Harley Hahn Interviews
Interview with Harley Hahn
(October 27, 1993)
The following interview was conducted by Voices from the Net, one of the first Internet-based electronic magazines. When the interview took place, most people had yet to hear of the Internet.
"Harley Hahn found us, very soon after we started Voices from the Net. One day we received a surprisingly enthusiastic note in our mailbox, suggesting that we might want to be listed in a soon-to-be-published Internet guide, and that, while we were at it, we might also want to interview the author. Harley assured us that he had many interesting and controversial things to say. He hasn't let us down.
"It might have been a simple 'you scratch my back and i'll scratch yours' sort of exchange, a publicity swap (and a little publicity never hurt a new publication), but we hope you'll agree that what we got was a lot more than just self-promotion. What follows is the result of a telephone interview that lasted well over an hour, and it covers a lot of ground — but so, apparently, does Harley Hahn.
"He's an 'internationally recognized author, analyst and consultant, specializing in Unix and other operating systems'. He's written a number of books, including Peter Norton's Guide to Unix, A Student's Guide to Unix, and the newly published The Internet Complete Reference. He has a degree in mathematics and computer science from the University of Waterloo in Canada, and a graduate degree in computer science from the University of California at San Diego. And Scott Yanoff said nice things about his Internet guide.
"So now let's hear what Harley has to say..."
VOICES FROM THE NET: We were looking over the introductions to your two books [Student's Guide to Unix, The Internet Complete Reference] and it seems to us that maybe you have something like a cosmology of the Internet-Unix linkup here, a sort of big picture which is driving a lot of what you are doing.
Some of the other people we've talked to have quibbled over the question about "What is the Net?". Do you want to start by tackling that question?
HARLEY: Well you know, there are lots of questions in life that sound simple, but they don't really have satisfying answers and I think that that's one of them because there's no real good definition of it. If you maybe take a simpler question and ask "What is Unix?"
People can say it's an operating system, but it's a lot more than that. People can say it's a family of operating systems, but other people say it's a collection of tools for solving problems for smart people or other people say it's really an approach to solving problems, and other business oriented people say it's a computer system which runs a certain type of software with certain interfaces.
And you come down to the fact that there's lots of questions in life and in the world of computers that sound like a question because they're a sentence and they have a question mark at the end and if it sounds like a question then it should have an answer, but it really doesn't have a good answer. So the real answer is that, depending on who you are, the question has different answers, and even then the answer may change over time.
I guess I can give you three answers to the question "What is the Net?" The first one is: You can say that the Net is just the short form for Internet, and the Internet is this large collection of other networks and it's a physical thing that actually exists with phone lines and computers and data being stored all over the place and so on. That's what the Internet is and "the Net" just stands for the Internet.
The second answer is: A lot of people when they say "the Net" mean Usenet. They mean where the discussions go on. So you could say that Usenet is a system of discussion groups all over the world and then "Net" is just an abbreviation for Usenet. I find that in practice people kind of switch back an forth between the two definitions, sometimes when they say "the Net" like someone says "I need a recipe" and someone says "Why don't you ask on the Net" then they're clearly talking about Usenet. Sometimes when somebody says "I'd like to send you email are you on the Net?" they're talking about the Internet because Usenet doesn't have electronic mail.
The Internet is the largest gathering of human beings in the history of mankind.
So "the Net" can mean the Internet, "the Net" can mean Usenet, but that's not what the most interesting meaning to me. The most interesting meaning is that it's sort of a global gathering place. It certainly doesn't involve everyone in the world, not even most people in the world, not even most people in the United States and Europe and Japan and the developed countries, but it's the largest gathering of human beings that has ever existed in the history of mankind and it's getting larger and larger and it looks like it's going to be the ancestor of something that eventually everybody will be able to gather whenever they want.
So that's what I think of "the Net". I don't think of it as meaning only the Internet or meaning only Usenet. I think of it as meaning a network of people that right now depends on the Internet and right now the discussion groups depend on Usenet, but you could take away the Internet and put in a different infrastructure, and you could take away Usenet and put in a different way to have discussion groups, but we would still have "the Net." We would still have that gathering.
For an unanswerable question you handled that quite nicely.
Can I point out why I think that is significant?
I'll try to say it in a few sentences. If somebody says, "Hey try this new word processing program", there are word processing programs that already exist so it's not really new it's just a new variation. And if you've only typed on a typewriter and someone says "try this new word processing program" it's a lot more new to you because you've never seen anything like it, but still you've typed on a typewriter, and even before then you've written stuff down on paper.
The thing about "the Net" is that it is something that has never existed ever before in the history of human beings. It's not like in the way that a word processing program is just more automatic or computerized than typing which might be more mechanical than writing on paper. "The Net" is not just something that we already have to a larger scope because if you connect everybody with email it's not the same as a large email network. The character and the quality of it change.
There's a size, I don't think it's an exact size, but once you get over a certain size it becomes more than just a large version of something you already have. So the significance of "the Net" is not that it's just a large gathering, because certainly there have been gatherings of human beings since there have been human beings. I call it a large gathering but that's because I don't have a better word. It's something that never existed before in the history and culture of human beings and that's why it's significant. Its sheer size ties the world together, or it's beginning to, in a way that nobody even imagined was possible.
Something like an actual collective consciousness?
Well, I think that's the first thing that you might start thinking about because you talk about something that's greater than the sum of its parts, but I think that say in fifty years when you look back and when it's pretty well understood what this "Net" thing is, it may be called something different by then. People will say the idea that it is a collective consciousness was maybe a good way to start th inking about it but it was kind of a rudimentary, naive way. It's really a lot more than that. It's a lot more than a collective consciousness, and I don't even know that it's a collective consciousness really.
I know that ever since the beginning of time it seems whenever human beings have had a chance to communicate, they do. They get together. Whenever there's a chance to send messages they do, and the "Net" that we're building, it seems like we don't know why we're building it, and we're almost unconscious that we're building it, but collectively we are trying to connect up to one another as much as possible.
But I think that's it's more than a group consciousness, it's very much individual consciousness that's doing things. For example, yesterday I connected to IRC (ed. Internet Relay Chat) and I could talk with anyone who happened to be on there, and that's not a collective consciousness at all because it's just me talking to individuals, and yet qualitatively I think that's different than say talking to you on the phone right now.
You have mentioned (in previous conversations) some of the new social organizations that are happening on the Net...
There's new social organizations, yes, and that's probably a better word, although it's longer, than gathering. I think when you say social organizations, you're saying people are organizing themselves in new ways, and we don't have a word to describe it yet so we'll call it social organization and then later we'll get some more familiar terms. What I'm saying is we need a vocabulary.
In order to discuss things you have to have words to represent the ideas, and we don't have enough words yet to represent all the new ideas of the things we're creating or the things that are happening out of our creations. So we call it "the Net", but that's not a good word. What we need are new words that don't have any connotations and the only meanings they have are representations of all these new things that are happening, but those new words have not yet arisen so we can talk about social organization but then we have to be vague.
There is of course that whole Net language, to use the form in which it rears its ugly head all the time, that's developed that seems to work on the model of attaching prefixes and suffixes and all of that...
We have to make a distinction between two types of things. There are words that are used on the Net but then there are words that are used to talk about the Net. Some words are in both. There are abbreviations and slang that people on the Net use, but that's the same everywhere.
You go to a part of a city that has it's own culture or a part of the country or a different country, they all have their own slang and their own words that nobody else understands. At a level beyond that, what we need are words to talk ABOUT the Net and how it's important, and what it's like to use it, and what it means to us as human beings.
Maybe a good example is the word newsgroup. You use the word newsgroup on the net, and it's slang, and it means something, but newsgroup we can call a meta-word, a word to talk about ideas and other words. Newsgroup is a concept now that we're beginning to understand, and now we can sort of understand what that means so we can talk about newsgroups. We need a whole lot of new words like newsgroup to talk about the ideas. We can talk about a and we can talk about newsgroups and there's probably some other things. What we're missing are all the words to talk about what the whole thing means on a larger scale.
Yes, you've done some work which is very much related to this business of establishing ways of talking about the net both in the work you've done in trying to make Unix accessible and now the new book on making the Internet accessible. Do you see part of your role there as at least working towards that meta-language?
Yes, but I don't think about that primarily. In one sense I do. I'm very careful how I use words, and of course most of my books, almost every word, is written in regular English, but when you come to the terms that aren't regular English I think carefully about how I want to use them. For example, when I write UNIX I'll write it with a "U" but then a "nix" because to me Unix is not just a brand name and people are starting to realize that now.
That's a simple one. Because so many people read my books, and because they are about what I call important subjects, I'm very careful how I use the new words because one of the criteria we use for how we should use and spell a word is what we see in print. So I know if I put it in a book and tens or hundreds of thousands of people read it, that in a sense becomes a tiny bit of authority.
I try to use the words in a way that I want people to use them. I spell Unix the way I think people ought to spell Unix, and I talk about it that way. The same way as I talk about a newsgroup. I use the word newsgroup in the new modern meaning of a Usenet discussion group. I don't call it Netnews for instance. Some people do. I call it Usenet because I want people to call it Usenet. I want to codify that word.
I think one of the most interesting words that you can see that is becoming part of the vocabulary is "rtfm". To me rtfm is a great word because it's becoming a word in its own, and I want to help it become a word in its own, and it doesn't have any vowels so I think that's pretty neat.
To me the idea of RTFM grew out of the original meaning which was an acronym which meant Read The Fucking Manual, and it meant nothing more than that. It just meant read the manual before you ask somebody a question, but now RTFM means a much broader idea. It means that you should try to help yourself before you ask for help. It also implies the other side of that coin that if somebody who has tried to help themselves and they ask you for help than you have an obligation to help them.
The Net is so large that it is literally impossible for everybody to be taught what they need to know to use it, so it needs a culture of teaching yourself.
RTFM is very important because the Net is so large that it is literally impossible for everybody to be taught what they need to know to use it, so it needs a culture of teaching yourself. RTFM is a new Net word and I try to codify in my books by explaining it and using it as a word in this new language. We do have a few new words to talk about this new Net idea that exists, so in some small sense to answer your question, yes, I see one of my jobs as defining and codifying and exemplifying this new vocabulary so people around the world can use it.
That's an interesting way of transforming that acronym from a snide retort to something between an ethics and an etiquette...
Well, if you take any word in the dictionary and look it up in one of these large dictionaries that shows the history of the word you always see it started out somewhere, in English it's usually Greek or Latin, but it could have started of with an English word that meant something and then got turned into this and that, all our words came from somewhere.
I noticed that RTFM was originally an acronym, and then people started using it like a verb, like "I rtfm'ed but I couldn't find the answer". And they started using it like a noun sometimes and so on, and people just do this because new words are formed all the time. When new ideas exist there's a vacuum until a new word comes along to express that idea. So the vacuums usually get filled fairly quickly, and one of my jobs is to notice these new words and to point them out to people and teach them the vocabulary. Not all the technical terms necessarily, but the vocabulary of ideas because they can't understand or think or talk about the Net until they have the words that express the ideas that are part of the Net. So it's much more important to learn these things than it is, say, some technical option for anonymous FTP or something like that.
So you see part of your role as helping to establish a basic literacy?
I think that's a good way of putting it, but I want to be very clear that I'm not making new stuff up and saying that anyone should be literate by repeating how I think it should be done. I'm more of an observer. I observe what the literate people on the Net do, how they talk, how they think, how they express themselves, what words they use, and then I write in that same language so when you read what I write you are really reading the language of the literate people on the Net.
I guess if you read some books in English that are written to express the vocabulary and ideas of, say, the most educated people in our society, then by reading those books you can learn new words and you can learn ideas and you can learn how educated people think. In this sense, if you can read an Internet book that discusses things in the way that the most literate Net people do then you can start to become part of that culture, part of that society, and you want to aspire to learn how to think like the best people in your culture not like the mainstream more popular people in the culture.
You talk quite a bit in your books about the global nature of the Net, and the fact that it is the largest gathering, and you say that people won't be excluded on the Net due to race or wealth or religion and all of those sorts of things. Are there ultimately going to be technical hierarchies that are set up in terms of how well you can use the tools at hand?
Can I turn that question around and change it a little bit?
Certainly, feel free.
Are there or will there be exclusions on the Net based on other criteria? The answer is definitely yes. You see, every group in society, even a large social organization...
Let me backtrack and say I don't think this is a huge global organization, I think it's a collection of small, ever-changing, coming-into- being and then disappearing, smaller social organizations. Anyway...
Any social organization does exclude people, but on the Net they don't exclude people on the basis of what you look like. The exclusions are based on intelligence and ability so on the Net we don't discriminate against people of the wrong color. We discriminate against stupid people.
And we don't discriminate against people who don't have enough money; we discriminate against people who are lazy. We don't discriminate against people who are the wrong religion; we discriminate against people who aren't willing to learn something so they can use a new tool. We don't discriminate against people who wear the wrong clothes; we discriminate against people who in a discussion don't have anything important to say or act like idiots.
In a very crude way the Net discriminates/excludes stupid people. It's not supposed to be fair, but there's too much in life where you can be accepted even if you're sub-standard, and on the Net that doesn't work because you don't see anybody and you can have completely free choice in who you want to talk to.
When you read Usenet articles you choose which ones you want to respond to or pay attention to. If you want to say something bad about what someone said you can just go ahead and do it, and you also have enormous freedom to say and do whatever you want because you know you can't really hurt someone. If you send them a mean spirited reply to something they've posted in a newsgroup you know it doesn't hurt them really, not like if you discriminate against them and don't hire them for a job because you don't like their color or you hit them and take away their money or something.
We have enormous freedom, and it's really a meeting of the minds. It's certainly not a meeting of the bodies or of the mouths or the ears or anything like that. I wouldn't say so much of a hierarchy, but as we organize ourselves into transient social units that there definitely is a premium put on people whose minds work better than other people's.
For example, if you're talking on IRC, if there's five people in a conversation and one person has intelligent, interesting things to say, and the other person is kind of a dullard, doesn't have much to say, then the attention gravitates towards the person who has something more interesting to say, and so there's a discrimination there, a discrimination of ideas, and a discrimination of what really is worthwhile about human beings.
What serves us most as human beings are people who are smart and have ideas and can be convincing and compelling.
Some people might feel it's worthwhile to be big and large and be a football player, but when you come right down to it what serves us most as human beings are people who are smart and have ideas and can be convincing and compelling. People who can teach other people, contributing ways where a mind can meet another mind.
I think there's one thing that's very appealing to smart people about the Net is that you can go ahead and no matter what you're like in the other part of your life you can just go and let whatever brilliance you have shine forth and people will appreciate it. I think this is one of the things that's scary to other people.
I don't mean people get scared at the beginning because it's a new society and they're not used to the nuances. Everybody feels that, but people who aren't very smart, people who are lazy, people who don't want to work hard, people who don't want to teach themselves something, they don't like it so much because for the first time they're actually being judged on what they're worth, and they can't get an incomplete and they can't do extra work to turn a C into a B and they can't show they're good because they earn more money or something like that. The only thing that makes them worthwhile is what they say and what they think and what comes out in words, it's not what they look like and I think that's scary to a lot of people. Other people just lap it up and they love it.
I guess we hesitate to use IRC as the only example because there are people who are more shy who do very well on the asynchronous environments like Usenet.
That's a very good point. Everybody has different ways of expressing themselves and communicating. What's great about the Net is we've used this physical Internet and created all these types of communication that, if you like talking in real time you can talk in real time and if you like being thoughtful and thinking about what you're doing and writing it down and changing it you can talk in Usenet discussion groups where you have all the time you want, and different people who shine in different ways can find somewhere to shine on the Net.
I guess the way I would put it is that the great thing about the Net is no matter what you're good at there's a place for you, there's nobody who doesn't have a place on the Net because the Net is made up of millions of people and although you may not get along with your neighbor, in a set of millions of people, there are going to be people there for you.
That's a good way to talk about that.
But there is an obligation, you see, we don't pay for the Net. You might pay twenty, thirty, fifty bucks a month to get access, you might have it for free because of where you work or where you go to school, but we don't really pay for it because there's this hugely enormous infrastructure and nobody pays for that. It's paid for by organizations and governments and so on, out of taxes or tuition or whatever.
We do have an obligation, but our obligation is not a monetary one. Our obligation is to educate ourselves and train ourselves to use the tools, to learn some etiquette, to learn how to get along with other people, and to not back away from learning things that you can't just learn in ten seconds. We have an obligation to start using our brains here, and stop being lazy, and maybe stop watching so much television. I say that in a sense that whatever part of your brain is engaged when you watch television is the exact opposite of what's engaged when you're using the Net. The more you watch television, the harder it is to use the Net. The more you use the Net, the less satisfying television will be.
Let's go back to the access question. It's a wealth issue, you have to have the money to afford a computer or afford an account, and then there's a lot of talk about commercialization/privatization issues, where do you think this is all going to work in as far as public access goes?
One of the things we have to do on the Net is to stop being parochial. We have to learn that we're talking about more than just the United States here. Every country is organized differently, and there's vast changes, and vast differences in size. In the United States, the Net I believe is going to become more and more commercial because the government is going to want to stop paying for it. In other countries, they're much smaller and I don't know if it could be supported by direct market competition, so the government will probably still support the Net.
But within the United States, if I can answer your question, the Net will become more commercial, and I think what we will start to see is that access to the Net will be a lot more like access to the telephone system and access to the postal system in that there will be providers, at least in the short term. It won't be exactly like this, but it will be like cable TV, telephone, buying electricity, buying gas, putting stamps on a package to send something. I don't know what exact form it will take, but I think that the government is going to get more and more out of the Net business and let private enterprise get more and more into the Net business.
We may see the days when many people have free access to the Net start to disappear. We may have to start paying for it, but I think that the prices will be reasonable and it will be worth it. I think that it is going to become such an important part of many people's lives that we can't do without it. After all, no matter what it costs, within reason, you have to have a telephone and you have to have access to the postal system and you pretty much have to be able to buy electricity and maybe gas if you need gas where you live, and the Net is going to be like that.
There's a company in the northeast United States that is going to start selling Net access through cable. You can buy access to the Net by plugging your computer into a coaxial cable. You won't have to get a regular modem and dial up a host computer. The advantage of this is that the direct hook-up will be closer to the speeds of an ethernet network as opposed to the speeds of a regular modem.
All these experiments that will start to happen in the United States over the next few years and we'll see what happens, which ones work out and which ones don't. There's going to be enormous change in the Net. There's something that just happened in the last year and it's hard to characterize, except we'll look back and we'll figure out what it was, that some great fundamental change happened in the Net and people are starting to perceive that it's a necessity of life, and now all of our culture, advertising, business, laws, government agencies, newspapers, public opinion is all going to start to be part of the Net like it is part of our newspapers, telephone, postal system and so on. We're going to embrace this part of our culture and things are going to change a lot.
Could I talk about why I think the Net is important?
Of course we have email which we can't do without now, and we have Gopher and Usenet and all these other things, but I think the Net is more important in another way. When you write books, it's a lot of work, and you have to sit home and you're all alone and you do all this work and you never get to meet the people who read the book and if they like them you never really get much praise from them because a book writer never really meets his audience.
So you have to have an inner drive that keeps you going. One of them is certainly money because that's how I earn my living, and people who write books, if they don't write, they don't make money. But I have a much larger drive here, at least in writing about the Internet and Unix, in that I think it has an importance that transcends the obvious things like email and Gopher and so on. I think that it's the most important vehicle for world peace that we've ever had the chance to use yet.
I trace back the events of the last twenty-five years that we really notice in the last five years: the change in the Soviet Union, the changes in China which are happening, the Berlin Wall falling, the Arabs and Israelis talking together, many many changes I believe.
I have a belief that people are inherently good. Not everybody all the time, but as a race we are good people, whatever "good" means.
Why is this happening now, why not before? Because information flows freely now from place to place. I have a belief that people are inherently good. Not everybody all the time, but as a race we are good people, whatever "good" means.
If we are allowed free and unfettered communication, free and adequate communication between ourselves, we will want to be peaceful, we will want to help each other, we will want to get along. Over the last two generations, as information began to be global with CNN news and satellites and all these things all over the place, that's when the world started to wake up and start working together and get along better.
I think that the potential for the Net for people to communicate is much larger than the newspapers and radio and television. I see the Net as being our best hope, in fact, our inevitable hope and it definitely will happen, for the world finally starting to become a global community and everybody just getting along with everyone else.
Now I don't mean this on a personal level. You'll still be fighting with the person next door. I mean that countries will start to get along. I mean that the economies of all the different countries and all the divisions within a country because of the Net and global trade and less tariffs and television, will become so dependent on one another that no one will be able to afford to make war anymore or to fight on a large scale and it will become unthinkable.
For example, it's absolutely unthinkable for the United States to go to war with Japan now. Even though there is a history of animosity, the two economies are so tied together it would be like you going to war with your foot. You couldn't shoot yourself in the foot because it would end up killing you.
The Net is tying together the world in such a way that the best of human nature comes out, and it's what is making the world more and more peaceful and more and more wonderful. It's the most important gift we have to leave the generations that come after us, and that's why it's so important for me to make the Net, and to make Unix accessible to people. Until people learn what they need to use these social organizations, none of this can happen.
The more people that learn how to use the Net, the more people participate in these transient social organizations, and the faster we evolve into a wonderful human culture that is really our birthright. I think we're just starting to see the potential of human beings, and the Net is starting to do that for us. In a very narrow sense and I'm being ignorant here all of human culture and history and effort so far has been sort of concentrating just so we can all get connected up together, and finally we are all getting connected up together and now we're going to see what happens.
This is really the beginning of human culture right now starting in the early 1990's, and what we're seeing is far more wonderful and exciting and interesting than anything that anybody ever dreamed of before. I really think that there is a watershed here, starting with computers in the 50's and the Net in the 80's and 90's, that you'll look back and everything before that will be called primitive times.
So how do you start when you're trying to write the COMPLETE reference to the Internet? I know you say early on in the book that knowing even any big part of the Net is probably beyond any of us. How do you take on a project like that?
Well, the way I did this is I said to myself "I imagine a person who is extremely literate in the sense that he knows how to use just about every important thing that's out there on the Net to at least a basic level." That's saying a lot. So I answered the question "What does a literate person need to know right now about how to use the Net?" So for example, if you read the chapter about Gopher, Veronica, and Jughead, you will learn what a literate person needs to know about Gopher, Veronica, and Jughead. That's how I went about doing it. The Internet Complete Reference is almost a misnomer, maybe a better title would be "What a Literate, Informed, Intelligent Person Should Know About Every Aspect of the Internet".
Be tough to put all of that on the cover though! We have previously talked about interfaces and how the Net is going to be made accessible to new users. You'd expressed something close to disdain in the book about the wide use of graphic interfaces as a solution to Unix as what is perceived to be an unfriendly system. Do you want to talk a little about where you think the interface trail is leading?
OK. You used the word "solution" and I really don't think that there is a problem here, or if there is a problem it's not what some people think the problem is. The problem is not that the Net is hard to use, the problem with Unix is not that Unix is hard to use.
Let's take a look at something simple like a newspaper. Almost everybody in the country over the age of whatever who learns to read can read a newspaper. Look how much work is involved in learning how to read a newspaper. I mean, you have to learn how to read, and that's difficult, it takes years. You have to learn the layout of the newspaper, you have to learn the conventions.
Reading the newspaper is actually a very difficult thing to learn how to do. If you took somebody who was raised away from culture, somebody raised by wolves on a desert island, and they might be the same age as you now and they might be able to speak English, but if you tried to teach them how to read a newspaper it might take years.
If you say a newspaper is difficult to learn how to read, the solution is not to make the newspaper easier, it's not to publish newspapers where everything is made in simple pictures because you lose too much. You gain so much by being able to express yourself in the newspaper in words and complex ideas and sentence structure, using grammar and layout and columns and continuations and pictures and so on, that you would lose too much if you said all newspapers have to be made up of simple pictures that people who don't know how to read can understand because that way they'll be accessible to everybody.
No, we don't do that. What we say is "If you want to be part of our culture, you have to learn how to read." If you want to use the Net and you want to use Unix and you want to use a program it's a mistake to say "Let's make it so easy that somebody on their first day or their first week will feel familiar with it and will feel at home and will find it easy." That would be just as much a mistake as saying "we can't have any written newspapers we can only have simple pictures that are delivered to your door every day."
The problem with people accessing the Net is the same problem that somebody has in accessing the newspaper who can't read. So, the solution is not to say the newspaper has to be all simple pictures, but that the person has got to learn how to read. There's not a problem that the Net is too hard, there's only people who haven't learned how to use it yet.
You can't make the Internet simple to learn, because it is not a simple thing.
You lose too much of the complexity by trying to make it too simple. You can't make it simple to learn because it's not a simple thing. You can't make a newspaper simple to read because it's not a simple thing. What you can do is build a tool that once a person learns it will be easy to use.
When we talk about making these easy to use, we have to distinguish between somebody that has experience, and somebody that doesn't. What we have to do is make things easier to use by people with experience. If we try to make everything easy to use for the people that don't have experience, then we end up watering everything down, and we end up losing the ability to express complex ideas and do complex things. Imposing an easy-to-use graphical user interface on many of the things on the Net isn't going to work.
What's necessary is to say not that the system is hard to use, in fact I'll explain in a minute the Internet is extremely easy to use for what it does. The problem is that it takes a while to learn it. So what we have to do is we have to help people learn how to access it, and we have to encourage them to keep trying because at the beginning it's not going to seem easy. We have to help people so that they will keep trying until it becomes second nature. Some people perceive that it's difficult, we have to change that perception.
One of the things is that a lot of people come to Net when they are already adults. I think what you will find is that the kids who are using the Net will learn how to use the stuff without any problem at all and they'll feel right at home and when they're 25 they won't understand why a 25 year-old would think that anonymous FTP is a difficult thing to learn how to use anymore than, at your age, you think how anybody could think that driving is difficult to use.
We really need to look at things in a different way. We have to let people know that what they are embarking on is worthwhile and is lot of fun and profitable and interesting, but it's going to be frustrating at the beginning. We have to resist the temptation to make it easy for newcomers. We want to make it easy for the population that's already in there not the new people coming in, and we want to make it easy for the new people coming in, in the sense that we encourage them and give them good instruction.
The Net works very well right now, it works very well with email and Usenet and Gopher and all these things that you can't pick up the first day, but once you learn how to use them the system works great. The idea behind RTFM is to recognize that there are always people who are learning, and that everybody is always learning something. So we have to have a tradition and a mechanism where you try to learn and teach yourself, and then once you try anyone is obligated to help you.
We could turn it around and make it more personal. Once you learn how to use a tool then you are obligated to teach anybody else as long as they've tried first. That's the tradition we're building up, and we need a tradition of better books for people to buy and better online documentation and so on. That's the solution, and that's what the real problem is. The Net isn't hard, it's just strange at the beginning.
Resist the temptation to try to make it look like what you already know. It's something different and you don't understand it. Try to just think of it as a culture and appreciate it over a period of months rather than thinking that you have to change it right away to make it easy. You have to change yourself, the Net isn't going to change. You have to mold into the society. Nobody asks you to give up your individuality, but you have to learn the rules and how they work, and that's what has to happen on the Net.
If there's a problem, it's that the Net is scary to begin with, and certainly we have to get folks from the point where they don't know how to do enough to the point where they are literate and can start helping other people. The GUI solution could very easily trim down the power of the system itself. I guess the other solution is to provide a friendly, frequently funny, easy-to-use book like the things you are writing.
The problem is not a computer problem, it's a person problem, so the solution won't be a computer solution like an interface. The solution is going to be the solution to what do you do with people who want to learn how to do something but they are scared of it.
If you can remember back to your first day of school, kindergarten or something, it was very scary and yet you did it anyway. A lot of things in our life we take on participation in new parts of our society. It's fearful in the sense that we don't know what to expect and we're not accepted yet and everybody knows more than we do, but we have to do it anyway because it's part of the rites of passage of being a human being in our culture.
The big difference between that and the Net is that if you feel this anxiety when you start to use it then nobody will drag you into it. I guess it's important for some books and I try to do it in my books to realize that, unlike going to school, people don't have to use the Net, and if they get scared at the beginning they might stop using it or they might stay away from the parts of it that they're anxious about and just stay in nice safe places.
I want them to explore and use everything. I make an effort to show people that it's really a social thing, and what you are really doing is communicating with other people and using the tools that other people have built.
We have to be very careful to walk the line between encouraging people to use this new global set of transient social organization and making them feel comfortable, and pandering to them. When people enter this new social organization there's a lot of new rules and new culture and nuances and their own language. They're confronting not the difficulty of initiation, they're confronting the demons that lie inside themselves.
The real problems are what lies inside everybody when they try something new, and the solution is not always to pander to that, but to tell people "I will help you, but you have to help yourself. I will help teach you things, but you have to want to bring out the best in yourself. You can feel a little fearful some of the time if it's new as a human being. But it's not scary. It's a wonderful, nurturing, comfortable place to be."
If you look at any social organization we've ever had, from living with one other person, to countries to communities, to businesses to non- profit organizations, this large global network that we call the Net works better than any organization we've ever had.
There's less fighting there's less bickering. It's a democratic anarchy. There's nobody in charge. There's no police, there's no rules, there's only etiquette and guidelines.
Wouldn't you love to live in a world where everything is run by etiquette rather than rules and law? And people enforce things because they want to be nice people and they voluntarily act nice rather than having police or parents or teachers telling you what to do.
That's what the Net is like. Most people are much nicer on the Net than they are in real life. The Net brings out the best in people. Any effort you put in to learn how to access and talk to the other people on the Net is going to pay you back much more than the effort that you put in.
I just want everybody to start using the Net and fulfilling themselves as a human being.
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