Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Mimsy Were the Technocrats: As long as we keep talking about it, it’s technology.

Abyssinian Networks

Jerry Stratton, June 1, 1994

“I don’t use the Internet for the same reason I don’t watch TV. It’s too fascinating.”—Ted Nelson, Hypertext Prophet

I’ve never eaten soup with my fingers before today. The Abyssinian Garden used to be the Horn of Africa Ethiopian Restaurant. I suspect they discovered that neither Horns, Africa, nor Ethiopia are food buzzwords in the placid American mind. In particular, I doubt that ‘Ethiopia’ conjured up that ‘horn of plenty’ imagery they were going for… Since Abyssinia hasn’t existed as a country for many centuries, they are unlikely to blunder into an unfavorable image.

Qualcomm is entering the Internet client(What’s a client?) software world like the tortoise. Everyone else is bringing out entire suites with clients for every known Internet server, each of which almost, but not quite entirely, doesn’t work in its own unique way. Qualcomm is creating clients that really do work, one at a time. They made their name (in the Internet world) with an electronic mail reader. Now, they may be publishing an Internet scheduler, which truly scares me. Internet scheduling is a way of having computerized answering machines that do lunch. You tell your computer that, say, you want to meet with President Clinton during the next week, on Thursday or Friday, in the afternoon. Your scheduler goes out and asks President Clinton’s scheduler if there are any time slots open. If so, you are either penciled into the President’s schedule, or, if the President is the more cautious type (and you haven’t offered the computer a donut bribe), you’ll be penciled in as soon as the President’s secretary personally confirms that the meeting is okay. At which point your scheduler is notified that the meeting is a go, and pencils it into your schedule.

Can you imagine it? Your mother-in-law wants to complain about her lecrotic sclerosis, and your computer ropes you right into it. Internet-based scheduling will not catch on unless the schedulers allow for some extremely deceptive filters(Okay, what’s a filter?). We will need computers that can bald-faced lie. Our computers will need to know who to say no to, who to postpone until after lunch when you’ll be gone anyway, and who to make up unoffending excuses for. Your mother-in-law, for instance.

Tej is a fruity drink made from fermented honey. That’s honey that’s been left to sit out for a few months. Before you laugh too hard, mead was at one time quite popular in Europe, and there are still Conan fans on the Internet who drink it. And there are still people on the net who are using computers that were out of date ten years ago. Those of you driving ten year old cars may not think it a big deal, but computers that old are, in transportation terms, the equivalent of the Stanley Steamer. Reliable, perhaps, but you’ll never win the Indy 500, and children will laugh as you attempt to light the wooden fuel.(If you own one, get a life.) These elderly computers deal only with text. They can’t handle the graphics and sound that are being sent up and down the Internet wires. Many of them can’t even transfer text fast enough to make electronic mail and discussion groups reasonably easy to use. Video and sound can be ten to a hundred or even a thousand times larger than text alone.

And to add to this, the large majority of Internet users are coming in off of ‘terminals’ or cheap terminal programs. A ‘terminal’ is a computer that is only smart enough to connect to another computer. A ‘terminal program’ is a computer program that makes your really smart computer into a really dumb terminal. They’re dumb and they’re cheap.

What this means is that text is still the main way of transferring information on the net: pictures and sound are impressive but limited to higher-speed connections in offices and universities. Showing off the Internet with pictures and sound is much more impressive than showing it off with text, so all the exhibitors have five to ten thousand dollar workstations that can grab high-quality video, play music, and talk at the same time. But the actual number of people using such high-tech equipment is extremely small compared to the number of people using purely text-based Internet services from their hundred dollar or thousand dollar computers.

Digital Equipment Corporation(Let’s have a laugh at DEC) has developed Commercial Ad Insertion Technology. This allows advertisers to automatically pop advertisements onto Internet users’ computer screens, turning the Internet into an interactive form of television. DEC is also working to sell interactivity to the Cable TV industry, turning television into a computer network with advertising.

One of the promises of the marriage of computers to television is lots of movies that viewers can choose from. The original vision of the industry was “movies-on-demand”, access to any movie, any time you want it. Cable companies quickly realized that it will be impossible to keep all movies available and to allow any viewer to call up a new movie at any time, computers or no computers. So the reality has become “near movies-on-demand”, which is being able to choose from a few movies sort of when you want them.

Wells Fargo Bank plans to be on-line by the end of the month, providing information about their bank via the Internet. Within a year they expect to allow transactions over the Internet. This from the same bank whose CEO(Reichardt) said “I am much more interested in reliability than being on the leading edge.” So is the Internet no longer leading edge to the banking industry?

When banks get on-line, we’re well on our way to requiring people to have an Internet connection. With a printer and an Internet hook-up, your computer will be a teller machine! Computer printers can dispense a ‘currency’ halfway between checks and cash. Why not? Add a simple black box the size of a cable converter that will ‘stamp’ the paper, and some good public-key cryptology, and ComputerChecks™ would be much more reliable than today’s checks and easier to get than cash. Here’s a campaign promise for you: automatic teller machines in every home.

Every home that can afford them, anyway.

AT&T is starting an on-line library of magazines and journals called RightPages. RightPages allows readers to set a ‘profile’ of what they want to see: what subjects they’re interested in, for example. The RightPages computer takes the profile and only shows the customer articles that fit the profile. Many information services allow readers to do this in some way. RightPages goes a step further by allowing you to say “Hey! I want to read what my colleagues are reading.” In this way you’ll be able to take part in coffee-house discussions at the next conference you attend. Other folks might find other profiles more useful:

The brown-nose profile:
”Hey! I want to read what my boss is reading.” This will be quickly abbreviated to “I want to read the cliff notes for what my boss is reading.”
The wolf profile:
”Hey! I want to read what that guy with the tight ass in the cubicle three down is reading.”

There are currently at least 25 million individuals on the Internet, and some estimates range as high as 50 million. All estimates are preceded by the words “conservatively, at…”. No one knows how many people are on the net. No one knows anything about the demographics of the net, (AssUMe) which has probably shielded Internet users from 30-minute pop-up infomercials while reading their discussion groups. This Will Change. As advertisers inch their way onto the Internet, they will want demographics. Some advertisers are already monitoring who uses the various discussion groups, and sending appropriate advertising—say, political advertising to someone who participates in discussions on Talk.Politics.Misc—via electronic mail. Currently only posters can be singled out. A poster is a person who posts, or sends a message to, a discussion group. Advertisers are going to want the lurkers as well: the people who stay in the background, never participating, only reading. The lurkers on alt.sex.stories, for example, are as likely to be interested in subscriptions to Hustler as those who make up the Forum-like stories for the net to read. Perhaps even more so. But there is currently no way for Hustler’s advertisers to get any mailing lists made up of the silent readership of alt.sex.stories.

The information exists for all newsgroups. It is being thrown away by the system administrators, the people who run the computers. They’re not worried about privacy, they just don’t care about the information. We don’t even keep track of who is using what computers, software, or hardware. We don’t keep track of how popular the stuff is, even for the purpose of making purchases. Here at the University of San Diego, the majority of the Academic Computing offices are equipped with Macintoshes. We prefer to purchase Macintoshes for our student computing labs. Various surveys have indicated that the majority of our students and faculty own IBM compatibles. We could contort this into claiming that we purchase Macintoshes for those people who don’t own their own computer, but the truth is, we buy Macintoshes because we like them, not because we have any idea what our academic community wants (Why really?). We don’t keep track of the popularity of our various Internet computers either. We recently purchased a new Internet computer, but this was only after the old one started crashing too often because it had too many people using it.

As more and more individuals buy Internet access from private providers, advertisers are going to pressure these providers to sell them ‘mailing lists’ of people who use certain discussion groups. Private ‘data collection companies’ will buy a list of everything everyone reads and compile the data for advertisers. The potential for determining exactly what every potential customer—and everyone is a potential customer—is interested in is far too big for advertisers to ignore.

But the privacy concerns are even bigger. Did you accidentally read an article in alt.sex.children? It’s in your file. Do you take part in a small discussion group for alcoholics anonymous? It’s in your file. A list of everyone who you talk to on the net, and everyone who talks to you? It’s in your file. Don’t want a file kept on you? No problem: that’ll be an extra charge. Oh, and that goes in your file, too. We’ll still keep a file on you. We just won’t give it to anybody. Promise.

Ted Nelson is to computer networks what Timothy Leary or Ken Kesey are to dosed bicycles, with one very big exception: Ted Nelson is not a user. He does not have Internet access. He has been prophesying a world where all information is available electronically, and what we consider literature will undergo a great paradigm shift. “Computers deal with arbitrary abstractions,” and there is nothing more arbitrary than literature. Literature, he says, is interconnected documents. “A document is an information package with a point of view”, which can be as small as a paragraph. He foresees a future where all the information on the net will be available to everyone. Almost utopian, except: it will be available to everyone by law, and it will be illegal to copy anything. Sounds like freedom of speech designed by fascists.

‘Literature’ will be ‘links’ to electronic paragraphs, held together by the author’s own prose-which will also be available for someone else’s book, article, or electronic speech. Everything that is ‘written’—and ‘written’ includes video and audio—will be a vast network of links to other things, which may in turn be links to other things. There will be no need to copy anything. You’ll just link to what you want. And every time you link, the author will receive a royalty from your electronic fund.

The logistics of enforcing such a scheme is even now causing wet dreams across Washington, DC. Copyright Cops will need to be everywhere, ready to arrest anyone who tries to sneakily copy part of Webster’s Atlas in order to avoid link charges or computer failure in the future. How much of a work constitutes an electronic paragraph? What are the penalties for copying instead of linking? Will the Copyright Cops carry Electronic Guns loaded with Virtual Cyclone ammunition?

Buy your sheets early and often. This is going to be one long, strange trip again.

June 1, 1995: Load up on virtual cyclone ammo!

“The logistics of enforcing such a scheme is even now causing wet dreams across Washington, DC.”

I wrote that in jest one single measly year ago, and it already isn’t funny. Wet dreams across Washington DC? The latest MacWorld has the Clinton administration recommending that “electronic transmissions of documents” be considered “copies”, so that they’ll be included under copyright law, and making it illegal to manufacture or distribute “any device that would circumvent electronic tags used to protect copyrights on networks.”

Sounds neat, just like Ted Nelson sounds neat. But treating “electronic transmissions” as if they were copies of your novel is like holding the postman responsible for what people send you. And any computer can circumvent electronic tags. I’ve got stupid little programs on my Macintosh that automatically download software. And such programs litter the bigger minicomputers and mainframes. There will be absolutely no way to enforce this kind of a law without requiring federal inspection of every computer on the net on a regular basis.

And... just yesterday, the FBI was quoted as wanting the ability to tap one out of every hundred telephone lines in any given year. No wait, said FBI head Freeh, we merely meant one in every thousand telephone lines. And of course we wouldn’t use that ability. We’d just feel better having it.

Sure. And I’ve got this great bridge in Brooklyn you can have for a song--I’ll even take your credit card number over electronic mail. It’s the classic high-ball you’d expect from a used-car salesman, not the damn head of what the NRA used to call “Our fine agency”. Quote a price that riles ‘em up, and they’ll accept a price they would’ve refused. A mere one in one thousand? That’s tapping the phone lines of three million Americans every year. Within a ten-year time, one out of every ten of your friends and relations will have unknowingly provided entertainment for an FBI audience. Better wear your best blackface.

July 1, 1994: Tracking computer usage

I wrote, “We don’t keep track of the popularity of our various Internet computers either.” And, in fact, we didn’t. Now we do, and are even pretending we did.

Ironically, in the month since I wrote that line, the University has hired a new president. As part of her overview of the state of USD, she’s asked for a review of the usage of our computers, and we have nothing to give her. We’re scrambling for old backups that got lost--and thus not recycled; we’re looking for anything that will give us some data. We’ve been reduced to digging through boxes of paperwork gathering dust.

  1. Internet folks love to talk about ‘clients’ and ‘servers’. Clients and servers are the life-blood of the Internet. A ‘server’ serves information. It just sits there waiting to give it away. A ‘client’ grabs information. When the user (that’s you, son) tells the client to get something, the client goes and asks the server for it. The server gives it to the client, which then displays it for the user. Then everyone involved goes out for a Jack Daniel’s. Much like a computer convention.

  2. ’Filter’ is a word from computerdom. A ‘filter’ is a computer program that intercepts data and makes sure it’s okay before it goes to a second program. For example, you might have a ‘filter’ that takes a letter that you wrote in English and converts it into pig latin before sending it off to rural Italy.

  3. Owners of these older computers take disparaging remarks very seriously. While owners of VIC-20s should get a life and a faster computer, they’re more likely to complain that the VIC-20 represents the zenith of computers and that for many purposes the VIC-20 is well-suited. Doorstops, however, went out of fashion many years ago in America.

  4. DEC will go down in history as the makers of the computer equivalent of Ishtar, called the DEC Rainbow. If you want to come off as knowing something about computers, answer a disparaging remark about some computer company’s product with , “well, at least it’s not a Rainbow.” Then again, at least the Rainbow wasn’t a PC Junior.

  5. The CEO is Carl E. Reichardt, quoted by Barnaby J. Feder in “Getting the Electronic Just Right”, Computerization and Controversy, Charles Dunlop & Rob Kling, editors.

  6. In general, of course, advertisers assume that people on the net know about computers. I suspect that this is more wrong than right. There are more and more ways for non-geeks to get access to the Internet, even if it’s as simple as electronic mail or gopher.

  7. Actually, we buy them because we’re cheap: Macs may cost a little more in the short run, but we spend a heck of a lot less time answering crazy questions. Our community can use Macs without being technogeeks. I haven’t got the time now, but if you look around, you can find my usual rant.

  1. <- The City of the Future
  2. Buy Macintosh ->