Efrem Lipkin

My parents had to deal with HUAC. I had the utterly surreal experience--I was in the Civil Rights Movement--I had this surreal experience... apparently a government agent tried to plant a copy of the Daily Worker on me.... [T]he privacy protection we want and that we historically needed -- is from the government.
Efrem Lipkin, at the CFP 1994 Encryption Panel.
Efrem Lipkin, along with Lee Felsenstein and Ken Colstad, founded the first community network system, Community Memory, in Berkeley, in order to facilitate the free exchange of information around the world. Participants could visit the network from the Public Library, or Milt's Laundromat, or a community center, or another public place, and read fora (at no cost), share their thoughts (for a quarter), or start a new forum (for a dollar). All the material on the network--a " discussion around Peoples' Park,"; forums on " Grateful Dead information", "Look before you Join,", "Senior Centers' Lunch Menus,", among other things; the " Vietnam Day Committee,", and "confessions of programming addicts,", and the list goes on--was created directly by community members.

Rock musician and activist Country Joe McDonald and a diverse group of volunteers instituted the "Alameda County War Memorial", a searchable database of all the county's war dead from the two World Wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, to which people could add names or personal messages. [The information in the preceding two paragraphs was culled from a much more complete history of public cyberspace.]

Lee Felsenstein, one of Lipkin's original partners at Community Memory, has this to say about its genesis:

"Industrialization and Privatization The village square is a commons - it belongs to no one but is used by all. The agora is a commons of information - a way of interacting. It is not property.

The process of industrialization began in England with the 'Enclosures Act' which deeded the village common grazing lands to whomever could build a fence around them. Needless to say, the landlords were the only ones who could raise the capital to do this, so the common lands went to them. This enabled them to enlarge their holdings and the resultant surplus of income over expenses provided the pool of capital upon which the process of industrialization was based. The peasants lost a source of food and were driven into dependence on what wages they could get from serving as hired labor to the landowner. All in all, a very tidy move by the landowners. Too bad about the resulting starvation and homelessness, but, of course, there were too many peasants, anyway. The whole thing was justified because the landowners could supposedly make more efficient use of the land than the peasants.

As urbanization proceeded, a somewhat similar process of privatization of the commons of information took place. The place where people could gather and exchange information began to lose its function to the gradually centralizing mass media. There was no money in an agora which could be concentrated at some central point. But a newspaper could command a price for advertising space. So small-town papers were supplanted by larger-scale publications which could underprice them. I remember vivdly the neighborhood shopping paper which was printed in a storefront in my native Philadelphia neighborhood. It was filled with little gossip items, each one of them of importance only to a small circle of people, but the totality of which chronicled and defined the life of the community (a Jewish neighborhood for more than one generation). It couldn't compete for advertising dollars with larger throwaways which printed only ads and 'boilerplate' generic news that was produced nationally.

All of the media had the characteristic of concentration. The only anomalies were the telephone system (but the directory was concentrated) and the postal system (which was socialized). All the rest became structured with a central point through which the information is funneled and from which information is distributed in identical form. I call this a 'broadcast' structure, and print media qualify as well as electronic media. I remember the moment in 1969 when I looked out my window down the street and saw the living room windows glowing with the blue light of TV. I realized that they were all getting their information from Walter Cronkite in New York, but that we had no ready way to get information from each other.

In the '60's I thought that the cause of re-establishing functioning communities could be served by the newly established 'underground press', and for a while I helped at the Berkeley Barb, one of the oldest such papers. But I saw the structure of that medium determine its economics and thereby its content., and by 1970 I knew that broadcast media were never going to serve the cause of decentralization of power within society.

An encounter that year with mainframe-based network computing (through learning Basic at the SDC training facilities) alerted me to the fact that such a network had no geographical restrictions and that information items could be made accessible to variously defined groups of users. It was clear to me that through computer networks it would be possible to support the information needs of an overlapping set of communities of interest. But where to get a computer in those days?

Fortunately, other people had come to the same conclusions and a group named Resource One, Inc. had formed in San Francisco to secure a timesharing computer for roughly this purpose. In August of 1973 we were able to try an idea proposed by Efrem Lipkin and placed terminals in public places (a record store in Berkeley, followed by a branch of the SF Public Library) which people could use as a bulletin board. We called it 'Community Memory'.

What happened was that an agora appeared, with an unknowable number of different needs, desires, suggestions, proposals, offers, statements, poems and declarations croppping up. We, who had expected only a few categories of classified-ad items, were amazed at the discovery. It became clear that the crucial element was the fact that people could walk up to the terminals and use them hands-on, with no one else interposing their judgment. The computer system was not interposing itself between the individuals who used it, either. It was serving a 'secondary' information function, like the telephone directory, except that you could make your own rules as to how you were listed. When you completed your transaction on the computer, you knew who you really wanted to talk with. The following transactions were carried out through other nonbroadcast media, mostly the phone. "

...and this to say about our future:
The Challenge

If it's going to survive, the agora of the future will have to be designed somewhat better from the perspective of non-technical users.

Right away, there will be objections from some quarters as to the desirability of letting in the non-techs. But they will be there whether we want them or not - the only question is whether the agora will be open or controlled for the benefit of a few. Technology matters. The personal computer took the form it did (with open architecture) because a hobbyist-based industry was free to set its own criteria without guidance from the investment community for the first two years of its life. IBM fielded the 5100, a thoroughly closed architecture machine, as soon as it could following the PC eruption in 1975. They had to withdraw that machine by 1979 and adopt open architecture in order to have impact in this marketplace. Even after they grabbed the market share with the 5150 (The IBM PC), they couldn't control the technology and close it up. The design continued to propagate like a virus through the technological body and has left them behind. Community Memory did not dissolve after the 1973 experiment. That system was turned off in January 1975 and the people involved decided to set up their own nonprofit corporation, The Community Memory Project, in 1977 in Berkeley. Under Lipkin's technical leadership we made a number of good calls (Unix, relational databases, X.25 as future leading technologies) and worked out a solution to the problem of system centralization through packet networking. It took longer than anticipated, but in 1984 we put up a pilot version of the intended system at four public locations in Berkeley. In 1989, assisted by a Telecommunications Education Trust grant from the California Public Utilities Commission, we put up a ten-terminal system using a front-end/back-end architecture. We have continued to upgrade the user interface and have brought it to the level of a stable design with designed-in upgrade paths. Most significantly, this was done without classical marketing research, but with direct involvement of a base of users over a number of years. This was 'patient capital' in action. Had we gone the usual for-profit route, we would have had a product out quickly, but it would have been indistinguishable from the others and designed with no input from users.

Douglas Schuler described Community Memory as 'a virtual People's Park' in his 1994 article, "Community Networks: Building a New Participatory Medium" :

Community Memory - A Virtual People's Park

Community Memory of Berkeley, California, created by Efrem Lipkin, Lee Felsenstein, and Ken Colstad, was the first community network [14]. Initially started in the mid 70's as a follow up to experiments conducted in 1972 and 1973 on unmediated two-way access to a message database through public computer terminals, Community Memory was conceived as a tool to help strengthen the Berkeley community. Their brochure states that "strong, free, non-hierarchical channels of communication - whether by computer and modem, pen and ink, telephone, or face-to-face - are the front line of reclaiming and revitalizing our communities." Their commitment to serving those without ready access to information technology is demonstrated by numerous training programs and their insistence that all Community Memory terminals be in public places: terminals can be found in libraries and in laundromats but can't be reached via modem or from the Internet. Community Memory has adopted a creative approach to funding: They offer coin-operated terminals which are free to read, but require 25 cents to post an opinion and a dollar to start a new forum.

Community Memory has pushed its principles to their logical limits. Anonymity, for example, is possible because users are not required to use their own name or register to use the system. Perhaps the most noteworthy of their convictions is that all of the information on the system is community generated. This has two important implications. The first is that no central authority of any kind establishes what information is available. The other is that information (such as Internet newsgroups) is not imported from other sites. One of their most noteworthy projects is the "Alameda County War Memorial Project" in which information on every deceased veteran in Alameda County is stored on the system. According to their newsletter, "Friends and family can share their thoughts and reminscences at the memorial screen of their friend or relative. This unique capability enables the Alameda County Veteran's Memorial to become a growing piece of community history."

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