Tom Jennings Interview (1993)

by Plutopia News Network
Tom Jennings
(Originally published in FringeWare Review)

In 1993, Jon Lebkowsky had a chat with Tom Jennings, who asked afterwards: “Think you can mention somewhere that I’m a fag anarcho nerd troublemaker/activist? It is important, and to me as well. It always gets buried. Lots of people like to know, especially scared people with no images of people who are gay and reasonably functional in some way.”

Tom: This people tracking stuff, what little I know of it sounds very creepy. I don’t want a box that reports where the hell I am all the time, when I walk in the room, it can tell some local machine I’m there. It’s none of anyone’s goddamn business. It’s the corporate culture invasion on real life, like the top 1% who make all the money, and think everyone’s gonna live like them.

Jon: Well, if you’re living in an ivory tower, after you live there for a while, you start to think, not that it’s YOUR environment, but it’s THE environment.

T: Yeah, it is reality, but it’s a local one. Everyone they know is like that — well, they don’t know everybody.

J: In a conversation I had the other day with Allucquere Rosanne Stone, she talked about ubiquitous computing , that computers or computing will be invisible, it will be so omnipresent —

T: That’s what Alan Kay pointed out years ago, that when technology gets done right, you don’t even see it. When you walk in a room, your hand flicks a switch — how much thought do you give to that stupid light switch? Hopefully very little. The light comes on, and — Telephones are getting close to that.

J: Even better, there’s some rooms you walk into and the light switches on automatically, because there’s motion detectors.

T: Yeah.

Anarchy In The A-C-K

J: Tell me about FidoNet. As I said, I’m sorta ignorant on the subject —

T: I have a weird point of view on it, of course, having designed it — February or March of ’94 will be it’s tenth year. It is a network, a collection of bulletin boards. It is a loose confederation, and it is completely and thoroughly and utterly decentralized. There is literally no top. Most of it’s members have a narrow view of it because they have this particular reality filter on all the time from living amongst hierarchy addicts. But FidoNet’s most basic element is a bulletin board. What FidoNet is, is a set of protocols that lets the bulletin boards communicate. FidoNet started as a bunch of bulletin boards, running my Fido software. FidoNet was added later, to allow point-to – point email between Fido boards.

J: Did you start with just a single BBS?

T: It started with my system. I was writing software for Phoenix Software, which is now Phoenix Technologies. I was their first employee. I did all their portable MS-DOS stuff prior to the ROM BIOS they did, which was partly based on my previous work with “portable” MS-DOS — we were doing MS-DOS installations in three days, and charging exorbitant sums — and delivering really good stuff, people got their money’s worth, and got it damn fast! We had it down to an art of just totally portable stuff. So I had this portable attitude toward hardware, and wrote a bulletin board sort of based on it.

FidoNet is more importantly a social mechanism. It was pretty obvious from the start that it was going to be a social monster, almost more so than a technical thing. And it had to do with the original environment of bulletin boards, which were around for quite a while by the time I got around to doing Fido. Every bulletin board was completely different, run by some cantankerous person who ran their board the way that they saw fit, period. So FidoNet had to fit in that environment.

J: A very anarchic environment.

T: Yes, explicitly anarchic. Most people just ran them for their own reasons, and they were just separated by large distances of time and space, so they remained locally oriented. I just ran across old interviews and old documentation from ’83 – ’84, and we were saying it then. It was just — people didn’t hear it, it just went in one ear and out the other. They think ‘Oh, anarchism, that means throwing rocks at the cops!’ Well sometimes, I suppose, but that’s mostly a cop’s definition of it.

The Revolution Will Be Packetized

J: The sense of the bomb throwing anarchist, I guess, is sort of in the sense of political disorder —

T: — which was a specific event in the 20’s in San Francisco having to do with union labor busts. And blackmail — this guy Tom Mooney, a bomb was planted and blame arranged to fall on Tom Mooney, tossing his ass in jail, putting the blame squarely on the anarchists.

J: Anarchy has this sorta bad connotation, but anarchy itself is not unlike what so many seem to want to embrace now. I think the libertarian philosophy is fairly anarchic, and you find it widespread throughout the net. It’s basically a hands-off philosophy.

T: I think people often take it too seriously, like various anarchist camps that have more rules than not. I consider it a personal philosophy, not a political thing at all. It has nothing to do with party-type politics.

J: If it becomes overtly political, it ceases to be anarchy —

T: Yeah, more or less, and I don’t really care about what’s considered politics per se , it’s personal interaction, how I treat other people and how they treat me, and my relations to other people, it’s anarchism — I always call it Paul Goodman style, which is the principle that people work together better if they’re cooperating than if they’re coerced. Very simple, nothing to do with goddamn party politics. It has to do with how you treat people that you have to work with. And that’s what FidoNet was based on, very explicitly. It was sort of laid over the top of a lot of Fido bulletin boards, and let them talk to each other in a straightforward point-to-point manner.

Just How Big Is It?

J: Was it just Fido boards?

T: Just Fido at the time, because it required a fairly low-level of restructuring of the innards, message bases and stuff. And Fido is a pretty good bulletin board, has been for years, though now it’s definitely old fashioned. I haven’t done a revision to Fido for over two years.

J: Are you thinking about doing that?

T: No, I’m thinking about dropping it. I’ve thought about it, and it’s over. So FidoNet started up in spring of ’84 with two systems, me and my friend John Madill and within four months there were twenty or fifty — by the end of the year, it was approaching 100 by the next February, in nine months. It started growing really fast. And every single one was run by somebody for their own reasons in their own manner for their own purposes, so FidoNet had to accommodate this. And this is nothing unusual, in one sense. All computer networks are essentially run this way. The Internet is. There’s no central Internet authority where you go to get a system in Internet, you just put it online, and find people to help you, register with the NIC [Network Information Center] which is just a convention for handling names.

J: Sort of ideally cooperative.

T: Yeah, it’s quite cooperative, and you don’t really get kicked out unless you technically screw up, or do something massively illegal or glaringly obvious. Most likely technical, like don’t answer mail for a long time. Most electronic things are like that. It didn’t start to take off until Echomail came by, which was done by this guy named Jeff Rush in Dallas as a way to talk among Dallas sysops about organizing pizza parties. It’s a fully distributed, redundant database using FidoNet netmail to transport the records in the distributed database. It’s functionally equivalent to Usenet, they gate back and forth very easily.

J: Can you link FidoNet very easily to Internet or UUCP Mail?

T: There’s gateways between [FidoNet and UUCP] operating. You can just set up the UFGate package — [FidoNet and the Internet] they have totally different paradigms. IP, the Internet stuff, is fully connected all the time. When you want to connect to a system in Finland, you just rub packets with them and they come back in generally under a second. FidoNet is all store and forward, offline processing —

J: How big is it now?

T: Just short of 20,000 systems.

J: Wow, that’s a lot —

T: It’s doubled in a year — I think more than doubled in a year. It’s been doubling every year for a long time .

—-BEGIN PGP PUBLIC KEY BLOCK—-

J: There’s a lot of discussion today of encryption schemes, are you involved in that?

T: Actually, yeah, I use it routinely.

J: Using PGP?

T: Yeah. FidoNet was pretty intentionally involved in getting PGP ubiquitous the first time around — an intentional, conscious quick-dump of about 10,000 copies in a week, starting on a Monday, just to be sure that it was unstoppable, and it spread very quickly. Now there’s all kinds of arguments over whether it’s legal, or whether it’s going to incriminate me to use PGP, and the traffic into the network itself —

J: It wouldn’t be a criminal issue —

T: People believe all kinds of crazy nonsense.

J: Somebody has a patent on the algorithm, is that it?

T: Yeah, and some people are afraid that if they send or pass encrypted data, that the police will bust into the house and steal the computer, all this kind of stuff — FidoNet sprung up fully-formed out of seeming nowhere into the rest of the computer world. Most people on the Internet have access to it through schools or industry. They went to school, then they got a job, and they grew up with maintained Internet connectivity — they were brought up into the sort of Internet-hood .

J: I think that’s changing a bit —

T: Oh, it is changing, it will continue to change, and someday it will be incomprehensible that it was this way, but as of today, it’s sort of how it is. FidoNet did not come from that direction at all. It came from — the usual white guys who could afford a computer :-), but in the best tradition of radio and astronomy, they were at least amateurs, it’s truly an amateur network. It is not professional, as in “profession” — “professional” is frequently used to mean legitimate, as opposed to amateur —

J: You mean “hobbyist?”

T: Yeah, amateur as a word became disparaging, but we mean it actually in the older sense, like the radio amateur sense. We don’t do it for money, it’s done for the sake of itself. So for the most part, FidoNet members never had that traditional kind of connectivity, and also didn’t have the corporate culture, and didn’t have the computer network culture, so it basically formed in the dark, on its own.

550 Flavors of Culture

J: Speaking of the word “culture,” do you find that within the FidoNet universe, there’s a particular set of cultural predilections? Does there tend to be a general kind of group or community that uses FidoNet?

T: Well, it’s like any of those things, it’s really subjective. But, yeah, there do seem to be, in my travels on Internet and FidoNet, distinct flavors. One is not better than the other, I can tell you that, culturally speaking. The Internet people say, “Oh, but the flame level on FidoNet is so awful.” Bullshit. The flame level on the Internet is just as high. It’s in loftier language, five line signatures, and all that kind of crap — but I’m sorry, it’s not any better, it’s just different. What it is, is less alien to them, more comfortable — and vice-versa from the FidoNet side. It’s more comfortable, it’s more familiar, the language used and the acronyms and the smiley faces, all of that junk.

There is a FidoNet flavor, through the usual sociological things. The people who originally populated it defined this vague common set, and people who come onto it self – select (“Oh, I like that!”) and join it, and then enhance it, or they’re sort of neutral and they come in and they just absorb it because — you know, you start hanging out with people, and you pick up their manner of speaking. And there are people, of course, who are utterly opposed to this, and want to make it professional and some just don’t care, and live in a corner of it.

But yeah, there are things in common, and I have a hard time putting my finger on what they are. It is fiercely independent, utterly, fiercely independent. It is viciously anti-commercialization. It has a long history of some nasty politics, some really enlightened politics, and I think in a lot of ways they have more pragmatic view, and a better view — better meaning more functional in today’s world — than people who haven’t had to pay their own phone bills.

J: Some people argue that you can’t have strictly online community, and others believe that you can. Some feel that there has to be some kind of face-to-face interaction. In the Internet there has not been as much of that until it began to become more broadly accessible to regular people —

T: The Internet is still completely and thoroughly inaccessible — I’m sorry, it is simply not accessible. You have to have a large amount of hardware or an intimate relationship with someone who does, like you have to go to school or something. Otherwise you’re paying money — and there are people who fall through the cracks —

J: How about public access Internet?

T: Yeah, but if there’s more than 100 terminals in the U.S. that any average person could walk up to and figure out how to use in less than a week, I would be surprised. It still takes huge amounts of specialized knowledge.

J: But the technical side is fairly dense —

T: Oh, yeah — I’ve been an SWTP, CP/M, DOS hacker and hardware hacker for fifteen fucking years, twenty years, and UNIX is so intimidating, arbitrarily difficult to use — a lot of the users have this macho attitude that “Well, you should have to plow through it, I did.” The whole priesthood nonsense. It’s stupid. And the argument whether online culture is possible or not, that ain’t where it’s gonna get decided. It either gets made or it doesn’t. I think there are online communities. The people who are doing it aren’t asking themselves, “Are we an online community?” They’re just going about their business. They’re not tangible enough to really get documented except in hindsight, you look back and say “Oh, yeah, those people are” or “No, they really weren’t, when push came to shove, they didn’t stay together.”

J: At EFF-Austin we’ve been a little more self-conscious about it, we’ve actually been trying to do some community-building, to try to structure an online community in Austin where we’d have some force to get things done, various projects. One of the things we’re doing that other EFF-related groups haven’t been doing is arts projects, and in doing those things, in talking to some of the people who are interested in doing that, I realized that there are a lot of writers and artists who are hungry to get online. They know it’s there, they’d like to be using it, but they can’t get access to it because they can’t, unless they stumble into it, find a system that’ll give them an account. It’s kind of like what you were saying about barriers — but I wonder if, in the FidoNet world, you find writers and artists using FidoNet to share information and to form arts communities?

T: Well, there’s a lot more less-technical people involved, because you can put a $300 system together, line cord to phone jack. That just means that the entry level is a lot lower. And it’s functional as hell! I mean, So what if it’s slow? 5 seconds or 100 milliseconds, what’s the difference to most people?

All Look Completely Different

J: The link, the network, is strictly for email? Or do you have some other stuff, file transfer — ?

T: Oh, there’s lots of file transfer stuff. In some ways it’s a lot more sophisticated than the FTP stuff from the user’s point of view. There’s this thing called the SDN, the Software Distribution Network, which looks like a conference for files, where the objects are not messages, but files. And they’re stored in a redundant manner, some locally concentrated, some far away and scattered. It’s kind of nebulous, like most network things are. They do monthly announcements of new files, and most of it’s shareware, or free. You can do things like file attach (send with a message), and file requests (file fetch via message).

FidoNet doesn’t have the problem that a lot of older networks have, with seven bit channels and all that crap. We have eight bit channels with 32 bit CRCs. We do run into the alien system problems — ASCII character sets vs. the cyrillic alphabets and all that kinda stuff. Those problems are about as chaotic as they are anywhere else.

J: How about remote login?

T: No — the systems in FidoNet are radically different. There’s Radio Shack color computers, there’s CP/M machines, Apple IIs, giant DOS machines, giant LANs of UNIX boxes, all running common protocols in a far broader hardware base than most, even UNIX boxes. There’s no unified operating system, there’s a set of protocols, there’s 40 or 50 different mailers, and FidoNet interfaces in bulletin boards, and they all look completely different. So it’s at a much higher level of abstraction than the FidoNet gets defined at. I bet a lot of the Internet, some huge proportion, is UNIX —

J: You certainly need some kind of standard to be interoperable to the extent that the Internet is, don’t you?

T: No, where the real compatibility is is the TCP/IP layer, and that’s rock solid, and that’s the thing in common. All the rlogin, telnet, and ftp stuff partly user paradigm, rather than just a set of protocols. It’s well, and fine, and wonderful, and I love it, but it does put a real crimp on style.

[Ed Cavazos, almost-attorney and vice-prez of EFF-Austin, shows up and settles in to listen. The conversation continues.]

The Color Of Money

T: A lot of FidoNet is so radically different, you can’t get people to either hear it or understand what’s going on, because it’s NOT like any of the others, and it was intentionally not made like the others, and some of the really basic principles that seem random are intentional — they’re in writing, and have been in writing for seven years. The strictly American anarchist principles that it’s based on are written into the policy documents.

We actually had in ’85, ’86, ’87 an attempted takeover by a corporation that was formed from within, it was like a cancer that became a giant boil on the surface, called IFNA, the International FidoNet Association, that was sort of a good idea, or a potentially good idea, when we started it at the 200 node level. By the time it got around to being implemented, at 500 nodes, the world had utterly changed. With 200 people, you can run it like a club. It was 90% U.S., 90% white guys with computers, and at the 500 node level, it was about 20% European and definitely, obviously growing. It hopped the puddle, with systems appearing in South America, scattered, but you know how that goes — when you get one, then you get two, and then four, and they start to grow.

We were very naive, and I was right in the middle of it. Some of us learned quickly, this isn’t going to work! But this corporation grew, and became a 501(c)(3), and like all of those things, they get power-hungry, and they get grabby of territory, and we had to fight it off, and it was fought off by the constituents of the network — and it was killed off. They had gained control of the copyright and the trademarks, and they were fought off. The network, instead of dying, like everyone predicted, thrived.

J: So how did this fight go?

T: It was fought by lawyers and proxy votes and all the usual crap, in a goddamn hotel in San Jose, was the final straw —

J: Were you a part of this corporation at all?

T: Well, a bunch of us started it — at first, we were brainstorming what we could do — deals on modems, some obvious stuff. And we’d have a spokesperson from FidoNet who’d attend the EMA meetings once a year and represent bulletin board operators and FidoNet members in electronic privacy things and the technical trade stuff and the obvious things. And those are still lacking, we still need them. But it was established really early that everyone not only retains control of their system, but they’re expected to do their part to run it, because there is no one else to run it. And as simple as it sounds, it’s a really radical act to get that across, so that people don’t just sit on their butts. And of course, the usual 10% does the work, and 90% sits on their butts, but that’s fine, too.

Double Plus Plus Good

T: FidoNet’s a little odd, unlike the Internet, which has a domain name system — you say “Connect to toad.com,” it says, “.com, okay, over there, toad — here’s the address,” and you go after it. FidoNet has what appears to be a centralized database that every system in the net has, a copy of this at the moment 2 megabyte long ASCII database, with 20,000 records in it. And it’s updated every week, it contains the full physical and logical information about the entire network — phone number, system name, restrictions on use, protocols supported, some ASCII text, like system name, and city, all that kind of junk. It contains the hierarchical addressing scheme of the network, and it contains a lot of redundancy.

J: Given that there’s no central authority, who maintains this database?

T: A local autonomous unit in FidoNet — First — the terminology in FidoNet is point-node – net-zone. Points aren’t really part of FidoNet, they’re a peculiar thing — a node is the basic unit, it is a bulletin board or a mail-only site, generally a phone number with a modem on it. A net is a cluster of Fidos, a cluster of nodes, like San Francisco has Net 125, SFBay Net, 75-80 systems. A node in a net is the basic social organizational unit. It was designed to be small enough to comprehend in regular old terms, like we all know and love, clubs and that kind of group — when they get too big they tend to fragment into pieces, which become autonomous units, then nets are collected into the real – life geography of continents.

The North American phone system is alien to the Western European ones, and they have lots of mutually-alien phone systems. The North Americans tend to be a lot less political — Zone 1 encompasses Mexico, U.S., and Canada, and nobody ever batted an eye over it. It’s like, “Oh, okay, that makes sense.” In Europe, they’re fiercely defensive of the political boundaries, and it’s really silly. Local autonomy was the critical thing to make it work, because who’s going to allow somebody in New Jersey to dictate how they’re going to run their system? There’d be no way to exert any kind of control, and once you start getting into control wars, you spend all your time doing that.

So the way the node list is made is that every net fragment makes its own chunk of the node list, which is a very straightforward task, even though it ends up being work. They’re passed up through regional coordinators who take these fragments, and everybody gets a copy of everybody else’s weekly list, and each of them compiles a giant list, then they do a difference, this week from last week, and mail out that difference back down the tree. So if you chopped off half the network and smashed it flat, it would regenerate itself. It’s a balance of terror, that’s what it is. It’s a genuine balance of terror in responsibility and power. What you get for that redundancy is that no one can cut you out of the network, no one can declare that you can’t communicate.

In the UUCP world none of this happens because the social environment is much more substantial — universities, Hewlett Packard — Your neighbors, in theory, can cut you off, and you disappear, no one knows about you, if you’re eliminated from the bang path, no one can talk to you, and that’s it, you don’t exist, it’s as simple as that.

In FidoNet, and this has happened recently in England — a bunch of religious fundamentalists by just hammering away gained control of large chunks of the FidoNet in the U.K., and they started having fits — “Why, there’s perverts on this board, and we’re not gonna have ’em in FidoNet!” And they clipped them out of the goddamn list, they removed the entries from the U.K. list. You sort of noticed they disappeared, but those people can still communicate, they can mail you their fragment, hand-generated if necessary, and all the node list processors let you incorporate private lists, and you can reply back, just like that. No one can be cut out of the network.

If you start thinking about it, you realize that there are a number of good and bad side effects from this. Like, if you have some real asshole troublemaker, there’s nothing you can do about it. Like, unless somebody comes in and pulls out a gun or something, it’s kinda hard to get someone kicked out of a more or less public place — well, [here in] the hotel would be relatively easy, but out in the street, you’ve just gotta live with your neighbors. And the same is true in the FidoNet. You have to learn to live with your neighbors, and vice versa. The flaming assholes have to learn how to behave well enough to not be utterly censured. Which is what generally happens to them — people just ignore them.

There was one guy, he was another fundamentalist Christian nut case. He was amusing, actually. He was a “true Bible” believer, this was called pre-rapture, or something or other, some pre-rapture network — he was persecuted by all sides, and he loved it. He was mailing everybody this gibberish, pages and pages of gibberish. And there’s programs that just filter out mail, and you say, I don’t wanna see mail from this address —

J: A bozofilter.

T: Yeah, basically, it’s a bozofilter, we’ve had ’em for a long time. And there’s also another one that’s called bounce — whenever you get anything from this guy, bounce it back. It appends a bit of text that says “This message is refused at site so-and-so, have it back,” which IRRITATES people! But it just works out that people, even the crazy ones are social organisms. We don’t really like to be disliked too widely, we like to have an audience, if nothing else. So that’s the underpinnings —

FidoNet has been very flexible technically. When technological changes or opportunities come by, within a year half the net supports them. In about ’85 U.S. very smartly discovered bulletin boards, and they realized the way it works is, even though there’s a relatively small number of bulletin board sysops, if you’re bulletin board caller, who do you look to to see what hardware to buy? The sysop. And they ask, “What kind of modem do you have — oh, it must be pretty good if you use it,” because when it’s bad, they mouth off to hundreds of people about it.

So USR basically courted the FidoNet, and said “What do you want to see in a modem?” The first modem they did this with was the Courier 2400, which was 600 bucks new at the time, or 700 bucks. They offered a 50% off deal, down to about 300 or 400 dollars, which was a bargain, relatively speaking. We wanted true flow control, and a symmetrical modem with basic AT command set, and they did it. It was an instant success. And then they did the HST, much to most of the industry’s annoyance, they did this kludgey proprietary asymmetrical protocol 9600 one way, 300 baud the other way — they came to us again, and we worked out more handshake stuff, and started changing protocols on our side.

FidoNet was originally based on xmodem, which is amazingly similar to X.25’s packet ack, like Kermit, only much more efficient than Kermit, and very much like UUCP-G, only it’s not windowed — block ack block ack block ack — it’s fine at 2400 baud and below, above 2400 baud it was not good. We had asymmetrical modems that collapsed. So there had been another protocol called Wazoo around, and it instantly became hot, because it did protocol negotiation when you started a session, and it could pick ZMODEM [trademark Chuck Forseberg] , which is fully-windowed, screaming fast, you can run it ackless. You could work the hell out of an HST in ways that other protocols couldn’t. Internet protocols and UUCP-G were just useless, in other words, the modem was useless for existing protocols. So FidoNet’s historically been very flexible, technology-wise.

McLuhanites: Myopia, My Opium

Ed: Are you familiar with John Quarterman? Have you seen his maps of FidoNet?

T: No, I haven’t seen his maps of FidoNet. [Quarterman did show ’em off later in the conference.] I talk to him occasionally, I republished one of his articles in FidoNews a while ago — FidoNews is a weird phenomenon in itself — a 20,000 circulation weekly newsletter in its tenth year. It sort of goes unacknowledged — FidoNet has a giant credibility problem, because it sprang forth fully-formed ‘way outside all traditional computer things, and because it works on PCs and Radio Shack Color Computers (which actually turns out to be a nice processor, it runs OS9 on a 6809 — you can run multiusers on a $99 packaged machine). It’s really some amazing software.

FidoNews was designed in ’84 in the first year as the meta-net, to discuss the net itself, to discuss the social end of the net. In the first issue was a retired Air Force colonel or something, whining about the military retirement process, and people instantly said, “This is supposed to be a technical newsletter, this is FidoNet — ” and I said, “No, bullshit, it’s not. I’m tired of just this techie crap. Do you talk on the phone about your telephone all the time? ‘Gee, I’ve got a great new phone, it’s got all these pushbuttons — ‘ and you get bored very quickly. It’s like radio amateurs talking about their goddamn antennas.” Who wants to put up with that stuff?

J: We’ve been talking about that a lot. There’s three or four magazines devoted to online cultures, cultures of the Matrix, that focus on the Internet a lot. Wired is one, Mondo in a real different way, and bOING – bOING , of course, in a REAL different way. And we realized that a lot of the articles are preoccupied with the carrier, with the technology for carrying messages, and not so much with the messages themselves or the cultures themselves, the sorts of cultures that are evolving.

T: Yeah, they forget that what we’re making is a goddamn conduit; it’s a medium, it’s not content! A content comes with it, because they’re brand new mediums, they fail a lot, and they need to be developed — all software sucks, and all hardware sucks, so you end up talking about it a lot, but yeah, that’s not the point.

J: What’s really more fascinating is what’s at either end of the conduit —

T: Yeah, the telephone proved that. It’s actually a way to convey social information, emotion, that’s why telephones worked, you can talk over them. How many ways can you say “No” with a keyboard? Not very many. 25 or 50 if you’re incredibly ingenious. Smiley faces and uppercase — All the cultural information is stripped. And a lot of it has simply been access. Those at the gates determine who comes in. If you own the $5,000 PC —

J: Is that what brings you here [to the fourth conference on Computers, Freedom, and Privacy ), access issues?

T: Yeah, that’s why I’m always skeptical of large-scale networks. While I’m on the Internet, I don’t have any pretensions of being — “Why, the world is connected!” No, one percent of one percent is connected, barely, and the tools really suck. Through no fault of the authors, they’re incredible works, the foundation to a world. But they’re hardly accessible to everyone in the world.

J: I had to buy my access to the Internet, at first. The WELL —

T: Mine I get because I’m managing a small IP cooperative, and I get it sort of as a perk to my $400 to $500 salary for what is essentially a full-time job.

J: Actually, I’ve been able to pick up other accounts since, but the only way that I could have got in in the first place was by buying access, because I’m not really very technical. My interests are more sociopolitical, I guess —

T: I don’t really have any serious problems with the way things exist. For better or worse, that’s the way that all complicated things have been developed in our little Western history timeline. It takes resources and effort and energy, and they do spread out, eventually. And they get defined along the way, they definitely have basic cultural assumptions glued into them at the very base.

J: It allows a more distributed way of organizing and doing things —

T: We’ll see if it’s ever as good as the telephone is. It doesn’t get much better than the telephone, when you think about its position in society. Like Bruce said in his Hacker Crackdown , you notice them when you don’t have one, they’re so ubiquitous, they’re like light switches. You don’t think of a telephone, it’s not an exciting object.

J: I can remember when there was a single phone in the house, and it was a big deal to have a second phone, which was usually on the same line. And now I have three phone lines, and one is a dedicated data line. I don’t think I know many people who don’t have at least two or three phones in their house.

T: I’m down to two, and I consider that rarefied — I only need two lines now, after having six at one point, all these bulletin boards and data lines, now it’s like, oh, a voice line, and a data line —

J: I prefer asynchronous text swapping, but I’m not sure why, maybe a personal idiosyncrasy. It seems funny to me, because Matisse Enzer, the support guy on the WELL — when we’re having a problem, and we can’t quite figure out how to communicate about it, he always says, “Well look, why don’t I call you up, and we’ll talk about it.” And I always say, “No, wait, I don’t wanna talk, I just wanna text !”

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