Re: [RRE]notes and recommendations

Kragen Sitaker (
Wed, 16 Dec 1998 15:14:56 -0500 (EST)

On Tue, 15 Dec 1998, Phil Agre wrote:
> Noble comes from a
> tradition that regards technology as an instrument of power and its
> plans. Power, he believes, wants to replace people with machines,
> regardless of whether it is efficient or decent to do so, simply
> because the machines make us easier to control.

Consider that, with sufficient mechanization, it is possible to have a
thriving economy with no humans in it. We're a ways away from there
yet -- most innovation still has to come from humans, and innovation
still plays a significant role in our economy.

> Noble's opponents, on the other hand, assume that technology is the
> natural enemy of power. They believe that technology has its own
> inner logic, that this logic is unstoppable,

I've certainly heard that before.

I think that any technology tends to support certain power structures
better than others. For example, nuclear power and software copyright
tend to promote massive centralization, while solar power and
open-source software tend to promote individual effort.

I think that technology is powerless without institutional support, and
institutions tend to support the technology that reinforces their own
power -- thus, for example, phone companies and the "intelligent
network", the government of France and their semaphore telegraphs, the
oil companies' relentless PR campaigns against solar and wind energy,

But there are several holes in their control.

The first is that technology itself gives power to those who use it.
This is why so much technological development comes out of the military
-- by all accounts, a fairly conservative society, but very interested
in getting more power. (Heck, it's their job, right?) So if there are
multiple institutions playing a zero-sum game, and there's a technology
available that will give its users an advantage in this game, they will
be tempted to use it -- even if it weakens all of their power. If the
game is important enough to them, there are enough players, they don't
expect to interact for long, etc., then the prisoner's-dilemma
temptation will eventually result in all the players using that

This is one way that technology that tends to subvert the dominant
paradigm (to use a catchphrase popular these days) can become
established. It is how the Internet has gained universal support among
the U.S. military, the telcos, the news media, and the government of
China -- among other unlikely places.

The second is that technology may not require support from institutions
that are currently in power. Many "alternative" energy sources --
wind, wood, gas from hog manure, etc. -- have been developed without
support from power or oil companies, but nevertheless will affect their
business. Linux got essentially no support from established software
companies for the first four or so years of its existence, up until
1995 (although Netscape was an exception). But it didn't need it.

The third is that people in power may want to change the power
structure because they don't like it. Every political revolution in
history has enjoyed some support from every class; indeed, I seem to
recall some retrospective research that indicated that social class was
not a significant predictor of whether one would oppose or support a
political revolution.

I would expect that technological revolutions might work the same way.

In any case, any technology will tend to support some social structures
better than others. I believe that developing technology can,
therefore, be an effective technique for effecting social change.

> It would be a disaster if society ignored the issues
> that Noble writes about.

I agree!

> I am just opposed to technological agendas that promise that
> our salvation can be found in the logic of inanimate objects.

I don't think it can. But certainly the logic of inanimate objects can
have a significant influence on the form of a society's institutions --
our own megacorporations could not exist without efficient worldwide
communication, and the Linux development effort could not exist without
*cheap* efficient worldwide communication.

To look at it a different way, our damnation could certainly be
manifested in the logic of inanimate objects.

Imagine a society in which all communications devices contained serial
copy management systems, circumventing these systems was a crime, and
all material input into the communications devices from outside the
system (e.g. keyboard, microphone) was marked as "copy-once" -- like
the current crop of consumer DAT recorders. The only people with
access to communications devices that could produce reproducible
recordings would be licensed recording companies with high-priced
machines and regular inspections to make sure they weren't breaking
copyright laws.

Such a society would not have meaningful freedom of speech. (Note that
Diamond is currently in court with a claim against the Recording
Industry Association of America, claiming (among other things) that the
Audio Home Recording Act, which mandates just such a system, violates
the First and Fifth amendments to the US Constitution. See
<URL:> for Diamond's press release on
the subject and
<URL:> for ABC
News's reporting.)

Clearly such a society would be established by institutions, but it
would enforce its restrictions through technology.

It is our duty to establish technologies that do not enforce such

> The cyberspace ideology . . . posits either that we will all effectively
> move into cyberspace in the years to come, or that cyberspace will
> reconstruct the rest of the world in its image. Recalcitrant atoms --
> paper, ink, bricks, mortar, bodies, and so on -- will give way to the
> city of bits, and human life will become a consensual hallucination.

The recent movie "What Dreams May Come" has some interesting insights
into what such a world might be like. It's not universally sweetness
and light.

(The movie itself doesn't mention cyberspace, but most of the scenery
is computer-generated.)

> Counting on technology is like counting on politics --
> you can get good technology or bad, good politics or bad, depending
> on lots of things. The question is not whether we should support
> technology but what values we want technology to embody.

Agreed -- in fact, I think I said the same thing earlier in this reply.

* * *

> a normative picture of the human person: they both hold, if not quite
> explicitly, that efficient markets and packet switching should both
> be employed to continually reconfigure human relationships, matching
> people with their optimal partners from moment to moment. I regard
> this as an unhealthy thing to want, and I suggested that the Internet
> applications that we know today unnecessarily promote the compulsive
> establishment of relationships with people one hardly knows.

Interesting thoughts.

* * *

> As Herbert Burkert
> pointed out in his very good chapter in our "Technology and Privacy"
> volume, when electronic commerce people talk about "trust", they are
> actually talking about the opposite of what normal people usually mean
> by the word. To trust someone, in normal usage, is precisely to place
> yourself at a certain risk without formal guarantees of your safety.

That's what it normally means in descriptions of cryptographic
protocols, too; someone you trust is someone who can fuck you up
big-time without you having any recourse.

I'm curious how it came to mean the opposite in the e-commerce

* * *

> Maybe I'm just mean, but when I look at an iMac, I see a DEC VT 220.

How so?

* * *

> So to be fair, then, let's do the math -- that is, let's see
> when it was economically rational to ignore the Y2K problem.

It may be economically rational for the person doing the accounting,
even if it's not economically rational for the company. A person who
spends a lot of money this year and next year that they could have
saved may suffer for it; a person who incurs enormous costs twenty,
ten, or even five years after they leave the company probably won't,
particularly if nobody finds out about the costs until they're due.

> Others will know better than I whether these predictions hold true.

They don't. People typically don't consider anew how to represent
dates when they wrote a new piece of software; they typically do it the
same way they've always done it. This leads to much lower debugging
and maintenance costs, except when that method is fundamentally

I've fixed Y2K problems in applications written in C++ starting in 1993.

* * *

> Like most people whose e-mail addresses get around the Internet, I
> have been getting a steady stream of messages from distant relatives,
> as well as from people I haven't seen for decades. The Internet would
> seem to be changing an important feature of human relationships: we no
> longer take for granted that people disappear. It's bad, of course,
> when people disappear without warning, whether because of the secret
> police or the demon in the bottle. But it has long been normal, as a
> cultural matter, for people to disappear from one's life in particular
> circumstances.

It's not normal in most parts of the world -- possible, perhaps, but
mostly extremely unusual. It's only been normal in the US for a
century or so.

Perhaps I'm just an archconservative, but I tend to think that people
are best designed for living in the kinds of communities they lived in
for most of human history -- nearly everyone you know you've known for
either most of your life or most of their life, and you see them every
week, if not every day.

> To take an example... When "white pages" services
> began to appear on the Internet, I wasn't all that curious about them
> beyond wanting to make sure that I wasn't listed in them. But I was
> just barely curious enough to pull one of these services up and, just
> once, type in the name of an old girlfriend from the 1980's. Bad
> idea: her name appeared on my screen with an address and phone number
> in Maine. (Her name might fill phone books in Poland, but not here.
> It was probably her.) I instantly regretted this, and wished that
> I could erase all knowledge of her present whereabouts from my mind.
> The problem is not that I'm tempted to contact her -- the chances
> of this are truly zero. Nor does the problem pertain to any leftover
> feelings -- after all, we're talking fifteen years ago. The problem
> is just having her located anywhere definite on my mental map of the
> world. It's better sometimes if people disappear.

I don't really understand -- but I probably never will. I have never
understood how anyone can truly want to remain ignorant of *anything*.
(I grew up thinking "I don't want to know" was some kind of joke.)

* * *

> It's important how we respond to such ideas. One tendency is denial:
> this is the approach of many Internet defenders, who also belittle
> the whole idea of pedophiles and pornography online.

The evidence seems to suggest that pedophiles online -- while different
in important and scary ways from pedophiles not online -- are extremely
rare. Go pose as a horny twelve-year-old girl in an AOL chat room and
try to pick up a pedophile. (I haven't tried this, btw. Maybe I
should ask my 12-year-old sister for help.)

Pornography online is another story. :)

> Present-day personal computers are too isolated, so that the transfer
> of know-who between individuals is too difficult,

See <URL:>.

> and present-day
> Internet applications force people into an excessive intimacy, so that
> people have a hard time screening bad stuff out of their mailboxes and
> hard drives, not to mention their minds.

I wonder if this is just part of the nature of present-day
applications? I think people tend to crave intimacy, and the Internet
provides a medium that simultaneously has very low bandwidth --
encouraging projection and extreme emotions -- and great interactivity,
unlike, say, snail mail or TV. It seems that these tend to promote
extreme intimacy.

* * *

> But on the other hand, I expect that some people argue that Microsoft
> cut off Encyclopedia Britannica's air supply the same way they cut
> off Netscape's -- flooding the market with nearly-free copies of a
> shoddy competitive product.

Microsoft killed Netscape with completely-free copies of an excellent
competitive product, actually.

* * *

> Recommended: Thomas Vinterberg's film, "The Celebration". Shot in
> a deliberately spare style, with a hand-held camera that will make
> you seasick for the first three minutes, this is an incredible Danish
> film about a screwed-up family and its out-of-control family reunion.

Where can one get it? Is it playing in cinemas now, or is it perhaps
on video?

> Random Credit Card Fraud with Small Charges

This is an excellent web page in many ways! It has a clear,
non-context-dependent title, begins with an easily-recognizable list of
external links followed by a complete table of contents (with excellent
individual-section titles), it includes a prominent revision date (of
three days ago!), and it includes detailed and excellent information.

Imagine my surprise to discover it had been written with Microsoft

I think this is one of the first documented instances of pseudospoofing
(see the Lawrence Detweiler/cypherpunks case) being used to defeat
reputation systems.

I'm surprised it's taken until 1997 for people to start doing this. I
was worried about it some years ago. Perhaps I'm smarter than all the
crooks out there, but I doubt it.

It has a link to an article at
<URL:> that describes more
general credit card fraud.

> "Who Will Own Your Next Good Idea" by Charles Mann

Very interesting article from the Atlantic Monthly. Describes
different sides of the copyright debate reasonably fairly. Misspells
Kevin Kelly's name. Includes connections between oppressive,
authoritarian governments and copyright law, and descriptions of
copyright-free environments.

Interestingly, the description of post-Revolutionary France's
copyright-free environment reminds me greatly of today's
copyright-heavy music, movie, and proprietary-softwre industries, and
doesn't significantly resemble the Web, Usenet, open-source software,
fashion, or culinary worlds of today, where intellectual-property law
is almost unused.

This lends credence to the widely-known thesis that copyright is

It also includes an example of something I described much earlier in
this post: people in power (David Nimmer) opposing changes that would
give them more power, and promoting changes that would give them less

It also includes what appears to be the first mainstream-press coverage
of the sui generis database-protection insanity and the related
clickwrap Article 2B insanity (with the exception of some excellent
articles in the San Francisco Examiner by Rebecca Eisenberg.)

> LA public defenders' office page on wiretapping

Interesting. Anti-wiretapping pages by the gov't. I'm glad they have
enough funding to do such things.

> The Alertbox: Current Issues in Web Usability

As most of my readers probably know, this is an *excellent* column.
It's worth reading the entire back issues of, IMHO.

> Working papers on socio-economic impact of advanced communications

Looks like interesting titles, but I don't want to download and unzip
them just to read them.

<>       Kragen Sitaker     <>
Silence may not be golden, but at least it's quiet.  Don't speak unless you
can improve the silence.  I have often regretted my speech, never my silence.
-- ancient philosopher Syrus (?) via Adam Rifkin, <>