Superliteracy Redux

The following item is reprinted from “Living Off the Grid,” a protoblog that ran on Hyperstand, the website of NewMedia magazine, in 1998.

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Now that my newsgroup program maxes out at 16,000 group discussions before it’s even reached the T’s, it may be time to take another look at the Superliterate Manifesto, first published in 1979:

The history of all hitherto existing computerized communication and information systems is the history of elite access.

Those with the technical and literary skills to pay for “time” continue to perpetuate their elitist status, while the proletariat gets folded, spindled, stapled and mutilated. At best, the masses can play Pong or program their microwave ovens, while at worst their privacy is invaded with computer-generated junk mail, and their credit card accounts are forever wrong.

All human beings, regardless of class, want and need some human contact, some sense of being connected to the human race. Computerized communications systems offer a special kind of superconnectivity to old and young, “handicapped” minorities and hunt-and-peck typists alike.

All sentient beings have the inalienable right to:

A computer terminal
A private account on a communications system
Clear and well-indexed instructions on how to use that system
A telecommunications network local dial-up number
An uninterruptible power supply
A secretary of the opposite sex to organize and file the output
And three square messages a day

This document is excerpted from the Omnicon conference on “superliterate societies” that ran on the old Electronic Information Exchange System (EIES) computer network in the fall of 1979. I have always believed its author, although he would never cop to it (EIES allowed the use of pseudonyms), was J. Christopher Wells, a remarkable visionary who first swam into my ken as one of an extraordinary group of people who came and went and sometimes even took up residence at Kurt von Meier’s Diamond Sufi ranch in Napa Valley, California.

Kurt taught (and still teaches) art history and mythology at the California State University at Sacramento. In the 1970s, he rented a ruined estate in Oakville, right on the Napa river in the center of the valley, where beer barons once bred quarter horses, and at the turn of the century, John McLaren, designer of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, laid out and planted a magic garden of palms, cactus, eucalyptus and giant bamboo. To this center in the ’70s came a good cross-section of the freer spirits of the day: scientists, flute-makers and crafts people of all sorts, students, academics, artists and others who refused to let discipline blind them to the pleasures of ordinary life. Kurt set a good table, and you never knew who was going to amble down the grand but hopelessly potholed avenue of eucalyptus, ready to enjoy the quiet, beautiful ambiance of Napa Valley.

Chris was one such visitor, a rangy blond from Southern California — karate black belt, computer programmer and soi-disant “cognitive poet” who read Dante for insight into languages, both machine and natural. Upon discovering that I had written about semiconductors and computer design for Electronics magazine, he correctly assumed I would be interested in the ways computer applications affected publishing. I began to get articles in the mail: clippings, drafts of papers, and once, a transcript of an exchange about Jacques Vallée’s early computer conferencing system, Planet.

Kay Shows the Way

I found all this very interesting, but at the time I was not working in publishing and viewed all this computerization as not that much of an improvement over Telex. Then Chris took me to Xerox PARC, which I knew nothing about. Nor had I heard of Alan Kay — not since his Quiz Kid days, anyway. So, as you might imagine, I got my digital socks knocked off. Kay was our guide, and I never found out how Chris arranged that: Two bozos off the street, we were piggybacked with a German delegation and got a full tour of PARC, including demos of the Alto and an early incarnation of Ethernet, and lunch at a first-rate Palo Alto Chinese restaurant.

The clarity of Kay’s vision and the incredible progress PARC had made on the Dynabook project rekindled my interest in computers, particularly as a communication medium. And Chris was the one who made me aware of these and other possibilities. Therefore, when he raised the idea of Omnicon, an online computer conference on “superliterate societies,” I was an eager collaborator.

The idea of superliteracy demands some explanation. The name is ironic: It was not meant to imply anything superior about the practitioners of what we playfully called superliteracy. Rather, we were referring to the reality (of the time) that folks with computer terminals and dial-up connections had tools that were not then generally available to the rest of the conventionally literate public.

It was Chris who found the perfect medium for the project: Murray Turoff’s pioneering EIES network at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. EIES was a technical marvel, a self-documenting conferencing system that was exhaustively documented online. In addition, a kind of online ski patrol was always available for help. EIES had a clunky line editor and operated at 300 baud (three times as fast as telex!), but it was infallible: It never went down, and it had so many features that only Turoff knew them all. Except for graphics capability, there is nothing available on the Internet today that you couldn’t get on EIES in 1979, including voting, threaded discussions and online credit exchange. An account cost $66 per month, plus $3.75 per hour for connect time via the old Telenet.

Omni Pays the Bill

Physicist-turned-computer-scientist Turoff designed EIES and, with his collaborator, sociologist Starr Roxanne Hiltz, wrote the seminal book Network Nation, which explained the mechanisms and rewards of computer-based communication. An editor at Omni magazine read the book and convinced the Guccione empire to sponsor Omnicon — that is, pay the phone bills — in return for first crack at the transcript. Chris recruited the conferees: Ted Nelson, bard of the home-computer revolution; Wilfrid Lancaster, designer of the CIA’s SAFE system for information analysis and author of a book about it called Toward Paperless Information Systems (Academic Press, 1978); Ron Rice of Stanford and Jack Nilles of the University of Southern California, who made computer communication and personal computers their academic focus; Hiltz and Turoff, of course; and Charlton Price of the EIES development team — plus the two of us, who got free seats at the table. The assignment was to spend 10 weeks or so online, discussing the implications of the then-infant process of computer communications.

Omnicon’s entire transcript, which runs well over 100,000 words, touched on such themes as terminal access, interface, costs, bandwidth and privacy, all of which are still being discussed today. The tone was set by the Manifesto. In the continuing discussion, Hiltz warned that have-not kids would be culturally barred from using a technology that required them to type; Lancaster pointed out that remote users would eventually have a wealth of information at their fingertips; Nelson lamented that “only in games arcades do we see truly interactive computers”; Wells predicted the formation of “secure virtual organizations” that would be formed from close electronic alliances; Rice came up with the alternate notion of “superconnectivity” (rather than superliteracy); and Nilles wondered when we would see “the first telephone exchange crash because of N people playing intergalactic Dungeons and Dragons simultaneously.” Turoff recalled for us a historical example of how a new technology, the chimney flue, had helped stratify society by making it possible for lords and ladies to have private apartments instead of gathering around the common hearth. Kurt von Meier, using my account and writing under a pseudonym, offered the following trenchant example of how technical advances interact with art and commerce:

…in Florence, dateline A.D. 1401, Lorenzo Ghiberti submits a panel of bronze in the competition for the commission to do the north doors of the baptistery. Big job, half a dozen of the best artists competing. Brunelleschi designs a superior panel but uses the old technology; his cast bronze figures of Abraham and Issac have to be bolted on. Ghiberti develops a new technique, casting the whole panel all at once, thereby saving much bronze. Make ’em cheaper. So Ghiberti gets the job. Question — who is paying for it? Same-o, same-o, this Omnicon and much of the rest of the shebang. Answer: the doors were paid for by the guild of Florentine merchants, Arte di Calimala, one of the most rich and powerful, then as now. Not the church; that’s why it was the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance.

Except for Kurt’s comment, which provides the always surprising reminder that there is nothing new under the sun, we find nothing surprising in Omnicon today. We’re all superliterate now; our greatest needs are bandwidth, storage and speed, not basic services. Electronic alliances are common. No one types any more, they click and drag. A communications elite is definitely emerging. The amount of information available online makes remote research an adventure. And interactivity now extends across networks.

Enter the Marketing God

Although it correctly identified the issues, Omnicon missed the boat in one major respect: We did not see that as superliteracy, or superconnectivity, became pervasive, the Network Nation would be eclipsed by the Global Market. You may be superliterate, Bunky, but to us you’re a supercustomer — a particularly well-heeled one, in fact, with your own special demographics (which we can document to several decimal places).

Information has been part of the marketplace at least since the time of Hermes (inventor of dice and patron of gamblers and thieves) ruled both information and commerce from Mount Olympus. The theme that linked these elements had to do with setting up shop at a crossroads, ancient Greek for a network node. Today, it’s not just information, it’s intellectual property, and somebody owns it — maybe Bill Gates, maybe even you or me.

And superliteracy — that just gives you the right to roll the bones.

Chris Welles, who disappeared into the cybermist several years ago (though this report may smoke him out, breathing fire at seeing his concepts mangled thusly), fingered both aspects of online communications in Omnicon. None of us paid much attention to Welles’ “secure virtual organizations” at the time — the phrase had a pulp-fiction ring to it — but it’s clear that his vision of online commerce was on target.

Yet as the Manifesto puts it, “Computerized communications systems offer a special kind of superconnectivity,” and one has to believe that this kind of connectivity can be exploited at least as cleverly as the market. E-mail has already supplanted paper mail in many environments. And local or interest-specific bulletin boards and special-purpose networks such as the Institute for Global Communications (which gives thousands of political and ecological activists a community press) have made fostering interconnectivity their main focus. The wildly successful Usenet newsgroups have shown all types of the fruits of connectivity, from the useful and comic to the inane and borderline insane. Despite the torrent of commercial messages in which they swim, today’s superliterates are well aware that they’re superconnected as well.

The Communication Gap

Yet there has to be more. Wilf Lancaster’s paperless information systems are as far as ever from implementation outside of small secure groups. Just as businesses today are investing time, personnel and money to develop new forms of online commerce, others out there are looking to develop connectivity and communications. We have still, for instance, to see the first independent news organization. And few people are looking for ways to link network and offline communications, though these would be extremely helpful as we wait for the rest of the world to get wired and superliterate.

Communication, by its nature, requires at least two people — a concept that bears analysis. I was chagrined to find that my favorite dictionary (the American Heritage) challenges that fact. As it, in my opinion wrongly, defines the word, communication means “to convey information about, make known.” It goes on to define communication as “transmission.”

This is indeed common usage, and as lexicographers, the editors of the dictionary had no choice but to report it. They might well, however, have submitted this item to their language experts, who at various places do their bit to stem the tide of word corruption. Because anyone can see from the root, common, that at least two entities must be involved. Communication is the act of making something common.

Maybe we need a new Omnicon for the ’90s on superconnection and supercommunication. Now that we’re all — or at least the more privileged among us — wired up, who are the folks creating new forms? Nominations for participants in such an online conference are welcome at this address. Let’s smoke out some new action.

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