthquakes with dizzying frequency: gopher clients and servers, which began reconstructing the Net as an information space rather than a machine space; World Wide Web servers supporting a matrix of hypertext links; the Mosaic web browser; and, lately, the mere rumor of Java.

    Anyone who takes in even a tiny part of this trillion-dollar commotion and then reflects upon the nature of the developments provoking it can hardly escape an occasional surreal moment. All this energy and money and attention is focused upon -- emptiness. Nothing. Or, rather, sheer, undirected, unconsidered potential. Infinite technical means running amok in a world without ends.

    But means disconnected from ends are worse than useless; they are a dangerous distraction. And an uncontrolled passion for them testifies to a society adrift.

    Exercises in logic and programming are exercises in the manipulation of empty forms. Concern about what human uses the logic may find is no part of the programmer's accepted task; it can arise only from a liberal, humane education largely excluded from both the technical curriculum and the corporation's R&D imperatives. The typical software engineering organization today is a kind of Manhattan Project where official censorship about the project's end results is unnecessary; each engineer happily engages in self-censorship.

    When the engineering of forms is thus divorced from adequate consideration of their concrete meaning and use, stunningly vacuous pronouncements about the profound social significance of the latest tinkering begin to proliferate -- pronouncements about reinvigorated democracy and community, about the mind's unlimited expansion, about personal freedom and mystical breakthroughs -- as if the empty forms of the latest programming logic were somehow ensouled by mythic gods and goddesses. It would be truer to say that they are ensouled by the demons of our subconscious -- the normal result whenever we confront a void.

    History has often been shifted upon the fulcrum of a "mere" idea. But such ideas were not bloodless and abstract; they were not compactions of logic. It was their content, their meaning, that gave them power. The redemptive conceptions at the heart of the great religions, the ennobling Renaissance conviction that man is the measure of all things, the eighteenth century's aspiration for liberty, equality, fraternity -- these ideas, through their imaginative content, impelled the heart and gave substance to reason fully as much as they stimulated the purely analytical intellect.

    The software that now yearly revolutionizes our world is not based upon any such content. The driving ideas today are technical ones -- above all, the ideas of connectivity, speed, and convenience (for what?). Of course, we still need to think we are driven by great visions. Surely all our miraculous technical capabilities must somehow be good for society! Yet the technical means are what all the commotion is about. They are what draws the investment. In effect, the means have become our end.

    Once we lose the distinction between end and means, it is easy to delude ourselves. Mention connectivity, and immediately salvific images take hold, strengthened by real-life examples: so-and-so, in last-minute desperation, uses the Net to discover the correct diagnosis (overlooked by his doctors) to a potentially fatal disease. The phrase, "enabling technology," captures well the reigning faith sustained by testimonials such as this. In the presence of such a faith, there is no need to step back and consider the overall effects of "distance medicine" upon a medical practice that has already alienated the patient from his own body and cut him off from the technologically barricaded healer.

    In a balanced world, where enabling tools were sought because we had first grasped profound ideas that needed realization, we might reasonably welcome the enablement. But in an unbalanced world where billions of dollars frenetically change course monthly, chasing the latest result of logical tinkering, there is not much hope for the triumph of ruling vision.

    The tinkerers do not concern themselves with content. If they did, they would no longer be in the same business. Yet all that connectivity needs to connect something -- even if the something is viewed solely from the vantage point of the tools. So meaning and content are reduced to the terms of the tinkering; they become information.

    What programming logic sees when it confronts our meaningful texts and images is nothing but the quantifiable "content" given by information theory. And what we see, so far as we train ourselves to follow the logic of our programs and pattern our own activity after it, is nothing but that same, dessicated information.

    Neil Postman has been reminding us repeatedly that "if a nuclear holocaust should occur some place in the world, it will not happen because of insufficient information; if children are starving in Somalia, it's not because of insufficient information; if crime terrorizes our cities, marriages are breaking up, mental disorders are increasing, and children are being abused, none of this happens because of a lack of information."

    Nobody seems to be listening. Yet Postman is right, insofar as information is thought of as something given, something we can "access," store, and process -- so far, that is, as we view it in the manner of a program. Meaning, by contrast, cannot be accessed. It can only be entered into -- and then only through the exercise of those neglected faculties standing at the opposite pole from our activities as information processors.

    What the world needs today is the human ability to deepen the meaning of notions like ethnic identity, criminal punishment, personal destiny, and communal service. By celebrating beyond all reason the power-engendering and purely instrumental ability to shuffle information around -- this in a society whose least urgent need is for greater access to information -- we encourage the continued atrophy of those contemplative and imaginative capacities through which the deepening might have occurred.

    Nothing I have said here suggests that you and I cannot find ways to harness the Net's potentials to worthy ends. But in a society obsessively determined to celebrate and reward the tinkering itself--this accelerating accretion of gizmos and gadgets and features melded by "necessity" into a relentless juggernaut running out of control--the most immediately worthy goal may well be to start looking for the brakes.

    (Stephen L. Talbott is author of "The Future Does Not Compute--Transcending the Machines in Our Midst." The foregoing reflection is part of a developing collection called "Daily Meditations for the Computer Entranced." See http://netfuture.org/meditations.)

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    *** A quick guide to the politics of cyberspace, pt. 2

    This is part 2 of a continuing interview with Richard E. Sclove, executive director of the Loka Institute in Amherst, Mass. See below for further information about Dr. Sclove.

    The first installment concluded with Dr. Sclove expressing doubt about the prospects for a Net adapted to the public interest: "Of all this I'm pessimistic--but not so much so that I won't keep squawking and trying."

    SLT: Pessimistic indeed. You refer to "the ways in which individual actions combine to produce unplanned, and often detrimental, social outcomes." On the one hand, this points you to the need for "democratically informed regulation." I should think that, on the other hand, it would point to the critical importance of raising those individual actions and their outcomes to fuller consciousness--which, in fact, becomes ever more possible through the efforts at understanding by people like you. Of course, these are not two altogether different things. But at the moment I'm wondering: How does all that you've said here translate into individual responsibility -- both in front of the keyboard and away from it?

    RES: Well, I pay particular attention to: (a) ways in which individual actions involving technology can combine to produce unintended adverse social results; or (b) adverse sociotechnological consequences resulting from present undemocratic (or insufficiently democratic) corporate, market and governmental structures. For that reason, I tend to spend most of my time thinking about alternative public policies or about political actions for evolving and implementing such policies. That is, when confronted by problems of these sorts, there isn't that much an individual can accomplish unless you combine forces with others to act politically.

    E.g., suppose I am concerned that shopping online will produce a "cybernetic Wal-Mart effect"--that is, sap revenue from remaining downtown and neighborhood businesses, and thus contribute to further erosion of local economic, civic vitality and democracy. Well, the obvious personal step you can take-- simply to choose not to shop online--won't do anything to prevent others, most of whom won't anticipate the collective consequences, from starting to shop online. (Moreover, before long--as more local businesses do indeed close down, you and others will find yourselves increasingly compelled to shop online.)

    Thus in such circumstances, the most effective and important action I can see to take is to join with others in squawking publicly about the problem, and proposing/agitating for various political solutions. (One solution I've suggested would be a modest tax on online commerce, with the revenue rebated to local communities for investment in local economic and civic revitalization. That would permit online commerce to proceed, while holding it in appropriate, socially determined balance with face-to-face life.)

    Of course, to my particular concern about children losing a sense of the value of face-to-face social experience and time spent in nature, there are partial solutions parents can choose to adopt individually. That is, in the same way that some parents choose to limit kids' TV-watching, or encourage critical viewing habits (or, in some cases, don't even own a TV); a parent can also choose to limit computer use, promote a constructive critical relationship to computers (and to other technologies), not own a computer, or encourage/help provide lots of offline experiences in outdoor physical play, etc. That can presumably help address some of the concerns you have about your own kids.

    I suppose this also risks social disapproval. That is, if you limit TV-watching, you're apt to get a fair amount of positive social reinforcement. But in today's hyped atmosphere concerning the future of an "information society"--and justified anxiety about job security -- computer-concerned parents might find themselves scolded for denying their kids the "essential opportunities they need to compete." (I can't wait for the first teenager who takes her parents to court for abusive denial of computer access.)

    But if your concern is not merely with your own children, but with the kind of society/world that may result as many kids grow up under increasingly sedentary, screen-based circumstances -- well, for that broader concern I think the solutions again have to be to find ways of becoming engaged as a political actor (something that I well understand is inordinately difficult for many people already strapped by punishingly stressed-out work and family responsibilities).

    You asked also what people who are concerned can do "both online and offline." To me, in this context the online/offline distinction is not critical. If the objective is to be politically effective, folks can make their own choices about whether it's more fun or useful to function politically online, off, or (as I do) in combination.

    (You can reach Dr. Sclove at loka@amherst.edu, or on the Web at http://www.amherst.edu/~loka/. Founded in 1987, the Loka Institute is a public affairs research and advocacy organization concerned with the social, political, and environmental repercussions of science and technology. Currently, the Institute's core activity is the Technology & Democracy Project, working to make science and technology more responsive to social and environmental concerns by expanding opportunities for grassroots, public-interest group, everyday citizen, and worker involvement in vital facets of science and technology decision making.)

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    *** Web chaos and personal responsibility
    Response to "WWW or MMM? The Specter of Multi-media Mediocrity" (NF-6)

    From Dale Lehman (lehman_d@fortlewis.edu)

    I have been studying information architecture generally, particularly as it is being developed on-line. The Web is a chaotic example. I have found much useful information and I expect this will increase, contrary to what many seem to believe. I have been particularly successful in finding interesting large data sets and downloading them for the use in statistics courses. Indeed, the Web is an ideal medium for data communications.

    The waste comes in through the chaotic architecture which requires far too much time to find what I am interested in. I believe this problem will worsen as sites continue to multiply and quality control is absent. The source is fairly mundane -- internet pricing (the lack of), particularly the absence of any congestion pricing which would send signals to people of the costs they are imposing on other users. Absent such price signals, the problem must grow worse. (I would note that the French solved this problem in Minitel by charging a monthly registration fee for each IP address - as the number of services reached 10,000 this was needed to deal with a congested information environment).

    Fortunately, the Internet culture will not make simple pricing solutions palatable. I say fortunately, because I believe the real problem is more subtle and dangerous. I attribute the underlying cause to the continuing and growing loss of individual identity and corresponding growth of individual irresponsibility. Humans have increasingly become desensitized to our interdependence with each other and with our planet. Technology has been a tool in this process. For every instance of real human contact through the Internet, I think there are dozens of subtle ways in which we are dehumanizing each other. We are becoming Web sites and not people. We will be evaluated on the basis of our site characteristics and not on our humanity.

    Indeed, the Web is a perfect medium for this disembodied atomistic society. It provides us with a glimpse of who we have already become and are becoming. We have the illusion of personal power, although the reality is that the Web is a power enhancing tool for the already powerful. The only real "power" the masses gain is the power to harm each other without needing to bear the responsibility for doing so.

    Each Web site that adds no real value but only points occasionally to someone else's useful information is imposing costs on others. This is but a continuation of how we have learned to deal with strangers. The problem can be reduced through simple economic pricing, but it cannot be eliminated by it. Solution requires an increased sense of responsibility and community. I fear that these values are not enhanced by the Web. I cannot imagine the newly empowered individual publishers will relinquish their "power" willingly. And, by holding on to these crumbs of empowerment, they will inevitably become more controlled by intelligent agents and the "system" which will be needed to overcome the chaos of the Web.

    Dale Lehman
    Fort Lewis College

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    *** Sour grapes from Mr. Ciolek
    Response to "WWW or MMM? The Specter of Multi-media Mediocrity" (NF-6)

    From Chris Howard (choward@iastate.edu)

    I don't mean to be disrespectful of Mr. Ciolek, but this sounds a lot like sour-grapes from the information meritocracy. As an analogy, should I find it alarming if most of the books/magazines/newspapers printed today are of limited value, or contain self-serving statements and tasteless advertisements? I don't. I just don't buy or read them. Using personal experience as a guide, I filter out mountains of trash every day.

    The web has been appropriated by thousands of people and organizations as a method of expression. The expressions are as faulty as the people themselves. I think that is part of the charm of it. Like CB radio or public access cable television, anyone can now look silly in front of a larger audience.

    Is the web an inefficient information carrier? Sure. But probably less so than broadcast TV/Radio, and surely less so than bulk mailings. Even as you read this, hundreds of manhours are being invested in broadcasting "junk" of all kinds. At least with the web the "junk" doesn't get transmitted unless it is requested, it doesn't require massive amounts of newsprint, or the appropriation of large hunks of the broadcast spectrum.

    Chris Howard choward@iastate.edu (515) 294-6521
    Iowa State University Library -- Automated Systems Division

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    *** Going with the flow

    From Kevin Jessup (kevin.jessup@meipws.mis.mei.com)

    [The following letter from a sometime correspondent of mine expresses in a rather poignant way one person's uncertain efforts to come to terms with electronic culture. Warning: in our society the fatalism expressed here may prove infectious! SLT]

    Hello Steve,

    I've thoroughly enjoyed our past correspondence regarding you're book, "The Future Does Not Compute." Since you've now resorted to a list server, I'll assume you too have been corrupted by the net. ;-)

    Seriously, congratulations on what so far has been a very interesting exchange of ideas by the participants. Looks like another success.

    You may recall I suffered a bit from oscillations between near "Luddism" and Extropianism. A curse from seeing good (and bad) in both philosophies. The balancing act is rather difficult. Lately I've believed asking too many questions and attempting to control or explain it all may be part of the problem.

    In NETFUTURE #3, Doug Johnson (djohnson@zilker.net) writes...

    > This is all too big, too vast. It's making me dizzy. I am > simultaneously master of change to some extent while being taken for a > ride, but I have some control over where I get on or off. I bought that > new computer because I wanted to, because of the things I want to do > with it. It is a tool, made to assist me. It serves me. I do not serve > it.

    Yes, the computer serves. But we also serve runaway technology. We have created the situation. But could we have ever really avoided it? As Kevin Kelly says, it's "Out of Control" anyway. We can no more control technology than Soviet Russia could mastermind an economic system. It's all too big. Attempting to control it may be impossible.

    A few fragmented thoughts on why I've returned to it all follow.

    It's a competition "thing". The efficient win. They'll keep their jobs. Their corporations will survive. Technology always has been and will continue to be the tool which provides this increased efficiency. I see internet, Email and my home ISDN line as just another "symptom" of runaway technology. At times I may not like it, but I'm afraid that's just the way it is. We can no more stop or control the information age than we could have stopped the industrial revolution. Economics makes it so. In a wired, global economy, it will be more so.

    Apart from competition, humans seem blessed (cursed?) with a curiosity which pushes us technologically forward. The information revolution is just one aspect of it all, as is our current fascination with the internet.

    But for me at least, it's ceased to be a curiosity and is now a tool. I seldom "surf the web" anymore. I've tried IRC but found it like CB radio. I never got into MUDS. I use the net to find things of use to me professionally and I may buy a pound of good coffee beans, but that's about it. I got over the initial "thrill". I expect most will. Maybe I'm wrong about that, at least for the very young. (I'm 39.)

    Despite the fact that I really DO enjoy my work (I'm a software engineer), overload and frustration do hit. What get's me through them is my desire to provide for my wife and 6-yr-old son. I also want to "triumph" over those bad times. Not that my wife couldn't survive without me, but you know what I mean. It usually takes two careers to survive these days. Being on the net to my employer and beyond is part of that.

    Survival also means keeping up-to-date technically. As most individuals in the engineering profession (and many others) will attest, it's not a 40 hour work week anymore (was it ever?). In addition to bringing work home, there is the assumption that one will also read technical journals and have enough computational "toys" at home so as to explore new techniques on one's own time. What one needs to handle all this is patience, determination and a "technology-friendly" attitude. And a very understanding spouse! (But I've corrupted her. She has signed up for a Windows course.)

    To be honest, I loved your book, but found it really difficult to go into work afterwards. I still read "passages" (It's almost religious!) from it once in a while, and will continue to do so, but I've decided to "re-embrace" technology and charge ahead. As I said in a pre-netfuture Email to you, at least going into work every day feels good again. For now, I'll attempt to "enjoy the ride" and keep near the crest of the wave.

    With any new technology comes an initial fascination and abuse. Maybe even a few addictions and perversions. But I think it will all settle down after a while and we'll find something else to worry about. Genetic engineering, biocomputing and nanotech may bring a few surprises.

    I look forward to more issues of Netfuture. Maybe you or someone else will change my mind again and I'll become that Amish farmer we talked about after all! Well not really. You see, they've been corrupted by the net too. No kidding! Look ->> http://padutch.welcome.com


    Kevin Jessup

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    *** Soft speech on the Net
    Response to "Laying Rubber, Flame Wars, and Responsibility" (NF-6)

    From Carl Wittnebert (cewit@wco.com)

    Stephen L. Talbott wrote, "Certainly the fully present human being normally evokes a gravity of response (whether positive or negative) that we have to consciously strive after when we are flinging off text into the ether."

    Yes, it takes considerable effort to project warmth and respect over the network, but I do not believe that the attempt is doomed to fail, and I wonder if there might not be some unexpected benefit. . .

    There exists in cyberspace a remarkable softspoken manner; its dignity appears to derive precisely from the exercise of restraint in the presence of enormous power. I believe that the transformative potential of a cultivated, skillful use of the 'Net should not be dismissed. . .

    "I sometimes suspect that I wouldn't be pursuing this unaccustomed effort if a good part of my need wasn't simply to screech my tires," Talbott said.

    Oh, everyone likes to show off, now and then. . .

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    *** Monks consecrate cyberspace
    Response to "Laying Rubber, Flame Wars, and Responsibility" (NF-6)

    From Eleanor Wynn (wynn@applelink.apple.com)

    Carl Wittnebert cites Chogyam Trungkpa on manners in general (kindness to others) with respect to flaming, and how behavior spreads. It might be some encouragement to him and others to learn that Tibetan monks from Namgyal Institute in Ithaca, NY, a Tibetan Buddhist College founded under the auspices of the Dalai Lama, will "consecrate cyberspace on February 8th in conjunction with an international event scheduled for the Internet entitled '24 Hours in Cyberspace'....Namgyal monks, possibly including monks from the parent monastery in Dharamsala [India], will offer prayers consecrating cyberspace, and a consecrated image of the Kalachakra mandala will be made available at Namgyal's new website: http://www.namgyal.org/." The 24 Hours project website is http://www.cyber24.com. (From Snow Lion Winter 1996 Newsletter, v 11, #1, PO Box 6483, Ithaca, NY 14581.)


    Eleanor Wynn

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

    May the monks' prayers ascend higher than the commercial miasma of "24 Hours in Cyberspace," which has littered cyberspace with such graffiti as,

    Could online technology be the "great equalizer"? Across the Third World and the former Soviet bloc, former have-nots are suddenly jumping in a single generation from creaky phones -- or none at all -- to wireless laptops and full access to the World Wide Web. And even in the so-called developed world, inner-city school kids and isolated rural towns are getting access over the Internet to the best information in the world.

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    *** It may be too late
    Response to "WWW or MMM? The Specter of Multi-media Mediocrity" (NF-6)

    From John Thienes (johnt@pcx.ncd.com)


    I have to plead nolo contendere to charges that I have idly followed various and sundry trails in the "Memex," and I have been known to pass on the www addresses of ] So nearly every morning I avail myself of the Dilbert comic, if only to do as a fellow former employee of Mentor Graphics does: it's how we keep up with what is going on at the company we left. However, this morning on the Dilbert page, besides the comic, was this trailhead.

    I am seriously afraid that efforts such as NetFuture are but a contrary zephyr in an Arctic gale, hence the subject line. That isn't to say that the effort should be abandoned; some of us really must take on the office of Jeremiah.

    John Thienes "Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam"
    NCD Software Corporation

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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 #7 :: February 14, 1996

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