Internet dreams, M Stefik

Tags: Internet Dreams, Mark Stefik, communication, Archetypes, information infrastructure, information superhighway, Electronic Mail, communicator, metaphor, Albert Gore, National Information Infrastructure, archetype, George Lakoff, Myths, interstate highway system, infrastructure, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, colleague, digital libraries, digital library, information highway, computer network, National Press Club, Mark Johnson, Information Superhighways, radio talk shows, J. C. R. Licklider, form letter, Digital Library Metaphor, community, Understanding Computers and Cognition, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, mail systems, discussion group, discussion groups, digital electronics, Rudyard Kipling, Spoken messages, Elbert Hubbard, asynchronous communication, Military Message Experiment, broken spear, conventions of writing, Allan B. Chinen, electronic distribution
Content: Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths, and Metaphors Mark Stefik Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996. 1
Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths, and Metaphors
Introduction One helpful way is to think of the National Information Infrastructure as a network of highways-much like the Interstates begun in the fifties. Vice President Albert Gore, National Press Club, December 21, 1993. The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By We participate in the creation of our story. We can enact the personal myths of warrior, goddess, eternal adolescent, great mother, king or queen, master, slave, or servant of the divine.... In all these stories we choose and are chosen.... Yet we must ask: Is this who we are? Jack Kornfield, A Path with Heart We are told that the National Information Infrastructure (NII)--or, from a more global perspective, the Global Information Structure (GII)--will profoundly alter how we live, work, and play. Yet nobody knows what that infrastructure is, because it is still being invented. What it becomes depends in large part on how we think about it. Some people see today's computer networks as the prototype of the NII. Others say it will be like cable television or the telephone system. In these views, the NII will be either more and better computers or more and better television channels or telephones. On the other hand, maybe the NII will be something altogether different and profoundly uplifting, something that taps into our collective dreams. It's not that nobody is thinking about what the NII should be, could be, and will be. In fact, it sometimes seems that it is a matter of interest and speculation to everyone. It is the subject of Sunday newspaper columns, books, bills before Congress, hearings by various branches of government, and discussions in corporate planning sessions. Yet no article, piece of legislation, or small group in a closed room can define what the information infrastructure will be. What it eventually becomes is now emerging from all our collective imaginations and conversations. When people talk about the information infrastructure, then, what do they say? One popular vision of the NII was stated in the technology position paper of the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign: "We must . . . build Information Superhighways: to develop an advanced communications network, which will help companies collaborate on research and
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design for advanced manufacturing, allow doctors across the country to communicate, put immense resources at the fingertips of American teachers and students and much more." This quotation presents the NII in terms of what has become its most celebrated metaphor: the Information superhighway or the I-way. Although of course, it will not be a highway in the literal sense, the metaphor suggests that it will be like a highway. But in what sense? The metaphors we use constantly in our everyday language profoundly influence what we do, because they shape our understanding. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson say that metaphors are pervasive because they reflect how we think, perhaps embodying deeply unconscious archetypes of personality and vision. When we change the metaphors, therefore, we change how we think about things. Because metaphors can guide our imagination about a new invention, they influence what it can be even before it exists. The metaphors we use suggest ideas and we absorb them so quickly that we seldom even notice the metaphor, making much of our understanding completely unconscious. Giant Brains In the 1950s, the main metaphor for describing computers was giant brains. The word giant was in one sense an apt description: computers were then very large. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, most people thought of a computer as a big machine with flashing lights and spinning tapes that filled a secure, air-conditioned room and was attended by experts. The giant brain metaphor was, however, wrong, and it was misleading. It did not tap into what we wanted to do with computers or what we could do. It failed to predict the actual future of computers or to guide their further development. It did not, for example, contribute to the vision of the personal computer, word processing, or spreadsheets, all of which came later. Computers were big, and bigness conveys the sense of power, awe, and fright we often associate with things much larger than ourselves. The metaphor would seem to predict that with progress, computers would get even bigger and more powerful. Instead, over the last twenty years they have become a lot smaller. Furthermore, their
Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths, and Metaphors
diminishing size did not correspond to any diminution in power; today's laptop computers are much more powerful than the giants of the 1960s. The brain part of the metaphor was even less relevant. Brains think, but very little of what computers do corresponds to what we normally call thought. Furthermore, the term brain triggered fear. If computers are brains, what are they thinking about? Are they smarter than we are? Can they be trusted? Ultimately, the associations triggered by the metaphor of the giant brain were disempowering, for they undermined our sense of ourselves and led common wisdom astray. The Information Superhighway Metaphor The information superhighway metaphor goes back at least to 1988, when Robert Kahn proposed building a high-speed national computer network he often likened to the interstate highway system. Kahn is president and founder of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives, a not-for-profit organization created to provide leadership and funding for research and development of the NII. He is well known in the Computer Science community as the driving force behind the Internet and its predecessor the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET). More recently Vice President AI Gore popularized the term information superhighway in his speeches. He claims he invented the term in 1979, which makes sense. The Vice President is the son of Albert Gore, Snr., who served as senator from Tennesee from 1959 through 1971 and was a force behind the Federal Aid to Highways Acts. These acts substantially increased federal funding for the national system of interstate and defense highways. Creating highways is in the Gore family tradition. Frequently, the information superhighway is portrayed as an intricate tangle of communication lines connecting computer sites on a map of the United States. For an American, the graphic can be stirring, combining the image of the United States with a superimposed computer network that links everything together. The accompanying text describes vast quantities of data going places--life-saving medical data, pictures, and information from digital libraries. The image suggests that, like highways, the network will connect us, bind us together. Why build highways? To move goods around. Why build information highways? To move infor-
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mation. Nobody says it, but we can almost feel a subliminal message telling us: "It's the infrastructure, stupid!" Concrete highways were good things in the past. But why move only cars and trucks? Like the advertisement "It's not your father's Oldsmobile," the map speaks of a new age, the Information Age. Information highways are for the future. The information superhighway metaphor shows up in virtually all speech and writing about the NII. One helpful way is to think of the National Information Infrastructure is as a network of highwaysmuch like the Interstates begun in the fifties. Interpretation: Information networks should connect the country together and will bring economic prosperity. On-ramps to the superhighway Interpretation: Access to the I-way for Doing Business. "... Traffic jams and gridlock" Interpretation: Network congestion. When there is too much information travelling on the I-way, delivery is delayed. Do you want to be in the fast lane or the slow lane? Interpretation: Moving ahead quickly or being slowed down in traffic. Highway robbery on the Internet Interpretation: Unauthorized copying of digital works. Detour the poor on the information superhighway. Interpretation: People without money are disenfranchised because they cannot access the network. Back roads of the information highway Interpretation: Equivalent to slow country roads where not much business takes place. National borders are just speed bumps on the information superhighway. Interpretation: Information on a network can easily cross national borders without slowing down or going through customs. Companies that hesitate risk becoming road kill on the information superhighway. Interpretation: Businesses on the I-way will evolve quickly, and companies that do not invest quickly will be overtaken by those who act quickly.
Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths, and Metaphors
Each example uses the highway metaphor to predict the future shape of the national information infrastructure in an attempt to influence people. Because, for example, the interstate highway system is widely credited with creating American prosperity, using the highway metaphor tacitly promises that large-scale investments in the Internet will similarly benefit the common good. The highway metaphor example also draws on the American driving experience, referring to traffic jams, gridlock, eightlane turnpikes, toll roads, back roads, feeder roads, one-way roads, speed bumps, speed limits, and so on. A related metaphor equates a computer's User Interface to the NII with an automobile's dashboard. The words information superhighway conjure up many other associated images. The metaphor has become so popular that it offers serious challenges to people talking about computer networks, because it carries with it misleading meanings associated with roads. Mathew Miller, a Connecticut technology consultant, has a list of the ways regular highways differ from information highways. Highways, for example, are planned and designed, whereas information highways are selforganizing and have no central planner. Highways are constructed with taxpayer dollars; information highways will ultimately be financed mainly by private investment. Highways have fixed configurations and connect fixed physical locations; information highways have ever-changing configurations and link changing information sources. Miller uses these contrasts to help his clients avoid carrying over assumptions about highways to their thinking about information highways. He regards assumptions about the government's role in centralized planning and organization as particularly inappropriate to information highways. The highway metaphor is, however, apt when it pictures information as traffic. Talking about one-way, two-way, and toll roads is descriptive of how bits and bytes travel on wires and gives us a mental image of information flowing around the country. Highway metaphors are thus useful for thinking about connectivity, speed, communications charges, and infrastructure. On the other hand, what is the purpose of all those bits and bytes? What do they have to do with everyday life? How adequate is the highway metaphor really? Couldn't we, by analogy, describe the telephone system as the voice superhighway? Such a telephone metaphor would describe how voices
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travel around on wires. But when we think about the role of telephones in our lives, we're more likely to think about ringing telephones, cellular phones, answering machines, long distance rates, or how telephones let us save time, do business, and call relatives on holidays. The voice superhighway metaphor doesn't help us understand how telephones fit into our lives. In the same way, the information superhighway metaphor doesn't shed enough light on how the NII will affect our lives. If, as we participate in the invention of the NII, we do not recognize that we are helping create it, our contribution will be unconscious. On the other hand, if we recognize that the NII is being collectively invented and reinvented, we can be aware of the possibilities and can voice our choices. Multiple Metaphors, Richer Thinking This book, then, is about more powerful and appropriate metaphors for thinking about the emerging information infrastructure and increasing our consciousness of invention by looking at the possibilities through different metaphors. Our focus is not current politics, nor is it a prescription of what the information infrastructure should be. In a period when new generations of digital electronics appear every year or two and when news about what's hot changes almost daily, some of the metaphors we consider are ancient. They have appeared in various cultural forms for thousands of years and have influenced thinking about computers for at least fifty years. We refer to them as metaphors for the I-way. Here are the ones we explore in depth in the four parts of this volume. Ї The Digital Library. The I-way as publishing and community memory. This metaphor shows up in digital libraries, databases, and other archival information services. It emphasizes the publishing and storage of collected knowledge for preservation and access by a society. Ї Electronic Mail. The I-way as a communications medium. This metaphor shows up in the image of electronic mail used to send personal messages to each other and public messages to groups and communities. Ї Electronic Marketplace. The I-way as a place for selling goods and services. This metaphor is used for thinking about issues of digital commerce, digital money, and digital property.
Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths, and Metaphors
Ї Digital Worlds. I-way as a gateway to experience. This metaphor shows up in descriptions of social settings on the network, groupware, virtual reality, Augmented Reality, telepresence, and ubiquitous computing. The goal of the work is not to create the one right metaphor for the I-way, for relying on a single metaphorical analogy would deprive us of a richer range of meanings and possibilities. Archetypes and Myths Metaphors connect with our consciousness in different ways and awaken our hearts in different ways. These awakenings correspond to the archetypes studied in Jungian psychology and mythology-inward elements of the psyche that reflect outward from our cultural experiences. The word archetype means an original model after which other, similar things are patterned. Among the numerous archetypes Jung identified are those of the hero, the child, the trickster, God, the demon, the wise old man, and the earth mother, as well as various natural processes, animals, and objects. Archetypes are not fixed; they appear in different forms, depending on culture and context. Because they influence us without our being aware of them, archetypes are said to be part of the collective unconscious and are embedded in myths. The origins of most myths are lost in obscurity; in Greek, the word myth means "what they say." In his writings about the role of myths, Mircea Eliade emphasizes their temporal qualities. Myths and fairy tales start out with "once upon a time" or "it could have happened this way." Such language seeks to create ambiguity about time, a sense of a mythical time that is qualitatively different from ordinary, existential time. This ambiguity suggests that myths may be about the past but that they may also he about the present. Myths do not lose their relevance by virtue of being ancient because they are about how we view the world and, as such, may be outside of ordinary time. The myths we remember and tell our children describe the kind of people we aspire to be. Many myths have central figures, and the stories of what these central figures do and what happens to them often says something important about how a community views the world. In psychological terms, the central figure of a myth corresponds to an archetype.
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Archetypes for Internet Dreams The four metaphors explored in this book correspond to four archetypes that have long guided our technological visions and currently figure in our thinking about the future shape of the Internet. By guiding our social invention, too, these archetypes create visions of what we want to be--as individuals and societies. In Part 1 we consider the Digital Library Metaphor, which awakens the archetypal keeper of knowledge or conservator within us and reminds us to gather and preserve knowledge for future generations. Because we are a communicating species, we use information and ideas that other people, including our collective ancestors, have learned. As a species this gives us an enormous evolutionary advantage. Growing up and learning from others we come to understand and honor this archetype deeply. Variations on it include the keeper of ancient wisdom, the wise old one, the teller of stories in Oral Traditions, the curator of a museum, the scholar, and the librarian. The Electronic Mail Metaphor explored in Part 2 appeals to the communicator within us and brings to mind our need to exchange thoughts with friends and community. There are many variations on this archetype: a person who draws extensively on interpersonal connections is called a networker; a matchmaker is someone who brings other people together; the whistle blower is someone who speaks out, calling public attention to a wrong. As communicators we try to keep in touch with our friends, especially on holidays, and to know what is happening in their lives. If we are politically active, we speak out on issues affecting the community. In the Internet community, the term netizen refers to just such a network citizen. These are all variations of the communicator archetype. The Electronic Marketplace Metaphor in Part 3 refers to the trader within us, the archetype that prepares us for action and commerce. Because of its general role in getting things done, this archetype is also related to the older and more traditional archetypes of people who go out into the world to make a living, including the warrior, farmer, hunter, and gatherer archetypes. The merchant, the sea trader, the importer, the sales person, the business executive, and the bargain hunter are some of the other variations of this archetype.
Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths, and Metaphors
In Part 4 we look at the Digital Worlds Metaphor, which awakens our inner adventurer, reminding us to explore new experiences and seek out the spice of life that fires the imagination. Variations on the adventurer archetype are the explorer, the ranger, the pathfinder, the mountain man, and the undersea treasure hunter. At all stages of life, people feel the need to seek out new experiences, but young people are especially eager to see the world before settling down. The person changing careers in midlife and the older person who steps out of his or her accustomed role to give something to the community are also variations on the adventurer archetype. The keeper of knowledge, the communicator, the trader, or the adventurer may be either male or female, as fits the occasion. To invent something as important as the information infrastructure we need to draw on all our best and fullest selves. These archetypes, with their deep and ancient roots in many cultures, represent what we see in others, but they are also parts of ourselves. This shared experience of cultural archetypes is part of what makes us what we are. Our goal in bringing them to mind is to enliven our imagination, so that when we make choices about the information infrastructure we draw on all the richness of the people we are. Building the Highway If, as we are told, the information infrastructure will have profound effects on how we live, work, and play, then what is at stake is not just ways of describing a technology but, more crucially, ways of describing ourselves as we wish to be. More potent than our view of technology is our view of ourselves. The I-way metaphors always refer back to ourselves-as the users of the computer networks or the participants in online communities. What do we see ourselves doing with the Iway? How do we see ourselves collectively as members of various on-line groups? Our search for understanding of the I-way is, ultimately, a search for ourselves and the future we choose to inhabit. Highways connect civilization together. They are so important for moving people, goods, and services that they are usually funded as part of the infrastructure that serves a broad social good. In the late 1890s,
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Robert Louis Stevenson persuaded the tribal chiefs of Samoa to cut a road through the wilderness. When it was opened, Stevenson said, "Our road is not built to last a thousand years, yet in a sense it is. When a road is once built, it is a strange thing how it collects traffic, how every year as it goes on, more and more people are found to walk thereon, and others are raised up to repair and perpetuate it" (Vailima Letters). Some of the most important roads being built today are the information highways. These highways are entering our lives; they connect us to each other and reduce the distances between us. We can use them to create electronic communities and to discover our place in communities larger than our physical neighborhoods. They can help us to "think globally and act locally." In shaping what the information infrastructure will become, we are also choosing what we want to be.
Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths, and Metaphors
Part 2 The Electronic Mail Metaphor: The I-Way As a Communications Medium Stories are medicine. I have been taken with stories since I heard my first. They have such power; they do not require that we do, be, act anything--we need only listen. Clarissa Pinkola Estйs, Women Who Run With the Wolves Communication ends separation. A Course in Miracles In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face to face. J. C. R. Licklider and Robert Taylor, "The Computer as a Communication Device" You cannot do anything in the Internet by yourself. This derives from the basic observation that all the interesting communication connections in the world have at least two ends. from a flurry of e-mail messages on an Internet mailing list As a messenger, the Trickster is likewise a sponsor of computer networks, cellular phones, and satellite television, linking the diverse people of the world. Allan B. Chinen, Beyond the Hero In his Just So stories for children, Rudyard Kipling wrote a story called "How the First Letter was Written." In this story, a hunter goes down to the river with his precocious daughter to spear catfish. He accidentally breaks his spear and sits down to repair it. The daughter becomes bored and, unknown to her father, encounters a friendly stranger from a neighboring tribe that speaks a different language. On a piece of birch bark she draws a series of pictures intending to show her father fishing, his broken spear, where they are, and so on. Somehow she convinces the stranger to run to her house to give the "letter" to her mother, so that someone will bring her father another spear. The wife, never having seen a letter before, puzzles over the meanings of the childish drawings and symbols. Thinking the writing means that her husband is under attack, she dispatches warriors to save him. This is just the first in a sequence of confusions in a story that is all about misunderstanding writing. For us, understanding writing is not generally as hopeless as it is in Kipling's story. Language and the conventions of writing are created and used by communities--and that connection is no coincidence. Indeed, the words communicate and community have the same roots. If everyone
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lived as a completely isolated and independent individual, we would have no use for communication or, perhaps, even language. The language used in messages ranges from the mundane to the profound. Spoken messages, unless they are recorded, last for a shorter time than written ones. What is spoken fades from our ears quickly, whereas what is written can be read again and again. Writing is useful for preserving communications for later reading or even future generations, as reflected in the digital library metaphor and the keeper of knowledge archetype. It is also useful for communicating at a distance, as in the Kipling story, and for everyday messages and small talk. Messages knit us together in communicating communities. Myths and Archetypes for Awakening the Communicator In terms of archetypes, the need to communicate--to hear and be heard is reflected in the communicator archetype. The best-known communicator archetype is the messenger. There are many tales of messengers. For example, in the fifth century B.C., when the ancient Greeks defeated a much larger army, they sent news of the victory across the plain of Marathon by runner. After delivering his message the messenger collapsed and died. The length of a marathon race today, twentysix miles, is the length of the plain of Marathon. In colloquial speech, the phrase "don't kill the messenger" refers to not taking out anger on someone who brings bad news. In Elbert Hubbard's "A Message to Garcia," a brave messenger-soldier faces the nearly impossible task of carrying a note to a general through dangerous jungles and enemy territory. The story, written in 1899, sold over 50 million copies. In western culture, the most famous messenger archetype is Greek mythology's Hermes, the son of Zeus and Maia. He was Zeus's messenger and a bringer of good luck. Known for his speed, eloquence, cleverness, and protectiveness, Hermes was aided by wings he wore on his sandals and cap. Hermes is also the patron of orators, writers, athletes, merchants, and thieves. Advertisers use his image as a symbol of speed. His Roman mythological counterpart is Mercury, the son of Jupiter; in the Celtic pantheon, the god Lug plays a similar role as the swift communicator. In his discussion of African spiritual systems in The
Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths, and Metaphors
Drummer's Path, Sule Greg Wilson suggests that there are correspondences among Hermes, Mercury, Elegba, Tehuti, Exu, and Ifa. Hermes is often associated with e-mail and communication. One of the first e-mail systems on the ARPANET was named HERMES and was developed at Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN) between 1975 and 1977. It was used as part of DARPA's Military Message Experiment and introduced the idea of arbitrary message headers and mail filters, among other things. Interestingly, a competing message system called HG was created at BBN around 1976. According to Austin Henderson, one of the designers of HERMES, HG is a lovely reference to a reference: Hg, the chemical notation for the element mercury, alludes to Hermes's Roman name. The image of Hermes is also used as an icon by a British telecommunication company. Another important story about communication and communities is the biblical account of the Tower of Babel, which was built by the descendants of Noah to reach up to heaven itself and make them like God. To prevent them from completing the tower, God caused them to speak many languages so that they could no longer understand one another. Then he scattered them over the earth. The story of the Pentecost in the New Testament is an opposite kind of story. The word Pentecost is Greek for Shavuot, the spring harvest festival of the Israelites. When the disciples were together in Jerusalem after Jesus's resurrection, there appeared to them tongues of fire, and they were filled with the Holy Ghost and began to speak other languages. Because of the harvest festival, Jerusalem was filled with crowds of foreign visitors speaking many languages. When the disciples moved among the visitors, they spoke to them in their own languages and many were converted to Christianity. Both stories illustrate the theme of the separation of human communities, divided by distance and language. The communicator archetype can take many forms, reflecting different relationships between the communicator and the community: the orator is the citizen speaking out; the pen pal is the friend known intimately only through writing; the matchmaker is a networker who brings people together as couples. Some communicators carry negative connotations in a community because they tell secrets; these include the tattletale, the informant, the traitor, and the spy. Ultimately, of course, we are all
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communicators--whether as teachers, as prolific writers of office memos, or as faithful correspondents with our friends. The communicator is also one of the archetypes that can guide how we think about information infrastructure. In our time, it is embodied in the electronic mail metaphor. Electronic mall (e-mail) is the most popular function on the Internet. For most computer users, it is either free or much cheaper than using a telephone. Some e-mail users call the regular postal service the "snail mail," referring to the fact that when everything is working, e-mail is delivered in minutes instead of the days required by regular mail. You can read e-mail whenever and from wherever you want, and you don't need a stamp. Since the 1970s e-mail has been a widely used feature of the Internet. In spite of its relatively long history, new users of e-mail are often surprised-- by things people say in e-mail they would never say in person and by the amount of junk mail they receive. Different media have different properties that affect how we use them; because e-mail is different from postal mail, we end up using it differently. The electronic mail metaphor can help us understand why this is so and why e-mail seems to break down our assumptions about regular mail. The Deep Structure of the Electronic Mail Metaphor Because people are already familiar with mail, the electronic mail metaphor brings with it a lot of prior meaning. The deep structure of the electronic mail metaphor, therefore, lies in our assumptions about regular mail and how it works. We begin by looking at the process of sending a letter. First, someone writes the letter, perhaps even rewriting it several times; then, when satisfied with it, he or she folds it and puts it in an envelope. Of course, people write letters for various reasons. A letter to a pen pal or a distant friend is for many a time of reflection and intimacy. A writer may relax, perhaps listen to music while composing it; or go to a serene setting to write it. Some people write to their friends mainly when they are traveling, to describe what they are seeing and doing. In these examples, people write to particular individuals to say personal things; the letters are
Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths, and Metaphors
private. Social custom treats the sealing of an envelope as a guarantee of privacy. The mechanics of sending a letter take advantage of the knowledge and re- sourcefulness of the post office. The sender writes the recipient's address on the envelope; the post office will usually deliver the letter correctly, even if the address is not complete or exactly correct. Letters are sent by taking them to a mailbox and usually reach their destinations in a few days. On the receiving end, letters arrive at a mailbox in a fixed physical location. If we move, we get a new address and a new mailbox. Even though mail can be forwarded, it is best to let correspondents know our changes of address. Many people receive a substantial amount of junk mail, which is generally sent by organizations, not individuals. junk mall is easy to recognize: it may say "bulk mail" on the stamp or "crd sort" or "pre-sorted" on the envelope. Some people use these cues to discard junk mail without even opening it. Individuals do not usually send large mailings because of the costs of postage, materials, and handling. Saying the same thing to several people requires one to make multiple copies of the letter and put each one in an addressed envelope. The mail metaphor, like the digital library metaphor, carries with it certain assumptions about protocol and literacy; and different kinds of letters have different forms and protocols. For example, if your are writing to someone you don't know, you begin by explaining who you are and why you are writing. Such letters tend to be very polite. In contrast, letters to the editor of a newspaper need not be especially polite and must be very short and to the point. For most kinds of written letters, a writer will be careful about titles, referring to the recipient as Dr. or Professor or Ms., as appropriate. When my grandmother wrote to me as a child, she used the title Master. We also assume that when we write letters to people, we will get a response. Challenging Assumptions about Mail The electronic mail metaphor can mislead us if we overlook what is changing or different about the digital realm. We begin by writing a letter
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in a different way. Electronic mall is composed on a word processor, making it routine to cut and paste words and use spelling checks. Of course, these tools can lend themselves to large-scale mistakes when authors paste together sentences hastily from other letters. One widely observed consequence of e-mail is that writings often contain errors of grammar and content caused by the accidental deletion or inclusion of information. Because word processing invites us to casually reuse blocks of text, we may run the risk of accidentally including in a personal e-mail letter inappropriate material originally intended for someone else. With regular mail, if we get a personal letter it comes from an individuals, whereas a form letter is probably from an organization trying to sell us something. In e-mail, however, some people are experimenting with using personal form letters. In their Understanding Computers and Cognition, Winograd and Flores suggest that a conversation for action can often be understood in terms of a series of stages. An initial request may be followed by promises, counter proposals, acceptance of offers, and so on. At each point in the conversation there is a small set of possible actions, and these are linguistic. This idea was taken to the next logical step in an experimental e-mail system called the Information Lens, which was devised by Tom Malone and colleagues the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Information Lens contains forms for many different kinds of letters. For example, general categories of forms include action requests, commitments, and notices. An example of a notice might be a meeting announcement or a publication announcement. The lens was partly intended to automate the writing of electronic mail and to facilitate its automatic processing by a computer. For example, a computer could update a personal calendar when a particular seminar is either announced or canceled. With regular mail, you are reminded of cost whenever you write a letter because you have to find and attach postage stamps. Long-distance mailings cost more, and big heavy letters and packages cost still more. By contrast, sending an e-mail seems free, and its cost does not depend on its length or on how far it must travel. Because we do not need to find stamps, we do not think about costs. Another difference relates to unclear addresses. Knowing roughly where somebody works or lives usually doesn't help a lot in determining
Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths, and Metaphors
that person's e-mail address. e-mail addresses are full of strange symbols; sometimes they contain last names, sometimes first names, sometimes initials, and sometimes nonsense strings assigned at the convenience of the e-mail provider. The Internet links many different e-mail systems that use a variety of naming schemes in different institutions and mail systems. If the e-mail address is not exactly right, the message will not reach its intended recipient. With regular mail, sending the same letter to several people costs more and requires substantially more handling. With many e-mail systems, sending a letter to a list of people is as easy as sending it to one person and costs the same. We say that e-mail has easy fan-out: you do not need to make multiple copies of a letter; you just include all the addresses. E-mail can be a powerful tool for getting the word out to lists of people and to on-line discussion groups. The case of sending e-mail to a group means that people do it more often. Nearly every user of e-mail has at one time or another sent out a message to people not intended to get it. E-mail users also tend to use available lists for making announcements without making sure that the message is appropriate to everyone on the list. This means that most people receive several messages a day that they consider to be junk mail. On e-mail, a letter from a private individual need not be private at all, a possibility that has led to the development of on-line discussion groups, in which all members get all group e-mail that is sent. These special-interest groups organize themselves around all sorts of topics, ranging from music reviews, to movies, to gardening, or to any other definable topic. Interest groups are virtual communities in which e-mail diminishes the usual effects of distance. It is not unusual for members of interest groups to communicate with each other on a daily basis; sometimes they have more conversations with people across the country or halfway around the world than they do with people in the next office. In these virtual communities, the sense of community and communication is real enough. What is virtual is that the people do not necessarily live or work near each other in space. Rather, they are neighbors in cyberspace. We touch on this theme further in Part 4 on the digital worlds metaphor.
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Many messages to a discussion group are responses to a message sent by someone else. Most of the people reading the message exchange, however, are simply readers who do not actively participate in discussion. In contrast with regular mail, reading a discussion group's mail is considered a legitimate part of the public process, rather than a violation of privacy. It is analogous to reading the letters to the editor in a newspaper. With ordinary mail, privacy is signaled and usually ensured by the use of a paper envelope. With e-mail, privacy has recently become a contentious issue. Some organizations have taken the position that, as computers are company equipment, e-mail is about company business. Some executives have used various computer programs to read e-mail between employees; in some cases where an employee was in conflict with management, this practice has led to disputes about privacy. For individuals who desire privacy in situations like this, some e-mail systems provide "privacy-enhanced e-mail"--systems that use encryption techniques that make it very difficult to read other people's mail. Privacy-enhanced e-mail is said to be sent in "digital envelopes" that are analogous to the envelopes used in ordinary mail. E-mail in these systems is encrypted in a coding key that can be unlocked and read only by a recipient who has the decoding key. Such keys can also be used to establish the identity of the sender. The most-experienced users of e-mail may use programs that display the name of the sender as well as the topic. This is often enough to discard e-mail, especially if the topic is stale or the message was sent to a wide-distribution mailing list. Some sophisticated e-mail systems include facilities for automatically filtering and sorting mail. Thus, users can write filters that discard mail from certain sources or on certain topics and can prioritize mail, marking messages as needing prompt action or as requiring no immediate attention. With regular mail, you may carry a letter around with you until you find a mailbox. In fact, some people use this extra time to decide whether to send a letter, perhaps one written in haste. With e-mail, though, there is no walking around and waiting. You simply click a button and the e-mail is sent; once you send it, it is out of your control. A few e-mail systems make it possible to recall a letter, but this ability is not generally
Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths, and Metaphors
available on the Internet. When everything is working well, e-mail reaches its destination in a few minutes. Receiving regular mail, like sending it, takes time. You have to go to a physical mailbox to pick it up, whereas e-mail is massless. You can log into the e-mail system from any telephone or network connection, read your mail, and send replies. Although e-mail has expectations and protocols, they are not the same as for regular mall, and they leave more room for confusion between senders and receivers. For example, because e-mail is delivered immediately, some people expect an immediate response. One of the advantages of e-mail, however, is that you can read it at your convenience. Still, it is generally considered impolite not to respond to e-mail for days at a time. One colleague of mine had a series of personal and family emergencies that put him out of e-mail contact for about three months. When he returned and found that thousands of messages had accumulated, he decided to discard them, on the grounds that anything important would be sent again. When he failed to respond to my request for a favor, however, I misunderstood his silence as an unexplained "no" until I talked to a mutual friend and heard about his problems. Some people set up programs that automatically respond to mail with a brief explanatory note while they are away on vacation, a practice similar to changing the message on an answering machine or voicemail system during extended absences. In general, e-mail is less formal and more anonymous than regular mail. People say things in e-mail they would not say in ordinary mail, perhaps because it is so easy to send mail to large numbers of people. They seem to press the send button without thinking about it and without the cooling-off period that would follow if they carried a letter around with them until they reached a mailbox. The term flame refers to e-mail that rants on about some subject; in the following articles, we include some examples of flames and a form letter for responding to them. Finally, it is possible to write e-mail in when you're not at your desk. I occasionally see people at coffeehouses in the Bay Area writing on a laptop computer; it seems to me that doing that is much less relaxing than writing a short note on paper in the same setting. It's easy to write a postcard or note on a wedge of space on the table or on a book balanced
Mark Stefik (1996)
on one's knee. Using a laptop, by contrast, means placing it in the middle of the table, right where you would otherwise put a slice of pie and a cup of coffee. Instead of writing with an elegant pen, and focusing on the content of your note, you have to use a four-to-six pound computer and keep an eye on the batterycharge indicator--unless you've found a table near a power outlet. Furthermore, you might not want to leave a portable device worth as much as a used car unattended while you go to refill your coffee cup. At least today, the devices for writing e-mail in public places fall short in several ways. E-mail Today The electronic mail metaphor is the second of four metaphors we present for thinking about the national information infrastructure. Unlike digital libraries, e-mail is already used by millions of people for hundreds of hours each. Indeed, some observers of computer networks and other new technologies say that the term information age is a misnomer; rather, we should call this the communication age. The electronic mail metaphor is not so much a guide to what the communication infrastructure could be like as an example of what computer networks are already like. The articles in this section discuss how e-mail is used today and how these uses affect people and their organizations. At present, e-mail augments but does not replace other forms of communication. Sometimes in their enthusiasm for New Technology, people use e-mail when they could as easily or better use more established means of communication. I recently saw a letter to the editor in which someone complained that e-mail users "sit alone in a room in front of a computer screen typing like hell to people far away whom they never need meet in person and acting like together they are solving the problems of the world. This while the garbage needs to be taken out and the dog has his legs crossed because he needs a walk." So, does it make sense to use e-mail to talk to someone in the next office? This question made me think of my own recent behavior. The other day I sent a request for technical information about software to a mailing list of about fifty people. As it turned out, a colleague two offices
Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths, and Metaphors
away had the answer. When his e-mail response came back, I walked over to ask him for some further details in person; but he was not in his office, or even in the building. He had responded to my message while working at home. So I walked back to my office, and sent him another e-mail asking for more information. A few minutes later, I received another answer from a different person. My colleague had not had the answer to my question at hand but had forwarded my query to someone who did. In cases like this, e-mail is not a refuge from life or an illusion about solving world problems when the dog needs a walk. It has its own unique advantages of fan-out, electronic distribution, and asynchronous communication. Fan-out enabled me to poll a large number of people quickly; electronic distribution got my message to my colleague, even though he was working at home; and asynchronous communication meant that each of us could read and respond to the e-mail when we wanted to, instead of playing "phone tag." The use of e-mail to find information makes it potentially an alternative to a library. Simply put, we can either look something up in a library or book we can ask someone by, often, sending our question to a mailing list. This is similar to what happens on radio talk shows when a caller or the host asks the millions of listeners a question and someone who can answer it calls in. Like radio, e-mail has a natural fan-out, albeit typically with smaller numbers. For example, when I started writing this book I sent out a message to all the approximately two hundred people on the "ComputerResearch" list at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, where I work. I asked then to send me examples of the use of the information superhighway metaphor like "information speedbumps" or "taking the on-ramp." I sent the e-mail on a Friday night at about 5:30 p.m. Before 7:00 p.m. that night I had six responses; replies then crescendoed for a couple of days and tapered off after two weeks. Altogether I received about twenty-five replies. Another use of e-mail that relates to digital libraries and publishing is the exchange of drafts in the informal and early stages of writing. (In Part 1, Lederberg explores this theme in his article "Communication as the Root of scientific progress"; he continues the discussion in "Digital Communications and the Conduct of Science" later in this part.) E-mail
Mark Stefik (1996)
and other computer facilities make it convenient to distribute drafts of papers to colleagues and solicit peer reviews, as well as to collaborate with colleagues. There is something about e-mail that facilitates informal collaborative exchanges. Unlike formal publishing and review, e-mail supports a real-time dialog in which colleagues can take the time to ask questions, negotiate the meanings of terms, and work through misunderstandings. Because it can be personal, e-mail is not subject to review by an editor or to examination by colleagues. e-mail is used heavily in many corporations. Several of the articles in this section examine the effects on organizations when e-mail becomes one of the principal communication channels. Several observers have noted that e-mail opens up lateral communications in organizations, which allow for better coordination than when communications must follow strict management hierarchies. This connectivity also gives people the opportunity to use the network to respond to global events. In the 1980s, during the political uprisings in the former Soviet Union and in China eastern computer organizations exchanged news with westerners through e-mail and fax machines, which replaced ham radio as a means of keeping in contact during an emergency. Hermes had found a new technological embodiment. Finally, the boundaries of e-mail use inevitably overlap with our other metaphors for thinking about the information infrastructure. Consider again the Information Lens experiment in which some e-mail gets processed automatically. Using form letters makes automatic processing practical and ensures that messages will include certain kinds of data and will convey standardized information on their location. Indeed, automatic processing of such messages is routinely used on the Internet for subscribing and unsubscribing to mailing lists. What this means is that the medium of e-mail is now being shared, not only by people but also by computational agents. Imagine, for example, a situation in which 90 percent of the messages received by my computer concern me but are not actually intended to be read by me. Instead, they would be read by my computational agents, which are busily arranging various things for me--managing some parts of my calendar, collecting information from earlier bibliographic search requests, or saving and grouping interesting
Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths, and Metaphors
news items. The possible functions of these agents point to different metaphors and provide different perspectives for understanding emerging network technologies. The digital library perspective shows the agents as knowbots that provide knowledge services; the e-mail perspective shows them functioning in the mall medium and processing routine messages; in the digital worlds perspective, such agents would participate in creating the experience of an information space portrayed as a digital reality.

M Stefik

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