Don't Charge for Email

Tim Bray has proposed a micropayment system to combat spam. A central authority – he suggests the post office – would issue “stamps” for perhaps $0.01. Then, each email message, blog post, etc. would have to prove that it had been paid for by a stamp. This low cost, he suggests, would have little effect on most people, but would be fatal to spammers. I am an admirer of Tim’s blog, but I think he’s dead wrong: this is one of the worst ideas I’ve seen in some time1. There are two main problems, revolving around cost & access, and centralization & innovation.

Cost & Access

A penny for an email message may not sound like much for many people. But for the poor it could effectively ration Internet communication. A homeless job seeker might be able to afford the payment to send out a batch of resumes, but the cost is one more reason not to. In the third world, a penny an email could quickly start to look like real money. Tim says the cost is negligible; he, for example, wouldn’t send more than 100 messages a day. I beg to differ. Thirty dollars a month is the cost of a cell phone or of broadband Internet.

Furthermore, it would be extremely tempting for the agency issuing the stamps to raise the price to whatever the market would bear. The lobbying might be hard to resist: why not let the free market decide and charge what the service is worth? Markets are supposed to be good at allocating scarce resources. But stamps aren’t scarce: any profit obtained from selling stamps is the product of an artificial monopoly – a monopoly which could be expected to raise the price at every opportunity. Is there any sufficient argument for arbitrarily limiting email access based on wealth2?

Centralization & Innovation

There are two forms of centralization here. The first is the central authority which issues the stamps. It becomes a critical gateway for access to Internet communication. Such power is immediately ripe for abuse, e.g. by lobbying politicians for an increase in the stamp rate.

But there is a second, invisible form of centralization here. Software for sending, routing, and delivering messages now has to include the ability to create, pass on, and authenticate stamps. It must do this in conjunction with the central authority (which therefore has the ability to decide who can authenticate and who can’t). Worse, it complicates the software. As with most complexity, this insulates incumbents from challengers. Authors of Internet communication software would need greater expertise in order to deal with the stamp system, and added resources in order to implement support for it. This added cost might mean little to Microsoft, but for the lone hacker it might be enough to stop new software from being developed. This would likely fall especially hard on the open source community.

The added complexity likely also has compound and unexpected interactions with other parts of the Internet communication infrastructure. New uses for the technologies might never see the light of day because of conflicts with the stamp system.

Meanwhile, the cost of stamps (or even just the perceived cost) would affect behavior: users would start finding ways to minimize stamps, e.g. by using blogs or wikis instead of email, even where they are less appropriate3.

As I said, it’s a bad idea. I can’t imagine it will come to pass. My real concern is that we in the software community too often forget the burdens imposed by the costs and complexity of our technologies. As for splogs (spam logs), I suspect the long term solution is identity, which while it solves many more problems, shares many of the disadvantages of the stamp scheme.


1 Actually, I’ve seen the idea of small charges to email messages proposed numerous times as a way to combat spam. I have even thought it was a good idea. I was wrong too.

2 A thought-experiment bears this out. What if the market were more democratic. Say every person was assigned 100 stamps per day for free. This would preserve access for the poor. But it is immediately obvious that some people would have a legitimate need for more stamps.

3 Updated (minutes later): Of course Tim is proposing that only end-user recipients would reject unstamped communications. So what I had written doesn’t apply: “Inevitably, I suspect, an independent communication system would arise – one not reliant on the stamp infrastructure. At this point, only draconian legislation or arbitrary control by ISPs – limiting technologies and their uses – could save the system.” Of course, ISPs might start requiring stamps in which case a parallel infrastructure is entirely possible.


Perfect Copies Produce Diversity

The threat of digital copying is not that it produces perfect duplicates, but that it produces heterogeneous diversity. It is not a sequel to the press, but a divergence from it.

That is one of the notes I made while reading Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy1, in response to this claim:

. . . homogeneity is quite incompatible with electronic culture. We now live in the early part of an age for which the meaning of print culture is becoming as alien as the meaning of manuscript culture was to the eighteenth century.

(Of course, when he talks about “electronic culture” he is talking about television and radio, not DVDs and the Internet2.)

It is not obvious that this should be the impact of digital media. The printing press supplanted handwritten manuscripts, which were anything but uniform. In the middle ages, for example, textbooks were class notes taken by students. But printed books are homogeneous: McLuhan calls them the first mass-produced commodities, and argues that the influence of their uniformity extended throughout society. Why would digital media — with its perfect copies — be any different?

But they are. The uniform sequence of songs on an album gives way to the random selection of the iPod Shuffle. We rip mix and burn. Although much of this is because of the affordability and ease-of-use of the tools, my point is about the inherent perfection of digital copies.

An analog copy is always inferior to a more perfect — hence more authoritative — original. Photographs of a painting increase the value of the original, while remaining relatively worthless themselves. The quality and value of a master is greater than of any subsequent derivative work, even more than distributed copies of that derivative. Because analog is imperfect, the goal of duplication is fidelity, and the result is hierarchy and uniformity. Even the echo of feudalism in the words — fidelity, master — reveals the bias.

Digital technology is different: every copy is a master because every copy is perfect. Derivative works are at no disadvantage. A technology which allows perfect uniformity instead promotes endless experimentation and innovation3.

This diversity, of course, is one of the targets of schemes from the broadcast flag to copyright and DRM. If we accept their control, we must also accept the passive uniformity that goes with them.


1 Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1962, p. 165.

2 McLuhan goes into more detail about electric media in Understanding Media, which I have not yet read.

3 Imagine if software were analog: Microsoft’s greatest treasure would be the master copy of Windows; open source would be a hopeless disaster.


A Balkanized Blogosphere?

I just completed a study, titled “ A Balkanized Blogosphere? ”. With same-sex marriage as a topic, I examined the degree to which blog posts connected to others with different points of view. Along with the study, I have posted my full data set and the scripts I used to analyze it.

My interest was not same-sex marriage itself: although I’ve stated my opinion before, the issue appears to me to be all but resolved in Canada. My concern is rather the strengths and weaknesses of blogs: the strengths so that unwarranted attacks can be rebutted; the weaknesses so that we do not blindly accept the medium as good, and so that we can attempt to remedy the problems.

The big surprise was the dominance of the mainstream media as a the most common source of quotes and a target of links. Links between blogs were significantly rarer; quotes from other blogs rarer still.

Posts were much more likely to link to those they agreed with than to their opponents. This was not unexpected, but disappointing. On the other hand, comments and links did often provide different perspectives on the issue.

I found a number of absolutely fascinating posts, ranging from Catholic exegesis to mathematical reason and personal experiences. Some of these posts were positively delightful to stumble across (some, on the other hand, spewed hate). I believe this diversity is one of the most valuable contributions of the blogosphere; however, such posts were rare. Rants, regurgitation of news stories, and polemics for those of like mind were much more common.

Several other results emerged:

  • I found twice as many posts by men as by women.
  • Opponents of gay marriage were scarce: proponents outnumbered them 3-to-1.
  • Despite ongoing media coverage of gay marriage in Canada at the time, the posts were overwhelmingly American. The rest of the world was absent.

Although same-sex marriage per se was not my subject, many of my results are specifically applicable to that issue. I counted frames, that is the occurrence of perspectives used for understanding and debating the issue. Of these, government intervention – legal cases, constitutional issues, etc. – were the most prominent, followed by religion, morality, and equality (see the protocol for opperational definitions of these frames). One particular frame, love, showed up in both sides of the debate, but was virtually absent from linked media coverage.


The Phone, the City, and the Center

I recently wrote about mobile phones, centralization, and city planning on an exam. I think I gave a rather poor answer: I had too many ideas. I am hesitant of claims that we are entering a new era rather than an old, and suspicious that the role of the mobile is one of decentralization.

The paper I was critiquing was by Anthony Townsend1, who argues that mobile phones are leading to decentralized urban lifestyles. They give individuals the power to act and react individually to changed circumstances. Decision-making becomes distributed: rather than being guided by a plan or hierarchy, people can make and change plans at the last moment. Townsend claims that this reactive, fast-changing “real-time city” poses a challenge to the ponderous centralized planning so favored by city planners. He argues that their units of analysis – the neighborhood, the city, the region – are inappropriate where the important relationships are individual. He illustrates this with the example of a taxi driver who gets his best tips for rides from his mobile phone rather than the central dispatcher.

Although I agree with Townsend’s conclusion, that top-down city planning isn’t working, I suspect he may have reached the right conclusion for the wrong reason. Criticism of centralized planning is not new, and its problems are not unique to our time. Historical comparisons suggest that the appearance of decentralization often belies its opposite. If we see decentralization in the mobile, it may not be the nature of the technology, but rather the spirit of our time.

Planning and History

Decades ago Jane Jacobs2 saw that successful cities consist of overlapping neighborhoods and zones. The elementary school might serve students from one area, while a local park serves people living in an overlapping area. The school may also provide night classes for an entirely different group of people scattered throughout the region. Christopher Alexander expands the argument in A City is Not a Tree, where he argues convincingly against the hierarchical structure favored by city planners. At the end of the nineteenth century Camillo Sitte3 criticized planning for its ordering of the city, in ignorance of the organic growth which had made European cities beautiful.

Jacobs explains also how a successful city is made up of areas with multiple uses. She describes the street as a place for shopping, a link between places, a place where people talk, take out the garbage, watch from the window, play. This constant activity on the street reinforces the security and community of the people who live there.

A Wired magazine4 article about a high-tech district in Helsinki echoes the argument for multiple uses. An enthusiastic planner describes how new patterns of work require that houses be built so that bedrooms can be repurposed as offices and bathrooms can be converted to kitchens. The mobile phone is prominently credited with the change.

Yet none of this is new. In 19th century Vienna – as in other places and times – the tenements were crammed with people and uses; those people overflowed to the cafés where they read, wrote, ate, rested, and argued. For Peter Hall5, this overheated café culture is an important component of the tremendous creativity of Vienna at that time. Further back the pattern repeats: in Beowulf the great hall is a place of many uses.

Now, with its distributed technologies like mobile phones and the Internet, is not the exceptional time. The exception is that period in the twentieth century when the Organization Man built the Organization City. This was a period dominated by another apparently decentralizing technology mentioned by Townsend: the car.


The automobile coincided with a great effort to rebuild our cities in the image of the industrial factory. Small towns dissolved as people moved to the cities. Those cities exploded into central business districts and surrounding suburbs. Zoning was invented, and each zone given its specialized use: industry separated from commerce, and commerce from residence. Racism gave further impetus to division, and residential neighborhoods were further specified by lot size, by setback, by maximum density. The hierarchy of roads ran from dirt tracks in the country to back alleys, suburban cul-de-sacs, main roads, expressways, and autobahns and interstates. All of this was made possible by the car, that great icon of individual freedom.

The trams and interurban rail lines that preceded the highway networks were more centralized on paper. But people riding on those trams, just like those walking along Jacob’s multi-use streets, rubbed shoulders with others they might never meet today. Crossing paths with strangers seems more likely to produce serendipitous meetings and ad-hoc alliances, those acquaintances one sees and may come to know without ever speaking or learning a name, but who may step in to help in time of need. This centralization of transportation creates relationships that cut across hierarchy.

Georg Strøm writes about life in a Filipino village with only one cell phone6. Telephones are rare; communication requires planning. The nearest land line is 11km away; unless someone going there to make a call takes time off work, the transit stops running and s/he must stay the night. The village cell phone is an alternative, but arranging to call a friend entails first phoning the head man’s wife. She could pass on the message for the friend to be present at a fixed time to receive the subsequent call.

This village would seem to be the epitome of the centralized network. The cell phone is no more more mobile than a land line; less so than a personal one. And yet the week-ahead planning with its questionable results, the missed meetings and children running errands in society without the mobile hardly smack of central control.

The Internet is another technology credited with decentralization. It allows people to work from home, to cooperate with others around the globe, to sell to anyone, anywhere. And yet, as Manuel Castells describes in The Internet Galaxy, the registration of Internet domains is incredibly concentrated in a few districts of a few cities in a few countries in the world. The vast majority of people still commute to work (in past feudal and mercantile societies people largely lived where they worked). Silicon Valley is not a network of software companies spread over the face of the earth: it is a very definitely geographical concentration of business and development. WalMart, famous for its just-in-time delivery systems based on network technologies, manages production and distribution centrally, dictating products, prices, and delivery times to its suppliers. Other information-age businesses, like eBay and Amazon, are similarly centralized.


There is a debate around the role of mobile technology and community, between the view that being in constant touch strengthens bonds with family and friends, and the counter argument that phone divorces its user from the context of those around: the oblivious driver, the rude theater-goer. Yet it seems likely the answer is neither. It strengthens one community while it weakens the other. The reality of our cities is not Le Corbusier’s radiant structures, but Jacobs’ overlapping uses. Yes, the phone decentralizes some communication, but weakening the bonds of geography it centralizes the office for the worker who is in constant touch.

Just as the freedom of the automobile played its role in the hierarchy of a civilization built on the order of the factory assembly line, so the cell phone is a device of a society of packet-switched networks, new urbanism, loosely-coupled terrorist cells, high-tech entrepreneurs and flattened corporate structures. We see distributed power in the phone because we see it everywhere. But it may not be the phone that is the force for decentralization. It may only be we who are using it that way. And about even this we may be mistaken.


1 “Life in the Real-Time City: Mobile Telephones and Urban Metabolism”, Journal of Urban Technology vol. 7 no. 2, 2000, 85-104.

2 The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961.

3 City Planning According to Artistic Principles.

4 William Shaw, “In Helsinki Virtual Village”, Wired 9(03), March 2001.

5 Cities in Civilization, 1998.

6 “The telephone comes to a Filipino village”, Perpetual Contact, Katz & Aakhus (eds), 2002.


Quotes and Notes from Northern Voice

Here are some of the more interesting quotes and notes I jotted down during the presentations at Northern Voice. The quotes are really paraphrases (I would make an awful secretary); I apologize for any errors or omissions.

“I remember when I realized my students didn’t know the Cold War happened.” – Bryan Alexander

“Personal publishing should be like water or electricity.” – Stephen Downes

“The blog form has crystallized for a little while, but it’s going to heat up and melt and turn into something else.” – Seb Paquet

“The only things we can have knowledge of in the world are the things we are emotional about.” – Stowe Boyd

Stephen Downes talked about how his blog posting often look at the same subject from different perspectives: he said the structure of blogs in holographic.

A woman in Julie Leung‘s Making Masks made a good case for comparing blogging to religion.

Paul Stacey at the session on the Bloggers as Citizen Journalists asked whether there are parallels in blogs to elements of literature, such as character, narrative, or setting. I think this is terribly interesting, and makes me think of the many experiments in using blog, wiki, and other net technology for online role-playing games.

A researcher in the audience for the Blogging in Academia session talked about how his group uses them to issue research results as they become available, both within the group and beyond it. They can then gather comments and insight from other researchers before they complete their work. This is brilliant, like a scientific agile programming methodology.


Northern Voice – Stephen Downes

Cindy and I attended the Northern Voice blogging conference today. We thoroughly enjoyed it: the setting was good, the weather was beautiful, and the whole thing was a comfortable size. Many of the speakers were excellent. I intend to write several up, but I’ll start with Stephen Downes' presentation on Community Blogging. He had much to say, so this is a long post.

Stephen made a couple of controversial claims, which dominated the question and answer. He argued that folksonomies are bad because they promote the long tail, which he also criticized. I think his opponents missed the real point of his presentation, which was must much more interesting.

RDF and Peer-to-Peer Search

Stephen emphasized that the meaning of a piece of information is not all inherent: much of it is a product of context. So the meaning of a blog post is not just the words of that post, but the links to and from that post, how those words are used elsewhere in the blogosphere, the other work of the author, etc.

He criticized top-down approaches to meaning, such as hierarchical systems of categories or centralized social software. Instead, he argued, meaning is produced through diversities of context: meaning should be produced not just by authors but by readers – what he called “3rd party metadata”. Meaning emerges from the community rather than defining the community (as it would in a taxonomy).

Stephen further suggested search based on relationships: rather than arbitrarily matching a tag from a taxonomy or folksonomy, or searching for keywords in Google, a search would spread out over the network, following links to related resources and using the structure of the system itself to collect meaning.

This fragmented (I am tempted to be impudent and say postmodern) meaning is what RDF is all about. It records statements about resources: statements that need not be coherent, complete, or centrally managed. This contrasts with the unified model of XML, which mirrors the record-oriented structure of most programming languages and databases. And such a search would naturally be peer-to-peer, relying almost entirely on context. This in turn cries out for a system of authority and identity; Stephen implied as much when he talked about using indirect relationships by author to construct and determine meaning.

Paradoxically, most identity schemes are centralized. This pursuit of diversity and context may trade centralized meaning for centralized identity.

The Long Tail

Stephen attacked the long tail for its power imbalance between the A-list bloggers and everyone else. Popular media sources – A-list blogs, for example – seem to control the agenda: they’re tremendously widely-read, popular, and influential compared with everyone else. They are in control.

My understanding is different. The idea of the long tail is that this is an illusion. In aggregate, all of the other blogs with their marginal readership and their micro communities are actually more powerful and influential than the A-list. Turn the power curve on its side and this it becomes obvious: the long tail trails up indefinitely, while the A-list on its side ends abruptly. Until the Internet, there was no long tail: after the A-list, the curve simply terminated. The long tail is not equality, or even close to it, but it offers hope.


Stephen’s criticism of folksonomies was that they are so general as to be useless; he used Technorati’s list of the top tags as an example: one of the top tags is “general”. But, as I have argued before, readers using networked folksonomies – as in – can slice a topic in multiple ways; with proper analysis, this creates the potential for very rich metadata.

Stephen also argued that the most popular tags encourage authors to over-use them, only amplifying the power disparities of the long tail. This reminds me of the communication theory of the “strength of weak ties”:

human communication typically entails a balance between similarity and dissimilarity, between familiarity and novelty . . . a new idea is communicated to a large number of individuals, and traverses a greater social distance, when passed through somewhat heterophilous links (as in radial personal networks) rather than through homophilous links (as in interlocking personal networks) (Rogers & Kincaid1, Communication Networks, 1981, 128).

In other words, exchange of information between two people requires on the one hand that they share enough in common to be able to communicate (they are homophilous), and on the other hand that they are different enough that they have something new to say (they are heterophilous).

If a tag is overused, it becomes useless: it cannot be used to discriminate. If it is underused, it is invisible. Stephen gave the example of a search for “physics photos” which turns up many entries marked “physics” and one marked “rabbit”. It seems to me that in this undifferentiated collection of physics content, it is the rabbit that stands out and provides really useful information.


1 Update 2005-02-25: I had neglected to credit Kincaid.


The Rules of Propaganda

I found this in Norman Davies’s book Europe: A History. It strikes me as particularly relevant to the election campaign underway in the United States:

Theorists of propaganda have identified five basic rules:

1. The rule of simplification: reducing all data to a simple confrontation between “Good and Bad”, “Friend and Foe”.

2. The rule of disfiguration: discrediting the opposition by crude smears and parodies.

3. The rule of transfusion: manipulating the consensus values of the target audience for one’s own ends.

4. The rule of unanimity: presenting one’s viewpoint as if it were the unanimous opinion of all right-thinking people: drawing the doubting individual into agreement by the appeal of star-performers, by social pressure, and by “psychological contagion”.

5. The rule of orchestration: endlessly repeating the same messages in different variations and combinations.


Online in 1991

Recently I have been talking about how to improve email. This got me thinking, and I remembered an essay I wrote about email in my final year of higschool. This may be of interest for its historical value – both because of what it says about how widespread online communication was, and because it contains online political comment from back in the day. One thing that jumped out at me is that although technology has advanced, the cost of a computer has remained the same in unadjusted dollars: $500 would buy you a machine with a modem.

Much of what I had to say has since become commonplace – I defined terms such as “information age” and E-Mail, and remarked that – ! – sex is part of the online world. But 1991 was before the World Wide Web. The Internet was reserved for the government and academics; I had only vaguely heard of it: there was certainly no way to subscribe from home. Instead I focused on the free system set up by hobbyists, such as BBSes and FIDOnet.

My teacher didn’t understand the topic and tried to discourage me. So as a trick to convince him to award me high marks, I analyzed media forms in terms of characteristic pairs (mass vs. personal, synchronous vs. asynchronous, temporary vs. permanent). I got the marks. Later I realized it was no trick at all – the analysis remains accurate.


7 April 1991

Over the past couple of decades computer technology and the changes that it has brought have swept across the world rapidly: “We are indeed in the early stages of a major technological transformation, one that is far more sweeping than the most ecstatic of the ‘futurologists’ yet realize . . . processes are not organized around energy . . . they are organized around information” (The Media Lab, referencing Peter Drucker in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, p 20). The “information age” will bring with it changes in the way that we look at ourselves and the world. Perhaps one of the greatest changes, and one that is seldom recognized, is the development of a completely new form of communication: the New Media.

The New Media is not a single technology or form of communication, it embraces an integration of different technologies and means of communicating. However, there is one aspect of the New Media which is already in place and is at the foundation of all of the different forms of the New Media.

Before describing this aspect of New Media, it is useful to describe the forms of communication which have preceded it, and whose characteristics emphasize the qualities of the New Media that make it so unique.

There are several characteristics of a form of communication which can be used to compare the different forms.

The first of these is synchronization. If the communication is synchronous, both parties must be communicating at the same time (as with speech). Asynchronous communication allows communication in which only one party must be communicating at any time (as with a letter).

Timing is another factor. Instant communication, such as telephone conversation, allows the message to arrive at its destination immediately. Non-instant communication, on the other hand, takes time to arrive, as with a newspaper or book. Local communication is limited in its range, but non-local communication has a range which is effectively unlimited. Television and radio are non-local, whereas speech is local, for example.

The scale of the medium is also important. Personal communication only allows a few people to receive the message, but mass communication can have a practically unlimited audience.

A temporary medium does not record the message, whereas a permanent medium does. One important advantage of a permanent medium is that the sender can take time to compose and perfect the message before sending it.

An obvious limitation on many important forms of communication is that they are one-way, as with television and radio. Two-way communication is much more powerful.

Finally, many of the more advanced forms of communication are privileged and only individuals or groups with access to expensive equipment can communicate, as with published material, radio, and television. Common communication allows almost anyone to communicate. Note that this only affects who can send a message, not who can receive it.

The first form of communication was, and is, simple speech. It is synchronous, instant, local, personal, temporary, common, and two-way. It allows for small number of people to communicate, but there is no record made, and the range is limited.

After speech came writing. It is also personal (one cannot send a hand-written letter to every inhabitant of a country), but it is asynchronous, non-instant, non-local (mail is an example of this), permanent, one-way, and common (although literacy was once a problem). It allows for refined ideas to be recorded permanently.

The printing press was the next big step forward, for it made writing a form of mass communication; Newspapers and books can be created and disseminated to large numbers of people. The one possible disadvantage is that the people with the printing presses control what gets published, and thus it is privileged.

The telegraph was essentially a high-class and speedy improvement on the mail. It was similar to writing except that it was privileged. However, its successor, the telephone is an extension of speech. It has the same characteristics except that it is non-local.

Radio and television were major new forms, being synchronous, instant, non-local, mass, temporary, one-way, privileged forms of communication. With the development of recording equipment it became permanent, and the VCR can make some communication asynchronous.

Finally, there is the New Media. This is the Japanese word for this class of media, and there is no better word to describe it for it is an ambiguous concept right now. It has the best possible mix of characteristics: it can be asynchronous or synchronous, instant or non-instant, non- local, personal or mass, temporary or permanent, one-or two- way, and common. It is not controlled by people with extremely expensive equipment, for anyone can use it for a cost of less than $500 (for a telephone and a computer with a modem). This comprehensive blend of features give it almost unlimited flexibility.

Traditionally (if something so recent can be “traditional”), this is the form of communication used by computer hackers. It usually involves people at computer terminals typing in messages which are stored at a central computer somewhere and can be read by anyone with access to the computer who has been targeted by the sender for receiving the message. The recipient may be anywhere in the world that has a telephone connection, so it is non-local. If the people involved are “on-line” at the same time the communication is instant, synchronous, and two-way. If they are not, the messages are just like mail, or E-Mail (electronic mail) as it is called, and thus non-instant, asynchronous, and one-way (until the other person answers). Thus, an attempt at defining the New Media might be: “Telecommunications between two or more people who may or may not be present at any given time.”

In effect, this is mail which reaches its recipient as soon as he or she looks for it. However, the mail may be sent to any number of people without any extra effort. It combines the advantages of instantaneous communication with those of permanence and the ability of the sender to consider and edit the message, and so is suitable for mass distribution of essays and other texts. It is an extremely dynamic form which places the power of fast, efficient, and precise communication in the hands of anyone anywhere.

The obvious practical uses for such a medium are numerous. Business has already started using E-mail to enable businesspeople to communicate without having to synchronize their schedules. In fact, business has embraced the medium to the extent that it has displaced more traditional forms of communication, such as speech (“Voice Mail – Boon or Bane?”, The Citizen, Saturday March 2, 1991, I1). This is just the beginning of its potential for change. People with computers and modems have discovered the true social power of the medium on their local and non-local BBSs (bulletin board systems). FIDOnet illustrates perfectly this potential of the medium.

FIDOnet is a network of computer users who pass electronic messages throughout North America. Almost anyone can gain access to FIDOnet and communicate with anyone anywhere on the continent for free. Depending on the distance, the message may arrive instantly or in several weeks. There is no public funding for FIDOnet, the software has been written by enthusiasts, and the system has its own rules to prevent abuse. There are FIDOnet “echoes” on almost any topic imaginable, such as CanaChat, an ongoing discussion of issues relevant to Canadians throughout the country.

CanaChat is nation-wide, free to anyone with a computer and a modem who follows the rules agreed upon by the users, and devoted to discussions on the nature of Canada. The following is a complete message from CanaChat (the message is preceded and folowed by lines of dashes, and is at its original level of indent in order to preserve its form):

 Msg: #931 [Fido CanaChat] 33 lines [Sent] 
 23-Aug-90 16:47
From: Michael Richardson
 To: Doug Zolmer
Subj: Re: Bloc Quebecois' Manifesto


In a message posted <15 Aug 90 20:27:59>, Doug Zolmer writes: > Yes, comparing the situation between the English and French > with > the Holocaust is a VERY faulty analogy. My god, how can anybody > think that the English are treating the French as badly as > Hitler > treated the Jews? Somebody has a very warped view or reality if > they think that.

1) I think you got the analogy backwards (unless you were talking to Eric): the parallel is between Bill 101/178 (I wish the whole country would adopt Bill 109, though) and Nazi Germany. The minority in QUEBEC is being persecuted, forced to give up THEIR culture. 2) The analogy differs only in degree. Both are the result of very strong nationalist (nation != state. Quebec is a nation as is Acadian, southern Ontario, northern Ontario, eastern Ontario, rural BC, urban BC, I'll let the Albertans divide themselves) sentiments. 3) Witness American nationalism (~=patriotism, but not quite). e.g. McCarthyism. (I used to think that McCarthyism referred to John McCarthy, inventor of Lisp. I couldn't understand why it was a bad thing :-)) This could, however, be related, if you like, to October crisis (FLQ), the six years of bombings, the 'agent provocateur's, etc... :!mcr!:

--- RMB v1.30

* Origin: An A2000 named Julie [Ottawa] (1:163/138) ----------------------------------------------------------------------------- </pre >

First, one must understand the conventions of a message such as this. The header at the top depends on where the message was read (in this case, it comes from the Mystic BBS located in Ottawa). It usually includes the date, the topic, the sender, and the recipient. It is followed by a message body. In this case it is terminated by the name of the FIDO software used ("---RMB v1.30<a href="!mcr">, the v1.30 is the version number, sort of like an edition of a book), and the origin of the message. The</a>!:" is a sort of electronic signature which most people use, a symbol they represent themselves with (for example, .../ is the symbol for Tim Park or T.P.). The body of this particular message contains a quote. Each quotes line starts with an angle bracket (">"). If the quote was not from the recipient of the message, his or her initials would precede the ">" (e.g., "DZ>" in the case of Doug Zolmer).

Most of the people who use these echoes know something about computers and programming, and evidently Michael Richardson is one such person. The "!=" means "not equal to", the "~=" means "approximately equal to", "Lisp" is a programming language, and the ":-)" is a sideways happy face.

Discussions on topics such as the example may go on for months or even years, and multiple parties may be involved. Even if one does not actually send the messages, they may be read. If references to old messages are made, they may sometimes be found in "archives" containing up to tens of thousands of messages.

The potential of such communication is immense. The newspaper allowed for people to discuss ideas and played a part in the French Revolution. This form of media is even more powerful, cheaper, and can be used by anyone. It may be serious, or it may be more humourous. The two following messages are the electronic equivalents to political cartoons:

 Msg: #16642 [CANACHAT] 32 lines [Sent] 
 22-Dec-90 05:11
From: Chris Dale
 To: All
Subj: New years resolution????


>THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. BRIAN >================================= >Brian Mulroney is my sheppard >I shall soon want. >He leadeth me beside still factories >and abandoned farms. >He restores my doubt about the Tories. >He annointed my wages with taxes, and >inflation, so my exoenses runneth over my income. >Surely poverty and hard living shall follow the Tories. >And I shall work on rented farms and >live in a rented house forever. >Five thousand years ago, Moses said, "pick up your shovel. >mount your ass, and I will lead you to the Promised land". >Five thousand year later, Trudeau said, "lay down your >shovel and sit on your ass, light up a Camel, this is >the Promised land". >This year, Brian Mulroney will take your shovel, sell your >Camel, kick your ass and tell you he gave away the Promised land. >I am glas I am a Canadian >I am glad I am free, >But I wish I was a dog >and Mulroney was a tree. - Found this Cute little poem hidden away, Though it appropriate in light of the P.M's recent outburst on the current state of the economy! - Merry Christmas Everyone! - >>>>>enter real time((())) Do we ever need an election!!!

--- InterPCB 1.33/b

* Origin: CrossRoads * PCBoard 14.5 -+=[ HST ]=+- Kingston, Ont. (1:249/126)

Msg: #14030 [Market Chatter] 29 lines

08-Dec-90 01:18 From: James Atwill To: All Subj: Stuffes Twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are? Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky. Well, I'll tell you, little star, I can't tell you what you are; With this smoke and hazy and pall I'm not sure you're there at all. --------------------------------- Five Great lakes; Five Great lakes; See what we've done! See what we've done! The fish are all dead cause' polutions rife; You can cut through the scum with a carving knife; Did you ever see such a blight in your life As five Great Lakes? --------------------------------- Little Bo Peep Has lost her sheep and thinks they may be roaming; they haven't fled; they've all dropped dead from nerve gas in Wyoming. --------------------------------- Earth... The Chokes' on us. JAmes ----------------------------------------------------------------------------- </pre >

Admittedly, the messages are not as refined as newspapers, and tend to be a bit crude, but this is changing. One of the original main uses of such systems was (and still is on many networks) on-line sex. The January/February 1991 issue of Saturday Night contains a feature article on the subject, "Terminal Sex", which describes Bell Telephone's Alex network. Pictures can also be sent over the telephone lines, and X-rated images are common in some areas. However, some BBSs and echoes (such as Mystic and FIDOnet) disallow any form of crudity, and may prevent access by those who practice it.

In any case, there is no way to stop the New Media. In France, the MiniTel is free and allows anyone access to a nation-wide network, which "has become so popular that the phone company no longer issues phone books in some cities because every subscriber has a computer that can look up the numbers" (Saturday Night, January/February 1991, p20). Recently, the MiniTel has come to Canada, and Bell has introduced a similar system called Alex. Sex tends to be the first use of such systems, but in France the MiniTel has become an accepted medium for communication. Eventually, world-wide communication of this sort will become commonplace. If the changes brought about by the printing press, radio, and television are any indication, the changes that the New Media will bring about will affect every aspect of life.

h5. Works Cited

Atwill, James. Message #14030: "Stuffes". 8 December 1990. Mystic BBS: (613) 596-2295.

Dale, Chris. Message #16642: "New years resolution????". 22 December 1990. Fido CanaChat, Mystic BBS: (613) 596-2295.

Murray, Kathleen. "Voice Mail - Boon or Bane?". Citizen. 2 March 1991: I1.

Pearson, Ian. "Terminal Sex". Saturday Night. January/February 1991: 19-25.

Richardson, Michael. Message #931: "Bloc Quebecois' Manifesto". 23 August 1990. Fido CanaChat, Mystic BBS: (613) 596-2295.

Stewart Brand. The Media Lab. Harrisonburg, Virginia: R.R. Donnelly & Sons Co., 1986.


The Speckled Band

I ran across an intriguing version of the Sherlock Holmes story The Speckled Band on kottke. The author has threaded the text of the story through comments in other people’s Flickr web logs. There is something very intriguing about this, but I can’t put my finger on it. I think it has something to do with public versus private spaces.

One of the consequences of recent advances in communications has been increasing personalization, and therefore fewer shared experiences. Where once there were only three television channels in the United States, there are now hundreds. It was once common for people to see the same program, and to discuss it the next day with coworkers and casual acquaintances; such events are now rare. We spend more and more of our time with people who share our interests, experiences, and opinions. The Internet and even private automobiles have contributed to the trend.

In effect, this is a decline in public space. In city planning, public spaces are shared by multiple purposes. For example, a street is used by shoppers buying groceries, students walking to school, children playing, shopkeepers, and city personnel. Parks similarly fulfill multiple roles, as do libraries and community centres which often provide space for clubs, sports teams, and other associations. Just as the public spaces in our cities have become less used in favour of private spaces (automobiles, larger homes, resident-only facilities, etc.), our cultural space is also increasingly private and privatized.

What this Speckled Band story shows is an artist who has turned someone else’s web site into a public space. It is true that many blogs have comment sections, but they are frequented by people drawn together by common interests; in practice they are private. The Speckled Band thread repurposes the pages it threads through, drawing readers after it through different communities.

I know this sounds like excessive analysis for such a simple idea, but as I said I really can’t quite put my finger on what’s going on here. Something is happening, something which goes beyond the normal surprise and discovery of following links. It certainly demonstrates that turning the mostly read-only web to a read/write experience will result in new and innovative kinds of public space which haven’t existed before.

It also suggests a wicked idea for a virtual – or partly real – treasure hunt.


Amon to Thoth on Writing

I am reading Harold Innis’s Empire & Communications. Innis was suspicious of writing; he felt that in many ways an oral tradition is superior to a written one. This is illustrated best when he quotes Plato’s Phaedrus, in which Socrates comments on writing and explains how the god Amon criticized Thoth’s invention of writing:

this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your desciples not truth but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality. . . . I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question, they preserve a solemn silence, and the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer.

Socrates complaint is that writing is only a static simulation of life. Writing is the granddaddy of technologies, so it is appropriate that it be the first to be so accused. We find the same problems today with telephone answering machines and automated touch-tone systems. Television is used as a nanny to babysit children. We feel the Friends on TV are our friends, even though they are not real and would never recognize us if they were.

So how does this apply to blogs? Blogs are less bound by the permanence of the written word: in contrast to Plato’s static writings, blogs are part of an ongoing discussion, in which comments and references are linked to the original work. In fact, blogs often try to be less dynamic by selecting URLs which will not change and by annotating additions and deletions. But some of Plato’s criticisms still ring true: blogs often do seem like simulations of reality, and like television, they make us feel as though we know people when in fact we do not.

This made me think of another medium also lately on my mind, one which is more of a throwback to the oral traditions Innis extols: pen & paper role-playing games. In their narrative form, these are a form of collaborative open-ended story-telling. They leave no permanent record on paper, but rather are worked out and developed in the interplay and dialog between the players. Most such games focus on action and adventure, but a few of the rarer ones, such as Nobilis, revolve around philosophical questions, such as what is the nature of deceit and what makes one thing sharp and another dull.

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