Ross Stapleton-Gray: There are three of us today. My name is Ross Stapleton-Gray, president of TeleDiplomacy Inc, and I’ll give a little bit more of my bio as I go into my talk. To my immediate right is Geoff Sears, my GC, who will give his own bio. And on his right is Kathy Watkins, our online activist.
What we’ll be covering is just the general issue of political information on the net. And actually I think probably all three of us are in somewhat agreement that the government on the net is maybe the least best-poised to make use of this, or the most challenged by political speech on the net, the politics of the information flowing around the net. I come at this from the position of—as a former Fed. Those of you who know me know I was at CFP ’93 as the CIA analyst speaking on the future of war fighting diplomacy, and intelligence in the information age. I’m now in the private sector, having met the woman I married at CFP ’93, a former staffer for Jerry Brown. So I think I might merit the Came Longest Distance in coming to CFP 5.
I spent the last year of my government tenure working with the IITF, the Information Infrastructure Task Force, in exploring issues like government information dissemination, seeing from the inside what the information technologies and networking were doing to government. And in many ways they’re not doing well for government and by government. They are oftentimes a threat, certainly an impediment and an obstacle.
When I originally sort of conceived the idea of “His Master’s Voice” (a pun on the Victrola ad, and George Washington’s admonition that government was a dangerous master), I had the idea that we should talk about how governments might use the Web, might use the net, to politicize and drive home issues following say, the example of what the US government at the national level does with public diplomacy. The work that Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, Voice of America say, was called upon to do in the Cold War. What I saw, and thinking about over the last month or so is a lot more…government behind the 8‑ball. Government being stressed and threatened by these very technologies. And stressed and threatened by a lot of individuals and organizations outside of government.
For example, I think what’s happening with electronic technologies will absolutely cripple parts of government in terms of things like FOIA. Back when conversations and thoughts and planning meetings, etc. were largely ephemera, you didn’t have this issue of government being yanked out into the sunlight right and left every other turn. I’m a strong believer in FOIA. At the same time, from someone who spent the last month of his government career as a FOIA officer I can tell you what an enormous headache it can be. And how it has a stultifying effect on the ability of the government to sort of think coherently. You end up under the gun, under scrutiny to a degree which is not the case with organizations outside the government, opposition to government.
The government is facing an… The Vice President charged an early meeting at the IITF that we should think of ways to get every government employee on the net. Get every employee email. Giving every employee email gives every little employee inside this large organization his or her own voice. The dissonance that can come out of that can be absolutely threatening to a large organization and I think over the course of our discussion we’ll talk about how even large, friendly, liberal outside-government organizations maybe thrashed to death by the fact that they’re comprised of individuals who may have differing agendas and who now have a voice for what it is they’re doing in these new media.
My wife and I have worked on putting the National Organization for Women online, only to see old NOW and new NOW become very…they’re very different things. Old NOW was an organization with a national headquarters, that received information from its chapters and imparted information from its chapters, and with the editorial review it had on the content of the communications. For examplem if Eugene, Oregon now does a wonderful thing it’ll be picked up and reported on by national NOW and told to Little Rock NOW. And Little Rock NOW will hear the best and brightest from around the organization. Well now the fact is that the dissident in Spokane NOW can say, “I really don’t like national NOW because…” out on the net. And you see a flow of this communication, which can be awful threatening to large hierarchical organizations, as well-meaning and benign as they might be. Or as threatening and ominous as they might be.
I wonder if the nets aren’t above all a threat to large organizations. Or a threat to the coherence of large groups of people. I wonder if rather than deal with the thought that maybe governments will malignly grab the net and use it to propagandize we shouldn’t be worried more that any large thing will be shaken to its roots and fragmented into the little dissonant bits that can happen now that we’ve given a voice not to every master but to every employee. Or every of the mastered. That can be very good in some ways, and we may shake apart North Korea, we may destabilize China, or Russia may have fragmented. But if the Republican and Democratic parties both fragment, and the AFL-CIO fragments, and General Motors falls apart… [audience members cheers] And yeah I knew I’d find some audience for that. We may see what say, Esther was talking about over lunch. I don’t think I want to live in the Russified or the Moscow-ified remnants of a former first-world power as the tools for not just dissent but frustration are handed to anyone who’d like. I’d love to think that these tool of communication will lead towards greater consensus or greater ability to work with each other. Many times it’s giving everybody a monkey wrench they can throw into the gears.
So, let me end with that and move on to Geoff, who can talk more from the perspective of someone whose organization provides a forum for many many groups, and who sees how those groups are using the medium. What we’ll do after the three of us have spoken is throw it out for questions and what I hope we’ll do then is both respond to questions and internally discuss our different perspectives on things relate. Geoff.
Geoff Sears: Thank you, Ross. My name’s Geoff Sears, and I’m the director of the Institute for Global Communications in San Francisco. We’re a nonprofit online service provider an Internet service provider, and I want to emphasize nonprofit and what that means. That means that when we look at whether we were successful or unsuccessful every year, it’s not measured in terms of how much surplus money was generated but how much of other, sometimes difficult-to-measure useful things that we did.
We run PeaceNet and EcoNet. We’re probably better known as those. And those currently comprise about 11,000 subscribers in the United States, through a network of currently eighteen partner organizations. We also provide similar kinds of services to about 20,000 other subscribers in 133 countries. These subscribers are, by our own choice, primarily nonprofit organizations and activist types of organizations, and individuals. People concerned with environmental protection, protection of human rights, social justice, economic issues, things of this sort.
My experience of doing this— And we we’ve been around in various incarnations since 1982, making us one of the older service providers, oddly enough. But my experience in doing this has led me to have what seems to me a kind of radically different perspective on what’s important out there than what I keep hearing. I hear a lot about the problem of access to information, and how people need access to information. I hear a lot about how this technology is community-building technology.
I think both of those are a lot of bull. I don’t think this stuff—that access to information is an issue at all. And I don’t think that this technology is community-building technology at all. And I’ll go and explain what I mean by community also. I think we need to be clear on some of the terms.
But first on access to information. Virtually none of the organizations we work with are interested whatsoever in using the net to access information. There’s a lot of information out there. It’s in the live public library. You can look it up in a lot of different formats. It’s relatively hard to use the net to look up information. Maybe this will change over time. I certainly see interesting possibilities for the future. But far and away, what people are interested in using the technology for, and what I see as it being revolutionary at is in publishing information.
We will get organizations all the time who come to us and need to put up—and want to put up, their own information—something they have created, or create their own identity on the net. And they see it as useful for getting the word out about what they do to a certain segment of the population. And everyone is very clear that this…this is not the whole population. This is white men with relatively high incomes, predominantly. I fully agree with everybody this needs to change over time. But that isn’t really the great interest of most of the organizations we work with right now. They see this technology as a tool to get something done. It’s not replacing other tools. Maybe it’s helping to save some money because it’s certainly cheaper putting out your web page and running a campaign on the Internet than it is doing direct mail, particularly as postage costs increase.
So what we’re really focused on doing is working with groups to figure out their strategy of using the net to mobilize a certain constituency around certain issues, to educate people, and to publish an increasingly diverse range of information about themselves.
The second main function we see of the technology is in communications, right along with publishing. And probably even more important to the organizations we work with, it’s communications technology. It’s the ability to link up everybody in an organization with their colleagues, whether they be in a different country or just across town, for rapid and informal communications.
And this leads me to why I don’t think this technology is community-building whatsoever. And maybe it’s just…you know, my response is conditioned on who we work with and what we do, but this is what I call “people networking.” It’s putting people together who share common interests who have a common agenda, and want to accomplish a certain goal. And it’s helping them, presumably anyway, accomplish that goal more effectively because they can communicate better.
What I see is a community is much more something that’s…locality-based, that’s geograph— that’s based on where you physically are. Where I live in San Francisco, in a way an average San Francisco neighborhood, I think people like me from Northern European descent are in the minority. The majority are Chinese-speaking, other Asians, a high proportion of Russian émigrés. You don’t hear a great deal of English on the street or on the bus when you go around. People from all different political beliefs and all different kinds of value systems.
For example, to me making my backyard beautiful meant spending weeks breaking up all the concrete and hauling it away and planting things, making things grow. My next door neighbor who I like quite a bit, his view of a beautiful backyard is it’s completely paved and painted green. There’s no need to sweep up any leaves or anything like that, it’s never messy. To me that’s what a community is. It’s being there and dealing with people who are completely different from what you’re like. That is my community. I’m forced to deal with these people. We live together.
That’s not what I see the net being. The net is, as I see it, increasingly allowing much smaller groups of common interest groups to come together and do things together. Which I think is great. I think it’s incredibly useful, I just don’t want us to see the net as the ultimate good. Maybe we just need to know what it’s good for and when to switch off the computer and go do something else. It kind of reminds a lot of the arguments have been hearing lately about television, and how the major networks, their production of material that people may find offensive for sexual or violent content, that that needs to be regulated somehow because it’s offensive. I think it’s kind of crazy in a way. I don’t know how these people are going to be controlled anyway. To me the simple solution is if you want to be responsible about what your children are watching, you switch off your TV. [some applause] Or you do what I did, you put it in the basement. To me that’s also a lot easier than trying to get CBS to change their programming.
So in any event, this is what— I mean, I’m still excited about what the net is. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s an incredibly useful tool. I just don’t see it as something that’s going to immediately democratize our society or turn everything else around. If anything, I probably tend to agree with the outlook of Jerry Mander, that predominantly computers and communications technology are tools of the elites. And if we aren’t conscious of how they’re used, they definitely tend to channel more resources and more control into the hands of the people that already have a lot of it. And that certainly is why we’re very much against much of any legislative control over the network. I tend to agree with the sentiment that many have expressed here that these tend to be self-regulating, and that the communities we work with need to get out there and make use of this tool to change some of the existing power structures. And that’s what it should be used for on. We’re seeing this kind of thing happen— And these applications I’m talking about are based on real experience of working with all sorts of large and small organizations, from Amnesty International that’s able to use the net very effectively to mobilize campaigns to get people out of prison, to virtually all of the major environmental organizations that use it predominantly for communications and for propaganda-generation. It’s intended to influence what people know and what they do, and to change their actions.
So that’s why I really think that we’ve been placing too much emphasis on the importance of access to information. I think we need to place the emphasis on using the net to produce a greater variety of information, a greater diversity of information. And as that happens perhaps access to it will become more important and more people will be drawn to it. There’ll be greater justification for getting access to it. This actually is how I originally became involved in it, that oddly enough I originally got into messing with the Internet and computer communications when I lived in the Philippines. And I worked for a nonprofit organization there, and together with a couple Filipino pals we put up some BBS systems that dealt with land reform issues. But it became immediately apparent to me the power of this technology to publish information for virtually nothing, and the ability to communicate that over vast distances. And with that international perspective I became very excited about the possibilities of helping Americans become much more aware, and have much greater contact with different perspectives and in different countries, and not having that mediated by the people who currently control information. The Time-Warners, the CBSes, and you know, probably soon Microsofts and some of the other large corporations. And I think if you believe that access to technology is the key issue, you’ve kind of swallowed hook, line, and sinker what Newt Gingrich and Bill Gates and people of their ilk want you to believe. Because they’re the ones who are publishing, currently, the bulk of the material that’s out there on the net.
Thank you very much.
Ross Stapleton-Gray: Kathy.
Kathleen Watkins: Hi. My name is Kathy Watkins and I’ll introduce a little bit about myself. I think the fact that I have a lot of small things going on is pretty typical of how activists really work. I’m going to talk about being a real live activist.
I’m the part-time administrative director for CARAL, which is the California Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. We’re an affiliate of NARAL, which is a national organization. And we work in the electoral and political arena getting pro-choice people elected and defeating anti-choice people, and we have a very solid mission, which is to alter the relations of power and make sure that the voice of the pro-choice majority is actually reflected in our laws.
So I do that part-time. In my other part-time, I work as a consultant with Internet Literacy Consultants, getting businesses online. ILC has a mission that involves also getting a lot of nonprofits online, and I do a lot of that kind of work for them. But I do, to make a living, actually help corporations get on the Internet.
I publish a newsletter called The Choice-Net Report, which is published irregularly, whenever I get around to it. And it’s about…it’s a compilation of things that I personally think are important in the national scheme of things and I’m not seeing reporting on it anywhere. So I publish it myself, and I’ll talk about how I came to doing that.
I also coordinate the political section of The WELL Gopher system. I host a political conference on Women’s WIRE, and I teach seminars called The Internet For Activists.
So my focus is really on getting activists online, and women, women-owned businesses. People who are not a part of that 85% white male majority that everyone talks about.
The way I got online is…it’s very messy, it’s not very professional. But it’s typical of how activists I think get kind of drawn in and seduced by the Internet. I was producing a television show called Deadhead TV, which was distributed across the country to community access stations in 1988. And I wanted to get in touch with Deadheads, who seemed to have this thing where they were talking to each other on computers. And then when they would get together in actual physical locations at Dead shows where I was videotaping them, they had all these friendships established and they had a community—I truly believe it is a community—which involved them being online and communicating in a daily way and then getting together in physical space with each other. And I wanted to know more about that and communicate with them.
And so I got an account on The WELL and it was a very brief time before I discovered the rest of the online world. I kinda hopped over the wall to the rest of The WELL to see what was going on out there, and it was fascinating and it was wonderful, and it was miraculous. And I stayed involved in it, kind of watching it grow, calling myself a power lurker. I pretty much lurked everywhere.
And eventually I ended up stopping production of Deadhead TV and getting involved in 1992 in CARAL and in the 1992 elections. I wanted to work on the issue of abortion, I wanted to work in politics, and I wanted to help get the right people elected. And so I went to work for CARAL and started using what I have found out on the Internet world for my job, which was trying to communicate with people.
And things were evolving. Gopher was just coming along, you know. I learned about FTP and then I learned about Gopher. I was very excited about Gopher and then, you know, the Web stuff came along. And I took it upon myself to publish our information, to make it available, to put our voter guide online so that when people searched for the word “abortion” they found our information. That was my number 1 goal. When I went out, when I first got online and the tools became available and I searched for the word abortion, I found lots of anti-choice stuff. (What I call anti-choice.)
And it disturbed me that I wasn’t finding anything that was useful to me. And that people who were doing the same thing I was doing, if you were a college student doing a paper on abortion and you did a search, you were gonna find all of this, and none of that. And so it was important for me to put some of that up there, and that kind of defined what my relationship was going to be, which was publisher of information. And I started putting up as much as I could, and eventually started doing The Choice-Net Report, which could get to more people because I could email it to them.
The most important thing that I did during that whole period of time was make actual contact with actual other activists, real-life people. In my Internet seminars, I repeat as a mantra that the most important thing that you’re going to find out there, the most important piece of information is who put that there and why. And behind every byte of information there’s a person. Somebody put it there. Frequently the most important thing you’re going to find out when you’re out looking around for things is the little thing at the bottom of a web page that says who created it. Because that is someone that you can get in touch with. That is a real human being who you can share information with in the future.
And that is what activism is all about. It’s not about—in my humble opinion it is not about railing against the state. And it’s not about trying to crush institutions. It’s people-to-people interaction. And you’re interacting with people on your side, but you’re also interacting with the people—the actual human beings—in the institution. And the more that we can focus on that, I think the more powerful activism can be. It’s also one of things that’s causing a great deal of trouble for institutions, because they’re finding people who work within the institution are in touch with all of these people from the outside all of a sudden. And that generates an information loop that wasn’t there before. The person inside institutions getting information from the outside that contradicts the official policy, or the line of the day that the organizations’ chosen to go with.
And also, the people inside the [institution] are leaking information out to the activist community when something bothers them. And institutions are having a very difficult time dealing with this. And it doesn’t matter if they’re a magazine, or a political organization, or the Democratic Party, or the Republican Party. It’s happening to all of them. The ones that are dealing with it the best are figuring out ways to actually engage in the process. And the ones who are having the most trouble with it are the ones who are in deep denial.
And I think that NOW has done a good job, just by putting their information out, just by acknowledging that this powerful tool exists and that they are going to somehow be a part of it even though they don’t know what it means. And they suddenly have all of these people talking to them and complaining about things directly to their face, when they had a nice structure over the years for how things are dealt with. You know, you had chapters, you had state organizations, you have national organizations. Policy flows. Feminist theory involves you know, the process in which information flows back and forth. And all of a sudden there’s this noise, there’s this stuff all around, and a lot of institutions are experiencing fear around that. And they have to go through the process where they actually have the illusion that they can control it. And then they get to the point where they realize they can’t control and they have to respond. And then they respond poorly and get flamed a lot for that, and they get to the point where they realize that they have to honestly respond. And all of this activism is actually changing these institutions in ways that I think is just beginning.
I think what we have in front of us right now is a very narrow window of opportunity in which we the people in this room and other people like us are going to influence the way that things are done in the future, for decades. How censorship policy is decided right now is going to have a very long influence, I think. How we talk about privacy. What happens to the privatization of government information? For an activist like myself, when the California State Legislature came online, we were able to reduce our use of a state lobbyist. It had a direct impact on us. We had had to hire someone in the state capitol to follow legislation for us and tell us when a bill is going to go to committee, and what the status of it was, what bill had been introduced.
And we now do that every day. I subscribe to a service that the state of California provides, where every time there’s a change to a bill they’ll send me a piece of email. And it’s a very useful thing. It’s like having you know, my own little lobbyist inside my computer. So I know that there’s a hearing coming up and I know that with a few phone calls I can get a couple of people there who can maybe actually have some kind of impact on that. And I can send them a copy of the bill. And I can send them the list of amendments to the bill. And they can read it for themselves. And that is an amazingly powerful tool that we have not had access to.
The same thing is happening with national legislation. For years a group like CARAL was dependent on the national group NARAL to tell us what bills were being introduced in Congress. And every day, every morning, as I drink my coffee I look up the word abortion on THOMAS to see how many bills there are. And I know that today there are seventeen bills that have the word abortion in them. Two weeks ago there were thirteen. The day after this Congress was sworn in there were five. And I’ve been able to follow the process of each one of those. When a new one pops up I can read it right away. I can email some of those people that I’ve had contact with and tell them you know, “This is a bill that I think that you’re going to want to follow. Here’s the text of it.” And they can go follow it for themselves.
So I think that we have to focus on the politics of—or one of the things I’m seeing activists focus on, it’s not even I have to tell you what to do or you have to tell me what to do. I’m seeing activism happen about the Internet itself, which gives me a lot of hope. I’m seeing this community respond to the deals that are being made in Congress right now about monopolistic telecommunications policy. You know, are we going to grant a monopoly to someone for the next ten years? And you all are following that and doing something about it, and sharing the information. Everything that’s happening around that is activism, and that gives me a great deal of hope because it means that there are people who are using this tool to engage in the act of citizenship as opposed to engaging in the act consuming a product. And the more people do that and the more powerful those people are, the better it’s going to be in the long run for those of us who have less power and less access to that.
The institutions, obviously, are being forced to change. And I think this is the opportunity, this is the window of opportunity. We have to help them through that. We don’t have to destroy a national institution or large bodies. We can help them through the process. We can clue them into what a flame is and the fact that you will survive it, and it’s going to be better in the long run to deal with the problem right up front and help them figure out how to do that. Because it is very strange to people who have had control over what people say about them to suddenly find a world that’s carping at them.
And I think one other thing that I want to say is that I’m getting concerned about the amount of what I call fearmongering going on about the Internet. Because it keeps away the very people who I’m trying to get on. When people focus on sexual harassment online, I then have to convince a woman that even if it happens she’s going to survive it before she’ll go online. It puts up another barrier to somebody say, “Why should I put myself through that? Maybe this isn’t for me.” And that may be someone for whom the technology will change their lives.
So it bothers me a lot… What I’m hearing from people who say you know, “The Internet is addictive and so you shouldn’t go on there. There’s child pornography so you shouldn’t go on there…” We can focus on whatever we want. There’s child pornography on the street if you want to walk into you know, the back alley bookstore in any modern city you’re going to find child pornography. But I don’t run into it every day. I don’t see pornography on the Internet. It’s not where I go. It’s not in my face all the time. I’m not getting harassed online except the people who perhaps disagree with me politically. Which is okay.
But it’s important to me that we understand that it’s not enough. It’s not enough to just say oh there’s pornography, or oh we’re paying too much attention to computers and we have to go out and smell the roses. So I just want people to be aware that when you do that, or when you see that being done it’s creating a barrier for someone who really should be encouraged to get online rather than discouraged by that kind of stuff. Everyone thinks there’s a lot of focus on what the positive is to be online and we have to be really careful of the negative. But I encourage you to talk to people about the positive aspects of what this has to offer.
And I also encourage the people in this room to adopt some people. You already know more about the Internet than 99% of the population. Adopt a cause that you believe in and help them to through this. Help them get online. Help them get their information out there. The only reason that I know as much as I do about all of this is that I was adopted by someone who is a compulsive teacher, Matisse Enzer, who wanted to teach me everything about this. He knew that the intersection of politics and the Internet was a place where I should be and where people should be.
And all of you can find someone like that who you can share your equipment with. You know, give them your castoff modems, and help them through this. And get ’em online. And keep hope alive. That’s all I gotta say.
Ross Stapleton-Gray: A couple of comments before we go to questions. One, this panel would have hosted and unfortunately was not able to, but should be the panel to acknowledge the work of Jim Warren in getting the California information online, and serving as a beacon. And if nothing else he’s filled many of your mailbox far more than you would have expected. Jim will be here tomorrow and we can all say we’re not worthy.
Second, just to comment on leading organizations into cyberspace. My wife has done a fair amount of work. My wife Sarah has done work with the action group, the ones that go out there and do call the chapters and say, “Incidentally, a bill on abortion was introduced today.” The proactive sense that the hierarchy passes the information down.
And they did a survey and it said, “How many of you all would like to get your stuff by email rather than these phone calls and faxes we’ve been making?” And the response was a tiny tiny fraction. And her despair was that wasn’t going to change anytime soon; better go back to phones and faxes even though she is the online activist of the family and I’m just the policy wonk.
My response to her was the other side of the coin. Maybe we ought to go find all those cyber-capable NOW members and make them want to run for chapter president. Make them want to run for chapter secretary. Pull the people who are Internet literate, as you’re saying, into the groups. Make them take up a cause more than being told by the chapter president, “There’s an action, can you fill out some postcards, can you make a phone call to your neighbors.” Get some of them involved in the guts of moving information around the organization as their first cause.
And last I thought, if what people want on the net’s the ability to publish, maybe we should have a plan to provide universal write-only access to the Internet. So if anyone’s got questions about political information online, I’ll even respond on issues of the ominous threat of governments using the net, but…question?
Audience 1: Okay, I’m gonna set up a strawman so…Mr. Sears and Miss Watkins can light it on fire. Do you feel like the Internet is swallowing the activist community? I mean, five years ago when I was working with Oregon NARAL, we were worried about getting people out to do NARAL activities. We weren’t worried about, oh my god there’s legislation on the books right now being discussed that’s gonna make it hard for us to keep doing activism. Whereas now, we have large activist pushes to make sure the laws don’t do weird things to our communications system. Is that swallowing our activists?
Kathleen Watkins: I’ll tackle that. One mailing list that I belong to that is the most interesting reading every day is a list of people who do clinic defense around the country. And those people are engaged in a maximum way in your ground-level activism. The Internet is an extra tool for them that is helping overcome things like isolation from each other. It’s helping us keep from recreating the wheel, find something that works and share it. And also there’s an emotional support kind of thing that goes on when you’re under attack every day and you kind of need to share that…people were yelling at you all day today. But that’s an example to me of how the two coexist.
Also I would say that by having direct access to the legislation, we are much better activists. Because we are able to turn around and talk to the people in our office the same minute, the same day, that we find it out, or that it comes up. We’re not waiting for a national organization to take the information in, process that through their decisionmaking machinery to decide what it means. We’re deciding for ourselves what it means. And we are telling other people what it is and what we think it means, in a much more rapid way. I think that we’re better activists for it.
Geoff Sears: Yeah, I absolutely agree. I see it [in] all different issue areas, activists making effective use of the net.
Audience 2: It’s actually kind of similar. I’m a net activist myself. And one of the problems that I have found is in mobilizing people to act. People get online, they read something, they get really angry. And then they flame. And they don’t get out and do something practical. They don’t take it back to their community. Do you have any suggestions for how to bring the net back out? I mean, we know how to get activist groups on the net, how do we get the net back to a local community activist situation?
Watkins: Well I can tell you one of the ways I deal with it is that I have different lists of people that I want to get information to. There are people I call. There are people I send emails. There are people I know I’m going to have a meeting with them in a couple of weeks. And when information comes in to me, I try to put it in one of those categories, so that I’m passing it along all the time.
And I’m also finding that when people get excited about getting on the Internet, about getting on America Online and stuff, kind of the newness of it and the freshness and the concept you’re gonna have accurate information about your issue every day is one of the things that gets them involved in actually doing things. You know, you can only say to people for so long, “Write a letter to your Congressman,” before you actually feel guilty and have to write one yourself.
And I’ve seen that happen to people, you know. They get really involved and they want to help by spreading the information, and after awhile it’s like… And I ask them, “Did you write your letter? You know. I know that you sent email to fifty people, did you write your letter?” I think that helps.
Sears: I’d add one thing to that, that it’s a process of time, I think becoming an activist. That people to have to start getting up to speed on what the issues are, feeling comfortable that they know something about it, to be able to take action.
And the second thing I’d say is that you as someone say, publishing information, trying to use the Internet for this purpose and actually putting out information in any format, really thinking about some very specific, simple things to ask people to do. So you know, one might be here’s the phone number of your local representative, give him or her a call. Or can you go out and talk to four of your neighbors about this, or post this at your office, or just giving people some simple things they can do in a couple minutes so that they don’t have to think of it themselves.
Watkins: I also want to just say that citizen activism and apathy, the apathy of the citizenship of this country is like a global problem. It’s something that we’re facing all over the place. Pro-choice apathy is something that you know…it’s very difficult for organizations like us because everyone believes the issue is safe. And everyone they know can get an abortion so what’s the problem? And overcoming that apathy and getting people back involved with our government is I think where we are at right now. We’re at the beginning points of that. And I’m hoping that we can bootstrap on Newt Gingrich’s and the Dittoheads excitement about the possibility of doing that. I think they’re going to open up a bunch of tools that we can use, that I can use.
And I think that they are creating groundswell of people getting involved with their government again. I have a lot of faith in people. I’m an eternal optimist, so I think that eventually that’s going to sift out into people doing the right thing. I think we have to go through a period of maybe…adjustment, and falling out around that. But I do think that we are at a period in time when there is more grassroots activism than there has been for ten years. I mean, there was not a lot of grassroots activism except maybe in the environmental movement in the 80s. But there are a lot of opportunities right now. So I think the world is helping you excite people, and you have to help the world excite people and give them direction. I think that’s the best way to get them active.
Stapleton-Gray: Apathy was not…in part engendered by the tools like the TV and like the computer, and I can sit glued for six hours to a screen. But they’re not the sole causes, and they will never be the sole salvation. We need to fix some real world things and use these tools, and in fixing the real world find better ways to use the tools.
Audience 3: One of the things that you mentioned right at the start of your conversation was the idea that having all these access points would shake up different organizations, and one of the ones you mentioned was General Motors and I think NOW is another one. I could see NOW being taken up, but General Motors I just can’t see being shaken up by the Internet.
One of the reasons is that General Motors has a fairly specific focus, which is making cars for profit. NOW has a large number of people who might differ at times with each other, and as a consequence will post different things to the net in terms of trying to argue their point. And where this might lead with more and more organizations with various levels of progressive intent adding more and more things to the net is no one will have a chance to actually read all of the stuff. You won’t be able to keep up. You will bury yourself, which is what a large number of my students do when they get onto the net: they spend all of their time on the net, they don’t do any of their homework, they fail.
So, there are some downside to all of this access to the net. I’m not saying that it can’t be used as a good tool and I think the one that you mentioned, the monitoring of state legislatures or the Congress and the state of particular bills is a useful function, but sadly it’s a monitoring function. I don’t know how much the net can be used in a positive way to communicate, and if it does start getting to be a positive thing, will it get flooded with a whole bunch of useless messages so that people end up wasting their time and then it becomes a useless thing?
Stapleton-Gray: Oh, I think it’s been a useful thing that’s been flooded by useless messages oftentime. So is your assessment that the net is no threat to General Motors? Was that part of the initial question?
Audience 3: I just found General Motors an odd one to be on your list of things [crosstalk] that it was a threat to.
Stapleton-Gray: Oh, I think it’s an interesting case. It may be moving off the issue of politics, but maybe… I think this applies to large organizations of any sort. You’re suddenly—you’re sort of raising the activation level. I think the net maybe a threatening thing to any large collection that had previously held together either by like politics of like geography. And that has a lot of interesting implications.
Watkins: I think that what’s gonna happen is that you’ll see more and more internal company debates in large corporations getting out, where they’ve been able to keep them secret. What is useless information to one person is another person’s absolute love. And if you are a car safety activist, and if you lost a loved one to an unsafe car, you’re trolling the Internet for information about car safety. And if you run into somebody who’s a disgruntled employee internally who feels that maybe something could be done to make the car safer but the company’s not into it, you have an opportunity right there for activism in a way that would have been possible but improbable before. Because you couldn’t find each other. And what the Internet offers you is that ability to find people who are interested in your thing. A lot of what I engage in every day is absolutely useless to most people. But to me it’s really critical information that helps me think I’m making a difference in the world.
Sears: One example of that happening is we’ve seen as the World Bank has gotten connected to the Internet, various organizations who actively work against World Bank projects making connections with internal staff who share some of the same feelings and internal documents…somehow becoming available. So it happens.
Audience 4: Hi. I’m sort of an activist myself in a number of the same areas you are, Kathy, and some others as well. And I’ve gotten a little pessimistic. And that is that I don’t see, and perhaps I’m wrong and I hope I am, that the online community is making a difference as far as influencing policy. Just for example the digital telephony issue, I’m sure probably most of us were alerted. And most of us sent…I sent email and snail mail to all my representatives.
It didn’t make a damn bit of difference. They don’t have to listen to us. The people behind the Beltway know they can get reelected without paying any regard whatsoever to what voters think. And I think that’s the reason for a lot of the apathy, and I’m not sure—I mean right now we’re dealing with this Exon/Gorton thing, and we’re all of us going to be deluging the network with messages stressing how we feel about it. And I’m not sure it’s going to make any difference. And if you think it will I’d love to hear you explain why you think we can do some good here. Thank you.
Watkins: I think it will make a difference if it’s say part of an overall strategy. Congressional recess is coming up right now. They are going to be in recess. They’re going to be at home. You can go knock on their door and tell them, to their face, what you think of it. And the fact is that the population of the Internet is made up of people who can get an audience with a congressperson, frequently. They are white, employed men who work in technologies that these kind of people have to follow.
And I think because they care, and because they’re organizing, they’re learning this process, we’re all learning this process. I think there is a possibility for some change around those particular bills. I have faith that enough people have taken this on as their issue, that they’re going to follow it through. They will go to a congressional visit, they will go to a town hall meeting when their congressman is in town, and they will call them on it. And you know, it’s kind of… I don’t know what to tell you except that I’m an eternal optimist. I believe that people are starting to get very interested in taking back their government. And I’m very very happy to see how much activism is happening on the net around these bill, because I think it will spill over into other kinds of bills as well.
Sears: I would say the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, and what you perceive as the war lost I think many people would say was the first shot or the first battle in something that’s going to go on much longer.
When you’ve say, won the heart and mind of the Senate staffer who next time a bill like this comes up is going to give you the information earlier on so there’s a little more prep. Or when the next bill comes out and they say, “Yes yes, we let you have digital telephony but not this one.” Or when a Congress— I’m sure there were congresspersons whose minds were changed even if the outcome was what it would have been had none of all this net activism happened. We don’t know what these many intangibles are gonna produce and what comes later. I’m inclined to believe that a lot of good happened out of all that, even as most people in this room would probably say that digital telephony was the disaster of last year.
Stapleton-Gray: Strategy’s definitely the key word to me. Just because the technology exists doesn’t mean it will do anything. It’s how you use it. I think yesterday there was an article in The New York Times about how students at some incredibly large number of universities, it might’ve been 200—something like that, across the country are planning coordinated demonstrations against what I call the contract on America. And because they were able to use the net to do that, they could get a much larger group of students to take part in it, that you couldn’t really do in the same period of time using any other technologies. But again, it’s what the message is, how you craft it, how you target. It’s not what the technology is.
Watkins: And the other thing to remember about activism is that it’s never really over. A bill gets passed in the House, it still has to go to the Senate. Gets passed in the Senate, it still has to go to conference committee. It gets passed and enacted into law, and the next year you start introducing amendments to it to chip away at it. And that’s how the law is made. It’s an ongoing process and it’s constantly being created. It’s never over.
Stapleton-Gray: And this year it’s an unfunded mandate and gosh darnit maybe we’ll have a recision of that funding.
Audience 5: A question for the panel. Recently when Senator Gorton attached the Exon/Gorton bill to the telecom reform bill, when asked in the committee hearing if there had been opposition to it he said, “Oh yes, those Internet people were very complaining,” even though the phones were jammed. Are we not slitting our own throat in using these networks as our primary means of communication and being lumped into one small interest group when we in fact run the whole spectrum in some cases?
Watkins: Well, I think that goes back to the issue of, it’s only a part of it. Sending your email, or writing a letter is only a part of what you do. You have to personalize yourself to those people. And you do have to get involved in the political process. You do have to meet their staff person and say, “Look. Me and 300 other people who live in this district are communicating by email, and we’re talking to our friends.”
You have to talk the language of politics, which is about numbers and voters and turnout. And pressure. And business. And a lot of us are actually engaged in commerce. We are the businesspeople of this country, in addition to being citizen activists. And we are the people that they are supposed to be listening to. We are the people driving this economy. And we have to just keep making that clear. You can be both an activist and a participant in the political process. And the way that they’ve been framing it in the past is that you are either a participant—you know, you’re a businessperson and so you have access at the table and your issues are serious—or you’re an activist, which is you know, an outsider carping at the institution. And what I’m interested in doing is breaking those things down and having the people inside the institution be part of the activist community, which I think can make a big difference.
Stapleton-Gray: A lesson to take from this is to do better networking in the non-electronic sense. I think one of the most fascinating things to come out of both Clipper—well, I think specifically digital telephony was to find out that in the same camp are you know, long-haired freaks like us, and Barry Goldwater.
And so, if you bring a AARP to the table against the Exon bill, because they have been educated past the initial blush of child pornographers, if they start thinking that what this is is a liability for their own intimate conversations, which many old folks tend to have, that it’s an assault on any citizen’s conversation or thoughts, that it can affect them more than this first blush, you know. When Louis Freeh says there are child pornographers lurking behind every bush, if you can get AARP, which which the Congress listens to, to stand up and say< “We’ve heard your argument, we’ve heard theirs. We’re not netheads but we think they’re right,” that’ll sell a bill. Or sell the opposition to the bill.
Audience 6: I wanted to respond to a comment that you made, Ross, about large political organization and institution responding to the new technology. And the point that I want to assert is that the technology already is making the decisions for us. And that the technology is actually the source of all…is actually the source, such that I think the people that’re really driving it are people like the cypherpunks and people like Phil Zimmermann, and you know, people working on the [Digicat?], that they’re actually making the decisions and it’s really the institutions that are responding to it.
Stapleton-Gray: Well, what I said was large organizations, whether or not they adopt it, will be affected very strongly by it. And that I don’t think that it tends to support a large organization even if they adopt it. If every NRA member was given an email account and they could all confab about NRA issues, I’ll bet there will be an opposition bunch up in Madison, Wisconsin that says, “Preserve the right to own a handgun but machine guns we have a problem with.” And immediately when you have a little machine gun/no machine gun debate among the NRA that gets blown up in the press. And you end up with fissures and cracks in an organization that heretofore had done pretty well at presenting a united face when what they had was newsletters, hierarchical communication, and their lobbyists.
Now when any NRA member can be their own effective information-gathering lobbyist, and when many organizations can network apart from the single national structure… All I was saying was that large organizations, whether or not they adopt the technologies, may be in the same sort of twilight that we saw in the Cretaceous period, and that it’s the dawn of the little squeaky mammals. Maybe the the singular Zimmermans or the small herd of cypherpunks. But the large organizations are under a lot of stress and at great risk.
Sears: Here’s another fun example, the AFL-CIO started a forum on CompuServe they call LaborNet. It’s a private forum. The only people who can get access to it are shop stewards above a certain level. They don’t let any rank and file into it. You wonder why? You know, they’re afraid of their organization being totally transformed and maybe being forced to turn into something that actually represents the rank and file again.
Audience 6: Well, is there any possibility of them actually surviving that? Or how would they survive, given that individuals have so much more power that they didn’t have before?
Stapleton-Gray: I don’t know. I get fairly pessimistic about the survival of institutions, and I know folks out there are cheering at the death of many large institutions. But it is our…sort of like the personal filibuster accorded to anyone in any organization in some ways. And we may have to move beyond that. We may have to declare a time out. No email this afternoon because we’re gonna get together face-to-face and actually hash out some of our differences, as has been done in at least one company. We’d declare computers off limits because we’ve got more important things to do. I haven’t reached the Cliff Stoll extreme of wanting to go throw pots and eat jam. But there’s a lot of problems with these technologies that eat away at or otherwise traumatize organizational structures we’ve enjoyed. In some cases for the good, some cases for the bad, but maybe we don’t want to sweep them all away at once.
Watkins: I think that institutions have an opportunity to either reinvent themselves or crumble. And there is a way to survive this, and that is to set up mechanisms where the rank and file, the people who belong to the institution, have a say. Where they get to vote. And where the institution learns how to respond faster to things. Maybe they have to decentralize. Maybe there’s something that they have to do that makes them faster, and sharper, and quicker on their feet. But if they are a lumbering dinosaur, and they only have one way of relating to the world and they refuse to change, they’re not going to make it, I think.
Unless they have…you know, they’re all different. If you have a constituency made up of a homogeneous group of people who take orders very well, and who aren’t into question you, who will accept the information that you send them via email and go do things with it and not talk back, you may also be able to survive.
Stapleton-Gray: We’re down to about the two minute warning so we’ll take the last two questions, I hope.
Audience 7: Okay. I’d like to start by applauding all three of you for being out and being public people and taking stands that are unpopular. And one of the reasons it occurred to me to applaud you for this is because part of what we’ve been hearing from one another through this gathering is a fear that people will be tracked for their political beliefs, and that others who disagree with them will be able to find them, whether it’s a government or not.
So, I was wondering whether you think about this in terms of organizing, whether you think people need to have an awareness of what they’re doing, or whether it’s safe and everybody might as well just you know, climb on in ’cause the water’s fine.
Sears: Well, I got death threats during the Gulf War. PeaceNet was not uh, popular with everybody. That actually cheered me up. It made me think we might actually be doing something useful. So, no, it’s probably never safe to take controversial positions no matter how you do it, and how you’re known. And the net certainly is well-known for allowing flame wars and people to behave in manners they probably wouldn’t behave in face-to-face situation.
Watkins: Well I work on an issue where people are harassed and threatened and killed for believing what I believe. So it’s something that pro-choice activists have to think about all the time. I have to make the decision about whether I’m gonna put a bumper sticker on my car that’s pro-choice because you know, I attend so many places and rallies my car would be easy to identify outside. You know, I have to think about where do I put my home address. So there are issues that you have to think about with all of this, but it comes down for me to something that somebody told me a long time [ago], which is you either stand for something or you’ll fall for anything. You either have to take a stand and be a participant, or you’re taking up space. So you know, there are things worth standing up for and worth endangering yourself for. And your life is going to be in danger because you’re saying what you believe, what kind of a life will you have if you just quietly go along. My perspective.
Stapleton-Gray: Let’s take the last question, then. You were at the mic.
Audience 8: Is this all just going to degenerate into having the fringe elements on both sides sending mail bombs and flame wars and hacking each other’s things, or are there any sort of mechanisms that may kind of let each group do its thing without trying to sabotage the other one?
Sears: I think the net…the tendency is to allow a lot more ease of disruption than of construction. I don’t know—I think the solution to that is off-net. I think we will by consensus among ourselves decide to make the world a little nicer than it is, not because the technologies help us and the net fosters that but because we decide we’re sick and tired and won’t take it anymore. And we need to play nice. I tend to be fairly pessimistic about the ability of the net to construct something grand in the social sense. Too many tools for destruction and not enough for construction.
Stapleton-Gray: Thank you very much for a great panel. I think everybody learned a great deal and learned about some new things. Thanks to all three of you.