17.248 critical reflections on publishing, narratives and plagues

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Mon Sep 15 2003 - 02:00:39 EDT

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 248.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                         Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

       [1] From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk> (41)
             Subject: more critical reflections

       [2] From: Adrian Miles <adrian.miles@rmit.edu.au> (26)
             Subject: Re: 17.243 critical reflections on publishing

       [3] From: Norman Gray <norman@astro.gla.ac.uk> (53)
             Subject: Re: 17.244 narratives and plagues

             Date: Mon, 15 Sep 2003 06:55:53 +0100
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: more critical reflections

    While I appreciate the need for security of computing systems (as of my
    home, office and so on), making security the first concern does not have an
    encouraging history. The tighter the controls the less the liberty to do
    anything new, unusual, interesting. I realise that extreme control, except
    in a totalitarian state, is not at issue. But control calls for judgement
    about what to allow, and all too often those in academic computing centres
    who make the judgements have little understanding of the academic way of
    life their services are meant to support. To this day, for example, some of
    those in computing centres appear to assume that people do their work in
    offices during office hours, and so services can be controlled on the basis
    of IP addresses assigned to the institution in question. That simply does
    not fit the way academics work.

    Years ago, when I first heard about the Web, I made enquiries with my main
    institutional computing centre (where I had worked for years) about getting
    access to the trial Web server it had set up. I was an enthusiastic gopher
    architect at the time, like my friend Bob Kraft, but was feeling a bit
    confined by the technical limitations of gopher. Fine, my friends and
    former colleagues in the centre said, let's set up an account for you and
    we'll see what happens. Then the security man found out about this, wrote
    to me and asked for the fixed IP address of my office machine. I explained
    that as my job did not permit such playing around (I was then employed in a
    non-academic position), I had to work from home. These were the days of
    what we now quaintly call "narrowband", i.e. dial-up only, and so no fixed
    IP. The security man said, sorry, no fixed IP, no Web account, because we
    have to keep our system secure. End of conversation. Then a colleague in a
    very small, more hackerish computing centre in the same university found
    out about my interest. I don't think he had a clue as to what I wanted the
    account for (he was a hacker/system administrator, not an academic), but he
    did like to see new things used. So he set up an account for me. I tried
    out the Web and never looked back. I immediately began experimenting, saw
    enough of the academic potential and began telling everyone who would
    listen. If I had not had the renegade alternative, I would not have come
    close to the Web for some years. Since my job at the time was to keep the
    academics in the humanities informed about emergent possibilities etc. the
    delay would have been consequential.

    Ah, security. The only safe computer is an unplugged computer.


    Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
    Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS || +44 (0)20
    7848-2784 fax: -2980 || willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk

             Date: Mon, 15 Sep 2003 06:56:23 +0100
             From: Adrian Miles <adrian.miles@rmit.edu.au>
             Subject: Re: 17.243 critical reflections on publishing

    At 7:00 +0100 11/9/03, "Humanist Discussion Group":

    >And quite right too! Campus computer-services personnel need a little
    >defending from time to time, and securing the network is probably the
    >most important part of what they do. Amateur-maintained web servers are
    >one of the threats to that security, and to the machines of other people
    >on that network.

    I'd disagree with this in a general sort of way. The threat to security of
    the network is largely because a culture of pernicious computer use exists,
    who runs the server is irrelevant to this culture. It is perhaps an error
    to confuse one with the other, with the consequence that many secure
    'amateur' servers within a corporate or academic culture are then taken
    over by a centralised IT department. My experience of this has always been
    negative and lead to a reduction of service, innovation, and creative
    culture. My experience of computer services personnel is that the integrity
    of the network is the most important thing to be preserved, and this leads
    to what I'd describe as computing's version of xenophobia. I recognise that
    this is of course important, but there are two basic things that even
    amateurs can do: run regular updates for software to ensure their systems
    are current, or rely on upstream security through the firewalls and
    packetsniffing that the IT department are running.

    The network is decentralised and it ought to be.

    Adrian Miles (a very amateur server operator :-) )


    + interactive desktop video researcher [http://hypertext.rmit.edu.au/vog/] + research blog [http://hypertext.rmit.edu.au/vog/vlog/] + hypertext rmit [http://hypertext.rmit.edu.au]

    --[3]------------------------------------------------------------------ Date: Mon, 15 Sep 2003 06:57:21 +0100 From: Norman Gray <norman@astro.gla.ac.uk> Subject: Re: 17.244 narratives and plagues


    In Humanist 17.244, Francois Lachance quoted me

    >bewailing this next step in the net's >arch from wilderness to goldtown to sheriff to ... silicon valley?

    and described it as a `narrative of contamination'. While I can see that in the text, what I had in mind was much more of a `narrative of urbanisation', if I have to give it a label. I also don't necessarily feel this is a bad thing: as a convinced urbanite, I feel I can best enjoy the wilderness's primal peace, and the frontier's derring-do, from the vantage of a boulevard cafe terrace.

    Put another way, there was a certain bear-wrestling chic to macho multi-protocol mail addressing (remember when mail addresses had more punctuation than letters?), and Archie had a glow of little-house-on-the-prairie self-sufficiency; but obliged to choose between that and Google, I'd be calling for the railroads to roll right in.

    It is this `urbanisation' that allows online institutions to develop, obliges offline institutions to take notice of, for example, online-only work, and for the two to intersect in wranglings over how best to preserve online work when its author moves or retires in the offline world. It is `urbanisation' that makes this current batch of threads inevitable.

    The down-side of urbanisation is the hell that is other people. This changes the type of threats that we face, undermines community-based `policing', and requires instead the inconveniences of regulation and still-jumpy security that Dene Grigar referred to in Humanist 17.242, and after that all the anxieties of access, social power, and the oversight of regulators.

    Francois went on to say:

    >I wonder if cybernauts who have an appreciation of interoperability >and cross-platform behaviour are as likely to invoke the shrinking of the >wild and bemoan traffic congestion. >[...] >One could readily draw conclusions in favour of cyber-diversity of >operating systems. Rather than a recession of the wild.

    I agree with Francois, here, there is a dangerous lack of diversity now (I suspect this is not quite the point Francois was making). Now we have Windows machines (in a few varieties) and, somewhat less visibly, unix varieties and Macs (varieties of which can, according to taste, be plausibly regarded as a variety of unix box or not). And that, more or less, is it. In some people's minds, `interoperable' means `_both_ versions of Internet Explorer'.

    Back in the days when you bought your mainframe but didn't buy an operating system (because obviously you'd want to write that for yourself), interop clearly mattered, because if you didn't abide by the standards, you couldn't talk to anyone. Even by the beginning of the nineties, when folk generally bought their OS with the machine, there was Unix, MVS, VMS, CMS, and others I've forgotten, to consider and interoperate between. Interoperability still matters now, if this urb isn't to become a one-party state, but it's a harder, more technical, argument to advance.

    Best wishes,


    -- ---------------------------------------------------------------------- Norman Gray http://www.astro.gla.ac.uk/users/norman/ Physics and Astronomy, University of Glasgow norman@astro.gla.ac.uk

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