Don Weightman on Sun, 18 Jan 1998 09:34:55 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> The Internet and public discourse

Here (in this and two follow up messages) are a text and a meta-text that
may be of interest to nettimers. The text, "The Internet and Public
Discourse" is a recent paper by Phil Agre, a professor at the University of
California, San Diego, who, among other things, is working on how the
development and adoption of  technical standards for the Net shape the
political structure of cyberspace. 

The meta-text (in 2 parts) is a syllabus for a course Agre is teaching at
San Diego on the political economy and culture of technical standards. I am
organizing  a reading group to go through the materials described in the
syllabus. The face-face physical location for the group is washington DC;
the online discussion -- by mailing list, at a website, or both -- will be
at a location to be announced. Anyone interested in more details should
contact me.

Don Weightman

>From: Phil Agre <>

>  The Internet and Public Discourse
>  Phil Agre
>  Department of Communication
>  University of California, San Diego
>  La Jolla, California  92093-0503
>  USA
>  Paper presented at the 1998 Annual Meeting of the American Association
>  of Law Schools, San Francisco.
>The theme that Jon Weinberg has selected for our panel, "Fitting
>Models to the Internet", is singularly appropriate.  It has proven
>remarkably difficult to fit models to the Internet, and I want to
>explore why, and to take a shot at remedying the situation.  When we
>talk about "the Internet", of course, we could mean a lot of different
>things.  We *could* be talking about the TCP/IP protocols and the
>computers that use them; on this view the Internet is a big electric
>circuit that happens to cover the earth, or at least the relatively
>affluent parts of it.  But for the most part, when we talk about the
>Internet in the context of important public issues, we mean to refer
>to something larger, and to give shape to the intuition that the
>Internet is increasingly bound up with the conditions and practices 
>of public discourse.
>I propose, therefore, to sketch a series of models of the Internet, a
>series of analyses of the relationship between the Internet and public
>discourse.  In doing so, I hope to provide rational reconstructions
>of several of the most widely publicized and broadly contested
>controversies that surround the Internet, and perhaps supply a
>vocabulary for addressing those controversies more systematically.
>I will describe four models.
>The first of these models suggests, very simply, that the Internet is
>a communications medium.  I take this to be the dominant model, and
>the dominant terms in which a whole host of controversies surrounding
>the Internet have been debated.  When we consider the Internet in
>this way in the context of specific disputes, however, the question
>immediatedly arises of which medium the Internet is.  Is it the
>telephone?  Newspaper?  Television?  Lecture hall?  Street corner?
>The problem is that the Internet, in its many real and envisioned
>applications, seems to afford all of these analyses, either separately
>or in monstrous combination.  Arguments over constitutional matters
>such as the Communications Decency Act, or business matters such as
>the so-called push technologies, or policy matters such as Internet
>telephony, are effectively debates over which precedent shall apply.
>Given that every party to these debates typically finds one of the
>precedents more congenial in its consequences than the others, we are
>often too busy fighting to take in the awesome extent to which the
>answers to our questions are indeterminate.  The Internet, considered
>in this way, is very nearly whatever you want it to be.
>This would not seem like a good situation.  From the point of view
>of technical people, however, the situation is not at all paradoxical.
>That you can make the Internet into whatever you want is, for them,
>precisely the point.  The Internet is a kind of meta-medium; the
>strategy of TCP/IP is to interpose a new service layer between
>transport and applications, so that developers can choose their
>metaphors with little concern for how the stuff gets moved around.
>Digitalization is of course the first key to this strategy, but there
>is more to it.  Nor, I might mention in passing, is the Internet
>the only example of the strategy.  The so-called software radio will
>shortly permit designers to decouple the formats and protocols of
>wireless data exchange from the technically horrid details of their
>analog hardware implementation.
>Let us, therefore, try again.  The second model treats the Internet
>as a computer system, a product of a more general set of practices
>of system design.  Andrew Feenberg, among others, has observed
>that computers have a dual character -- specifically, that they are
>representational machines that represent the world in at least two
>different ways.  One of these *is* as a medium; the test is roughly
>whether the machine analyzes the representational stuff at the level
>for which it is meaningful to people.  WordPerfect doesn't know the
>genre of your document, and Photoshop doesn't know what is going on
>in your images.
>At another, more basic level, however, a computer operates on the
>basis of a systematic analysis of the world to which its computations
>are supposed to refer.  The first step in designing a computer system
>is the construction of a data model, or what philosophers call an
>ontology -- an enumeration of the types of things that the designer
>supposes the world to contain.  These categories, so-called entities,
>might include people, cars, bank accounts, products, documents, or
>computers.  They might also include entities within the machine or
>network, such as printer jobs.  The idea is that the operation of the
>machine presupposes, and depends upon, the maintenance of an accurate
>one-to-one correspondence between the data records in the machine and
>the real things in the world that the data records are supposed to
>This fact, seemingly simple enough, has vast consequences; it directs
>our attention to the tremendous variety of material arrangements by
>which the internal workings of machines are tied to the rest of the
>world.  A machine can only compute with what it can capture, and so
>the world must be instrumented accordingly, whether through paperwork
>or tracking devices or ID cards or heaven knows what.  Even beyond
>this, consider the consequences of a simple computational operation
>such as the addition of two numbers.  If a machine contains one number
>that originated in New Jersey and another number that originated in
>Idaho, the sum of those two numbers is only meaningful if the numbers
>are commensurable, that is, if the same sorts of things exist to
>be measured in both places, and if both measurements were conducted
>in the same way.  If computers are to perform a great diversity of
>meaningful computations, which they do every day, then the world must
>be standardized in a great diversity of ways.
>I speak of numbers, but our main concern is with the is with the
>Internet and its place in public discourse, and for that purpose the
>ontologies that matter most are precisely ontologies of discourse,
>that is, the elements that computer system developers have imagined
>discourse to comprise.  So far as narrow matters of technical practice
>are concerned, designers enjoy a vast freedom to choose whatever
>categories they like.  This is the sense in which the Internet is
>a meta-medium: Internet-based applications can be designed using
>ontologies derived from many spheres of life, including the various
>media industries and other conventionalized forms of communication.
>Of course, the Internet only functions *as* a newspaper, or *as*
>a telephone, or *as* a lecture hall, et cetera, to the extent that
>the software is coupled to an institutional field -- the one within
>the ontology of the newspaper or phone system or university already
>We should be concerned with this coupling in many ways.  The
>designer's creative freedom, for example, sounds like a kind of power,
>the power involved in defining one's ontology in one way rather than
>another, and the consequences of implementing that ontology on a new
>kind of hardware, one that comes with manifold institutional couplings
>of its own.  For one thing, every datum that is captured in a digital
>medium can in principle be stored indefinitely and reused easily for
>any purpose.  Communication that might otherwise have been bounded by
>four walls, or the expense of photocopying, or the vagaries of human
>memory, now exists in Platonic perfection as a digital record that can
>potentially be submitted to a wide variety of other purposes, and the
>regulation of those purposes arises as a systematic problem that had
>formerly been kept within relatively manageable bounds by the enabling
>and constraining limits of the physical world, or of previous, less
>generalized media.
>To reckon with at least certain aspects of the seemingly wide-open
>design of new digital media, it will help to sketch out a third model
>of the Internet.  Our starting point is once again the main tradition
>of computer system design practices, but now under a different aspect.
>>From this perspective, what system developers do is to transform
>social discourse into machinery.  Paradoxical as this description
>may sound, it is only a mild inflection of technical workers' own
>understanding of systems analysis: one starts with a corpus of
>discourse, namely someone's explanation of what the system is supposed
>to do, and one performs grammatical analyses on this discourse.
>The nouns -- car, person, bank account -- become entities in the
>aforementioned data model, the verbs -- register, hire, open -- become
>the names of procedures and methods, and so on.  The question that
>technical workers do not raise, because it is specifically not a part
>of their sphere of professional concern, is where the discourse comes
>from.  In even referring to it as a discourse, I intend to point to
>its social origins: the institutional processes, with all of their
>strengths and limitations, through which the discourse arises.
>The Internet makes a fine example.  The Internet's predecessor,
>the ARPANET, was the implementation of a particular discourse --
>the Advanced Research Projects Agency's discourse about the American
>scientific community and its infrastructural needs.  We can see this
>whole discourse *as* a discourse by looking at the spectacular career
>of the Internet in subsequent years.  The original ARPANET discourse,
>like any discourse, made a series of unarticulated or partly
>articulated assumptions, and these assumptions were, so to speak,
>built into the protocols.  One assumption was that the user community
>had a strong capacity for collective self-regulation, so that the
>network need not be terribly secure.  As the Internet's use has spread
>beyond the scientific community, all manner of holes have become
>visible in the Internet protocols.  One would not even think of
>scientists sending spam, at least not routinely or on a massive scale,
>and so a variety of weaknesses in the Internet's electronic mail
>protocols have only become evident as spammers have begun to exploit
>them in the last couple of years.
>This example, and many others like it, point to a process of social
>discovery that is part and parcel of all technology adoption, and
>particularly the adoption of distributed computer technologies. 
>It is a hermeneutic process: as the technology is used in new ways,
>we gain a deeper understanding of the ideas that motivated it.  Those
>ideas, and the discourses that convey them, have their own historicity,
>their own metaphors, their own depths of unarticulated assumptions,
>and as we hit ourselves on the head in the adoption and adaptation
>of new technologies, we create the conditions for bringing those
>depths somewhat more fully into consciousness.  We can also discover
>that our ideas were wrong.  ARPA, for example, put great weight on
>applications involving remote sharing of computational resources like
>supercomputers, but it has been primarily correspondence and then
>publication that have driven Internet growth.
>Moreover, because of the aforementioned ability of digital media
>to repeal the frequently useful limitations of the physical world,
>as disputes arise in the new context we are frequently forced to
>conceptualize more deeply the moral bases of our lives together.  So
>long as walls functioned as walls, we could make laws about privacy
>and property by making laws about walls.  As electronic media
>increasingly breach physical walls, we are compelled to articulate,
>fully now, the moral basis for privacy and property without so much
>reference to the architectural basis.  And inasmuch as the walls of
>digital environments are simply discursive constructs like any others,
>walls are increasingly located precisely where the law says they are,
>and not just where custom and engineering practicality have placed
>them.  This shift can be overemphasized (law has always had opinions
>about where walls should go, and so on), but its direction can hardly
>be denied.
>It is evident, therefore, that the discourse-made-machinery that
>constitutes the Internet has a political significance that is
>almost frighteningly profound.  Computer systems are the products
>of discourse, among other things, and they are, among other things,
>important media for such discourse.  To comprehend this reciprocal
>relationship between the Internet and social discourse, it will
>be helpful to articulate a fourth and final model of the Internet.
>Our focus here is on standards.  Ted Nelson accurately asserts
>that the software industry is about the politics of standardization.
>And as we have seen, both here and in Larry Lessig's analysis of
>content filtering software, it also works the other way: software
>design, at least much of the time, sets the standards of politics.
>Put another way, the antitrust concern with the control of standards
>is a dialectical complement of the free expression concern with
>the standards of control.  We care about standards because of the
>fantastically complicated economic question of who captures the often
>considerable value that is created through the establishment of a
>standard.  And we also care about standards because, as we have seen,
>they arise through the condensation of processes of social discourse.
>Social discourses are not neutral or innocent; to the contrary, to at
>least the extent that our discourses about discourse take substantive
>positions about the nature of social and social relationships, the
>standards of emerging media of social discourse tend to embody these
>positions as well.  This is a rough and simple statement of something
>that requires considerably more analysis, but I think it at least
>accurately captures one of our concerns.
>Underlying each of these concerns are the economic dynamics of
>standards, and particularly the technical compatibility standards
>where the issues most sharply arise.  The work of Paul David and many
>others suggests that standards are path-dependent, and that because of
>network effects they tend to have a winner-take-all quality, with one
>standard becoming dominant and devotees of other standards becoming
>stranded.  Neoclassical economists have mounted a sophisticated
>counterattack on these models of market failure, and the matter is
>anything but settled.  My purpose here, however, is not so much to
>settle it, but to delineate the specifically political reasons why
>we care about it.  Roughly put, to the extent that Internet standards
>shape public discourse, their rule-setting function is a matter of
>political concern.  And to the extent that the Internet serves as a
>medium for the agenda-setting from which a wide variety of technical
>standards emerge, the properties of that medium and the larger
>technical public sphere of which it is a part are likewise matters of
>political concern.
>This political perspective illuminates both the economic and the
>technical dynamics of standardization.  One way that standards create
>social value is through what we might call economies of generality.
>To the extent that activities in a series of sites can be fitted to a
>common framework, many types of information and knowledge work achieve
>greater economies of scale.  In enterprise computing, for example, the
>trend is away from custom-built systems that reflect the ontologies
>and discourses of particular organizations to the adoption of
>standardized software modules, bought off the shelf and configured for
>each organization's needs.  The price here is the work of conforming
>the organization to the software package; one benefit among many is
>that the cost of developing the package can be amortized across many
>organizational users.  As Nathan Myhrvold puts it, with Windows you
>can get $100 million worth of software for $100, and so it goes with
>increasingly many de facto standard software packages as well.
>The concern here is not precisely the imposition of bland homogeneity
>and uniformity upon the whole world; the establishment of standards
>on one layer frequently creates the conditions for an explosion of
>creativity on the layer above.  The concern, rather, is that this
>burst of creativity, too, becomes subject to the path-dependent,
>winner-take-all kind of standardization that made it temporarily
>possible.  If it does not seem substantively crucial which
>personal computer operating system takes over the world, or which
>internetworking protocol, consider the emerging tornado of activity,
>one or two layers up, to build new infrastructure for digital
>universities -- new efficiencies, yes, but the strong potential
>for a greater degree of ontological standardization as well, not to
>mention a potentially greater capacity for the regulation of content,
>as lectures and class discussions are captured digitally for the
>ideologically motivated to peruse.
>None of this is inevitable.  I speak of concerns and dangers, forces
>and patterns, not of essences and predictions.  Nonetheless, if this
>model-building exercise accomplishes anything, may it provide an
>emphatic counterpoint to the romantic millennialism that portrays the
>Internet as the end of politics and the guarantor of decentralization.
>It is neither.  To the contrary, the economics and the politics of
>the Internet are as one, and the institutional transformations that
>the Internet is already facilitating are political processes in the
>deepest possible sense -- a near-total renegotiation of the mechanisms
>and mediations of our lives together here on earth.

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