A NORMATIVE VIEW OF NETWORKING APPLICATIONS

by

Murray Turoff and Starr Roxanne Hiltz

Department of Computer and Information Science
New Jersey Institute of Technology
University Heights
Newark NJ, 07102
Tel: 201 596 3399

Prepared for workshop:

Rights and Responsibilities of Participants in Networked Communities
Computer science and Telecommunications Board
National Research Council (NRC)
November 5-6, 1992

REVISED
November, 1992

ABSTRACT: An examination of the desirable objectives of networking technology for society is utilized as a framework to examine the potential rights and responsibilities of carriers, service providers, and users. The major application areas of electronic marketplaces, education and training, and grassroots political action are discussed in detail.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT: There are considerable excerpts in this paper of material from the newly revised edition of "The Network Nation" (by Hiltz and Turoff) to be released in early 1993 by MIT Press.

INHABITED GARDEN

by Goethe

The world is so empty
If one thinks only of
mountains, rivers, and cities;
But to know someone
who thinks and feels with us,
and who, though distant
is close to us in spirit,
This makes the earth for us
an inhabited Garden

CONTENTS

THE TECHNOLOGY
THE OBJECTIVE
THE ENVIRONMENT
THE APPLICATIONS
Uses for Democracy
The Electronic Marketplace
Education and Training
THE ETHICS OF SERVICE DELIVERY
SUMMARY
REFERENCES


THE TECHNOLOGY

Computer Mediated Communications to support human networking takes on many different names.

Over the past two decades a long list of names has been utilized to characterize the technology whereby material in digital form is communicated among human users:

E-mail
Teamware
Groupware
Networking
Message Systems
Teleconferencing
Electronic Publishing
Coordination Systems (CS)
Collaborative Systems (CS)
Bulletin Board Systems (BBS)
Electronic Mail Systems (EMS)
Electronic Meeting Systems(EMS)
Computer Conferencing Systems (CCS)
Group Decision Support Systems (GDSS)
Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW)
Computer Mediated Communication Systems (CMCS)

All these types of systems have one thing in common: they are designed with the objective of utilizing the computer to aid in the process of facilitating human communications. The reason for the proliferation of terms is that the high degree of commercialization of the field encourages the invention of new names for the same concept. The oldest terms are Message Systems and Computer Conferencing Systems, which go back to about 1970 (Turoff, 1972; Hiltz and Turoff, 1975). The most popular term today is "e-mail" and the most appropriate, in our view, is Computer Mediated Communications, as a term that includes all other forms and claimed differences (Kerr and Hiltz, 1982; Turoff, 1989; Hiltz and Turoff, 1993).

As a society and a culture we often seek to visualize a new technology in the context of existing understandings. We initially referred to the automobile as the "horseless carriage," and today we often refer to applications of digital communications among people as "electronic mail." Our tendency to consider evolving technologies in the light of the extrapolation of current trends often blinds us to developing normative viewpoints that would be more appropriate for understanding the potential benefits of the technology for society. That "electronic mail" and "e-mail" are the most popular names for this technology results from the fact that it is easier to sell a computer based application to a community of users when it is made to sound like a mere automation of something they are already doing. Users are thus led to believe that using the computer for communications is merely a faster way of sending an internal memo and or a post office letter. In fact, many systems are designed to do only the things that one does with letters or internal memos, so that users will never become aware that there is far more the technology can offer (Turoff, 1991).

Some metaphors are notorious for conveying a bias as to the potential role of the technology within the society, its industry position, and relevant laws. Examples of this are the terms "teleconferencing" and "electronic publishing" that have often been applied to this area. The former term conveys the impression that phone companies should be the offerers; the latter that CMC belongs to the publishing industry.

These limited viewpoints and analogies influence the perceptions of decision makers about the potential of the technology within their organizations and of policy makers about the role of the technology in society. They are also one reason why most attempts at commercialization have fallen far short of the glamorous predictions that have ushered in public offerings of the technology. CMC is a unique medium of communication, with its own social impacts and a need for laws and policies tailored for it, not "borrowed" from older media. There are numerous attempts to apply the metaphors of existing industries to describe the overlapping functions of computers and communications (e.g., publishing, common carriers, distribution, warehousing, etc.). There is considerable danger in attempting to extrapolate the future from existing institutional viewpoints when there is every reason to believe there will be major changes in current industry structure and in the requirements for policy and regulation. What is needed is a view of what should be as opposed to what has been.

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THE OBJECTIVE

It is not the current trends, but the changes that will be introduced by the technology that will result in the principal impacts on society. No one contemplated that the automobile would change the geography of urban American and radically alter the social and demographic patterns of marriage. For the area of digital communications there are a number of normative assumptions about the future of this technology that set the stage for understanding its implications, and for how we need to view it today if we are to gain the long term benefits it has to offer society.

Networking is a technology for citizen and public utilization.

Today's environment is largely characterized by commercial applications of the technology and not by public ones. It is like trying to understand the implications of the impact of automobiles on society by studying the role and function of trucks and buses. One has to start with an assumption that in the long run the principal application of networking will be for the average citizen and the public at large. Digital based networking will become as widespread as the phone. It will be viewed as necessary for a citizen in a democratic society, as the telephone and television are viewed today (Hiltz and Turoff, 1978).

No government agency would survive long if it took actions that prevented reasonable access by citizens to telephones. Yet when it comes to digital communications, there is often an unspoken assumption in the minds of those concerned with the policies and regulations governing communications that the major use of this technology is the commercial sector of the economy.

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THE ENVIRONMENT

The cost of communicating information in networks is more or less a linear function of the amount of information.

When we publish information in a physical form such as a book, there are considerable economies of scale. It would cost almost as much to produce a 10 page book as a 100 page book. Also, producing thousands of books makes a single book considerably cheaper than producing say ten books. Consequently, we have a publishing or information industry that is based upon volume publishing. In a digital environment the cost of conveying a single recipe is roughly 1/100 of the cost of conveying a book of 100 recipes. This presents a tremendous opportunity for a demand flow of selective information and an information industry that is based upon relatively different economic principles.

An obvious consequence is that volume discounts are inherently unfair because they give organizations an advantage based upon their size. As a result, the current pricing structure for digital communications inhibits entry by individuals and small business as well as by non-profit institutions such as schools. The establishment of thresholds for entry into the service as a provider of information, rather than a consumer, is also inconsistent with any normative view of networking as a public technology. The concept that super organizations can be created that pool resources for smaller organizations is just another mechanism for perpetuating the inequality by introducing additional levels of bureaucracy, administration, and associated costs.

Since the first introduction of commercial digital network services, the actual dollar cost per service unit as priced to an individual has remained about the same (less of course when corrected for inflation). The cost of communications has not fallen as fast as the cost of processing information, nor reflected the claims made for future pricing when services such as Telenet were first introduced.

The capital investment necessary to provide a communication structuring and information service has become less than the yearly salary of an employee.

Anyone can operate a bulletin board off of a personal computer; however, the declining price of the technology of computers means that for under $20,000 capital costs today one can offer a far more sophisticated asynchronous conference service for hundreds of users. These systems can provide support for private and public group communication facilities tailored to specific groups and specific applications. In principle anyone could operate such a system out of their home. The only current limitation is the cost of tying such a small scale installation into a wide area digital network.

The three very distinct levels of application support for this technology provide the following:

Only the carrier provider function requires sizable capital investment. The other two roles require no more than a computer system of modest size. As a result it becomes obvious that there should be the least possible restriction on entry for becoming an information or service provider. Currently these industries are dominated by large organizations. However, with today's technology an individual wishing, for example, to set up a computer in the garage to operate a bridge playing network for a thousand fanatic bridge players around the country, is inhibited only by the need to bear the costs of interfacing the system to a national common carrier data network. With the existence of volume discounts the unit cost of doing so is much higher for an individual than it is for a system that has hundreds of thousands of users. The small provider might have implemented a better bridge game service but has no way to effectively compete.

The users of a networking service should have all the facilities to perform as information providers.

Service Providers are potentially very small businesses and/or cottage industries.

Service Providers provide communication structures, information organization and retrieval, and formatting.

Receivers can tailor what they want to obtain and how they want it to look.

Given a true free enterprise structure with no economic inhibitions to entry, the information industry in this country could become a major cottage industry.

Most of the commercial ventures that have offered digital communications to the public have assumed that the model underlying this service will be the same publishing model that reflects our current publications industry. There is a separation in the mental model of those in the industry between the public as consumers of information and organizations as the "information providers." As a result, one must be a large organization, able to make significant capital investments, to be able to offer information and receive revenue from the users who utilize the information. There is no mechanism provided whereby a single user can market a single item of information (e.g., a poem, a recipe, a short story, a news article, etc.) and make choices about charges for that item.

In sum, even though the economics of distribution in a digital communications network are largely insensitive to economies of scale, the market mechanisms offered by service providers practically prevent individual entry into the marketing of information. This is a classic example of how our traditional understandings of the publication process are completely at odds with the opportunities offered by digital communications.

In the long run, networking technology will provide more power and opportunity for the creators of information, e.g., authors, writers, etc. The role and function of distribution will be a much smaller part of the total cost than it is today. The search capabilities of computers will also make advertisement a less important component of the sales process.

The situation is similar to that for the energy industry a decade ago. At that time it was impossible for small energy providers to gain access to the energy grids operated by the major utility companies. The costs of connecting a small computer to a national network are today prohibitive for trying to provide an information service for a few hundred individuals. This is due more to access and pricing policies than to any justification based upon the real cost of the technology.

Digital communications capacity will always be a scarce resource in that there will always be new applications to take advantage of additional capacity and lower prices. The serious issue for the society is equality of access to communications capacity without regard to financial inequalities.

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THE APPLICATIONS

To understand the fundamental implications of CMC technology we have to understand why it differs from other technologies of communication:

In networking the content of a communication can be the address.

The presence of the ability to process information as an integral part of the communication loop means that the sender does not have to know who the recipients are in order to send a communication to those who are interested in reading it. For example, one may send a communication to a topic (as illustrated in a bulletin board or computer conference devoted to the topic) and anyone interested in that subject may choose to view the communication.

No matter how small the group sharing a common interest, within the context of a regional, national, or international network, it becomes possible for that small group to find one another and to communicate regularly. This can be done on an extremely inexpensive basis. The ability of individuals to form groups around common interests on a computer network in a quick, inexpensive manner far exceeds any other way of doing this, with respect to both speed and cost. In studies of the effectiveness of networking it has been shown that people find productivity gains result from being able to communicate with people they discovered on the network and not from communicating with the people they already knew (Hiltz, 1984; 1986).

There is no limit to the type of group that might utilize networking capabilities.

Groups as diverse as the American Sunbathing Association and the American Nazi party have their own bulletin boards, along with amateur astronomers, fans of The Grateful Dead, and countless other organizations. There are probably anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 bulletin board systems today; a figure that nobody knows accurately, and which changes daily. In most U. S. high schools, there are a number of BBSs run by students. Anyone with a PC and a modem can decide to become a "sysop" and open up their system for discussion on whatever topics they like. Electronic mail is also used to create nationwide and worldwide forums and organizations. For example, Earthtrust, a nonprofit organization set up to deal with international wildlife protection and environmental problems, uses electronic mail to organize its international programs, which have included shutting down Korea's illegal whaling operations and work against deep-sea gillnetting fleets (White, 1988).

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Uses for Democracy

On the Internet, which can be used free by anybody with a valid account at one of the member universities, news groups and mailing lists can be established on almost any topic, and can see exponential growth. For instance, during the Tiananmen Square incident in China, there was a general "news blackout" imposed by the Chinese government. However, students and observers in the area were using portable computers and telephones to upload eyewitness accounts that were fed into the Internet and broadcast to and reacted to by tens of thousands of people around the world. The only way a government can stymie this kind of effort is to shut down its own telephone system, nationwide, plus cut all its computer network ties to the outside world. Even then, packet switched radio can be used to get the information out.

Citizens of Santa Monica can log onto a version of a computer conferencing system called the Public Electronic Network (or PEN), either from their personal computers or from public terminals at the city's main library and in other locations. The system has become a relatively egalitarian meeting ground where citizens can debate issues with one another and talk to public officials (Varley, 1991). Topics of discussion range from serious public issues, such as abortion, to the trivial and the tawdry.

In a column on "Political activity and international computer networks" in the Communications of the ACM (February 1992, p. 174), S. E. Goodman reports on the use of the international email networks to send and redistribute many political messages, both during the attempted coup in the Soviet Union in August 1991, and from Serbs and Croatians in the Yugoslavian civil war. One senior Serbian computer scientist, unhappy that his side is portrayed as "the bad guys" much of the time, formally protested that the European Academic Research Network (EARN), which was the location of much of this politically oriented message traffic, was being inappropriately used for political purposes.

EARN does have an explicit code of conduct that states that "the use of the network for political and religious activities is forbidden." The U. S. corporation that manages Bitnet and CSNet, also has an "acceptable use policy" that states that the networks are to be used (only) to "facilitate the exchange of information consistent with the academic, educational, and research purposes of its members." So far, such use has not actually been punished by banishment from the networks. However, Goodman and others raise the question, "Should such use be condemned or discouraged?" For those who are afraid of genuine freedom of speech, and of grassroots citizen participation, the answer is probably, yes.

Another potential barrier to electronic democracy using CMC is considerable concern in established power structures that direct citizen participation would be a dangerous weakening of the "representative" system of government on which the U. S. structure is built. This system is built on indirect participation; the citizens elect representatives, who then actually make the laws and decisions as they see best. The possibility of more political groups being able to organize, perhaps to the point of getting specific referenda instituted (and thus bypassing the traditional legislative and administrative branches of government), is quite frightening to those who believe that citizens cannot be trusted with this power. And of course, it is a direct threat to those who hold the jobs in the legislative and executive branches of government.

It is this expansion of our personal and working relationships that leads to the significant impacts on individuals, groups, and organizations with respect to both the quality of the results and the speed at which human networks can form and act within the technology of networking. This ability to "network" among larger groupings of individuals and to make any link available when needed is the heart of the idea of "superconnectivity" (Hiltz and Turoff, 1993). However many people a person can communicate with as part of a working group through the use of face-to-face meetings and phones, the introduction of CMC potentially expands the size of the coordinated group effort by fivefold to tenfold, or more.

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The Electronic Marketplace

Today, most established brokerage and marketplace systems (e.g., stock, commodity, transport leasing, etc.) have become highly automated with respect to the establishment and tracking of transactions. However, the real potential is for public marketplace systems that allow universal entry. A good example would be real-estate transactions or manuscript publication. The economics are such that there is no need to publish a whole book; an electronic network can publish a single poem, recipe, short story, editorial, or professional paper with a fair market transaction cost between buyer and seller. The fact that dramatic changes in the marketplace for information are now economically possible is evident in the various political lobbying activities of communication, banking, computer, and publishing companies to try to influence the future by new legislation or changes in regulatory policies. An electronic marketplace would provide the advertising, the delivery of information, and the financial transaction services associated with buying and selling. As a result, networks could cut across traditionally separated industries.

One of the greatest potential benefits of this technology for society lies in the ability to provide a true free and open electronic marketplace.

Underlying the theories of a free economy is the hidden premise that information can flow freely. This is the concept that a buyer is aware of all the relevant information needed to make an appropriate decision on a purchase. Most of the problems we have with our free market system ultimately expose difficulties with this occurring in the real world. In an open electronic marketplace, where any buyer can be an information provider, we can go a long way toward eliminating problems having to do with the free flow of information. For example, in the pilot system developed at NJIT in the eighties (Turoff, 1985), anyone purchasing information could attach to the seller's advertisement a comment on whether or not they thought the purchase was worth the money. This added information could not be removed by the seller.

One amusing recent example of an electronic market is the London Stock Exchange. They put in an electronic marketplace for the exchange of buy and sell offers. This is, after all, a highly structured form of group communications that allows thousands to engage in a marketplace. Simultaneously, they spent a lot of money to fix up and wire the physical floor so everyone could get together in one place to utilize this electronic marketplace in the same manner as they had always done. However, within a year the physical market floor has become deserted, with traders preferring to use their desk based workstations. It may take the Americans a little longer than the British to break with traditions, but already many types of commercial marketplaces are becoming computerized. However, most of these are for preexisting commercial groups. For example, there are several bid and barter systems provided for various export-import communities. As yet, there are no real examples of large scale public oriented marketplace systems, except a few underground type bulletin boards for the exchange of services.

Electronic marketplaces open to the public will be one of the biggest societal applications of this technology at some point in the future. A real estate listing service will probably be one of the major applications of this technology. Such a system would allow buyers and sellers to find one another without the use of intermediaries. Electronic marketplaces are also an application area that will have a very profound impact upon society. In essence, they eliminate the need for large marketing budgets. When the buyer can selectively retrieve advertisements of interest, there is no longer a need for "mass" marketing and large sales forces. This means that new products could be brought to market for far less than is now possible, and without the large marketing budgets that only very large organizations can afford. Electronic Marketplaces offer the opportunity to lower the entry barriers to small scale entrepreneurship, and to reverse the trend of greater concentration of wealth in fewer and larger organizations.

The technology offers the opportunity for group facilitators and information brokers to be able to sell their talents.

In the process of facilitating groups and their ability to obtain information, we have the opportunity for new human roles in the process of group efforts and in synthesizing information resources. In order to realize such a potential, software has to be designed and implemented which provides individuals the ability to take on coordination and regulation roles in a group process (Turoff, 1991; e.g., just as we have committee chairs). Network providers have to establish these capabilities in their service offerings to allow this to take place. There is a host of new professional jobs possible in this environment and it is impossible to predict them all at this time.

The cost of distributing information will become much less than the cost of creating it.

The value of fixed information will decline greatly.

Those individuals and organizations that are responsible for creating the information will have more direct control over the distribution and obtain a greater share of the value. The cost of distribution will become less than the cost of production of the information. Today, this is not true for the hard copy methods of distribution. Typically an author will get ten to twenty percent of the resulting sale price of a book. In a digital network form of distribution the author should be getting more like eighty percent of the proceeds.. The cost for producing a few hundred copies of a CD-ROM can be as little as a few dollars today. With the ability to write CD-ROMS available on every personal computer in the near future there will be a new cottage industry in the creation, organization, and distribution of information.

The effective use of networking often means employing new methods in carrying out tasks.

Let's take the example of the Newspaper. In the network environment information seekers can indicate a profile for news stories to be received on some sort of regular basis and have a tailored newspaper generated from a variety of content suppliers. Furthermore, they can enter a selective search such as "who within ten miles of my home is offering dress shirts at under X dollars?" There is no need to scan a hundred different advertisements. The digital network completely eliminates the classical model of a newspaper. If one considers newspapers, magazines, and publishing as the "warehouse" function of information flow, then digital networking is likely to do the same thing to this industry that computer based inventory systems did to the manufacturing warehousing industry in this country. That industry, today, is only a shadow of what it once was.

There will be roles for individuals and small organizations that act as information "gatekeepers" and "brokers." Those who are able to organize and filter information for the benefit of others will take on the functions of what newspapers and magazines provide today. However, the value for the service will come from the cognitive talents of a small number of individuals and not from the tonnage of physical paper set in motion.

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Education and Training

One major application by which CMC will be introduced to large populations of users is education and training (Harasim, 1989; Harasim, et. el., 1993; Hiltz, 1986; Hiltz, 1990; Hiltz, 1993). Not only are colleges and universities rapidly introducing the use of CMC systems to provide remote or distance education, but several public school systems have started to introduce the idea of a personal computer for every student, and message and bulletin board capabilities to tie the students and teachers together into a network. Furthermore, the use of CMC for training offers no obvious threat to the current power and authority structure in organizations, and thereby provides an easy entry mechanism for the technology on an organizational wide basis.

One of the greatest potential benefits for the future lies in putting personal computers and networking in the hands of public school age students.

We hear the occasional news item about a grammar school class in the U. S. using a message system to communicate with a grammar school class in Russia. These cute human interest stories almost disguise the significance of what is taking place. With networking technology there is no human experience that cannot be brought into the classroom. The class can touch the minds and experiences of those in other cultures. The teacher becomes a facilitator to other worlds of knowledge. In order for educators to make use of this technology, specialized communication facilities are needed for the teacher to play the role of facilitating education.

The technology provides the opportunity to carry out some educational experiences in a more effective manner than is possible in the face to face environment. If the teacher chooses to employ collaborative learning methods and encourages students to learn as a group undertaking, this proves to be easier to accomplish in the networking environment. In order to accomplish effective use of the technology for learning, the teacher must undertake to learn new methods of teaching. This a generalization that applies to almost any area of network application.

If we accept the normative view that this is a technology for use by the public, or even if we only conclude that it will become a common part of the work environment, then it becomes obvious that this is a technology that people should master at an early age. If we further understand the limitations of current teaching approaches and the gains that may be made through collaborative learning and home access by students to networks, it becomes clear that this technology offers an opportunity for dramatic improvement in the educational process.

If there is a metaphor to be used in this context it is the view of educational networking as a new type of public library facility for any one who wishes to learn or to be trained, regardless of age or economic condition. This is perhaps the area where the most can be accomplished with public funds in the shortest space of time.

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THE ETHICS OF SERVICE DELIVERY

Ownership and censorship are key issues in the operation of networking services.

The first and foremost issue is that of ownership. Who owns the material entered in a group communication space? Clearly, if you are working as an employee and you put your comment in a conference run by your employer, it is the property of the employer. However, beyond that basic fact, very little else is clear. Many public computer utilities view anything you enter in the service they provide, and for which you pay, as their property. Many of them also feel free to impose censorship upon your material. While one could argue the merit of this for pornographic material, often censorship is applied to material such as talking about how a competitor's service is better! For example, Prodigy, one of the largest commercial CMC services, regards their Service as essentially a "magazine," over which they exert editorial control. When users protested this, the management responded by removing the discussion. When the protesters tried to use electronic mail as a substitute for a forum, utilizing large mailing lists, Prodigy placed a limit on the number of messages each individual could send (Kapor, 1991, p. 162).

What we have felt for many years are the minimum ethical and policy guidelines for service providers of networking and moderators of group communication facilities (Hiltz and Turoff, 1978, 1993) are:

There are some very important guidelines for service users as well. Some of these are a function of specific capabilities that the network offers. For example, an important capability is the provision of anonymity or the use of pen names. This has a number of advantages in allowing free and open discussion on sensitive issues, and encouraging people to offer experiences without embarrassing themselves or the organizations they are associated with. For example a manager can provide case histories of bad decision situations without identifying the company, by employing anonymity. However, anonymity and pen-names can also be abused.