Ronda Hauben on Fri, 16 Apr 1999 18:10:28 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Internet and democracy and a review of Netizens by Garin Geiselhart

Karin Geiselhart has asked me to circulate her review of
"Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet" which
she wrote for Internet Research.

It describes the democratic nature of the Internet and Usenet, which all
too often is lost sight of because the mainstream media focuses on
commercial entities and their vision for the Net. It is important to keep
in mind where the Internet and Usenet come from and the democratic
processes and cooperative contributions that have given make the Internet
what it is today. 

There is an effort by wealthy and powerful entities to make us forget the
origins and fundamental nature of the Internet. 

That is why it is similarly important to document and explore and discuss
the democratic processes and how those are being so vicious opposed today
by those who seek to privatize and own and control all that is now public
and cooperative. 

Harold Sackman, writing in the 1970s and realizing that there would be a
vicious power grab attempted by powerful commercial entities for the
computer network that would be developing, warned that one should not be
blinded by the promise of the Net from clearly seeing those who try to
grab power. But he also warned about not leaving the field of battle to
the powerful commercial entities. He proposed that the same cooperative
and scientific and public means that make it possible to build a world
wide computer network also are needed to continue to own and control and
administer it. That is why there is a need for the study and writing about
the cooperative processes that built the Net.  Also, that is why there is
a need to discuss and understand opposing visions for the future of the


Following is Karin's review of Netizens:

Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet

by Michael and Ronda Hauben
IEEE Computer Society, 1997, ISBN 0-8186-7706-6.
345 pages

reviewed by Karin Geiselhart

Netizens delivers on its title. It provides a chronicle of the development
of the Internet, and particularly the venerable part called Usenet. It is
almost an ethnographic study, as the authors are also long term
participants on Usenet. Not surprisingly, the book reflects some of the
character and contains some of the benefits and drawbacks of Usenet
itself, as many of the chapters were first posted on the Internet. There
are repetitions, homely but sincere writing, overlapping themes and a good
dose of acronymic jargon in some places which might deter the uninitiated.
Some sections, replete with copies of postings or appended with detailed
notes, almost look like what we have become so used to scanning through on
our screens. 

But beyond these idiosyncrasies, Netizens is a book which champions grass
roots democracy. It speaks for and through the on-line citizens who helped
shape the Net in its early days. The unfolding of ARPANET and unix is much
more than a story of problem solving and the scientific method applied to
new realms of computing. Like a fairy tale or myth we can enjoy hearing in
many different versions, the birth of the Internet goes deep into our
cultural psyche. It embodies what we want to believe about technological
change: that it has loftier intent along with entrepreneurial energy. Of
course, this is a very American story, so it is appropriate that it be
told from the Haubens' American, yet gently challenging perspective. 

This is where Netizens is most interesting and highlights a theme which is
today much muted: the role of blue sky research and government funding.
Their history assembles detailed quotes from many of the pioneers. Back in
1968 Licklider and Taylor, of the Advanced Research Projects Agency,
envisaged a network of computers which would move communication
capabilities far beyond the linear transportation model of sender to
receiver which prevailed at the time. They understood the potential for
users being "active participants in an ongoing process", and foresaw the
development of communities based on affinity and common interests. 

These were not visions with immediate commercial payback, and perhaps they
never will be. The technical difficulties in establishing such a global
network could only be handled through substantial amounts of non-profit
funding, which is what ARPANET was given. One of the twists in the
Internet story which lifts it to the level of near myth is the irony that
the project had a military goal, but this required linking civilians so
they could share information. The founding of unix had almost religious,
and certainly philosophical undertones. The Haubens refer to descriptions
of its development as "a system around which a fellowship would form."
Here they touch on another grand theme of the Internet, reflexive
progression. They ask, with innocent and irrefutable logic: "How else
should one go about designing communications programs but on an operating
system designed with the basic principle of encouraging communication?" 

Thus emerged a system which put power in citizens' fingertips and minds
and eyes, provided a many to many capability, and raised the possibility
of a read and write media as a counter to global leviathans. In their
chapter on the effect of the net on professional news media, they again
present real people's views and experiences to document their theoretical
position. I must admit to a tiny thrill of recognition and pride, when I
saw a quote from an Australian journalist of my acquaintance. And the
pleasure of reading their book was enhanced by having met the Haubens at a
conference or two. Probably nothing can replace face to face friendliness
over a shared meal. 

But they could not be further from an academic elite. Although Ronda in
particular draws on seventeenth and eighteenth century economic works and
philosophers, the book never loses sight of its democratic intent. A
further theme of universal access penetrates each part of this history:
past, present, future, and theoretical framework. 

While the comparison between the Internet and the invention of the
printing press is now commonplace, they flesh it out with succinct and
pertinent quotes from Elizabeth Eisenstein's seminal book on the printing
press in early modern Europe. And always highlighting the role of both
technologies in opening new domains of learning, sharing, participating. 

Unfortunately, one of their own examples shows the naivete in hoping for
empowerment through technology alone. In late 1994, the National
Telecommunications Information Administration held a virtual conference to
consider future directions for the US infrastructure. There was an
outpouring of support for the social benefits of the Internet from all
corners of the country. Eloquent arguments were made for universal access.
However, the public's input to NTIA was not acted on, and the US backbone
of the Internet was privatised in May 1995. Another sad coda to that
episode is that, according to the Haubens, only 80 public access sites to
the on line conference were made available in libraries or other public

Correctly, they note that "One of the most difficult dilemmas of our times
is how to deal with the discrepancy between the need for more public input
into policy development and the actions of government officials who ignore
that input." 

These tensions, like the theme of universal access, remain critical, even
as electronic commerce spreads, supposedly in response to "market forces."
By offering us detailed insights into the early days of these still
unresolved issues, Netizens reminds us that technology should serve the

They include part of a poem by Vint Cerf, another founding father of
ARPANET. Written in the late 60s, it reveals his recognition of the
intimate play between art and science, linked by a common thirst for
knowledge. I could not help but remember his words as a keynote speaker at
the Internet Conference in Montreal, nearly 30 years later, in response to
a question from Scott Aiken, one of the founders of the Minnesota
e-democracy project: "Democracy doesn't scale." 

Netizens is an affirmation by the authors on behalf of all their fellow
Usenet contributors, and all of us who have benefitted in some way from
the altruism and free information which flows across the Internet. Theirs
is an optimistic mantra: democracy can scale. 

Karin Geiselhart
PhD student
Faculty of Communication
University of Canberra

                 Netizens: On the History and Impact
                     of Usenet and the Internet
                      ISBN # 0-8186-7706-6

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