"Stupid Little Men", circulated via email

Money and the Appearance of Power
Stupid Little Men's Games

Real people do not lie and cheat and steal, not the people I know. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, that remains my conviction. It probably happens somewhere else, somewhere where people believe in free market enterprise as a natural law or an act of god, depending on which variation is respectively more marketable. But the real people I know do not lie and cheat and steal.
But they do.
And I even know why.
I suspect there is a pattern to this: I suspect that there are any number of people intent on enhancing their sense of self-importance and feeling of power, and they latch on to what appear to be Good Ideas, because that makes them feel important and in charge. They are not reliable, though, because their own agendas only coincidentally correspond to the respective agendas of the Good Ideas, and they are apt to go off on their own peculiar tangents at any time, sometimes taking significant portions of the Good Ideas with them. For the sake of simplicity, we may refer to them as Stupid Little Men (SLM), although this designation is naturally not limited to certain physical appearances nor, unfortunately, to only one gender.

And this is a little story about my experience with one Stupid Little Man:

Once upon a time there was a little mailbox that wanted to be critical, and it grew up to become an Internet service provider intended to provide an alternative to commercially oriented enterprises. It was able to link simple e-mail programs, provide Webspace for social projects and handle mailing lists for alternative and green and other socially critical groups and organizations.

At this time, it is not actually dead, but definitely in a deep coma. It is likely that the artificial life support systems will be turned off in the very near future. An unfortunate victim of stupid little men's games.

One stupid little man once had a good idea, and he found people who shared this idea and agreed that it was important to know about information and communication technologies and think critically about how to use them. Fortunately for him, some of these people had enough skill and sense to implement the idea and set up a mailbox with relevant bulletin boards, providing SLM with an opportunity to feel important and needed for his skill in connecting modems. He became acquainted with FIDO-Net and APC and felt good about being on the "right" side in opposition to the military complex-based Internet.

SLMs always like to be on the "right" side. Unfortunately, there seems to be a fairly equal distribution of SLMs on every side, wherever lines are drawn. Any lines.

As some of the first interested people in this small, alternative network began to lose interest or at least a feeling of being well informed when the Internet boom hit the newspapers, other people became interested and started to get involved. One of them, for instance, tried to sort out the mess that was supposed to be the bookkeeping, while trying to keep critical discussions about the Internet alive at the same time. Another thought that a Linux server would be in keeping with the original ideals and objectives and set out to learn how to do it.

After some time, SLM realized that he was beginning to feel less important, because he no longer had a clue about how the network actually worked. He was also in a financially difficult position, because he had not been paying attention, and he became increasingly alarmed as someone kept asking him about where the money for the network went. The stupid little man started to become unpleasant. He became so unpleasant and annoying that the person interested in responsibly administering the financial side of the network, as well as in critical discussions, gave up in disgust and left. The financial mess fell into SLM's province again, making him feel somewhat more important, but leaving him in no less of a financially difficult position in general.

Then there was the problem of the other new member, who had meanwhile become a knowledgeable system administrator responsibly and enthusiastically administering an efficient Linux server. SLM had not believed that Linux was interesting. Linux requires thinking, but NT just requires selling, and SLM was more in need of money, he thought, than a mental challenge. Yet with the system administrator running the network, SLM began to feel more like a salesman and less important again. He was not a particularly good salesman, so he just wanted to be the Boss. The system administrator did not want a boss, he simply wanted to administer the system. SLM looked around and found a few other stupid little men, who were willing to let him be the Boss, for which the initial interested people had been paying him all along, in exchange for feeling more important, and they decided to take over the network, which had been set up as a non-profit organization, and turn it into a profitable business. Without the system administrator.

The system administrator refused to cooperate. After ensuring that the system was running smoothly, he blocked access to all his data, to ensure that it could not be moved or removed or otherwise tampered with without his consent. When the SLMs realized this, they were so incensed that they simply turned the machine off. Flipped the switch. Off. Why not? Windows machines are turned on and off all the time. They crash and have to be rebooted regularly. Standard operating procedure. Turning off a fully functional Linux server in the middle of operations, however, is not an effective response to changed permissions. When all the users started calling, because their connections were not working, SLM gave up answering the phone and turned off the answering machine. Go away. When he found he was unable to fix the problem he had created, he decided that it was all the system administrator's fault. One distinguishing characteristic of stupid little men is that they sincerely believe nothing is ever their fault. When some of the users finally managed to pin him down, the stupid little man explained that the system administrator had suddenly and inexplicably gone berserk and turned into a malicious terrorist hacker. Quick, everyone change your passwords so he can't get in!

This is personal. When SLM turned off the system administrator's connection, he turned off my connection, too, because I happen to live together with system administrator. Together we have two independent businesses, one mortgage, two children and five computers (not counting the extra parts that could conceivably be assembled into another one). As far as I remember, we also own a car together, but that is usually being driven around by various other people, so it is hardly a relevant factor any more. But this is not about a loyal wife standing up for her husband in hard times. This is about me being able to work, to earn an independent living and retain a sense of my own intelligence. In order to earn my living as a translator, I need to be able to send and receive e-mails and various kinds of files quickly

and efficiently and to be able to find footnotes, references and background information quickly. After we set up a permanent connection to the little alternative ISP, because I was tired of paying outrageous phone bills due to my friendly system administrator working on various other computers via modem, we set up another small network behind it. We used this network to try out various programs and network applications before the system administrator set them up for other organizations and groups, as well as for various demonstrations and private tutoring sessions. And I used it for my work, so that I could divide my time between home and my office. In between testing various programs and applications, we discussed issues of security, censorship, the politics of information distribution - among ourselves and with other people. The kinds of discussions for which the original organization had been founded had long since stopped taking place there and took place at our house instead.

What can you do with a network? When I found myself faced with a group of very skeptical but curious women, we agreed to try a kind of project centering around an electronic mailing list, but consciously looking at the paths of information and trying to develop practical strategies for sharing knowledge, equipment, access and integrating other forms of communication. I was thinking about a similar project with some other women involved in an organization for migrant women in Austria, where many of the women regarded the Internet merely as a new development of neo-colonialism, but were willing to explore the possibilities of how it might be useful for them. We were also discussing the possibility of setting up a kind of public netbase, which could differ from a commercial provider by being at least partially based on a kind of barter system for skills and services of various types. Then the stupid little man turned the computer off. He is not interested in what you can do with a computer, unless it makes him feel important and/or brings in more money for him. How is it possible that a stupid little man could end up in a position with enough "power" to kill my connection? How do stupid little men end up anywhere, where they can cause damage?

There seems to be a striking accumulation of SLMs in the area of computer-related sales. Many seem to congregate in large economy electronics stores (on both sides of the counter), where they boastfully flaunt an appalling ignorance of everything except the latest gadgets. They also seem to have been the first to grab the mouse, when the Internet started being introduced into schools and offices, where they hide behind esoteric and mystifying tergiversation, rather than simply admitting they don't know everything and trying to learn. I have also met too many people requiring no more than intelligible answers to simple questions that they are ready to give up asking, because they are tired of the inflated rhetoric and have better things to do than fight for a mouse.

I suspect this has something to do with the appearance of power, which is based on pseudo-control: you may appear to be in control, as long as no one really knows what you are doing. If knowledge is power, then the appearance of power presupposes ignorance on the part of everyone else. This also makes it possible to charge exorbitant fees. My friendly system administrator came back from a meeting one day, tired of the posturing and bluffing that had gone on there, and remarked that if there were mostly women doing what he does, then system administration would probably have the status of janitorial work, because it is really just a question of keeping things tidy and cleaning up occasional messes.

The overabundance of SLMs in the vicinity of computers may change as the technology becomes more commonplace. Yet will there be anything left then aside from entertainment and money-making?

When I spoke with a friend on the telephone after my connection had been turned off, and she asked how I was, I said that everything was a mess, but it was too complicated to explain on the phone. I said I would tell her about it on the weekend when we were to meet at a workshop. My friend arrived at that workshop convinced, just by the tone of my voice, that I was busy packing to leave my three men and being hampered by divorce proceedings and other complications. There is a strong emotional component in this, too. So many texts flow in and out of my computer about the dawning of the digital age, promoting fascinating (and lucrative) services like home shopping, telebooking, telebanking, tele-everything that is entertaining and costs money and may be done in the privacy of one's own home, so that no one will ever have to leave it in the future. I need to be able to believe in alternatives. This is indeed personal. At the moment, I have Internet access and e-mail again through a connection to a large company, and our little network has been revived to a certain extent. It is an efficient solution, but I do not find it a satisfactory one.

Obviously the Net would not be a network, if it did not include many different nodes and connections, and despite my passion for reading log files and full headers, I do not know all the different computers and systems that my messages may pass through along the way. The history and development of the Internet has been dubious, of course, right from the start. Yet there is always a point of entry, and I refuse to believe that it is irrelevant how this point of entry is arranged. I am convinced that it makes a difference, whether the point of entry is one computer belonging to one person (or that person's employer) paying a monthly bill to a large company that is probably owned by a larger company, or whether the arrangements are more flexible in terms of time, access, involvement, skills. If all the interesting and thoughtful people I know spent as much time in front of a computer as I do, I am afraid the quality of our exchanges would suffer greatly. On the other hand, there are people I have never seen that I would miss very much, if they did not have access to a computer at least sometimes. I think there are more possibilities.

Unfortunately, there is a stupid little man in the way, and I am afraid he is not alone.