Videotex Networking and the American Pioneer
I wrote the following article during my tenure as the chief
architect for the mass-market videotex experiment conducted
by AT&T and Knight-Ridder News called "Viewtron" -- a service
of the joint-venture company, Viewdata Corporation of America.

As can be sensed in the article, I had encountered some fairly
frustrating situations and was about to be told by the 
corporate authorities that my telecomputing architecture, 
which would have provided a dynamically downloaded Forth
graphics protocol in 1983 evolving into a distributed 
Smalltalk-like environment beginning around 1985, would be 
abandoned due to a corporate commitment to stick with Tandem 
Computers as the mainframe vendor -- a choice which I had 
asserted would not be adequate for my architecture.  (At least
 Postscript survived.)  I was subsequently offered the head
telecomputing software position at Prodigy by IBM and 
turned it down when they indicated they would not support my 
architecture either, due to a committment to limit merchant
access to their network to only those who had a special
status with the service provider (IBM/CBS/Sears).  The distributed
Smalltalk system was specifically designed to allow the sort
of grassroots commerce now emerging in the world wide web --
particularly as people recognize JavaScript is similar to the
Self programming language and the Common Lisp Object System.
This wasn't in keeping with IBM's philosophy at that time since
they had yet to be humbled by Bill Gates.

My independent attempt at developing this sort of service was
squashed by the U.S. government when it provided UUCP/Usenet
service to a competitor in San Diego and would not offer me
the same subsidy via MILnet -- a network that was not for 
public access, by law, and which was exclusively for military 
use.  My complaints to DoD investigators resulted in continual 
"We're looking into it." replies.

                        Videotex Networking
                        The American Pioneer

                        by Jim Bowery
                         (circa 1982)

With the precipitous drop in the price of information technology,
computer-based communication has come within the technical and 
economic reach of the mass-market.  The term generally used for this
mass-market is "videotex" because it reduces the cost of entry into 
the home by using the most ubiquitous video display device, the
television screen, to deliver its service.

The central importance of this new market is that it brings the
capital cost of establishing a publication with nation-wide
distribution to within the reach of the mass-market as well.  This
means that anyone who is a "consumer" of information on this new
technology can also be a "producer" of information.  The distinction
between editorial staff and readership need no longer be a function of
who has how much money, but rather, who has the greatest consumer
appeal.  The last time an event of this magnitude took place was the
invention of the offset printer which brought the cost of publication
to within the reach of small businesses.  That democratization of
cultural evolution was protected in our constitution under freedom of
the press.  Freedom of speech was intended for the masses.  In this
new technology, the distinction between press and speech is beginning
to blur.  Some individuals and institutions see this as removing the
new media from either of the constitutional protections rather than
giving it both.  They see a great danger in allowing the uncensored 
ideas of individuals to spread across the entire nation within seconds
at a cost of only a few cents.  A direct quote from a person with
authority in the management of this new technology:  "We view videotex
as 'we the institutions' providing 'you the people' with information."
I wonder what our founding fathers would have thought of a statement
like that.

Mass-media influences cultural evolution in profound ways.  Rather 
that assuming a paternalistic posture, we should be objective about 
these influences in making policy and technology decisions about the
new media.  It is important to try and preserve the positive aspects
of extant media while eliminating its deficits.  On the positive side,
mass-media is very effective at eliminating "noise" or totally 
uninteresting information compared to, say, CB radio.  This is
accomplished via responsible editorial staffs and market forces. On
the negative side, much "signal" or vital information is eliminated
along with the noise.  A good example of this is the way mass-media
attends to relatively temporal things like territorial wars, nuclear
arms, economic ills, social stratification ... etc. to the utter
exclusion of attending to the underlying cause of these events:  our
limits to growth.  The need for "news" is understandable, but how long
should we talk about which shade of yellow Joe's eye is, how his wife
and her lover feel about it and whether he will wear sun-glasses out
of embarrassment before we start talking about a cure for jaundice?

Mass-media has failed to give appropriate coverage to the most
significant and interesting issue facing us because of the close tie
between institutional culture and editorial policy.  Institutional
evolution selects people-oriented people -- individuals with great
personal force.  These people are consumed with their social 
orientation to the point that they ignore or cannot understand
information not relating in fairly direct ways to politics or the
psychological aspects of economics.  Since institutional evolution is
reflected in who has authority over what, editorial authority 
eventually reflects the biases of this group.  They cannot understand
life, except as something that generates politics and "human interest"
stories.  They may even, at some level of awareness, work to maintain
our limits to growth since it places their skills at a premium.  In a
people-saturated environment (one at its limits to growth) 
people-oriented people are winners.

Actually, this is an ancient problem that keeps rearing its ugly head
in many places in many forms.  In my industry its called the "Whiz 
Kids vs. MBAs" syndrome.  Others have termed it "Western Cowboys vs.
Eastern Bankers".  The list is without end.  I prefer to view it as a
more stable historical pattern:  "Pioneers vs. Feudalists".

Pioneers are skilled at manipulating unpeopled environments to suit
their needs whereas feudalists are skilled at manipulating peopled
environments to suit their needs.  Although, these are not necessarily
exclusive traits, people do seem to specialize toward one end or the
other simply because both skills require tremendous discipline to
master and people have limited time to invest in learning.

Pioneers want to be left alone to do their work and enjoy its fruits.
Feudalists say "no man is an island" and feel the pioneer is a "hick"
or worse, an escapist.  Feudalists view themselves as lords and
pioneers as serfs.  Pioneers view feudalists as either irrelevant or
as some sort of inevitable creeping crud devouring everything in its
path.  At their best, feudalists represent the stable balance and
harmony exhibited by Eastern philosophy.  At their worst, feudalists 
represent the tyrannical predation of pioneers unable to escape
domination.  At their best, pioneers represent the freedom, diversity
and respect for the individual represented by Western philosophy.  At
their worst, pioneers represent the inefficient, destructive 
exploitation of virgin environs.

The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans selected pioneers for the New World.
The Pioneer is in our cultural and our blood.  But now that our
frontier resources have vanished, the "creeping crud" of feudalism is
catching up with us.  This change in perspective is making itself felt
in all aspects of our society:  big corporations, big government and
institutional mass-media.  As the disease progresses, we find ourselves
looking and behaving more and more like one big company town.  Soviet
Russia has already succumbed to this disease.  The only weapon we have
that is truly effective against it is our greatest strength:  innovation.

I firmly believe that, except to the extent that they have been silenced by
the media's endless barrage of feudalistic values, the American people
are pioneers to their core.  They are starved to share these values
with each other but they cannot because there is no mode of
communication that will support their values.  Videotex may not be as
efficient at replicating and distributing information as broadcast,
but it does provide, for the first time in history, a means of 
removing the editorial monopoly from feudalists and allowing pioneers
to share their own values.  There will be a battle over this "privilege"
(although one would think freedom of the press and speech should be
rights).  The outcome of this battle of editorial freedom vs. control in
videotex may well determine whether or not civilization ends in a war
over resources, continues with the American people spear-heading an
explosion into the high frontier or, pipe-dream of pipe-dreams, slides
into world-wide feudalism hoping to control nuclear arms and
"equitably" distribute our dwindling terrestrial resources.

There is a tremendous danger that careless promotion of deregulation
will be dogmatically (or purposefully) extended to the point that
there may form an unregulated monopoly over the information replicated
across the nation-wide videotex network, now underdevelopment.  If
this happens, the prophecies of a despotic, "cashless-society" are
quite likely to become a reality.  My opinion is that this nightmare
will eventually be realized but not before the American pioneers have
had a chance to reach each other and organize.  I base this hope on
the fact that the first people to participate in the videotex network
will represent some of the most pioneering of Americans, since
videotex is a new "territory".

The question at hand is this:  How do we mold the early videotex
environment so that noise is suppressed without limiting the free flow
of information between customers?

The first obstacle is, of course, legal.  As the knights of U.S.
feudalism, corporate lawyers have a penchant for finding ways of
stomping out innovation and diversity in any way possible.  In the
case of videotex, the attempt is to keep feudal control of information
by making videotex system ownership imply liability for information
transmitted over it.  For example, if a libelous communication takes
place, corporate lawyers for the plaintiff will bring suit against the
carrier rather than the individual responsible for the communication.
The rationalizations for this clearly unreasonable and contrived
position are quite numerous.  Without a common carrier status, the
carrier will be treading on virgin ground legally and thus be
unprotected by precedent.  Indeed, the stakes are high enough that the
competitor could easily afford to fabricate an event ideal for the
purposes of such a suit.  This means the first legal precedent could
be in favor of holding the carrier responsible for the communications
transmitted over its network, thus forcing (or giving an excuse for)
the carrier to inspect, edit and censor all communications except,
perhaps, simple person-to-person or "electronic mail".  This, in turn,
would put editorial control right back in the hands of the feudalists.
Potential carriers' own lawyers are already hard at work worrying
everyone about such a suit.  They would like to win the battle against
diversity before it begins.  This is unlikely because videotex is
still driven by technology and therefore by pioneers.

The question then becomes:  How do we best protect against such 
"legal" tactics?  The answer seems to be an early emphasis on secure
identification of the source of communications so that there can be no
question as to the individual responsible.  This would preempt an
attempt to hold the carrier liable.  Anonymous communications, like
Delphi conferencing, could even be supported as long as some
individual would be willing to attach his/her name to the 
communication before distributing it.  This would be similar, legally,
to a "letters to the editor" column where a writer remains anonymous.
Another measure could be to require that only individuals of legal age
be allowed to author publishable communications.  Yet another measure 
could be to require anyone who wishes to write and publish information
on the network to put in writing, in an agreement separate from the
standard customer agreement, that they are liable for any and all
communications originating under their name on the network.  This
would preempt the "stolen password" excuse for holding the carrier

Beyond the secure identification of communication sources, there is
the necessity of editorial services.  Not everyone is going to want to
filter through everything published by everyone on the network.  An
infrastructure of editorial staffs is that filter.  In exchange for
their service the editorial staff gets to promote their view of the
world and, if they are in enough demand, charge money for access to
their list of approved articles.  On a videotex network, there is
little capital involved in establishing an editorial staff.  All that
is required is a terminal and a file on the network which may have an
intrinsic cost as low as $5/month if it represents a publication with
"only" around 100 articles.  The rest is up to the customers.  If they
like a publication, they will read it.  If they don't they won't.  A
customer could ask to see all articles approved by staffs A or B
inclusive, or only those articles approved by both A and B, etc.  This
sort of customer selection could involve as many editorial staffs as
desired in any logical combination.  An editorial staff could review
other editorial staffs as well as individual articles, forming
hierarchies to handle the mass of articles that would be submitted
every day.  This sort of editorial mechanism would not only provide a
very efficient way of filtering out poor and questionable 
communications without inhibiting diversity, it would add a layer of
liability for publications that would further insulate carriers from
liability and therefore from a monopoly over communications.

In general, anything that acts to filter out bad information and that
is not under control of the carrier, acts to prevent the carrier 
from monopolizing the evolution of ideas on the network.

As a tool for coordinating organizations, a customer-driven videotex
communications facility would be just as revolutionary in its impact.
In particular, organizations with simple hierarchical structures
could automate almost all of their accounting and coordination via a
videotex network.  In addition to the normal modes of organizational
management, new modes will spring up that are impractical outside of
an information utility.  Perhaps the most important example involves
the way individuals are given authority within organizations. 
Traditional organizations select authority via a top-down, 
authoritarian system or via a bottom-up democratic system.  The
authoritarian system is more efficient than the democratic system, but
it is also more vulnerable to mistakes and corruption.  The democratic
system gets harder to maintain the larger it gets.  People have a
natural limit to the number of people they can effectively associate
with.  In large representative democracies, such as our government, a
national union, etc. virtually no one voting for a candidate knows the
candidate personally.  This, combined with the event called "election"
creates the "campaign" where the virtues of democracy are almost
entirely subverted by its vices.  A very simple system of selecting
representation or proxy exists which eliminates "elections" and thus
campaigns, excessive politics and corruption.  It is called CAV:
"continuous approval voting".  It is too expensive to maintain
manually, but with a videotex network, it becomes just as cheap as any
other system (it may be less expensive).

In CAV, a group of people who associate with each other select a
representative from among themselves.  Each member has an "approval
list" which only they can see and alter.  On this list, they give the 
name of every individual they feel is competent to be their
representative.  The person whose name appears on the most approval
lists is the representative.  At any time, a member may change their 
approval list.  That change could put another at the top of the
approval heap and therefore force a recall of the previous 
representative.  A hierarchy of such groups could grow to unlimited
size, still with no campaigns and everyone evaluating only those who
they are in a position to associate with.  Of course, thresholds for
recall, terms of office and other embellishments may be included to
optimize the system for particular purposes.  The point is that this
represents just one of many new forms of democracy that could change
the way privilege and accountability are allocated in our

The power of this sort of tool will be so profound that the first
organizations to take advantage of it will represent an unprecedented
political and economic force.  As stated earlier, it appears the 
demography of early customers will favor organizations oriented toward
pioneering values.  If the development of technology for utilization 
of nonterrestrial resources continues, it is quite likely that an
organization will form to exploit those resources, by-passing
government, military and traditional corporate planning.  Of course,
these institutions won't like this, just as third-world governments
tried to tie down nonterrestrial resources with the so-called "Moon
Treaty".  The ensuing political battle will probably come out in favor
of allowing the organization to develop the resources in exchange for
some form of taxation.

Professional societies will be able to carry on continuous year-round
conferences.  The time for feed-back determines the rate of advance in
most advanced technologies.  Videotex can reduce that feed-back time
from months to minutes.  Again, societies structured appropriately will 
be able to take maximum advantage of this sort of system.  This means
only new or flexible old societies will receive the full force of this
technology's benefits.  A society which places internal politics 
before its primary purpose will be by-passed.  Once again, pioneer
values will be promoted.

The conferencing system would probably be organized in a hierarchy of
discussions.  Everyone would see the top level discussion but only
those at the top could contribute to it directly.  At the bottom
levels, individuals could comment and if received with enough
credulity by higher level members, their comment could be raised to a 
higher level in the conference, thus reaching a number of people
increasing geometrically with each level.  The key to the success of
such a hierarchical conference, as in any conference, is the way
"speakers" are selected, or the credulity factor mentioned above.  If
this sort of conferencing system combines with the CAV system
mentioned above, the resulting conferences will be even more 

Currently, almost half a researcher's time is spent searching
through hierarchies of reference indexes, or in duplicating efforts
that could be avoided if they did such searches.  If professional
conferences and articles were submitted and published on a videotex
network, this time would be reduced to insignificance.  Furthermore,
the interpersonal communications would allow a researcher to ask an
author questions about his publication and get answers, potentially
within seconds, without the inconvenience or imposition of a phone

(to be continued)