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The Internet Edge: Social, Legal, and Technological Challenges for a Networked World

Author: Mark Stefik
Publisher: Cambridge, MA & London, UK: MIT Press, 1999
Review Published: April 2001

 REVIEW 1: Arthur L. Morin

Mark Stefik works at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center [1]. He is a "technologist" who creates "new kinds of things" (xvii). He recognizes that "[c]reative times brings many changes" (p. xi). He also recognizes that change in what he calls "Internet time" (ibid.) occurs more rapidly than during earlier times of change. His book, The Internet Edge: Social, Legal, and Technological Challenges for a Networked World, is "about some of the changes taking place in Internet time" (ibid.).

When a person or a society faces change, it is as if they have come to an edge (Stefik borrows the term "edge" from Arnold and Amy Mindell -- see page 1). The edge is the place of "oscillation" (2) and resistance. Perhaps the reader is among those who approach edges timorously. In what ways does Stefik entice you to approach the edge more quickly and to cross over into Internet reality? Stefik encourages the reader to be less fearful of the Internet edge by implying that crossing this particular edge will lead to an explosion in discovery. He points out that such explosions occurred when edges were crossed in earlier parts of our history. In addition, by helping us understand how the new technologies can be tamed and used to accomplish the familiar (e.g., portable document readers (PDRs) and reading, and the use of trusted systems to protect copyrights and privacy), he eases the tendency to push back from the edge (he uses the term "pushback" to describe that which moves us back away from the Internet edge).

Another way is to draw parallels to the "pushback" and "push forward" experienced prior to building the Erie Canal and the "pushback" and "pull forward" we are now experiencing on the Internet edge. The case of the Erie Canal is, I believe, emblematic of Stefik's feelings toward the Internet edge. Stefik acknowledges that there were those who opposed building the Erie Canal, and that some of their fears were realized. Yet it seems clear to me that Stefik believes the benefits of the Canal "edged out" the drawbacks (if you will pardon the wordplay). To put this point differently: Stefik seems to applaud the decision to build the Canal and thus imply that moving into Internet reality is what we should do. Indeed, at one point in his book he even resorts to exhortation: "The real power of the Net will not be realized until we think beyond office work. To understand what the Net can be we need to both expand and contract our range of vision. We need to think big, think small, think microscopic. Think built-in, think portable, think wearable. Think inside, think outside, think ubiquitous. Think mornings, think evenings, think continuous. Think getting information from the Net, think sending information to the Net. Think specialized, think universal" (20).

That is a pretty clear call to cross over the edge into Internet reality.

A third way is to point out that there have been other forays approaching Internet-like edges; this approach familiarizes and normalizes our current experience at the Internet edge. A fourth way is by the type of solutions he considers to problems that hinder us from crossing the Internet edge. Americans, pragmatists that they are, have a fascination with technology. Technology is familiar to them. And computer technology in America today appears to have few moral downsides (as opposed to, say, police proposing more powerful guns as a solution to crime) [2]. Thus, it is easier to overcome "pushbacks" from the edge by proposing technical solutions, which is what part of Stefik's book does. Stefik draws on what is familiar to us in other ways as well -- a point I will return to later.

However, I do not want to give the impression that Stefik is oblivious to the difficulties of crossing the edge. He is not. For example, he is very much aware that we are still some distance from the 'edge' of creating automated context-intelligent, "sensemaking" (115) expert systems. He also recognizes that the early culture of the Internet fostered the development of a relatively open system, and that poses risks for those concerned about security. And he recognizes that the diffusion of Internet technology in third-world countries pose more than just technical challenges. But -- and here is the important point -- he is interested in helping us move beyond the edge through the use of technology.

This point allows us to return to the claim I made earlier: that Stefik facilitates our crossing the edge into Internet reality by connecting the unfamiliar with the familiar [3]. I have already acknowledged that Stefik draws on our familiarity with technology. For Stefik, it's not whether we should have a PDR, but what kind of technology would make a "real" PDR possible. Similarly, Stefik's discussion of trusted systems for protection of copyright (downloading music or news), for the use of digital money, and for protection of privacy, are really proposals for technical solutions to old problems in new forms. Given that the solutions are technical in nature, it is somewhat paradoxical that the problem in its new form is a consequence of technological change.

Stefik realizes that no system is fail-safe; no technological solution will be immune to attack. Rather than press for an either-or solution, he suggests a more-or-less solution: when risk is low, safety features offered by technology can likewise be low; when risk is medium, adopt more robust technology and more sophisticated systems; and when risk is high, use very advanced systems and technology. Perhaps the greatest risk that comes with pushing for technological solutions is this: it masks the reality that trust can, at bottom, only rest on people. Yes, we can develop more sophisticated technology to weed out some of those who would otherwise take advantage (of whatever it is) at the expense of someone else. (But that drives up cost, and that drives out customers (normally, anyway). The social effect of driving large numbers of individuals out of a market might be significant. Additionally, money spent on creating a more robust trusted system of one type is money not available for other uses.) To focus on technical solutions (and indirectly on market solutions) moves us away from the moral edge: an edge on which humanity has struggled for as long as we can tell. And -- to restate the point I made earlier in the paragraph -- to trust technology is really placing trust in those who create and control technology. Trusting technology is tantamount to trusting a hidden elite. In a complex society, reliance on the expertise of others is unavoidable. However, a well-designed democratic system finds some way to hold the experts accountable to the people. Elections, Congressional hearings, constituency service performed by elected representatives or their staff, open meetings, laws that automatically expire unless renewed, watchdog media, attempts to protect whistle-blowers, recall, petitions, initiatives, a relatively open rule-making process, a fairly liberal definition of who has standing to sue (e.g., class action suits) . . . all are mechanisms that are used in the United States to hold elected officials and bureaucracies accountable. Technology can help with all this, but the system is a human, not a technological, one.

Another way in which Stefik draws on the "old" is to show how the "new" or unfamiliar fits into our historical experience with change, with cataloging knowledge, and with fairy tales. For example, Stefik contrasts the diffusion of farming technology, the diffusion of change caused by trains in France, and evolutionary, scientific, and cultural changes with diffusion of change through the Internet. Change associated with the Internet is occurring quite rapidly, despite its complexity. This rapidity of change has an analogue in the development of France's railroad system: paradoxically, the complexity of the Internet system (just like railroads) provides a means for overcoming -- or taking advantage of -- that very complexity.

How are fairy tales useful? By providing apt warnings of the dangers of relying on something -- the magical -- which we don't fully understand. The parallel is between magic and technology. Stefik's quote of Arthur C. Clarke is particularly illuminating in this context: "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" (quoted on page 254). Thus, old stories of learning to use wisdom in handling magic are applicable to handling the magic of technology.

One final illustration of the way in which Stefik helps us cross the Internet edge. Both the "References" and "Suggestions for Further Reading" sections include web sites. In the "References" section, 89 of the citations are "traditional" or e-mail sources and 13 are "Web" sources [4]. In the "Suggestions for Further Reading" section, 71 of the citations are "traditional" sources and 110 are "Web" sources. "Suggestions for Further Reading" pushes us into Internet reality!

Stefik believes that technology can help us address some of the problems faced by a technologically advanced society. But the magic doesn't always work like we expect -- a point Stefik himself makes. What is needed is a companion to Stefik's book that helps us gain wisdom in our use of technology [5]. However, the search for wisdom comes from a desire for it, and I am not sure that wisdom is high on the list of desirables in our consumer-oriented society.

1. Stefik's book has been used or will be used by students who have done or are doing readings under my direction. It is also a text we used and discussed in one of my classes this semester. I have tried to write this review from an independent ("my") viewpoint, but this "full disclosure" statement will hopefully suffice in the event I have been influenced by my students.

2. However, manufacturing computers may not be as friendly to the environment as one would hope. As Molly O'Meara notes, "In 1993, the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation analyzed the waste created in manufacturing a typical computer workstation. Its study suggests that 63 kilograms of waste, 22 of them toxic, are generated in producing a 25-kilogram computer." (Molly O'Meara, "Harnessing Information Technologies for the Environment," in Lester R. Brown, Christopher Flavin, & Hilary French, State of the World 2000: A Worldwatch Institute Report on Progress Toward a Sustainable Society (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000): 127.

3. Other authors who show continuity or similarities between the past and the Internet include Paul Levinson and John Seabrook. See, for example, Paul Levinson, The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution (London and New York: Routledge, 1997) and John Seabrook, Deeper: Adventures on the Net (New York: Touchstone Books, 1998).

4. I categorized books, articles, personal interviews, radio broadcasts, and e-mail notes as "traditional" sources. Sources with Web addresses I categorized as "Web" sources. If the citation of a book or article also included a Web site for the same source, my count included each in its respective category. Sometimes a citation of a Web site included a citation of a second Web site. I counted each as a "Web" source.

5. Others are also concerned about the wise and appropriate use of technology. This point can be illustrated by looking at the Proceedings of the DIAC-00 Symposium, sponsored by the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. The Symposium was held in Seattle on May 20-23, 2000 and was titled "DIAC 2000 Shaping the Network Society: The Future of the Public Sphere in Cyberspace." One of the workshops aimed at "[exploring] how IT and Cyberspace might become part of a solution in bridging" what the organizer, David Matteson, referred to as "the wisdom divide" (p. 23 in the "Workshops" section). This "divide" is defined as "the divide between knowledge and meaning, between short-term profitability and long-term benefit, between the concept of the individual in isolation and of the individual within the context of the 'commons.'" (Ibid.) Among other things, the Proceedings provides examples of how others are attempting to use information technology in the development of civic society, empowerment, social justice, and what might be called 'small people democracy' (democracy for the common people).

Arthur L. Morin:
Arthur L. Morin is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and Justice Studies at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas. He has taught classes in public administration, American government, and current political issues, and has with another faculty member offered 'distance' education classes in political theory. He has published in both traditional and electronic media.  <amorin@fhsu.edu>

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