December 12, 2006

The Moose is On the Loose and a little Usenet History

Category: Academic,Books/Articles,Hackers,Liberalism — Biella @ 11:11 am

So I am back to le study of le hackers, trying to write a super-secret paper that I will present in January and then of course I am back with and to my beloved book (which for now has the following title: “Freedom’s Pleasures: Hacker Practice And The Limits of Liberalism” but I am sure it will morph, endlessly).

As part of my transition I just finished re-reading one of my favorite articles on the history of Usenet: If I want it, itís OK: Usenet and the (outer) limits of free speech by B. Pfaffenberger (available here for download.

When I released one of my dissertation chapters where I addressed the phenomenon of the Cabal, Bryan was nice enough to write me and point me to his article, which also examines the existence of Backbone Usenet Cabal.

The artile, which provides just the right mix of history and commentary, analyzes how a free speech ethic came to be valued on Usenet and the ways in which technological and social factors co-mingled to facilitate and dampen the free flow of expression.

You are provided with classic Usenet quotes like:

Usenet is like a herd of performing elephants with diarrhea–massive, diffi-
cult to redirect, awe-inspiring, entertaining, and a source of mind-boggling
amounts of excrement when you least expect it. (Spafford, 1993b)

You learn about the early attempts to control spam by the likes of “CancelMoose:”

In 1995, a secret, shadowy figure known as the CancelMoose
devised a spam-canceling program called a cancelbot.”

And then in the end, he provides his challeng to one of the dominant STS theories of the time, SCOT:

“It should be noted that this picture is at odds with the predictions of the social construc-
tion of technology (SCOT) theory (Pinch & Bijker, 1987), in which the outcome of a period
of technical controversy is ascribed solely to social factors. Underlying SCOTís dogmatism
is a justifiable aversion to technological determinism, the doctrine that a technologyís con-
tent leads irresistably to predictable social consequences– a doctrine that is simply the re-
verse of SCOTís insistence on social causation. Two wrongs, as we were taught in kinder-
garten, do not make a right. What we see in the history of Usenet is a contingent outcome
that is shaped neither exclusively by social nor by technical factors, but rather is best under-
stood as a long process in which contesting groups attempt to mold and shape the technol-
ogy to suit their ends–sometimes successfully, and sometimes not. They are as likely to be
blindsided by technological developments as they were to succeed in changing the system
to meet their ends. As this article attests, it is one thing to create new technologies with a
coherent social vision, and it is quite another to control the way it grows and develops.”

I could not agree with him more. I think what he is highlighting is that if we dip into the historical record, we have instances in which technology can trump the social and vice-versa (and often instead it is a co-mixture), so in the end, understanding the impact of technologies is less about theories of technology and more of a historical question…

1 Comment »

  1. Thanks for the pointer to this. It’s a good read.

    Comment by mako — December 12, 2006 @ 8:29 pm

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