Phil Agre (by way of Felix Stalder) on Tue, 10 Nov 1998 23:40:30 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Yesterday's tomorrow

[This text documents, and is part of, a deep shift in (US-American) thinking
about Cyberspace, from a utopian understanding of the Internet as
something radically new to an understanding based on the technology's role
in the slow transformation of the larger social world. Forwarded with the
author's permission.Felix]

Yesterday's tomorrow

Copyright 1998 by Philip E. Agre.

//1 Introduction

One day last fall I received a phone call from a federal prosecutor.
She was trying the case of a troubled young man who had sent an e-mail
message filled with vile ethnic slurs to sixty Asian-American college
students, vowing to hunt them down and kill them.  At the trial, the
defense produced an expert witness who testified that the young man's
message was "a classic flame", and that no reasonable person should
have felt threatened by it (Maharaj 1997).  The prosecutor, though
experienced in the matter of death threats, had never encountered this
notion before, and, bewildered, was calling around to find an expert
who could testify to the contrary the next morning at 9AM.  I was
booked, so she found someone else.  Yet the case resulted in a hung
jury, and the prosecutor only obtained a conviction at the retrial
by introducing further evidence of the young man's malicious intent
beyond what, to her, was the plain meaning of his e-mailed words
(Maharaj 1998).

This story may symbolize our changing understanding of the Internet
and its place in society.  What was news to the prosecutor is a
commonplace to academics: the sense that events on the Internet are
not quite real, or real in a different way, in a place apart called
cyberspace that operates on different principles than the corporeal
world.  The concept of cyberspace, however, may have had its day.  The
Internet is only now, and only slowly, becoming integrated with the
institutional world around it, and it is increasingly evident that the
very notion of cyberspace is an artifact of this transient situation.
This development has significant consequences.  It no longer suffices
to ask "what effect will the Internet have on ...?".  Rather, we must
comprehend the institutional world from which the Internet arose, and
the many and various institutional worlds with which the Internet now
coevolves, and make sense of the technology in that dynamic context.
It's a big job, to be sure, but its outlines are becoming visible in
the literature.

//2 Cyberspace as American culture

Cyberspace, clearly, is a utopian idea that stands in the main line
of a long millennialist tradition.  Its prophets see it leveling
hierarchies, dispersing power, and bringing peace and prosperity
to the world.  This kind of secularized religion has often shaped
engineers' imaginations (see, for example, Noble 1997).  And one
particularly American aspect of cyberspace is its understanding
of community.  The word "community" has summed up Americans' hopes
for their country ever since the colonial period, and its utopian
connotations continue to influence American political culture today.

At the dawn of the cyberspace era, around 1994, many observers
remarked on its recurring use of colonialist tropes -- electronic
frontiers, the civilizing of cyberspace, and so on.  And indeed, the
concept of cyberspace has developed along similar lines to what Jack
Greene has called _The Intellectual Construction of America_ (1993).
Quoting the Dutch historian Henri Baudet, Greene said that America
had become a place

  "onto which all identification and interpretation, all
  dissatisfaction and desire, all nostalgia and idealism seeking
  expression could be projected" (page 25).

Indeed, he cites evidence that Thomas More had America in mind when,
shortly thereafter, he initiated the European utopian tradition.
Nothing becomes so dated as yesterday's tomorrow, however, and Greene
points out that

  "[the] early utopias, like European perceptions of Amerindians,
  were all heavily shaped by older European intellectual traditions.
  Almost without exception they looked backward to Europe's 'own
  ideal past' rather than forward into some wholly novel world of
  the future" (page 28).


  "virtually every one of the new English colonies established in
  America ... represented an effort to create in some part of the
  infinitely pliable world of America ... some specific Old World
  vision for the recovery of an ideal past in a new and carefully
  constructed society" (pages 54-55).

Such are the origins of the American ideal of community.  In Barry
Shain's account, this ideal had two counterposed moments.  One was
the freedom of conscience that figures so heavily in what he calls
_The Myth of American Individualism_ (1996).  The other, disproving
the myth, was the reformed-Protestant communitarianism that produced
in each separate community an almost totalitarian order of invasive
social control.  Freedom of conscience, he argues, was not the
freedom to rebel against this order, but rather the freedom to leave
one such community and settle in another.  If this picture of society
is not overtly present in the writings of the tiny elite who wrote
the Constitution, he argues, that only illustrates a distinctively
American tension between a localist communitarianism and a nationalist
individualism.  Whatever its use as historiography, Shain's account
illuminates many contemporary conflicts, from the internal politics
of the Republican party to the emerging war over Internet content
filtering in community institutions such as schools and libraries.

//3 The fall of cyberspace

Causal connection or no, the intellectual construction of both America
and cyberspace has proceeded along similar lines: utopian visions
projected onto a putatively blank space in the form of consciously
designed communities.  Of course, in each case the original and
more rigorous utopias eventually gave way to a greater focus on
money-making.  Yet in each case too, the original conception of
discrete, self-regulating, homogeneous communities of intimates has
continued to shape both thought and practice in profound ways.  In
academic research on cyberspace, we see this in the focus upon assumed
identities and the peculiar practice of studying online communities
without finding out who their participants are.

Yet this is changing.  Research on organizational computing (e.g.,
Orlikowski 1993) provides one model for work that investigates online
relationships in terms of their embedding in some larger context.
And as the technologies of cyberspace migrate into organizational
practice, they are made to shed their aura of irreality -- business
people now explain that MUD, originally designating Multi User
Dungeon, actually stands for Multi User Domain, or Dimension, or
something like that.

An example of the internal tensions of cyberspace theories can be
found in the influential work on cyberlaw by David Johnson and David
Post (1997).  For them, cyberspace is a place -- a legal jurisdiction
unto itself -- whose boundary can be found in "the screens and
passwords that separate the virtual world from the 'real world' of
atoms" (page 3).

Although framed in the language of contemporary libertarianism,
Johnson and Post's theory tracks the historians' America in some
detail.  They envision cyberspace as a population of distinct "spaces"
or "territories" -- that is, self-governing communities.  Individuals
can move freely from one community to the next, resulting in a sort
of market in government.  This market will only function correctly,
however, if the rules chosen by one community have no consequences for
other communities.  This requires strict regulations on the movement
of information across borders.  The problem, of course, is that
much information will cross borders in people's minds.  The supposed
residents of cyberspace in fact perpetually straddle at least two
jurisdictions -- their online communities and the province where
their corporeal selves are sitting.  Someone who defames another
in an online community with weak laws also harms that same person's
reputation in other jurisdictions.

Johnson and Post's border problems get worse as the Internet becomes
integrated into the world around it.  Why should a corporate intranet,
for example, be reckoned part of cyberspace?  And where are the
borders of cyberspace when the Internet protocols begins flowing
in cars and kitchen appliances?  The borders between cyberspace and
real life are less obvious than they seem, and they are getting less
distinct every day.

//4 Individuals and institutions

And so a transition is in the works, from a utopian understanding
of the Internet to an understanding based on the technology's
place in the larger institutional world.  By "institutions" is
meant the fundamental set of arrangements from which typified human
relationships are built.  Institutional phenomena are understood using
various metaphors -- as the connective tissue, rules of the game,
nervous system, or the grammar of human relationships.  As Paul David
has pointed out, an institution such as the corporation or the family
can remain stable in its workings for centuries, even as particular
corporations and families come and go.  The concept of institution
entered the social analysis of computing partly in an attempt to
explain the famous productivity paradox -- the longstanding difficulty
of demonstrating clear-cut productivity improvements from industry's
vast investments in information technology.  One explanation for this
mystery, John King has suggested, is that information technology can
only have a profound impact when institutions change.  Institutions,
however, are built deeply into laws, customs, language, installed
bases of technology, and much else, and so they change only very
slowly.  The story of information technology, on this account, is
one of history's great episodes of an irresistable force meeting an
immovable object.

Several literatures have described the evolution of institutions.
One economic tradition, descended from John Commons (1924), portrays
the common law, for example, as the outcome of successive episodes
of collective bargaining among social groups.  Another recent
tradition, descending from Ronald Coase (1960) and Douglass North
(1990), views economic institutions as successive approximations
to the idealizations of neoclassical economics.  Pitting themselves
against individualistic economics, sociologists such as Walter Powell
and Paul DiMaggio (1991) have described the diverse mechanisms that
lead to isomorphism among the organizations in a given institutional
field.  Political scientists have described the design of political
institutions, and are designing new institutions in several emerging
democracies (e.g., Goodin 1996).  These literatures provide powerful
means of understanding the interactions among economics, law,
organizational form, social structure, and custom through which
institutions evolve.  What they lack, thus far, is a sophisticated
account of the interaction between institutional structures and
information infrastructure.  (See, however, Mark Casson's remarkable
_Information and Organization_, 1997.)

How, then, to proceed?  To begin with, disputes over technology
are frequently disputes about institutions.  Robin Mansell (1995),
for example, has observed that electronic commerce protocols are
the object of ongoing contests over the biases of the electronic
playing field of the market.  Information technology has also revived
ideas like plebiscitary democracy; such proposals, however, founder
on technical difficulties such as authentication.  They also neglect
the practical work of politics: technology does help to distribute
political information, but intermediaries such as interest groups
and legislative staffs are still required to analyze it.  And
controversies about Web content filtering ultimately concern
the family, as children gain new abilities to establish social
connections, for good or ill, beyond their parents' control.

//5 Relationships and boundaries

In setting rules for social relationships, institutions also define
the very category of the person.  This is clear, for example, from
Austin's (1962) observation that the import of an utterance depends on
its institutional context.  People become who they are largely through
relationships with others, and information technology increasingly
establishes the ground rules under which relationships are negotiated.
Yet, as the daily newspaper makes clear, the negotiation of human
relationships over the Internet is in crisis.  The Internet is
currently providing its users with inadequate technical means of
constructing the personal boundaries that make relationships possible.
Let us consider some examples:

First, computer viruses, those fragments of malicious and self-
replicating code that sneak into into otherwise benign programs.
Personal computers are prone to infection because their inventors
assumed that people would use them in isolation from others.
Partly as a result, PC operating systems did not incorporate the
well-understood security mechanisms of earlier time-sharing systems.
Real people use their computers in a much more social way than the
designers imagined, and yet they enjoy little technological protection
against the hazards of sharing software.

Second, privacy problems on the WorldWide Web.  People using the
Web are often anxious, and reasonably so, because they cannot
see the information that is exchanged between their browser and a
given Web site.  This omission is an artifact of history: the Web's
"client-server" model of computing originated in settings where the
institutional relationship between client and server was well-known
and fixed.  Such is not the case, however, on the Web, where the
client-server model has been generalized into a platform for an
arbitrary variety of relationships.

Third, unsolicited bulk e-mail, or spam.  Paper junk mail, annoying
though it is, is naturally regulated by the cost of sending it.  The
Internet, however, lacks this useful limitation of the physical world.
As a result, the metaphor of e-mail is starting to break down, and
computer scientists are investigating mechanisms for establishing
boundaries around one's electronic mailbox.

Fourth, content filtering.  In the non-virtual world, our habitual
patterns of life limit our exposure to novelty.  Whole categories
of publications never enter our lives unless we intentionally propel
ourselves into an unaccustomed aisle of the bookstore.  Web browsers,
however, are capable of bringing anybody into contact with anything on
little notice.  It sounds convenient to have the whole world at one's
fingertips, but in practice one learns to appreciate the relatively
stable connections of our meatspace lives.  Automatic filtering of Web
content is an understandable response, but the filtering process is
proving cumbersome, controversial, and error-prone.  As a result, the
Web is now growing a new generation of mediating institutions that fit
more stably into a user's daily routines.

In sum, the Internet's ability to establish arbitrary connections
instantly is proving a bit much.  Institution-building on the net has
hardly begun, and a central issue in defining these institutions is
the social organization of boundaries: allocating the power to define
them and set them.

//6 Networks and institutions

Personal boundaries are a small-scale institutional issue,
but information technology is also participating in large-scale
institutional changes.  Little is known about these changes, but a few
conjectures may focus the issues.

How does information technology lead to institutional change?  Many
people believe that new information technologies will bring massive,
qualitative, discontinuous changes in institutions such as higher
education.  This might be called the creative destruction model, after
Schumpeter's (1942) picture of entrepreneurial upstarts displacing
hidebound incumbents in markets.  But Schumpeter was speaking of
firms, not institutions.  Institutions are so deeply woven into the
larger social order that their wholesale replacement may well be
impossible.  Contrast, then, the digestion model: participants in an
existing institutional selectively appropriate a new technology to
do more of what they are already doing -- old roles, old practices,
and old ways of thinking.  The selective amplification of particular
functions then disrupts the equilibrium of the existing order, giving
rise to a new equilibrium.  Which model applies is of course an
empirical matter.  But the simple existence of alternative models may
forestall premature conclusions.

How do technical architectures evolve?  Information technologies
evolve in part through advances in processing speed, bandwidth, and
screen resolution.  But these improvements tell us little about the
qualitative organization of technical systems.  Textbooks present the
modularity of technical systems as the product of ahistorical design
norms, but the modularity of real systems interacts with the market
(Clark 1985).  Consider the victory of the IBM model of personal
computing over the Apple Macintosh.  The IBM brand name was one
factor, but another was IBM's fortuitous decision to standardize the
PC's components and to open them to competition.  As the PC began to
dominate the market, the firms that participated in the PC model all
began to enjoy overwhelming economies of scale that reinforced the
PC's position and ensured Apple's defeat.  A similar dynamic may help
the Internet replace the telephone system: the Internet decouples
functions that the phone companies bundle together.  Ceteris paribus,
then, the market wants functionalities on different layers to be
decoupled whenever significant economics of scope arise for the
application of one layer to different purposes.

How are professions changing?  Knowledge-intensive work has long been
organized in a matrix, with professions cross-cutting organizations.
Yet the relationship between organizations and professions has
begun to shift.  The private sector is undergoing two seemingly
contradictory phenomena: concentration and outsourcing.  Firms
are mergins at unprecedented rates, while functions as complex as
information systems management are contracted out on a large scale.
Both of these developments serve, roughly speaking, to increase the
homogeneity of the activities that take place within a firm.  Among
the many causes of this trend is distributed information technology:
if two firms in the same industry are merged, then activities that
distribute information to all points in the firm, such as personnel
policies or payroll software, become more efficient.  The distinction
between organizations and professions may therefore collapse.  Already
many of the traditional functions of the American Medical Association,
for example, have been taken over by the bureaucracies of large HMO's.
The result is an emerging global corporatism.

//7 Standards and rules

Larry Lessig (1997) and Joel Reidenberg (1998) have observed that the
technical standards embodied in digital media effectively establish
rules: the software that underwrites human relationships also
regulates them.  The law is conservative in its approach to social
rule-setting.  And information technology, despite its revolutionary
reputation, is likewise conservative.  The development of technical
practice resembles that of the common law: designers react to problems
and then periodically systematize their accumulated experience.
Information technology is conservative in another way: once entrenched
in a sufficient proportion of the installed base, compatibility
standards tend to persist in the marketplace (Katz and Shapiro 1994).
The resulting network effects and economies of scale give competition
among standards a winner-take-all character.

In these ways and more, markets for information technology
increasingly resemble legislatures that set rules for a whole
population.  Legislatures also increasingly resemble markets, and
this convergence between the institutional dynamics of economics
and politics is already a daily fact of life in the computer industry.
The deeper phenomenon is the agenda-setting by which our global
society articulates its values and embodies them in its institutions
and its information technologies.  This process intertwines activities
in many sites, and it already far exceeds the simple imagination
of the utopians.  To engage in the process, we need a post-utopian
imagination that embraces the complexity of human institutions
and a critical technical practice that embraces the coevolution of
institutions and technologies.  Both the imagination and the practice
can be dimly seen taking form around us.

//* References

J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1962.

Mark Casson, Information and Organization, Oxford: Clarendon Press,

Kim B. Clark, The interaction of design hierarchies and market
concepts in technological evolution, Research Policy 14, 1985, pages

Ronald H. Coase, The problem of social cost, The Journal of Law and
Economics 3, 1960, pages 1-44.

John R. Commons, Legal Foundations of Capitalism, New York: Macmillan,

Robert E. Goodin, ed, The Theory of Institutional Design, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Jack Greene, The Intellectual Construction of America, Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

David Johnson and David Post, The rise of law on the global network,
in Brian Kahin and Charles Nesson, eds, Borders in Cyberspace:
Information Policy and the Global Information Infrastructure,
Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997.

Michael L. Katz and Carl Shapiro, Systems competition and network
effects, Journal of Economic Perspectives 8(2), 1994, pages 93-115.

Larry Lessig, What things regulate speech, available through
Cyberspace Law Abstracts,

Davan Maharaj, UC Irvine Internet hate crime case ends in mistrial,
Los Angeles Times, 22 November 1997.

Davan Maharaj, Anti-Asian E-mail was hate crime, jury finds, Los
Angeles Times, 11 February 1998.

Robin Mansell, Standards, industrial policy and innovation, in Richard
Hawkins, Robin Mansell, and Jim Skea, eds, Standards, Innovation and
Competitiveness: The Politics and Economics of Standards in Natural
and Technical Environments, Aldershot, England: Edward Elgar, 1995.

David Noble, The Religion of Technology, New York: Knopf, 1997.

Douglass C. North, Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic
Performance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Wanda J. Orlikowski, Learning from Notes: Organizational issues in
groupware implementation, The Information Society 9(3), 1993, pages

Walter W. Powell and Paul J. DiMaggio, eds, The New Institutionalism
in Organizational Analysis, Chicago: University of Chicago Press,

Joel Reidenberg, Lex Informatica: The formulation of information
policy rules through technology, Texas Law Review 96, 1998, pages

Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, New York:
Harper and Brothers, 1942.

Barry Shain, The Myth of American Individualism, Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1996.

[Philip E. Agre
Department of Information Studies
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California  90095-1520

Times Literary Supplement, 3 July 1998.

This version restores the article's section headings and includes
several references that the TLS version omits.  More references to

For those who have seen the printed version in TLS, please know that
I am not responsible for the tagline under the title that reads "The
advance of law and order into the utopian wilderness of cyberspace".
This is a good statement of the position that I am arguing against.

Copyright 1998 by Philip E. Agre.  You are welcome to forward this
article electronically to anyone for any noncommercial purpose, and to
make one paper copy for personal use.  Any other use requires written

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