Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 19 Apr 01 11:26
Wendy Grossman is a prolific London-based American writer specializing in technology and the Internet. She's also founder of The Skeptic, the UKs only regular magazine to take a skeptical look at pseudoscience and claims of the paranormal. She was formerly a folksinger who, she says, "played a mix of American and British traditional and contemporary music which you might characterize as having a slight degree of perversity." And she's into tennis Hard-workin' Wendy's written three books, _net.wars_, and the brand-new, almost-concurrent releases, _From Anarchy to Power: The Net Comes of Age_ (NYU Press) and _The Daily Telegraph Internet A-Z_ (Macmillan) She also edited _Remembering the Future: Interviews from Personal Computer World_. She also writes regularly for "The Philosopher's Magazine" and "Tornado Investor," and she's co-chief sysop of the Fleet Street Forum < http://www.fleetstreet.org.uk>. In _net.wars_, Wendy explored many of the more contentious issues of the evolving Internet. Library Journal wrote, in its review of the book: "Fans of Grossman, whose Wired magazine article, "alt.scientology.war," won her an award in 1996 from the American Society of Journalists and Authors, will appreciate her latest endeavor. Grossman sets out to answer questions about the future of the Internet and how it will be regulated. She does a fine job of explaining the issues and the background behind online controversies ranging from the Church of Scientology raids on net users to the derailment of the Communications Decency Act. She also addresses such issues as net scams, class divisions on the net (especially regarding America Online users), privacy issues, women online, pornography, hackers, and computer crime. Her approach is one of informed skepticism, which is not surprising from someone who founded Britain's The Skeptic magazine in 1987. Grossman predicts that the world's governments will confront further issues as if dealing with an alien invasion, making the net wars of the 1990s look like a mere fracas." From Anarchy to Power picks up where net.wars left off. It's an exploration of issues related to the Internet's "coming of age" privacy, copyright, net.addiction, the impact of the "Internet industry.": Says Wendy in her preface, "The big difference now is that everyone's involved. Few people in the United States talked about privacy five years ago, other than in book reports on Orwell's _Nineteen Eighty-four_. Now, the question of how to protect our lives from government and commercial scrutiny is the stuff of presidential candidates' speeches and stories in, of all newspapers, 'USA Today.' The same goes for the future of intellectual property, cryptography regulations, and even the issue of how the technology industry should be regulated (in the example of the Department of Justice's suite against Microsoft). Five years ago, these were all arcane subjects, but today they get play-by-play coverage in the mainstream media...." Jon Lebkowsky <jonl> will lead our conversation with Wendy. Jon is a writer/technologist and former net.activist currently based in Boulder, Colorado. A cohost of Inkwell.vue, Jon has been a member of the WELL for over a decade, and has hosted several conferences here. He's currently editing _Virtual Bonfire_, a sourcebook for online activists to be published by MIT Press, and he's written for various periodicals including Whole Earth Magazine, Wired, bOING bOING, Fringe Ware Review, 21C, and the Austin Chronicle.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 19 Apr 01 11:29
Welcome, Wendy! Before we talk about your current projects, we should delve into your past. You had a previous career as a folk singer. Why did you decide to stop singing professionally, and start writing?
someone who just sucked on a dill pickle (wendyg) Thu 19 Apr 01 12:23
Just sort of happened. I think I'd always wanted to do both. wg
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 19 Apr 01 12:45
How did you get your start writing? Where were your first publications?
someone who just sucked on a dill pickle (wendyg) Thu 19 Apr 01 12:49
First unpaid, skeptical and humanist magazines such as Skeptical (Inquirer, Free Inquiry, New Humanist, and The Skeptic (UK). First paid, the Guardian. The UK one. Went in over the transom, exactly how it's not supposed to work. Then when I got to London someone I knew through the Skeptic gave my name to a couple of editors on trade computer magazines who were desperate, and I sort of just worked my way up from there. Took a few years to get back into the Guardian. wg
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 19 Apr 01 13:11
What brought you to the Internet? (Both as a hangout and as subject matter...)
someone who just sucked on a dill pickle (wendyg) Thu 19 Apr 01 13:27
I got an editor to pay me to review BBSs back in 1991. I'd been interested in getting online as far back as 1984, but I was living in Ireland at the time, and was advised the phone lines weren't good enough. Actually, I guessa as far back as 1983, but in Edinburgh at *that* time you could only buy modems from BT at an outrageous price, and I didn't know anyone online at the time whom I could check with to find out if an American modem would work. So once I started writing for computer magazines, like I say, I'd get them to pay me to learn whatever I wanted, and in July 1991 I did a review of a series of online services and BBSs for What Micro? (now What PC?), including cix, compuserve, bix, and a few other UK things. Thought then online stuff would be a good area to specailize in, and actually that's pretty much right, as that's given a lot of scope -- eg last year, I wrote for six months straight about money, and this year I seem to be doing a lot of mobile stuff. But the stuff I find most interesting is the social/cultural/political impact. Goinog to CFP <http://www.cfp.org> every year is a big help, and so is hanging out with some of the CFP people year-round on the WELL. wg
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 19 Apr 01 14:03
I agree about CFP (for those of you who don't recognize the acro, it's the Conference on Computers, Freedom, and Privacy). It's been a brain boost for me, as well! Before we start talking about BBSs, computers, and the Internet, though, I have a question on a slightly different subject - 'The Skeptic,' which you founded in 1987. What made you decide to take on pseudoscience and the paranormal? Were you influenced by 'Skeptical Inquirer'?
someone who just sucked on a dill pickle (wendyg) Thu 19 Apr 01 14:15
Yes, but more specifically by seeing James Randi do a lecture/demonstration and Martin Gardner, whose mathematical games I was familiar with as a teen. wg
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 19 Apr 01 18:51
Do you see a relationship between your work for The Skeptic and your writing about the Internet? I ask because I think you do a great job blowing out flaky theories about the 'net. Your discussion of net.addiction in the new book, for instance.
someone who just sucked on a dill pickle (wendyg) Fri 20 Apr 01 06:05
Well, yes and no. I draw some analogies between the two, certainl, particularly in sections like the one you mention. But most of what I do for the Skeptic is write and edit -- I don't really have the background or qualifications to do the kind of stuff that matters, ie, investigate claims. It helps, for example, to know magic (like Randi and the UK's Richard Wiseman), or have academic credentials (like Susan Blackmore or Chris French), or even to have a history as a private investigator (Joe Nickell, David Alexander). Lacking any of those things, I actually feel there's relatively little that's original for me to say in a skeptical vein. But making information available is something I *can* do, hence founding the magazine. On the Internet, it's obvious to me that there are people who've been around a lot longer or who know more technically, or who are more dedicated activists, but I got in just about early enough to have something to say. OOps -- :) wrapped. One of the better moments of the last few years happened at a UK lunch to talk abo8ut the RIP bill (now, sadly, the RIP Act) regulating crypto, when one of the leading and most important activists told me that my early articles on the subject -- for the Guardian when Phil Zimmermann got arrested, and for some of the computer magazines on the basics of the argument -- were the first he'd ever read and were what got him interested in the area. (read on the subject, I mean). So, in a way, if you're not going to be a dedicated activist yourself it's terrific to think you've inspired someone else to go out and do it. :) wg
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 20 Apr 01 07:28
In _net.wars_, you quote Barlow saying "There is such a thing as net.culture" and "Therei ssuch a thing as net.religion." You way that he is "voicing a deep-seated belief, echoed by many others, that the Net's two-way, many-to-many communication has brought us something so new and special that it's almost sacred." Do you think early adopters still feel that way? And do you think new 'net users pick up on that sense (as opposed to perceiving the 'net as a convenient tool for ordering books and checking the weather)?
someone who just sucked on a dill pickle (wendyg) Fri 20 Apr 01 11:29
I think *Barlow* probably still feels that way. But as I think I said in net.wars, ovver time as more and more people get on the Net it becomes more and more like anywhere else, and so that feeling has to fade. Newcomers now certainly can't have the feeling that they're creating their environment the way, say, the early founders of the WELL. I'm kind of under the impression that few pioneers use stuff like Usenet any more -- there are too many people, too much noise, too much junk. (A case in point: I've been reading rec.sport.tennis since probably 1993 and alt.showbiz.gossip since probably 1995, and rst is now full of idiots spouting racist and antiracist crap at each other with supreme viciousness, and asg is mostly postings of news stories from somewhere else -- most of the people I used to enjoy seeing post are gone). Increasingly, it seems to me the pioneers have withdrawn into private spaces with their friends and/or colleagues. New net users' reactions depend, I trhink, a lot on why they're getting online. Most of the people I know who are new to online get on to be able to use email, or to do some other very specific thing. Lots of them aren't interested in conferencing like this. I'm sure age plays a part in this -- if you're a kid or someone who's retired, or whatever, you're more likely to have time to explore. But remember that outside the US most people have to pay even for local calls, so Internet access is much more expensive and exploration is accordingly less appealing. Also, it's less and less easy to use the net as a sort of escape from your ordinary life -- you know, like going on vacation somewhere and lying about your job and circumstances -- because the people you know are already there. I don't think I ever thought the Net was sacred. But then, I never really shared the dream Barlow often said he had of being wired to every other mind on the planet. I can't help feeling that if that's how Barlow feels, he hasn't spent enough time on Usenet. wg
Gail Williams (gail) Fri 20 Apr 01 12:56
Well, at one level of magical interconnection every blade of grass is sacred. But you can't live on that plane all the time. I remember listening to Barlow talking about a constitution for cyberspace and thinking it was so rousing and fun, but so not the way it would play out. If cyberspace was also "where a phone conversation takes place" it was obvious that the sense of place and the common hallucination would not be co-created by everyone, and that without a pretty strong cultural consensus, it would not carry much weight. My impression was that legal and money interests doomed that possible evolutionary path from early on, but it was fascinating to see it played out. I haven't had the chance to read your new book yet, Wendy, but I would trust that your inate skepticism is brought to bear all along.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 20 Apr 01 13:20
Heh, I can vouch for that! Wendy, Gail brings up an interesting point about the impact of business on the evolution of the Internet ("money changes everything"). I always felt that it was inevitable. Do you think there was any strong potential alternate (noncommercial) path? I also note that many folks say the more personal, private, nonprofit uses of the 'net are "drowned out" by Internet business - do you think that's really the case?
someone who just sucked on a dill pickle (wendyg) Fri 20 Apr 01 14:38
I hasven';t got statistics, but don't "grass roots" Web sites still way outnumber commercial ones? The other thing is that there are still many areas of the Net that are old-school values, so to speak. Looks at the grass roots efforts now to build out 802.11, open source software, etc. And someone like John Gilmore is evidence that money doesn't change everyone. wg
Bob 'rab' Bickford (rab) Fri 20 Apr 01 15:12
Wendy, I agree with your assessment of how many of us 'oldtimers' have largely withdrawn from such things as Usenet. What I wonder is, what do you see as the 'solution' to that? (I haven't seen your new book yet, so please pardon me if you answer this question in there.) Do you think the only route to a solution here will be some kind of content regulation? If so, I counter that some sort of pseudonyms (by which I mean to say, cryptographically authenticated persistent and accountable identities which don't necessarily give away real-names short of some legal process) could come into wide use. This would enable the resumption of meaningful conversations because it would be so much easier for individuals (or even entire sites) to filter out the spam. Your example of a group being taken over by flamers could be handled by an extension that allowed for pseudo-moderated newsgroups: all messages are passed (unless they lack a pseudonym as I defined it above) but folks that found particular sources of postings offensive or tiresome could not only add them to their local 'killfile' or equivalent but also inform the newsgroup distribution system that they're doing so -- and others could choose to adopt those recommendations, either automatically or manually. I'm sure this is nothing new to you, lots of the cipherpunk and privacy types have discussed this sort of thing for over ten years to my personal knowledge (and probably longer) but what I was wondering was whether you see any hope of that sort of thing actually getting implemented? Sometimes I have the sinking feeling that we've created a monster and can never ever get all the different companies to agree on such changes.........
someone who just sucked on a dill pickle (wendyg) Sat 21 Apr 01 04:47
Of course, anyone who's frequented alt.religion.scientology has seen examples of a group being taken over and finding ways to filter to deal with it. In the ars case, knowing that Scns were not supposed to use the word Xenu (the name of the galactic supreme being or whatever that you learn after many years of expensive study), anyone who posted genuinely headed their post XENU: <subject>. A second group was set up, called I think alt.religion.scientology.xenu, and filtered for those posts. But I don't think those techniques, or the more complex on3es you're talking about using cryptography, create public spaces, only less obviously private ones. And I don't think old-timers will exactly come back to Usenet -- people's lives and interests change over time, and to me it's not surprising that they hang out in one space for a while and then move on. It's what people do in real life. Consider the number of people over time who've left the WELL. rab, have you tried Zero Knowledge's Freedom? Does that work the way y9ou have in mind? wg
someone who just sucked on a dill pickle (wendyg) Sat 21 Apr 01 05:32
btw, I don't think this book is in stores yet (publisher delays), but if youw ant to get a flavor of net.wars, the full text is online at http://www.nyupress.nyu.edu/netwars.html. I know they have plans to put at least some of this book online, too, but not sure how soon it's due to go up. wg
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 21 Apr 01 15:03
You talk about online communities going from metered usage to flat rates. What impact did that have on the quality of conversation?
someone who just sucked on a dill pickle (wendyg) Sun 22 Apr 01 05:08
Probably that could best be answered by WELL old-timers who remember the metered days here (now that we're flat-rate). I don't know about the quality of conversation on AOL or CompuServe so much -- I never could stand AOL's interface long enough to do much with its message boards, even though I'm now nominally involved in running an area on the system. On CompuServe, the bigger effect was to get rid of many of the niche forums (including our own Fleet Street for UK Media, now on the Web at <http://www.fleetstreet.org.uk>, often attempting to recreate these niche areas as sections in other forums. Fleet didn't like it, and the new section basically lost out to our Web version, although we as organizers tried to do both. I think what happened to us was pretty common -- there was a culture clash, and eventually the section was closed down (apart from anything else, some of the host forum's regulars really resented Fleet's having its own section, particularly since we had two, one of which was closed). When I go back now and look at, say, the Showbiz forum (which has a wonderful Ask Roger Ebert section, which RE frequents routinely) it doesn't seem to me much different. But the journalism forum has lost several core groups that participated in the wider forum as well as running their own closed sections (eg, the National Science Writers of America), and a friend who frequents several other forums tells me they're nearly deserted now. I think it's the disappearance of much of its subscriber base, at least as active participants, that's really killed the system. And losing the niche forums is part of that, as people deprived of their favorite watering holes tended to leave the system altogether rather than find new ones on it. I found personally that size bred its own problems -- as long as our forum was relatively small it tended to stay pretty noise-free. There would be usually one loony (as there still is) that everyone ganged up on, but that would be manageable. Every time the forum got publicity and we had a big influx of newcomers we'd get tons of problems of idiots spewing abuse, etc. But CompuServe lost so many of its long-term forum sysops and the support of the companies who used it to offer technical support, and all of that that it's hard to make a comparison now. In any event, I always think it's the people who determine the quality of conversation in the end. The WELL is more interesting to me. As, I suppose, is CIX, since I still hang out there, too. wg
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 22 Apr 01 11:56
I recall that you mentioned something about the future of commercial forums being web interface to standard usenet (network news transfer protocol, or nntp) technology. Is that just because it's a standard? Do you think we'll see more instances of Slash (used at Slashdot and Plastic)?
someone who just sucked on a dill pickle (wendyg) Sun 22 Apr 01 13:48
I don't think I said that. I think I said that was what I liked bewst. wg
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 22 Apr 01 16:42
Slash is interesting, but I sometimes have a little trouble keeping track of the conversations. Slashdot is phenomenal, of course, and at times I've thought it was the wave of the future, esp. given the shared moderation of content. However I often feel a little overwhelmed when I go there. Following the dotcom bust, do you think the more personal aspect of the Internet will become more prominent? (I'm thinking interactive community + blogs)...
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 22 Apr 01 21:19
Incidentally, I just had an interesting debate with some self-professed anarchists in an IRC channel. They said the dictionary definition of anarchy (as abscense of government, or disorder) is incorrect. Anarchy, to them, is a form of organization... I think the term I would use for the principle they were describing is self-organization. It occurred to me to ask how you define anarchy?
someone who just sucked on a dill pickle (wendyg) Mon 23 Apr 01 06:49
I would love to think that interactive community will scoop the pool, but the truth is, who knows? I'm sure the money folks aren't done yet with trying to figure out how to win the Net, and there is a huge threat to Net freedoms being posed by the desires of the RIAA/MPAA and other folks like the IOC to divvy the Net up into geoegraphically controllabel areas. Slashdot *is* phenomenal, as you say, and it's driven by a very passionate community of like-minded individuals whose needs and interests are poorly served elsewhere. I read portions of it, but really wish you could feed it into the offline reader I use for everything else so I could skip threads, skim topics, etc., more efficiently. It suffers from many of the ordinary limitations of the Web interface, which have been rehashed so many times in vc here. wg
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