[ Prev | Next | Index | Search | Home ] 2/22/96, Northampton, MA, USA

Fighting the Chill of the Info Age

by Paul Bissex, biscuit@well.com

Welcome to my whistle stop on Dave Winer's "24 Hours of Democracy" tour.

The following is taken from my weekly newspaper column, Cyberia: Fighting the Chill. It's a story of using the Net in a democratic and international spirit. It's also a cautionary tale.

Petitioning the World

"STOP NUCLEAR TESTS!" it said, in huge block letters that filled the screen. I was in charge of forwarding e-mail messages submitted to an activists' mailing list, and was intrigued by this one from Japan. Below the banner it said:

"This is a chain letter to urge the French government to stop nuclear tests. If you agree with us, please add your name to the bottom of the list, below, and send copies to your friends. We will add up the lists that had (sic) come back to us, and send it to the French Government."

The English wasn't perfect, but the message was clear. At the bottom was a list of names, all students at the University of Tokyo.

Remember hearing the words in the old shampoo commercial, "...and they told two friends, and so on, and so on," as you watched the screen fill up with happy faces? Well, picture how fast that screen fills up when telling ten friends is as easy as telling two, and instead of having to wait until you run into your friends during the week, you can send them an exact copy of the e-mail as soon as you've read it. If each new set of recipients acted on the students' message within 12 hours by sending out just three more copies, within three days the message would have arrived in over 700 new mailboxes -- and almost five million by the end of a week.

Powerful stuff. So, what if it gets out of control and you want to stop it?

When I finished reading, I thought for a while about the massive task the students would face in collating lists of names from around the world, and about stories of computer crashes resulting from e-mail overload. I sent an e-mail message to them, and quickly got a form reply. Apparently I was not the first to voice these concerns. In fact, it seemed that, just nineteen days after they started it, the petition was already beyond control:

"Thank you very much for those of you who have pointed out the troublesomeness (sic) about the chain letter. I have decided to stop collecting signatures by using chain letter, but then, I have to use the same method to stop it..."

A notice I received from them two weeks later put it this way:

"We have sent our second chain letter to go after the first one, since that was the only way we could think of to stop the first one from spreading. However this is not working so well, and now many sites around world is (sic) having unnecessarily high traffics and are getting into troubles (sic)."

The problem is, the retraction is forever on the heels of the original message. By the time someone gets the retraction they probably have already sent out the original petition. And by the time they send the retraction to their friends, those friends may have already forwarded the petition too. It's possible that both of these messages will continue making the rounds for years (or at least until the French stop doing nuclear bomb tests, whichever comes first).

Last week I received another copy of the petition. I told the friend who sent it to me about the retraction, then went back and checked out the list of names. The first dozen or so were the same as on the copy I had received over four months earlier. But from there they were totally different. Scrolling down through the list of names and locations, I could follow the message's path around the world. From Japan it had gone to France, then Holland, then back to France, then over to Germany, down to New Zealand and Australia, then on a tour of American colleges, two or three Italian universities, and finally back to America where, 188 names long, it found me. I didn't pass it on, but I was glad that others had.

It's fitting that, in the 50th anniversary year of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some Japanese graduate students would try to wave a flag for peace. The best part about this story is that for all the technical troubles, those two students and their friends have remained dedicated to their cause. In August they delivered over 50,000 names to the French embassy in Tokyo, and they aren't finished yet.


Note: Since this column was first published, France has declared that it has run its last nuclear bomb tests. The petitioners are still going, though, focusing on other countries that contintue to test. --PB

Sites in my Sights

You can visit the site yourself and learn more about the history of the petition (so you know what to say when it shows up in your e-mail box) by pointing your web browser to http://www.iijnet.or.jp/nuke/.

Don't Just Sit There, Sit There and Do Something

As I trolled the Web finding sites related to banning nuclear weapons, the fact that so many of them are located in Japan became itself a grim historical reminder. Both of the bombed cities have powerful web sites (http://www.nagasaki-noc.or.jp/na-bomb/na-bombe.html and http://www.city.hiroshima.jp/).

Copyright 1995 by Paul Bissex

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