The Internet - Revolution through Evolution
Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University, Canberra
For: Councils, Communities and the IT Revolution Conference, Local Government Association of Queensland, 13 December 1999, Brisbane
Draft 1.1, 6 December 1999: http://www.tomw.net.au/papers/ccit99.html
- Who is using the Net and Why
- E-mail as the key to Internet Communication
- Information Search and Making Your Organisation Findable
- E-commerce for beginners
- Policy for privacy, security, access and education
Media reports suggest that the Internet is new, complex and expensive technology which only a few overseas organisations have the resources to harness effectively. Tom Worthington argues that Internet concepts and technology aren't that new or difficult. He demonstrates how the expertise already exists in Australia to exploit the Internet and how small local organisations can use it at low cost.
Tom Worthington will use examples from his book "Net Traveller, Exploring the Networked Nation", to illustrate:
- Who is using the Net and Why,
- E-mail as the key to Internet Communication,
- Information Search and Making Your Organisation Findable,
- E-commerce for beginners,
- Policy for privacy, security, access and education.
Tom will relate some experiences of using the Internet at locations as diverse as the floating command center of the US 7th Fleet and a bus in Cambridge. He blends a technological travelogue, with an exploration of technical and social issue in the Internet. He will give a live demonstration using the Internet, showing real examples in response to audience questions.
This presentation is a conference of Local Government addressing communities and the IT revolution. This is a refreshing change for me from commercially orientated "how to make a dollar on the 'net" events. The Internet was developed with an academic community spirit in mind and those who treat it as a form of digital shopping channel are not only missing the point but may well waste a lot of money.
As a technologist I find little technically new or challenging in the Internet. It is literally just a "network of networks". What is new and challenging is learning to use it effectively. You don't need a lot of technology or money to do this, but some patience and practice. Australia has the expertise to exploit the Internet and I hope to show you how small local organisations can use it at low cost. To do that I will use examples from my book "Net Traveller, Exploring the Networked Nation". The book itself is an example of use of Internet techniques for community benefit.
From media reports you would get the impression that big organisations, particularly media organisations are the ones making the running on the Internet. But many smaller organisations and individuals are using the 'net. Also large organisations Internet effort started with the work of individuals.
The second chapter of my book "Vision for a Networked Nation was originally written with Roger Clarke in May 1994 (Clarke et al. 1994). The purpose was to establish the policy of the Australian Computer Society, in relation to the public interest in network services. It was submitted to assorted Government enquires , including the Broadband Services Expert Group and the Senate Standing Committee on Industry, Science, Technology, Transport, Communications and Infrastructure. We argued the importance of the public's interest in the information infrastructure:
The Internet and the culture surrounding it cannot be understood on the basis only of corporations seeking to exploit resources. The net has long been a playground for individuals, and a significant proportion of the traffic has been of little direct benefit to their employers. It has been of great indirect importance, however, as it has resulted in the foundation of electronic communities, and an explosion of creativity.
Access to networked resources is quickly assuming the shape of a public utility, i.e. a service that needs to be available to all, on an equitable basis. Advanced western societies have recognised clean water, electricity and the telephone as facilities that the majority of people should have access to. In the same manner, network access becoming a reasonable expectation a civilised information society. However, unlike many utilities, an information infrastructure must support a great diversity of services.
Closely associated with the rise of the Internet has been the re-definition of the notion of library. Documents are increasingly coming into life in electronic form and made available via the Internet.
The librarianship profession is adapting by reducing its curatorship function and accentuating its knowledge navigation expertise. Libraries for many years have been the way equitable access to knowledge, and to literature, have been provided to people in all walks of life. Equity of access to the new, dispersed electronic library must be sustained.
A necessary condition for public access to network services is the widespread ability to use them. Public book-libraries could only be of benefit where social programs were instituted to promote literacy in the population. The notion of literacy, and the focus of literacy programs, needs to reflect the new electronic environment.
The whole population needs skills in order to operate computer equipment and use the basic application software. Moreover, the nature of the media makes new styles of communication necessary. For example, replying to email demands care with the selection of addressees. Commenting on documents, and on other people's comments about documents, requires some form of linking arrangements or text to ensure that recipients understand to what the comment relates.
The people who wrote the Australian Constitution at the end of the nineteenth century recognised that equitable, universal access to transport and telecommunications services was fundamental to the cohesion of the federation. Roads, telegraph and telephone links were critical to the agrarian and emergent industrial society of 1894. A century later, equitable, universal access to the much wider range of networking services is at least as critical to the cohesion of our information-based society.
A further important aspect of telephone services, is the freedom from monitoring of and interference with conversations. The cluster of rights associated with freedom of thought, freedom of communication and freedom of assembly must be embedded in the conception and architecture of the information infrastructure.
Our submission warned of dominance of the Internet by corporate interests:
- entertainment industry: suppliers of broadcast, narrowcast and direct-to-the-home (cable) television services, and owners of film libraries;
- news industry: newsgathering and news-reticulation services, broadcasting corporations, and television services providers;
- data owners: including national statistical offices and book-publishers;
- telcos: which provide basic telecommunications services;
- value-added network (VAN) providers;
- government agencies: especially those concerned with crime investigation and national security; and
- hi-science and advanced technology research: in particular supercomputing facilities and visualisation techniques.
The ethos of the Internet favours the general good of its electronic citizens, not sectional self-interest, and this ethos needs to permeate the networked nation. For the public to have confidence in the information infrastructure, the decision-making process about its architecture needs to be undertaken with the maximum practicable degree of participation and visibility.
A few weeks before this conference I was interviewed on ABC Longreach Radio. To get some local content I did a web search on "Longreach". This returned about 5000 "hits" (or web pages). Within a few clicks I knew a reasonable amount about the region:
- Weather URL: http://www.wunderground.com/global/stations/94346.html
- Longreach Shire Council URL: http://www.gla.com.au/~lsc/index.html
- ABC Online - Local News URL: http://www.abc.net.au/news/regionals/default.htm
- Longreach School of Distance Education URL: http://www.longreacsde.qld.edu.au/lsodelinks.html
- Mark Kleinschmidt BUSH POET Longreach Qld Australia URL: http://www.frenchviss.qld.edu.au/bushpoet.htm
- Longreach Student Hostel Home Page URL: http://www1.tpgi.com.au/users/lschostl/index.html
- Welcome Home Hotel Motel, Longreach, QLD URL: http://www.finalword.com/Accommodation_1998/b1070-qld.htm
- Travel Australia - Travel and Accommodation in Queensland Australia URL: http://www.travelaustralia.com.au/state_qld.html
Some points about this information:
- Only some are from "for profit" organisations: Some of the sites listed are advertising supported, few are directly marketing products. Several are government sites for educational or information service purposes.
- Sum more than the parts: Whilke each site may be some use, they are of more value when used together.
The basic tool of the Internet is electronic mail. While the web might be glamorous, plain old text based e-mail is the first and most important tool to master. It will do you or your organisation no good if clients are impressed by your web site, but then can't contact you by e-mail or are put off by unprofessional mail responses.
From 12 to 27 November 1996 I travelled to Windsor and Cambridge in the UK. The main reason was an invitation to a meeting on the Internet publishing and professional licensing issues by the British Computer Society to the ACS and others. Also there was the opportunity to visit IT researchers. More generally, I had been addressing various issues to do with on-line publishing and wanted to collect my thoughts on the issue and perhaps set them down for presentation. Cambridge, as a city of learning, appeared the ideal place to do this.
As usual I did a combined travelogue and report on the meetings, which formed the chapter "Cambridge live from a Double Decker Bus. The usual split between personal holiday snaps and dry official reports is to me uninteresting and artificial. One conclusion from my trip is that the personal aspect is important to IT and lacking from the general approach in Australia.
The travelogue started out as a request for suggestions as to what and who to see in the UK. To organise the trip on-line I made extensive use of e-mail. In fact I made no telephone calls, faxes or e-mails to arrange an extensive program of visits. But as President of the ACS invited to the UK by my British counterpart, I had access to more than an ordinary tourist would. ;-)
There were still difficulties, such as my Australian Internet provider accidentally sending 3,500 e-mail error messages to me in the UK.
In "How to Read and Write E-mail Messages", I discuss how to read and write e-mail:
To write good e-mail messages you first need to know how to read them. Initially you will be excited by the novelty of receiving messages from around the world. This will change within a few days to worry about coping with the volume of material and trying to filter useful content from the rubbish...
- Pre-sort with multiple addresses
- Read in batches
- Sort by subject
- Use folders
- Apply filters
- Get less e-mail while `away'
- Be a critical reader
... Separate addresses allow the people who write to you to sort your mail for you. If you have a special function or project, that is likely to generate a lot of mail, then create a special address for it. You can then let that mail build up until you need to read it (or have it forwarded to someone else and not read it at all).
Do not read each message as it arrives, let the mail build up and read it in batches. How often you read the mail depends on how much you get and how important the particular e-mail address is to you. I read my work mail about every fifteen minutes while at my desk and my ACS mail once or twice a day.
In this way, you can exploit one of e-mail's great advantages over the telephone: you do not have to be interrupted continuously by it.
When you have a batch of e-mail to read, do not just read it one item at a time in the order it arrived. You can use the features of your e-mail software to sort items to make them easier to handle.
I usually sort items by subject. Good e-mail authors will use a descriptive subject line on their messages. Usually e-mail will be sent to several people, who will then reply to the list. Good authors will use the original subject when replying, so if you sort by subject you will get the thread of conversation, ready for easy reading.
If your e-mail package cannot sort mail, then get a new one which can. Otherwise, you are going to waste a very large amount of your time.
After you have sorted by subject, look down the list and see if there are any very interesting topics. Open the first item of the most interesting topic. If this is not interesting then close it and have a quick look at the authors of the other items on this topic. If there is not anyone interesting, then do not bother opening any other items, just delete them all and go on to the next subject.
When you do find an item of interest, quickly read other messages on that subject. Do not send any replies or act, until you have looked through all the items. Most likely what you were going to say or do has already been said or done by one of the other authors already.
Do not leave mail in your in-tray after you have read it. If it is not worth keeping, then delete it. If you need to keep it put it in an appropriate folder. Otherwise, your in-tray will become unmanageable in a few days.
Occasionally you will get continual mail you do not want or not want to look at immediately. The first step if you do not want the mail is to ask the sender not to send it. However, this may not work and you will get repeated unwanted messages. You can then set a filter on you mail system to remove items from that address or topic from your in-tray. You might have these put straight in the bin, forwarded to someone else, or put in a special folder which you can look at occasionally.
There are many clever technical ways to read your e-mail while travelling. For several years I have explored the limits of where mail can be read; in hot air balloons, on warships, snow skis and in trains (Worthington 1994). However, you do need a break occasionally. First, reduce the volume of mail:
- Cancel services that automatically send you mail
- Tell people you are away and who to contact
- Set an automated reply ``vacation'' function, if you have one, to reply with a recorded message
- Redirect non-personal e-mail addresses to work colleagues
You might want to break the rules about letting mail build up, while away and just handle the essential items. You can forward mail to yourself at another address (useful for when people send work items to your personal address). You can also send yourself e-mail as a way to file electronic documents.
Before going away test that the measures you have put in place actually work. Check the automated reply function is working. It should be able to only reply once to each sender, not to every message received. Preferably, it should not reply to messages from mailing lists at all.
Check you have actually unsubscribed from mailing lists. A badly behaved auto-reply function could annoy thousands of people, by sending everyone on every list unwanted replies in your name.
When reading e-mail retain a sceptical attitude to the message. Remember it may not be from whom it appears to be from or they may not be honest. If you get what appears to be an offer that is too good to be true, it probably is.
Look carefully at the address the message claims to be from: is it plausible? Did the sender include non-email contact details you can use for verification? Does the e-mail address match the name and contact details?
Messages that have subject lines like: ``Read this!'' and ``Check this out!'' are usually unsolicited advertising material and should be discarded. You may want to tell the sender not to send any more, but first check the address the mail was sent to. If the mail was not sent directly to you, but to a mail list you are on, do not reply. The sender may not have your address, just that of the list. Ask the maintainer of the list to do something about it.
Remember that while e-mail messages can be faked, they are formal written communications and can be used as evidence in court. If you receive a message indicating an improper or unlawful activity, you should refer it to the appropriate authorities for investigation.
- Do not write messages that will not be read
- Set up your e-mail system
- Write messages to be read
- Use a descriptive summary
- Check the spelling
- Use small attachments sparingly, in common formats
- Provide complete web addresses in mail messages
- Quote just enough of messages in replies
- Know to whom you are writing and reply to the minimum number
- Do not reply in haste or anger
- Keep the messages you send
Most messages are replies to other messages. Remember that you are not the only one who gets more mail than they can read. Before adding to the problem consider that the recipient most likely will not read the message you are going to send.
Before you write, check if someone else has already said it, or are likely to. Do you have something useful to contribute, or are you just trying to show off? Do you need to write to a large group, or would a reply to a few individuals do? Do you need to write now, or can it wait? Are you angry or upset and likely to say something you will regret? Do not write now, or at least do not send the message now.
Make sure that your e-mail system is set up to add the appropriate information to messages and test it works. Each message should automatically include your return address, name and a signature block on messages. Check you correct e-mail address is sent and test it by sending someone a message and having them reply...
Consider your message from the point of view of the reader. Compose a subject line that is a summary of the message and indicates what you want the reader to do. Do not send subjects like ``important information'' or ``please read this'', as your message will likely be treated as junk mail.
Send your mail from the correct e-mail address. If it is official correspondence from an organisation, use the official e-mail system to send it. Do not use your organisation's e-mail system for personal correspondence, unless this is authorised.
The first few lines of the message should be a summary and indicate what action you want the reader to take. Unlike paper correspondence, you should have the conclusion at the start of the message, not the end. Remember that the reader will see only the first 10 to 20 lines of the message on screen. If those lines are not interesting, they will delete the message without reading further.
Check the spelling of the message before sending it. Numerous spelling errors will result in the content of your message being discounted, regardless of its worth. If your e-mail package does not include a spell checker, you can copy the text to your word processor for checking.
A lot of time is wasted by people sending mail messages with large word processing documents attached. Many of these are in formats incompatible with the recipient's system. Most would be better sent just as text e-mail. Many include letterheads with graphics and images of autographs, which add nothing to the information content of the message, but waste network bandwidth and storage space.
If you have a document to send which includes formatting and diagrams essential to the topic, then attach it to the message. However, attachments can cause problems and they should be avoided where possible. Describe the attachment in the message and explain why you are sending it. Use common formats for attachments (RTF for word processing documents). Check you actually did attach the attachment, before sending the message.
If a document is an early draft, or does not rely on any formatting, then send it as plain text in the body of a message, not as an attachment. If some of your recipients are unlikely to be able to receive attachments, then send the text as well as the attachment. If the document is very large, then just send a summary and offer to provide it on request. If it is public then put it on the web and include the URL in the mail message. If your organisation has a secure web site, put the large documents there and tell authorised readers it is there with mail.
Some mail packages allow two versions of the message to be sent: one in plain text and the other in HTML. Unless you know your recipients can read HTML in the body of mail messages, just send plain text. Otherwise, your readers get a poorly formatted text message with a whole lot of HTML code appended.
A good way to communicate is to send a short e-mail message and provide details on the web. However, you need to include a complete, correct web address. Use a complete Universal Resource Locator (URL) in mail messages, such as http://www.tomw.net.au/nt/
Many e-mail systems can automatically detect web addresses and allow the recipient to open the document just by clicking on it (if your mail system does not do this, it would be worth considering an upgrade). In paper correspondence, it is usual to leave ``http://'' off a web address. Do not do this in e-mail, as the software may then not recognise this as a valid address.
Do not type a URL into a mail message. It is very easy to mis-type an address. Open your web browser, bring up the web page on the screen and then copy the URL from the browser to the message. Check for extraneous characters next to the URL, which might be confused for part of the address (such as a period after it). It is very frustrating for your readers to get a URL that does not work and embarrassing for you to have to issue an apology and correction.
Most of the messages you write will be replies to other messages. You need to quote enough of the message being replied to, to make sense of your answer, but no more. The recipient needs some context as they may not have received the original message, may not remember it or know which it is. However, they do not want the whole of their message quoted back at them.
Use the ``reply'' function on your e-mail system to generate a reply message to the sender. This should prefix the originator's subject with ``re:'', quote the time and date of the message, add addressees and quote all the text of the original message. If your mail system does not have this function, upgrade to one that has. Some mail systems quote the original message at the end of the reply and do not let you easily edit it. If you have one of these systems, it is time to get a new e-mail product.
Do not send back the whole of a message with a reply, this is calculated to annoy. Cut the original message down to the essential points you want to address.
Address each point in the original message, in the order given. If there is a general point you want to make, then make that first. If you were asked to comment on a document, then give suggested alternative wording, rather then just general comments.
Check what other comments have already been made on this subject. Has what you are going to say already been said? You might want to summarise several responses from others and add something extra, rather than send several replies.
Before you send a reply, check to whom it is going. Do you need to reply to everyone on the list? Do you know who these people are? Is this a public mailing list you want to be quoted in? Are these people from outside your organisation? Is the sender's address genuine or is the message fraudulent?
I make it a practice to wait until the next day before sending most mail messages. Before dispatch I review each item and frequently make changes or delete replies. If your e-mail system does not allow you to hold items for later dispatch, then upgrade to one that does. This can save much embarrassment.
Occasionally you will want to write an angry and impassioned mail message. Write it, but do not send it until you have calmed down. It is almost never a good idea to send an angry message. Remember that these are formal written communications and you can face civil and criminal court proceedings because of an e-mail message.
If it is worth writing a message, it is worth keeping. Create folders for topics and keep a copy of mail sent in the appropriate folder. Do not leave mail in the out-tray, as it will quickly become unmanageable.
In "How to Read and Write E-mail Messages", I also discussed how to read web pages. As with e-mail, is essential to understand how to read a web page, before designing one or making it findable.
There are millions of documents on the web. The problem is finding the information you want and verifying its accuracy.
When someone gives you a Universal Resource Locator (URL) address for a web page, examine the details. First, is it complete? Many addresses given verbally or in a printed document do not work. Addresses can be incomplete or incorrectly transcribed. While you still have the source of the address available (for example a person), check the address is syntactically correct.
If the address looks syntactically correct, is it plausible? Most URLs include the country, type of organisation and the organisation acronym. Is the country appropriate? It should be AU for an Australian organisation. Is the domain type relevant? It should be GOV for a government organisation, or COM for commercial. Does the organisation acronym match the organisation? For example, http://www.acs.org.au/ suggests this is the home page of the ACS (.acs.) and it is a non-commercial organisation (.org.) in Australia (.au).
Open the document in your browser and look at the top and the bottom of the page. These should indicate who the page is from and their contact details. Are these details consistent with the address?
Who prepared the document? Who sponsored it? When was it last updated? Is there a link from a web page you trust?
If there are any inconsistencies, open the source code for the document and examine the comments and meta-data tags in the head section. The meta-data and comments, if present, should match the visible details of the document.
Sometimes legitimate pages are at odd locations. For example, at some time the Canberra Tourism, ACT Government, SBS and AIIA home pages were under my web address. This was officially sanctioned and reflected both in the visible content and the comments.
Web search engines are very useful for finding documents. There are specialised engines for particular topics (Madden 1996). The average user will just type in as many words as they can think of. You should be able to do a bit better, applying professional skills in information retrieval, using boolean search syntax. Some search engines allow meta-data searches for more precise control.
To save on bandwidth, turn off graphics in your web browser. If there is a page that does not make sense, then turn on graphics just for that page. In addition, you might want to tell the owner of the page their design needs improvement. There are some people who do not have the option of graphics, such as the blind.
As an example, think of someone looking for information about Longreach. I simply typed in "Longreach", thinking it wasn't a common word and got a good result. But imagine the more cautions person, who searches for "Longreach Queensland Australia". While they still get more than 3000 hits, these are not the same web sites as before. Several of the local sites we saw before haven't used the words "Queensland" or "Australia" and so don't appear.
It is important to think about what your readers might know or look for and cater for them. The mechanics of keywords and search engine operations are less important than just putting the appropriately descriptive words somewhere in your web pages.
Much of the current media discussion of e-commerce is about "B2C", that is business to consumer. This is simply, in most cases, a replacement of mail order, with its web equivalent. This has proved very popular in the USA, where mail order catalogues have been popular. We have yet to see if it will be similarly popular in Australia.
Small organisations and individuals wanting to do e-commerce need to add a secure payment system to their web site. This can be as simple as asking the client to contact you through regular means to make the payment, or asking for a credit card number. It is not a good idea to ask for credit card details via e-mail, as most consumers lack the encryption facilities to send details securely. The Net Traveller web site offers options ranging from conventional paper mail, fax, telephone and secure web payment. It also suggests book stores and library supply companies for those who prefer conventional procurement methods. Most orders in fact come via the library supply companies and conventional fax or phone, not by web orders. Some Internet Service Providers now provide web catalogue and secure facilities as a no cost option for those with medium to large web sites.
Commercial on-line providers are discovering what Government Internet users knew long ago: policies for privacy, security, access and education are important. People will be turned away from web sites and organisations which don't treat the client information with respect and which are intelligible.
An extreme example of the need for policy is described in "To The USS Blue Ridge by Helicopter", my book chapter on a visit to military exercise Tandem Thrust 97:
The 620-foot 18,500 ton, 1550 crew USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) is a purpose built Command and Control ship. The primary function is as the flagship of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. The secondary function as a command ship for Amphibious Task Force and Landing Force Commanders during fleet operations and as a flagship for the Commander Joint Task Force (CJTF), as in Tandem Thrust 97.
In 1996, I received an odd request in my e-mail at the Department of Defence: the Texas National Guard wanted to know what the weather was like in central Queensland. They were scheduled to take part in something called Exercise Tandem Thrust 97 and wanted to know what to bring. I forwarded the request to Australian Defence Force HQ and thought nothing more about it for several months. Then, as described below, an e-mail invitation resulted in my visiting the exercise in a borrowed uniform.
The striking point about most of the computer equipment used by the military is how ordinary it is. These are ordinary commercial, off-white coloured PCs, workstations, laptops and printers. The equipment may be held down (because of the movement of a ship or vehicle) using an assortment of straps and racks, or green gaffer tape. However the equipment and concerns of its users are ordinary.
What distinguishes the military application of Internet technology perhaps is the way policies are taken more seriously. The security of the systems is protected by encryption devices, but can be overridden by deliberate or careless acts. This requires polices to be spelt out, explained and enforced. The same needs to be done by any organisation which does business on-line.
Clarke, R. and Worthington, T. (1994) Vision for a Networked Nation - The Public Interest in Network Services, Australian Computer Society, URL
Net Traveller - Exploring the Networked Nation, ACS 1999, Edition 2, ISBN 0 909925 77 1 (Edition 1, 21 July 1999 was ISBN 0 909925 74 7)
Tom Worthington is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology at the Australian National University. He is an electronic business consultant, author and information technology professional, with 17 years experience in information technology, including nine years on high level IT policy and five in Internet applications. He was the first Web Master for the Australian Department of Defence. In 1999 he was elected a Fellow of the Australian Computer Society for his contribution to the development of public Internet policy.
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