What does m27590 know that you should know?

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

These days meetings seem as necessary as taxes and the weather, and sometimes one can get "meetinged out." What we wouldn't give for our own private clones who could leave us at home in an overstuffed chair while they dashed about the country, eavesdropping on the future, crashing important conferences, filtering through the boring babble, and sparing us from information overload.

All in favor?

The EIES have it

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EIES, which is pronounced "eyes" and translates without much poetry as the Electronic Information Exchanged System, is a "computer conferencing system" created at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. At this moment, some 700 people and institutions ranging from musicians to legislative assistants, from a neighborhood self-help center in Washington, D.C., to a French multinational corporation in Paris are "meeting" via the EIES network. They are discussing everything from nuclear war to family cornbread recipes.

Each member of an EIES conference types comments into a breadbox-size computer terminal attached to a telephone which connects to the "host computer" in New Jersey. The computer stores the message and delivers the electronic letter to whomever it was addressed. But EIES goes beyond this simple electronic mail system: The user can send a message to any or all of the system's 700 users.

Meetings "inside the computer" can go on for days, weeks, even months. You can join or leave the discussion whenever you like, and "listen" only to those comments that interest you. It is possible to participate in several conferences simultaneously and to have several people talking at the same time.

Sending an EIES message costs less than teletype, mailgrams, long distance phone calls, and, somtimes, even an ordinary letter. To participate you need a "dumb" terminal (one that hooks into the computer) which can be built from scratch for $200, or purchased secondhand for $500 or new for $2,000-$3,000. Monthly membership is $66, and a long distance telephone line costs $3.75 per hour (compared with about $24 an hour for regular coast-to-coast telephone calls).

And you needn't be a computer whiz. In half an hour anyone can learn enough to start wandering about the "hallways" of EIES and snooping in "meeting rooms" for a "public" or "private" conference. If you're bored with the "menu," introduce yourself to other EIES users, pick a subject, and begin brainstorming:

M27590 Rhoda Lela Epstein (Rho, 217) 8/28/79.m

It is with great pleasure that I introduce to you Paul Holman. Paul creates holistic communications environments. Calling himself a visual musician, Paul's recent work includes the New York State Fair videosphere, 80 feet by 60 feetby 30 foot high inflatable dome equipped with three General Electric large-screen color video projectors/multi-image video projection theater/17 minutes presentation called "The future is hear." Paul will be messaging you directly. You can send to him, too.m

The EIES system, designed by computer specialist Murray Turoff, was originally funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support a network of "invisible colleges," geographically dispersed academics and scientists whi wished to exchange research findings rapidly among themselves. EIES is now self-sufficient, but the NSF still funds the LegiTech project within EIES. This project allows workers in 25 stale legislatures to exchange questions and leads on scientific and technical matters of interest to the legislatures. For example, a legislative assistant in Massachusetts could send out an inquiry or quickly convene an EIES conference on: "Have any states tried the 'energy stamp' approach to assist low-income persons in paying their energy bills?" or "What are the alternatives to rock salt on highways?" or "Has your state passed any laws restricting the construction of nuclear power plants?"

(Computer conferencing, which can be an effective tool in crisis management, appeared in the early. 1970s with EMISARI -- Emergency Management Information System and Reference Index.) EMISARI was used by the President's Office of Emergency Preparedness to monitor various crises from the 1974 truckers' strike to a voluntary petroleum allocation program.

While EIES is used mainly by the academic and scientific community, the number of neighborhood and grass-roots organizations using the system is growing. The Neighborhood Information Sharing Exchange (NISE), funded by HUD, is a member of EIES and acts as a switchboard for hundreds of neighborhood groups. Anyone in the US can dial NISE's toll-free number (800) 424-2852) and find out what other communities are doing about urban gardening, historic preservation, downtown revitalization, and "red-lining" by local banks.

9/26/79 It was one of those six-foot days, with paper rolling off the computer terminal, exciting and staggering. Peter and Trudy in Denver with Robert Theobald asking me if I can find out about current status of cable-TV in Portland. Sandy Emerson, with Village Design wanting to know if I can sendm her some information about bartering and swapping in the 1930s. Jo Tara sends a message about community electronic bulletin boards around the country which is quickly added to by Jim Whitescarver. . . ."m

Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz are electronically known on EIES as "p&t." They are "teleconsultants" and design what they call "groupware," the application of computer "software" to group communications.

The couple operates out of their home in Lake Oswego, Ore., and take distinct pride in "working as a team." Over the telephone, one quickly understands what they mean by "team." A conversation with the Johnson-Lenzes feels like an afternoon's encounter with a pair of well-choreographed tag-team wrestlers. On the phone together they speak in round robin paragraphs, deposit words and facts into each other's sentences, and convene periodic powwows with their hands over the phones.

After our conversation was over, I was hard pressed to decipher from my notes: Did Trudy speak the first half of that sentence or was it Peter? Oddly enough, their teamwork is done with such intelligence and grace that one almost forgets there are two people on the other end of the line, and comes away thinking of the composite voice as "p&t."

"Though we work very heavily with the computer," p&t say, "we don't care about the technology. It's just a tool that will allow us to bring about the social change we think is important. There are new ideas emerging which need to be defused. Information is our stock and trade."

The Johnson-Lenzes wear many hats in EIES. They are "volunteer user consultants" which apparently means they can act as coach, referee, and cheering section to others in the network. They also work as a Lewis and Clark team, exploring for foundations and government agencies new ways to improve group communications through the computer; subsequently they end up "Robin hooding" the new "groupware" back to users of EIES.

The johnson-Lenzes developed a system called TOPICS for NSF's LegiTech project and afterward used it to hold "computer parties" between small towns in the Southwest which wanted to exchange information on how to deal with the impact of rapid growth from energy development. Mayors, city councilors, business people from towns with names like Craig, Gunnison, Rifle, Cortez, and Meeker "talked" with each other over EIES about controlling growth and preserving cultural heritage.

The Johnson-Lenzes recently designed the TOUR system. A series of scenario which futurist Robert Theobald wrote for the US Department of Agriculture were fed into the system, and any "tourist" at a computer terminal can wander through these future scenarios, rating them, occasionally commenting. The tourist travels in a nonlinear fashion, picking and choosing as he goes, changing direction whenever he likes. no two "future" tourists follow the same path.

Now the Oregon couple is using TOURS on EIES on a project called VISIONS AND TOOLS. In the first round, participants are exploring how in 10 or 20 years community energy programs could solve energy problems that big government and business failed to solve. Among the first 16 "visions" were scenarios from a Department of Transportation official, a surveyor in Portland, a futures class at Antioch West in Seattle, and a passenger one EIES user happened to meet on the train.

"We're trying to tap the fascination of thinking positively about the future, " p&t say. "We ask people to write their visions and share them with each other. Then others in the system rate the vision, react, and share tools that can make those visions real. The tools might be anything from a book to a blueprint or person to contact. Government and big corporations are always forecasting the future but we believe that the future is something we can create depending on how we imagine it. There are alternatives."

And there are problems. Computer conferencing has its drawbacks. You don't get the grins, grimaces, and winks of a face-to-face conversation. It's not cost-effective if you want to talk with someone who lives down the street. It lacks the immediacy of personal communication. Given the typical time lags between response on EIES, you might send a message of great urgency and not hear anything for days, weeks. The message just might vanish forever without so much as a peep of recognition. EIES can also have the same effect as salted peanuts and late-night television. You forget there are other things in life like getting to work on time and taking out the garbage.

Another problem shared by Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz is known as "nodeness" or being "overnoded." (In network lingo a "node" is someone who is a source of information.) They have become such a valuable resource in the EIES network that they sometimes receive up to 80 messages a day. To their advantage, however, they can "pick up their mail" at their convenience and aren't plagued by the constant ring of the telephone (nevertheless a piece of technology which they stress is an essential complement to EIES).

"We like to stay up late at night and, given half the chance, we like to sleep late in the morning," p&t say. "We do most of our work on EIES and are liberated from an 8 to 5 schedule. We work late and leave messages on EIES for people who get up early on the East Coast."

Steve Johnson of the Portland Community Resources Center has written a booklet about his experience on EIES, a system he describes as am sophisticated form of "networking."

Says Mr. Johnson: "A networker is someone who makes connections (linkages) between people or between people and resouces. Networks have formed around an issue (movements), or around special interests (invisible colleges), or because of the need to share resources in order to survive (skill exchanges, personal support/self-help groups). People-to-people networking has gone on for centuries, and the next step in its evolution is electronic networking. People are reaching for new forms of social and community organization and I'm not sure it can be done without a certain kind of electronic technology."

While Johnson is relatively new to computer conferencing, he has been networking for the last decade. It began, he says, one day in 1970 when he received the Last Whole Earth Catalogue in the mail. The publishers had printed in the back of the magazine a list of all the subscribers. Recalls Johnson: "It flashed in my head: "This is a network. I have something in common with all these people.'"

Soon thereafter Johnson opened the "Homegrown Library" in Portland which offered, among other things, a community written novel into which anyone could add on a consecutive paragraph. In 1971 he published the Portland People's Yellow Pages, which he later supplemented with a "skills bank." He then helped found RAIN magazine, a sort of I.F. Stone's Weekly of appropriate technology journals.

"The Whole Earth Catalogue is a book of things. RAIN gives access to people, " Johnson says. "I always thought it was funny when daily newspapers ran an article on some incredible project but never told the reader how to find out about it. It's like the project existed in some never-never land. When a book or organization is listed in RAIN [which has a circulation of 5,000 readers] you'll have over 100 people writing them for information," Mr. Johnson says.

He sees EIES as a natural extension of his face-to-face networking and believes the argument that the technology of computer conferencing is dehumanizing "is simply a red herring." According to him, EIES shouldn't be any more threatening than the telephone. What's more, it has umpteen advantages over traditional forms of meeting. Among computer conferencing's credits that Mr. Johnson itemizes:

* You can respond to questions and ideas when you are ready; you don't have to think on your feet but can ponder and compose responses.

* You can take a meeting with you. A "dumb" terminal is the size of a portable typewriter, will slide under your airplane seat, and can be plugged into telephones anywhere. The Johnson-Lenzs have friends on the EIES circuit who get off trains, plug into the nearest pay telephone, and transmit back to Oregon.

* Meetings are automatically documented.

* It is impossible to be shouted down. On the whole, it is difficult for a domineering personality to control an EIES conference. Everyone has an equal "voice." Those more adept at written communication, of course, have a slight edge.

* You can write things you wouldn't dare get up and say in a meeting. It is also possible on EIES to post anonymous notices in a public conference notebook.

* You can talk behind other's backs. While a conference is under way an EIES user can "whisper" a private message to someone else attending the meeting.

* You can exchange serious bits of information on EIES or just use it at the "pen pal" or CB chatter level. Group messages can be sent in a Christmas letter fashion.

3/12/79 I entered several comments in the General Systems Conference and just realized I have not gotten any response, and in fact, since I entered my comments the dialogue has come to a standstill on the conference in general. Was it something I said. What gives?m Leif Smith, a former EIES user in Denver, spent 3 1/2 years developing his own computer-based network in Colorado, called the Open Network. Started in 1975 as the Denver Open Network, it was intended to "matchmake" local skills and talents. For a $30 access fee users were put in touch with professional networkers or "weavers" who used the computer and "brokered" information to their clients on anything from food co-ops to community organizing. In the last five years the Open Network has spread to 25 states and 8 foreign countries including Australia, Singapore, West Germany, Mexico, and Canada.

"Users" (Mr. Smith says the network has "users" not members) of the Open Network span the political spectrum from antinuclear to strongly pronuclear, from the right-wing Christian Patriotic Defense League to the Communist-Anarchist Party of Canada. Mr. Smith's only requirement is that whenever participating in the network users are "neutral in regard to political and scientific questions, open and responsive to anybody, no matter what the level of their quest."

He adds: "We need to talk with people we disagree with. If they ask questions that we are uncomfortable with, that may mean we're on the edge of learning something. We want people to come to us with strange half-baked ideas, lots of innovation. Some guy came in the other day with a scheme to scatter solar-powered electric generators throughout the national parks so campers could come and plug into them. Imagine that, a wilderness traveler plugging in his Apple [computer] and microwave transmitter and being in touch with someone in the next valle."

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