Ambivalent Memories of Virtual Community

tale of toil: programming at berkeley's community memory, by g.s. williamson

Submitted by ludd on October 13, 2010

Ambivalent Memories
of Virtual Community

I've got a GREAT job. I can walk to work through a pretty neighborhood to work with intelligent people on a project which is both personally creative and socially useful. The job has many different facets and the twenty-four week is flexible--leaving free time for my own pursuits. All this and more, for a thousand dollars a month. I'm a computer programmer with a small nonprofit called Community Memory (CM) which has created a public access electronic bulletin board in Berkeley, California.

For more than ten years (with some time off for good behavior) I've worked as a programmer. My formal education-undergraduate psychology--proved useless in the job market. After a couple of years washing dishes and being a courier, I got a few low-paying jobs programming microcomputers for small companies. I was able to use this experience to get a real job at Structured Systems Group in Oakland where I spent the next two-and-a-half years ('80-'83) writing instructions for microcomputers (in BASIC for early microcomputers) to help business people count their money accurately and rapidly. The pay was good by my standards, the job relatively unstressful (and safe), the co-workers mostly amiable. As a programmer I had a lot of control over not only the pace of the job, but over its direction. I learned a lot, developed somebad habits and read a lot of good books while looking busy.

A year-long vacation was followed by work as a contract programmer for various individuals and small companies, and then a year-and-a-half at a consulting company in San Mateo. I wrote and supported BASIC programs for minicomputers (MAI Basic Four) for clients that were country clubs or in the food industry (processors, distributors, brokers). My co-workers were a genial lot, and the work was challenging as I grasped essentials of a new type of computer and a new business. On the down side, I had a long commute from Berkeleyby public transit, customer support was a drag, and the poor business climateled to greater demands on staff.

I was laid off in autumn of 1987: a bitter experience, for even with a certain distance from the work I was still involved. There is an aspect of creativity--albeit within narrow constraints--to most programming. That aspect is much greaterwhen one is given responsibility for design and support, rather than just coding one little piece without knowing its role in the larger scheme of things.

I heard about a "position" at Community Memory from a friend who worked there. I had used their terminals in a grocery store, which were part of a free, publicly-accessible database. It contained a swarm of messages--some on political issues, some advertisements, some raving about the GratefulDead, I was intrigued and arranged an interview.

I got the job; the meager $700 a month was a step down, but I was livingin a rent-controlled apartment and could squeak by. The work conditionsalso were worse: instead of my quiet office with a view of the coastal mountains I had a desk in a large room, with no secretary to answer the telephone.On the other hand, I was learning a new language (C) and a new operating system (UNIX) which held great promise for the future: no longer would I be stuck in the double ghetto of being a BASIC (usually said with a sneer) applications programmer. No longer was I counting money or consigning some clerk to the unemployment line, or a secretary to a finger-numbing and brain-deadening job! I could show curious friends what I did for a living, and my "shop-talk"might have a chance of being interesting to a non-technician.

CM has its origins in the public service telephone switchboards of the late '60s and early '70s. There was a continuous turnover in both people and groups which led to a perpetual reinventing of the wheel, as each new person or group duplicated the efforts of others. "Aha! Why not a common storage for ALL of these diverse groups?" asked some. After soliciting various switchboards in San Francisco, a group of computer people who had left the University of California at Berkeley at the time of the Cambodia invasion launched "Resource One." By the time the technological problems were solved, however, the project was all dressed up with no place to go: the personnel turnover meant that nobody at the switchboards had ever heard of the project.

Terminals were then set up in public places to see how people would usea public bulletin board. Tom Athanasiou 1 described it: "A small three-terminal Community Memory System [was] kept up for about fourteen months. Uses reflectedthe locations of the terminals. One was in a music store and collected information about gigs, bands and the like. Another, at a hippie hardware store, specialized in Alternative Technology and barter. The third, located in a public libraryin the Mission District, a poor area of San Francisco, was little more than a high-tech graffiti board." The system proved to be much more diverse in its uses than any of the organizers had expected.

Funding never materialized, and it was several years until the system was started again. Several people decided to develop an improved public-access bulletin board system which would use the latest available minicomputers. In 1977, after unexpected delays, and with aid from hardware designer Lee Felsenstein's success in the newborn personal computer industry, The Community Memory Project was incorporated. A key idea was replicability: other areas or non-geographical groups, including organizers, could start their ownCM "nodes."

Creating software is a long and costly affair, and funding such a venture has driven more than one company out of business. The group decided to develop software in such a way as to allow commercial spinoffs. Predictably this lead to other problems associated with business. Says Athanasiou: "The story of Community Memory is really two stories, reflecting our history as a political/technical collective that took a long, unplanned, and largely unpleasant trip through the computer industry." There were disputes that reflected the hierarchy of the programmers over other workers, and which pitted the money suppliers against the programmers. There were also fierce debates over sales policy: a South African company wanted to buy "X.Dot," a communication protocol for linking computers together, and the U.S. Naval Surface Weapons Laboratory wanted to buy a database product ("Sequitur"). Additional tensions developed around the "professionalization" of the operation2 .

Eventually the software company folded, but there were enough royalties from sales of old products to allow Community Memory to survive, and in September of 1984 a new system with four locations in Berkeley was started. It was driven by a central minicomputer with "dumb terminals" (i.e., the central machine controlled every keystroke and every character on the screen). The terminals were located in several member-owned grocery stores, a Latino cultural center and a "hip capitalist" department store.

They were free, easy to use, and proved to be popular. Many uses that had been expected did materialize, and several that hadn't been foreseen sprang up, including a sort of "electronic therapy" in which people would describe a problem in their lives and others would respond with advice and support. The system was terminated in the summer of 1988 when the financial collapse of the grocery stores closed half the sites, and the hip capitalists became offended at some message and claimed "liability" problems, as well as the need for more salesspace.

By that time CM was hard at work on yet another version, considerably more sophisticated than the previous one. In the summer of 1989 public terminals running the new system were set up. Currently there are ten public terminals located in libraries, 24-hour laundromats, student housing, a senior center and various non-profits. Because the local terminals are microcomputers, which handle the user's input, screen display, various timing operations, and store copies of messages, the overall operation of the main computer is much more efficient and more people can be served. As in the earlier versions, people may use any "name" they please, and reading messages is free. Unlike previous versions, however, messages are grouped togetherin "forums," which allow more messages to be handled with less wasted time. (Of course, this adds another "layer" the user must negotiate to get to read messages.) Another change is in the content: CM provides a lot of material in the form of listings of community agencies, phone numbers and calendars.

Unlike earlier versions it costs money--a quarter--to leave a message. The quarter isn't intended as a funding source for CM (even the busiest site barely pays for the phone line, let alone the cost of a terminal), but rather to reduce the "Fuck You" messages, as well as gibberish and random typing. It undoubtedly also discourages some users, and certainly is a disincentive to multiple use (we are now implementing a system that allows us to credit prolific authors with free messages). The software is still being refined; although the process is orderly, the need for improvements is potentially never-ending.

The Seeds Of Discontent

In many ways, I've got a really SHITTY job. The equipment is inadequateand poorly positioned and my "office" is little more than a cubicle made of book shelves that does nothing to keep out street and office noise.I'm interrupted by the phone when I'm trying to concentrate, assuming that somebody isn't using my desk when I arrive, and the work can be monotonous. The pay is low for a person with ten years' experience, and the insurance plan is inadequate. Until very recently we were paid monthly, and even then not necessarily on time. My good name [sarcastic smile] is sometimes associated with people and projects that I do not support. And I have come to some unpleasant conclusions about socially innovative applications of technology.

My discontent springs from many sources--long-nagging problems that have become major irritants, a hypersensitivity to political issues and my changing view of the world (and my role in it), and the changing nature of the organization itself.

"Those that do good should not expect to do well" might well be emblazoned over the doors of "nonprofits" and service companies.The continuous parade of broken-down machines and inadequate furniture only emphasizes the message that goes with the small paycheck (a message implicit in "professionalized service systems" in general): (1) You are deficient; (2) you have a problem; (3) you have many problems.

The overt justification for poor conditions and pay is that money is scarce, which it is, compared with the sloshing waste of funds at Visa or Bank of America. But this explanation wears thin after a while; the priority always seems to be something other than the workers. The situation is exacerbated by differential pay scales. When I first started at CM in the spring of 1988, everybody was paid ten dollars an hour (the same wage as in 1981!); a bit more for those who had worked there for long enough to get the (small) annual raises. This changed in 1989 when the first grant money was applied for. The proposal called for two positions to be funded at something closer to $15 an hour; lo! it came to pass. The justification was that you have to pay more to get good idea I take heated exception to. It was six months before the new pay scale was extended to the programming staff. Interest was also expressed in hiring students at a local business school at $5 an hour, the rate the school paid its student workers. Ironically, higher pay was accompanied on my part by greater disaffection. My identitybecame more clearly articulated as that of a mercenary doing a paid task: this is a job, not a calling.

Along with a differentiation in wages came a greater division of labor. There has been an increase in maintenance labor, both of the hardware and of the information on the system, and this has not been shared equally. The judgement of the relative worth of various tasks can be summed up by: "It's really important, but I have more important things to do, so someone else should do it," a sentiment less common when I started work there.

In earlier days the primacy of the technical staff caused conflict, and more recently has led to comments such as "For too long CM has been guided by technical needs. Now we must get out of the test-tube and into the community." This argument has been propelled by the availability of funds from large donors oriented toward specific uses and projects, rather than support for software development.

Another source of my discontent has been the creeping institutionalization of the project. Part of this is reflected in the information providers. While there is healthy participation by individuals, a great deal of effort has been spent providing existing institutions, which already have access to various media outlets, with a presence on the system. Try as I may I cannot see how this serves to "empower" (to use one of those fuzzy buzz-words so beloved by progressives) individuals. Many of these institutions are part of a network of "professional helpers" that make a feathered nest out of the alleged problems and deficiencies of large numbers of people. While most of these are innocuous, there are some that are not. Although innocently entered into, CM's appearance on a Mayor's Advisory Panel onDrug Abuse" drew my ire. Such panels are rarely anything but populist window-dressing for the establishment's jihad against drugs; I was appalled that CM's name would be used without other collective members knowing about it.

At least some of the material on the system, and some of the ties to other organizations, seem aimed at a accumulating a laundry list of politically correct items to please potential donors. This includes forums such as "Current Agenda," which has the agenda for upcoming City Council meetings; awhole series of messages targeting the hapless homeless, such as soup kitchens ("prayer service required"); city services; and, always, drugand alcohol programs.

And, inevitably, there have been criticisms of internal make-up. The grouphas been overwhelmingly white; hence we can't claim to represent the "Black Community" or the "Asian Community." True, but then I, atleast, never claimed to be representing people, just trying to provide a technical means for them to speak for themselves.

The quest for money has generated a creeping respectability. Following the predilections of donors, CM has created more rigid job descriptions, and has made efforts to appear "a part of the community." But Berkeley is a diverse city, and the "community" of users is ambiguous.As a result, there have been attempts to enlist putative representatives of "communities" in both the direction and implementation of CM. Of course, this almost always boils down to "community" institutions, usually with professional staff--and, of course, their own agendas and requirements. They also tend to be underfunded and overworked, so taking part in CM oftenis more work for their staffs; alternatively, we have to do the work. Inthe case of the City Council agenda, a program (written by an unpaid volunteer) converts the material from one electronic form to another; then a person--usually a programmer--adds index words and minor edits, and loads the few dozen messages. The net result: perhaps one person a month reads some of the messages; we reinforce the image of institutions, rather than individuals, as providers of information; some clerk in the city government has yet another task;and the city government--which already has ample ways to disseminate information-continues to set the agenda.

This desire to appear "proper" has also led to the creation of "advisory panels" that contain people of dubious political character but with loads of respectability. One such person--a head of the city library system--demonstrated her commitment to free speech when she announced that she had "referred to the District Attorney" a "problem" that had arisen. Somebody had published a "Social Decoder" pamphlet in which, for instance, CISPES stands not for "Committee In Solidarity with the People of El Salvador," but rather for "Committee for Improved State Power In El Salvador." This pamphlet, which claimedto be published by the Berkeley Public Library, in fact gave a name anda PO Box, and was not likely to be confused with a real library publication. Love me, love me, I'm a liberal librarian.

CM has changed its internal structure from a (theoretically) membership controlled organization to (as of January 1991) a group controlled by a board of directors and a paid staff. In theory, volunteers still have a place, but the inability of the group to attract new (unpaid) people reflects both the ambiguity of the project and its somewhat manipulative view of volunteers.

Although the earlier days were characterized, at times, by obstructionism and personal antagonism, CM at least gave people a sense of participation, sometimes even the reality of it. While not everything was subject to group approval, and not every decision was sensible, the process was generally agreeable. Sometimes minor points would take on major importance precisely because of personalities and/or political differences, but the process at least allowed some form of discussion and even appeal. On the flip side, having every decision subject to possible renegotiation was vastly frustrating for people whose job it was to carry out those decisions.

Given these problems I've been forced to look ever more closely at the ideological foundations of the project. There are two intertwined aspects: the primacyof information, and the importance of community.

Langdon Winner in his "Mythinformation"3 says: "The political arguments of computer romantics draw upon four key assumptions: 1) people are bereft of information; 2) information is knowledge; 3) knowledge is power; and 4) increased access to information enhances democracy and equalizes social power.

Certainly Berkeley can't be considered information-poor; indeed, many people seem to feel overwhelmed by what passes for information. I would venture that most peoples' lives contain, within their own experiences, the information most crucial to reshaping those lives.

The bland treatment of "information"--for CM this roughly equates to "messages read" and "messages written"-has little significance. The utility to the reader is ignored for a time-honored reason: it's hard to quantify. We screen out a great deal of garbage by requiring a quarter, but we still have a fair number of messages that are gibberish, wild rants, obscene retorts and the like.

The equating of knowledge and power is laughable: for instance, one may know where an enemy is and what he intends, and yet be powerless to stop him. Alternatively, you can know that you are being exploited and be no closer to ending that exploitation. It's doubtful that the abundant advertisements placed on CM, or the play-lists of past Grateful Dead concerts, or the musings on magic, have anything to do with power. Confusing some abstract form of knowledge with actual power is a convenient trick, particularly for thosewith an interest in maintaining existing forms of "democracy." Indeed, it is rare for the proponents of such "radical" change to actually examine the structures of power; often the claims of the apologists are taken at face value. And as Winner points out, having a personal computer no more sets you up to compete with the National Security Agency than having a hang-glider equips you to compete with the U.S. Air Force. The proponentsof the computer have argued that the spread of (relatively) low-cost machines has allowed popular movements to "catch up" with the government. This is a somewhat ingenuous argument: while some people may have a nifty machine--indeed, a machine of extraordinary capabilities by the standards of 1965-the government/business sector not only has such machines and their big brothers (which are also exponentially more powerful than their ancestors) but also the ability to connect them together.

Access to some types of information might enhance democracy, but continuing to reinforce a "one-speaking-to-many" system, does not, just as access to jokes or lists of phone numbers doesn't equalize social power.

The second ideology is that of "community." Admittedly, CM has never argued that electronic communication should replace face-to-face contact--only that it could be used to meet a wider spectrum of people. But beneath theappeal of "community" (another progressive buzz-word) lie unasked questions. Is community a reactionary desire? Is it simply a matter of shared interests? Is there some meaningful aspect beyond the simplistic sense?Or does the word conceal an agenda as well as an ideology?

As Bedford Fenwick4 says: "In terms of control, the State is finding the ideology of the community a far more effective means of maintaining good order than the threat of confinement. [...] The traditional community represents the most effective Panopticon of all--control through mutual surveillance. Capitalism destroyed this. [...] The present age is attempting a resuscitation. Just as the traditional community policed itself because it gave consent to the ruling ideology, because people considered their own interests were connected to the interests of their masters in significant and truthful way, so present day power is seeking an imaginary identification with the interests of everybody. Only today that identification is hardto achieve and power must ransack the ideologies and rhetorics of previously popular movements to gain a footing." In a passage relevant to projects like CM, he says "Our society seems to torment itself with the lossof community. Radical projects define themselves as a discovery of community, like the gay community, or the national community. [...The State's] assertion of benevolence serves to demoralize society both by denying the unbearable reality of present society, and by undermining society's belief in itself, independent from expertise, as a responsible and reasonable substance. The State not only wants our obedience, but like other contemporary corporations, it demands our love. The ideology of community is one way it seeks to achieve this.

Given that many Americans no longer feel an identity with neighborhood or job, it is not surprising to see such attempts to create a more nebulous (and less demanding) "community" by electronic means.

CM's work, of course, does not occur in a vacuum: there has been an enormous change in both the public view and the actual implementation of computer technology.

When the antecedents of CM were conceived, the nature--and the popular perception--of computers was very different. Even the cheapest of machines cost tens ofthousands of dollars and required a host of experts to operate. Heavily concentrated in the government and large corporations, they calculated the money needs of the economic monsters, aided the physicists in their quest for knowledge (and weaponry), and helped the state track both benefits and punishments. There was little doubt in the popular mind that the computers were on the side of Big Brother and his faceless minions. Indeed, much of the discourse on privacy and personal liberty was couched in terms of these machines and their potentials.

The need to train technicians means exposing a growing number of students to computers, however, and not all of the trainees are devotees of totalitarian dreams. For the libertarian aficionados, the early days were characterizedby a heady excitement about the potentials of the machine--a potential often ignored or delayed by the accountant-minded administrators. Indeed, theseadministrators and SYSOPs (SYStem OPerators) were the nemesis of these libertarians, later to be known as hackers. The attempt to develop "democratic" computers had two major thrusts: one towards a more popular use of the machines, the other towards smaller and cheaper machines. In the first were attemptsto create or increase access to the machines (e.g. Resource One, CM's ancestor), often by time-sharing or else by wider public access to the information derived from the machines. The Homebrew Computer Club in the San FranciscoBay Area, which nurtured many of the early pioneers of the micro-computer (and Community Memory), falls in the second category.

The diminution of the Big Brother image is only partly due to the actual use of such machines--it has far more to do with the utility of a benign appearance for the technology. Part of this change has been wrought by the promises--and occasionally the practice--of alternativist projects.

David Noble has said that "the fight for alternatives.. .diverts attention from the realities of power and technological development, holds out facile and false promises, and reinforces the cultural fetish for technological transcendence." By contrast, Athanasiou argues for a movement thatdoes not simply oppose technology. He cites the woman's movement as an example of a social movement seeking the implementation and improvement of technology (contraception and abortion). Such alternativist attempts as CM help focus the imagination and the technological fascination that many people feel.But given the difficulties of actually implementing any large project, Iam skeptical about this use of people and time. CM has tried both the corporate approach (as Pacific Software) and the non-profit/donor route: neither is very successful, both absorb serious amounts of time and energy, and both have built-in traps; indeed, such efforts clearly delineate the enormous obstacles to humanist projects, even if such projects succeed in their own terms, computerization continues to deepen the division of labor; few (relatively) well paid and highly skilled jobs (the programmers and "social" experts) versus a much larger number of people with few skills who are poorly paid, if they have a job at all.

At this point, CM has probably guaranteed its institutional survival, butits vision seems clouded, at best. Perhaps it is to the project's credit, however, that it has more imagination than capability: certainly the opposite is more dangerous. I've learned that using a system like CM in the service of greater democracy is very difficult; it requires both passion and perspective. Success might be more likely in an area with fewer possibilities for popular participation, or in an area less saturated with communications channels. Nor would a group contemplating such a thing today have to design the system from scratch--much of the needed software is commonly available, and the hardware costs are far lower. But the steady flow of requests for us to provide information also tells me that the system encourages a dangerous passivity in its current form.

The ultimate meaning of projects like CM may well be that they are a soft sell for a hard technology that provides a career ladder for ambitious social professionals. The technology, despite CM's hopes for it, promotes passivity: very few people think of themselves as sources of information. CM can't overcome illiteracy and self-doubt; nor can it create community where there is none. Modern management techniques and the emphasis both on "community" and "the information economy" find a precise reflection in oppositional politics when they become obsessed with communication and technique. Consciously we can provide a human face for a devastating technology. Possibilities of computer use within a truly free society are barely shadows flitting across our screens as we mechanically maintain the edifice of legitimacy for this barbaric social order.

—G. S. Williamson

rain, the drops
streak the windows.

When the trolley waits
they point one way.
When the trolley moves
they point another,
cross-hatched like people
going to work.

Iwant to run
through the aisles.
Iwant to touch
everyone on the shoulder.

Look! I will say
the rain is making
wonderful designs!
Each window is different
& meaningless!

But I stay in my seat
& do nothing.
Iam one of them.

--William Talcott

  • 1Tom Athanasiou, "High-Tech Alternativism: The Case for the Community Memory Project," Radical Science #l7 (now called Science as Culture)
  • 2Lucius Cabins, "Making of a Bad Attitude," PW #17, pages8-10 on Pacific Software
  • 3Langdon Winner, "Mythinformation," Whole Earth Review, January 1985, pg 22
  • 4Bedford Fenwick, "The Institutionalization of the Community," Here & Now #10, 1990, pg 7. Here & Now c/o Transmission Gallery,28 King St., Glasgow, G1 5QP Scotland or PO Box 1109, Leeds, LS5 3AA, England