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The YOURDON Report
Analyzing the Impact of Technology on Society
Volume 1, Number 10: Aug 2, 2000

Ed's mug shot

Table of Contents

Current Events -- the US Postal Service wants to send your snail-mail to your e-mail inbox. Aren't you thrilled?

Follow-up -- more about Napster. Even if the company gets shut down, a Pandora's Box has been opened.

Cool Books -- Cyberselfish, by Paulina Borsook. It annoyed the hell out of me, but I think you should read it.

Disclaimer - yadda yadda yadda; you've probably seen most of this already, so I won't belabor it. .

Copyright curses -- unauthorized retransmission of this copyrighted document will cause your computer to crash five times a day. Mine already does; maybe I've cursed myself.

Subscription info -- how you can get TYR delivered to you electronically, just in case you can't figure it out yourself.

Back issues of TYR are available on my web site. Also, take a look at the TYR discussion forum and resource center on the Web if you're interested in discussing the topics in this issue with other subscribers. You'll also find archives of current and previous issues in HTML and PDF format. If you don't want to participate in a public discussion forum, feel free to contact me by e-mail. Let me know what you'd like me to cover in future issues.

Current Events -- US Postal Service discovers the Internet

Those of us who use e-mail on a regular basis have a somewhat derogatory term for old-fashioned letters, delivered by the old-fashioned Post Office: snail-mail. It's a nuisance to print and fold a letter and stuff it into an envelope; it's expensive to paste a stamp on the envelope; and it's questionable whether the letter will ever arrive at its intended address, even if it's certified mail.

Thus, I was intrigued to see that the US Postal Service (USPS) is investigating a mechanism that would allow all US residents to have their snail-mail letters routed to an e-mail account. For example, an individual might be able to request that certain items, such as bank statements or utility bills, be sent via e-mail instead of snail mail. It's not clear to me how this would be accomplished; I assume that it would involve some form of automated scanning and optical character recognition (OCR).

It's also not clear to me why such a mechanism wouldn't motivate the sender of the message -- e.g., the bank or the utility company -- to circumvent the Post Office entirely and simply send the material directly to its intended recipient via e-mail After all, it would save them the time and money associated with printing and stuffing and affixing postage to the envelopes ... and it would eliminate the chance of errors and delays within the Post Office. The buzzword for this is disintermediation -- i.e., cutting out the middleman.

One of the interesting aspects of the announcement was a mind-boggling statistic: the USPS maintains a database of approximately 120 million residential addresses, presumably representing every household in the country. And from the perspective of the USPS, this new snail-mail to e-mail conversion process simply involves linking physical and electronic addresses. As things now stand, it takes a modest effort to find out where I live, based on my e-mail address: you need only ask my Internet Service Provider (ISP) for the information. If the ISP doesn't have it, they almost certainly do have the credit-card number, to which they bill my monthly access fee. The credit-card company has my billing address, which is likely to be my residential address.

If the FBI wants to track me down this way, it would be a simple matter; but I'm not sure how pleased I would be if the USPS had a direct correspondence between my e-mail address and my snail-mail address. Among other things, the USPS might decide to provide that information to other government agencies, or even (shudder!) to direct-mail advertising firms -- though it should be emphasized that there are already federal laws prohibiting such things. But how will the USPS know whether your friendly bank and utility company are really sending you a bill, or just some e-mail spam? And I'm not sure that USPS will be able to withstand the temptation of private-sector marketing firms to get their hands on that massive database, even though they claim that their entire system will be completely secure. Statements like that are like waving a red flag in front of a bull; it will be a challenge to hackers everywhere.

While they're at it, the USPS is also thinking about providing e-mail "aliases" -- i.e., a forwarding service for customers who switch their "real" e-mail account to a different ISP. There are already a number of ways to do this (for example, "ed@yourdon.com" is an alias that causes my e-mail messages to be redirected to any one of three different ISPs); and again, I'm not sure if I want the USPS to be involved in this part of my life.

This project reminds me of the ill-fated service the USPS offered in the mid-80s, when the first primitive on-line services were emerging. For a price far less than the cost of FedEx or Express Mail, you could create a letter with your computer's word processor, dial up a local phone number, and transmit your letter to a USPS system. The USPS would then transmit the document electronically to a suitably equipped post office near your recipient's address, whereupon it would be printed and stuffed into an envelope, and then hand-delivered to the recipient. I used the service a few times, but it was clumsy and awkward; and as soon as fax machines became widely available in the late 1980s, the USPS service was doomed.

And now it seems that they're trying a variation on the same theme. According to a recent report on the ZD Net web site, the USPS is planning to launch a nationwide service next month for people who don't have e-mail. For a mere 41 cents per two-page document (i.e., eight cents more than a first-class postage stamp), local post offices will make paper printouts of e-mail messages and deliver them with the snail mail. How cool! Maybe they can offer a similar service for people who don't have telephones.

Fortunately, the rest of the new service is not something we'll have to worry about in the immediate future. The USPS says that the main project is still in the early stages of research and development, and has provided no specific timeline for when the new service might be available. By the time they get it ready, it will probably be irrelevant. C'est la vie.


Contents | Current Events | Follow-up | Cool Books | Disclaimer  | Copyright curses

The Napster Generation

Which generation created Napster? Which generation is responsible for its popularity? Hint: it's not my generation, which grew up with vacuum-tube radios. Napster was created by a Boston University freshman, and while a few middle-aged folks use it to download their favorite Frank Sinatra songs, it's primarily being used by the 18-to-25 crowd.

Here's another question: Which generation feels most threatened by Napster? Hint: the Rolling Stones are in their mid-50s, and Madonna is pushing 40. Napster appeals to younger musicians and artists who have nothing to lose, and who see the Internet as a mechanism for publishing their own music without being controlled by the recording studios.


Thus, even if the courts shut down Napster, the cat is out of the bag. Just as struggling writers are self-publishing their own books via the Internet, struggling musicians will self-publish their own music. From that perspective, Napster is almost irrelevant.


Follow-up -- Napster stays alive, negotiations continue

Chances are you've heard the latest news about Napster: last Wednesday, a judge ruled that the service had indeed violated copyright laws, and that it would have shut down by Friday night. But at the last moment, a federal appeals court reversed the order, and allowed Napster to continue operating during an appeals process

While the court battle continues, Napster and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) continue haggling over the terms of an out-of-court settlement. Apparently, the two sides are at loggerheads on the question of whether money should be collected from Napster on a per-download basis, or as a simple percentage of the revenues it collects from its customers; the latter model is apparently the one used by radio stations when they play copyrighted music over the air.

The problem with the radio model is that, while Napster might seem like a "broadcaster," its customers can store the music on their computer and replay them ad nauseum. Of course, one can do the same thing with radio broadcasts; similarly, it's relatively easy to record a television program, or a video cassette that one rents from a store for a couple of dollars. You can quibble about the fidelity and quality of these forms of unauthorized copying, but it's apparently not a sufficiently popular practice for the recording companies and movie studios to worry about very much.

Meanwhile, an obvious alternative is a subscription-based service, in which customers would pay a monthly fee in order to gain access to a menu of songs. For the millions of people who pay monthly fees to access movies and special events on their cable-TV channels, it's a familiar concept -- but it's not clear that it will work in the Napster environment. For one thing, the recording studios would have to negotiate new contracts with established recording artists; but the movie studios presumably faced a similar situation with cable TV, so it's not an impossible problem. A more difficult problem is the insatiable demand of the marketplace: while cable-TV channels offer a modest number of new movies each month, Napster users already have an environment that allows them to access nearly a million musical files.

At this point, it's not clear whether the RIAA will continue to take a sufficiently hard-line negotiating position that Napster will eventually be shut down by the legal system. I think it's more likely that some kind of accommodation will be found -- because if Napster is shut down, it will be replaced by peer-to-peer services like gnutella.com, which provide no organized "center" for the studios to attack and sue. Alternatively,we may see the creation of Napster-like services operating outside the jurisdiction of the US and other major countries. Who knows: maybe Fidel Castro will thumb his nose at the US by starting up NapsterHavana.com!


Contents | Current Events | Follow-up | Cool Books | Disclaimer  | Copyright curses


Cyberselfish: a critical romp through the terribly Libertarian culture of high-tech, by Paulina Borsook (Public Affairs, 2000).

From the concluding paragraph of Cyberselfish:

"... I believe that if you don't understand where you have come from, you can't well understand where you might end up. And I don't believe that a culture that presents itself as being the One True Way of the future, but which in so many ways embodies the worst of the past -- where humane values and, ultimately, people, count for less than machines -- is one that is cause for rejoicing."

Cool Books -- Paulina Borsook's Cyberselfish

Terms like "geek" and "nerd" are not only used widely today, they're used with a certain degree of grudging respect: after all, the richest man in the world is a geek. If Bill Gates was the only geek on the planet, we could dismiss him as an oddity --but when there are millions of geeks, many of whom are rich enough that they can indulge any hobby, passion, or perversion they want, then we've got a culture. Thus, Silicon Valley is not a location, it's a state of mind; so is Redmond, Washington (the home of Microsoft); and Austin, Texas; and Bangalore, India; and a few dozen other spots around the globe.

Paulina Borsook, a "contributing writer" during Wired magazine's glory days, wants to tell you some things about this culture that you might not have realized. You might not think it's relevant if you live in New York, or London, or Paris, or some other non-geek part of the world; but the geeks have enough money and enough respect that they're beginning to influence the rest of our society. And while they still tend to be politically naive -- as a consequence of their assumption that everything that happens in government is either irrelevant or counterproductive -- they are slowly learning the art of lobbying, campaign contributions, and other mechanisms of achieving the political outcomes they desire.

Cyberselfish is not a scholarly work, written by a university professor with a deep background in sociology and politics. It's a gossipy, slightly bitchy commentary on the fads, the foibles, and the personality defects of a class of people she refers to as "technolibertarians," defined as people who are "violently lacking in compassion, ravingly anti-government, and tremendously opposed to regulation." I can't say that I agreed with everything in the book, nor even that I enjoyed all of the vignettes that Ms. Borsook paints. But maybe that's because her comments and criticisms strike a little too close to home; after all, I attended a university with several thousand geeks, and have spend the past 35 years working in the geek culture of computer software. I'm not a formal member of the Libertarian Party, but I have to admit that my opinions of government and economics are far more closely aligned with the Libertarians than with the Republicans or Democrats. I don't live in Silicon Valley, and I probably have less money in my savings account than the typical secretary at Microsoft ... but yes, I probably am a geek, and I can't help being annoyed at roughly half of the snide remarks that Ms. Boorsook makes about my cultural class.

But if you aren't a geek, why should any of this matter to you? Why should you read Cyberselfish? Because it's possible that your son or daughter will want to grow up wanting to emulate the geek culture. Because (shudder!) you might be married to a geek, or you might find that your next boss (or your next Senator) is a geek. Because more and more of the philanthropy in the the US and other advanced countries is controlled by rich geeks, who, as Ms. Borsook points out, tend to contribute to the world the things they love (more computers! more Internet outlets for poor villagers! more high-bandwidth television!), not necessarily what the world wants or needs. And, finally, because Cyberselfish provides an interesting and thought-provoking counterbalance to the glorified visions created by publications like Wired, which suggest that the high-tech "digerati" will soon rule the world.

Contents | Current Events | Follow-up | Cool Books | Disclaimer  | Copyright curses
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