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DIAC 92 - Report

DIAC '92 - Report

This report Copyright (C) 1992 by Fen Labalme. You may use, share or modify all or any part of this, but may not restrict others from doing the same.

DIAC 92 (a conference on the Directions and Implications of Advanced Computing) was sponsored by the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), and co-sponsored by the American Association for Artificial Intelligence (AAAI), the IEEE Society for Social Implications of Technology, and the Boston Computer Society Social Impact Group, in cooperation with the ACM SIGCHI and ACM SIGCAS.

I first heard about DIAC while attending a AAAI conference in Seattle in 1987. I wanted to check it out, but for some reason I didn't. It's too bad - amid all the glitz and glamour that AI tries to promise, I'm glad that there are people who are concerned about how that technology is used!

DIAC 92 was held on the U.C. Berkeley Campus on May 2 and 3, and was chaired by Doug Schuler. My primary contact was Judi Clark, the volunteer coordinator.

Doug Schuler opened the conference with a call for activism, saying that this conference would best be attended as a sort of "research symposium" at which issues could be raised and solutions worked out. He set the mood by saying "knowledge is necessary for social change, but it is not sufficient."

John Coate presented the opening talk, describing himself and an "Inn-keeper in Cyberspace". His talk focused primarily upon the "virtual village" - what they are, who goes there and why, what are the laws and social mores, and how to create a pleasant and sustainable culture within this virtual community.

John spent a portion of his talk discussing the rights and responsibilities of those who inhabit or host this on-line world. He said that these are the early days (of the electronic frontier) and that we must make the rules or else some larger, impersonal institutions will, and then we will be compelled to play by their rules.

Talking about the future, John warned that "humanity must dominate technology and never the other way around." He feels that these networks could become (on the down-side) just another "techno-pacifier," but that we can instead "build into these networks a pervasive community spirit that invigorates our society at every level, from local to global, with a new democratic awareness."

The second presentation was by Linda Parry and Robert Wharton of the University of Minnesota. They presented the results of current research that show that, while males tend today to use computers more in every setting, it appears that the trend is toward greater homogeneity, and thus that computer training should go to all, and all will benefit from this.

Hal Sackman of the California State University at Los Angeles gave the third talk on some of the occupational hazards of computer workstations, primarily concentrating on musculoskeletal disorders, visual complications, EMF radiation, and psychoneuroimmunological (PNI) stress. I found that this talk missed some important social hazards of computers, such as information overload, hyperactivity, impersonalization, and forced conformity. However, Mr. Sackman made several good points around his hypothesis that information system design is equivalent to social system design, though I only accept this within a narrow scope, also.

Pavel Curtis of Xerox PARC gave the final talk of the morning on the social phenomena of MUDDING. A MUD is a shared, text-based virtual world which provides to it's users (inhabitants?) a place to go and interact with others with complete anonymity as they explore an adventure-like space. His talk was fast and fun, and was very well received. I suspect that he intrigued more than a few of the audience into exploring the MUD first hand!

I shared lunch in Berkeley with Mitch Ratcliffe of MacWeek, Matisse Enzer, the sysop of the WELL, and Rick Crawford from U.C. Davis, with whom I have interacted on-line regarding the Cultural Environmental Movement, but had never before met! We discussed on-line cultures and the economics of information over a network. Pavel Curtis had collected about 10 people interested in MUDs and they were all at the next table. It's a sign of a good conference when people get together in-between to continue their discussions and further explore their interests!

After lunch, Carl Farrington and Evelyn Pine gave a presentation on the Community Memory Project. Community Memory places terminal kiosks in libraries, laundromats, and other public locations, and encourages "drop-ins" by not requiring registration and supporting anonymity and complete freedom of speech. A goal of the project is to reach the homeless and at-risk youth.

The Community Memory system follows a database model rather than a conversational one, as do many BBSs. This further facilitates "drop-ins" by allowing easy access to information on any subject without having to follow long threads of conversation. The majority of users have no computer at home or work, use public transport, and are rarely spokespeople or opinion-makers (though some become that once they "find their voice..."), and many are anarchists of one sort or another. I find the Community Memory project to be one of the more exciting experiments in the future of social interactions with computers.

Next came a panel discussion on the funding of computer science R&D. Moderated by Mike Ubell (DEC) the panelists included Joel Yudken (Rutgers), Mike Harrison (U.C. Berkeley) and Gary Chapman (21st Century Project, CPSR).

Joel started things off by telling us that CS R&D has enjoyed the fastest growing (research) grants from federal funding over the last 16 years, and that the high performance computing initiative is slated to get the lion's share in the near future.

Mike picked it up with what he termed his "unauthorized DoD viewpoint." He started by asking the questions "Who is the enemy?", "What type of conflict will we engage in?" and "How are we to prepare?" Another way of asking this is "What strategic advantage does the U.S. enjoy?" and his answer was "Information Technology!"

Gary, taking a different perspective, suggested that our priorities were badly skewed - that our resources are being dedicated in areas that do not help society in general. Further, he stated that scientists do indeed have a moral imperative to move their research in a direction that helps the world, and not just to go along with the directions set by the DoD, or anyone else, for that matter!

It was during this discussion that I got my first impression of the (dare I say it?) political makeup of the audience. It was clear to me upon arriving at the conference that I was surrounded by a hundred or so computer professionals. As it is at many other (technical) conference I had been to, I suppose that I expected them to be of a conservative leaning sort, even though I saw several people who I knew to be in line with my personal beliefs, that is, concerned with the social implications of the technology.

In any case, I began to suspect something during Mike's talk as the audience nodded their agreement at the mis-guided priorities, and it all became clear as the audience vigorously displayed their agreement to Gary's statements. Such displays of concern and enthusiasm I was not prepared for, and it gave me a really good feeling that so much brainpower was so very concerned! There was something very positive happening here!

After the afternoon break (did I mention that the breaks had especially good munchies?) came another panel discussion on virtual societies and virtual communities. Moderated by Michael Travers (MIT Media Lab), the panelists included Susan Irwin, Pavel Curtis (both from Xerox PARC), John Barlow (EFF) and Allucquere Rosanne Stone (U.C. San Diego).

Susan showed us a video of "media-space", an experimental distributed work environment set up between Xerox PARK and a Xerox lab in (Oregon?). The point of this project was to see if normal "hallway-style" work interactions could occur while being geographically distributed, but with a full-time two-way video and voice link in a central common area.

John Barlow was up next and helped to point out that while interactions (with the media-space experiment) were possible, that they were not anywhere near as "normal" as face-to-face interactions, or, as he quoted Bruce Sterling as saying, "It isn't exactly an Amish barn-raising in there!"

Pavel noted that people MUD to "reach out and communicate with others of like mind." He also broached the subject of computer addiction, and noted that this was a different sort of addiction, because it was not a complete retreat from people, but rather an addiction to communicating.

Allucquere talked of the social aspects of phone sex, commenting that people create desire and other emotions over this "emotionless" medium.

In the lively discussion that followed, there was some interesting philosophical questions raised regarding the social and political ramifications of virtual communities, specifically noting that there are three sorts of links made between the concepts of "self" and "physical body":

  1. multiple selves within a single body (e.g., a corporation)
  2. multiple personalities outside a body (a virtual network)
  3. multiple selves within many bodies (a MUD)
At which point someone asked the question "how will political power affect a nationalistic self that can't be connected to a single body?"

Another point that was made was "centralized control is on the way out." I just hope that this is truth!

--- Sunday ---

The parallel workshops of Sunday were perhaps a bit frustrating, as there were so many good subjects to cover, and only so much time in which to cover them.

The first workshop that I attended was presented by the Peace and Justice working group of CPSR/Berkeley. The goal of this workshop was to comment upon a "computer and information technologies platform" which was to be presented to CPSR and other organizations for consideration and adoption.

This WG was well set up, with each participant being given a copy of the platform with the text on the left column and the right column blank for comments. These copies were then collected at the end for the benefit of the framers of the platform - a good idea!

The basic goals of the platform are education, consciousness raising, public involvement in deciding what gets researched and funded, and equal access. I added the empowerment of people as a basic goal.

The next workshop was presented by Lee Felsenstein (Steve Sawyer couldn't make it). Lee talked at length about the definitions of hacker and hacking, proposing at length that "a hacker is someone who relates to technology as a form of play." He and Steve want to set up a Hacker's League, but it was not completely clear for what reason, and what the benefits would be. More information is available on the WELL (g hack, s 151), and I might go there to check it out.

For the first part of the final workshop session I went to Peter Miller's talk on the community computing movement, specifically with regard to some projects in and around Boston. I was hoping to learn some more about Dave Gifford's filtered New York Times experiment, but was instead greeted by a talk on a much more grass roots level, which was at once heartening to hear of such activity and outreach, and personally disappointing.

So I moved over to Richard Civille's talk on designing local civic networks. Richard talked about various public access technologies, and the need for open-ended design that would support both free and fee-based information sources across multiple media and mediums. It appears to me that Richard has got the right ideas - the next step is to get them implemented and people using them!

The conference ended with a panel discussion open to the public. It appeared to me that all the panelists agreed that technology is powerful, that it can facilitate bad as well as good, and that as kids pass by their parents at increasingly younger ages, that we assure them a society to grow into in which their individuality is promoted and the free expression of their ideas is still allowed.

Fen Labalme
40 Carl Street #4
San Francisco, CA 94117

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