“CPSR’S Norbert Wiener Award: A Fitting Legacy for the First Cyber-Activist” – Daniel Borenstein
I’m going to talk today about the Norbert Wiener award, its past and it’s lack of a present and it’s potential future. First, just a couple of words about Dr. Wiener’s own activism. In this crowd I know I don’t have to say a lot about Dr. Wiener’s accomplishments. I’ll just point out that when he expressed concerns about the effects of digital technology on society, he was nearly always expressing concerns that had never been expressed before. He was the first to bring up a lot of these things. What’s most remarkable to me is that the concerns he expressed, and there were quite a few of them, spanned the range from extremely relevant today to merely vital today. I don’t think he came up with anything that turned out not to be a concern. There were some things he didn’t anticipate, but it’s remarkable what he did.
Two of the key concepts that he brought that are still, I think, at the heart of any concern for social responsibility and computing are first of all, putting people first. The principle that digital technology is here to serve human beings and not vise versa and second, the necessity of a vigilant consciousness of the potential for failure. Any digital technology can fail and he was the first one to start pointing out how catastrophic those failures could be in our modern age. Those concerns still shape a lot of digital activism to this day. Now, a little bit about Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility or CPSR. CPSR was founded in 1983, largely in response to the Strategic Defense Initiative, which was the Reagan administration’s effort to build a largely automated missile defense system.
That was something that set off a lot of alarm bells among computer scientists who knew how hard it was to write a reliable program to translate Fahrenheit to Celsius and therefore thought it might be hard to shoot down missiles. A lot of people with those concerns got together and established this organization that was initially one of a panoply of what you might call peace oriented organizations in the 1980s. Most of those faded out and died, especially with the end of the Cold War. CPSR did not, because at the same time that the Cold War was winding down, digital technology was causing more and more opportunities for trouble. People who were members of CPSR or under the CSPR umbrella, started working on a whole range of issues besides the anti-nuclear ones. The organization survived the Cold War very nicely and created the Norbert Wiener award very early in its existence to recognize people who had made extraordinary efforts to make sure that digital technology was used in ways that benefit human beings in society.
The last and most important thing I think for this audience to see about CPSR is that it disbanded last year. CPSR’s disbanding was, to many of us, a sad thing. I was active in it for decades, a former president, but it wasn’t really all that tragic. It was like someone dying when they’re very old. CPSR over the years took on a number of issues and as those issues became more and more important, various organizations spun off from CPSR. Most of you have probably heard of EPIC, the Electronic Privacy Information Center. That was a spin off of CPSR, and once that came along CPSR did a lot less around privacy. In the end CPSR was victim to its own success as a general purpose organization, as it was replaced by organizations like EFF and EPIC and so on, but with CPSR’s demise a few things were left hanging, were left possibly unattended. One of the most important ones I think, was the Norbert Wiener award. To my knowledge there is no other award that is given regularly for major contributions to social responsibility and computing.
I think that Dr. Wiener showed over half a century ago many of the reasons why it’s important that those efforts persist, and as I’ll say as I go along, there are many reasons why recognizing those efforts are important. I will say a little bit about the selection criteria. There weren’t any. Another way of putting that is it was very loose. The people who were doing the judging took nominations from far and wide and didn’t have a lot of preconceived notions about who was qualified. The winners weren’t all even humans, which I suppose might be objectionable from a human use of human beings perspective, but it went sixteen times to individuals, twice to pairs of people, and three times to either organizations or movements, which is an amorphous thing to give an award to. I’ll talk about all those in turn and some years no award was given. It was about as flexible as can get.
What kinds of things did the award recognize? It was never set out to be only for a specified list of topics. As new technologies and new applications came along, it was always envisioned that there might be additional areas where people were active and deserved to be recognized. Looking back on the thirty years of this award, it roughly came into five categories of awards. One was for people who sounded alarms and blew whistles about technologies with, perhaps, unappreciated potential for harm. Another was for the putting people first area, for people who applied computing technology very specifically to empowering humanity as a whole, to empowering the least among us, and so on. There was another category of people working to protect privacy, as we’ve just heard a little bit about from Bruce and for working for fair and open internet governance, which as most of you probably know is a really important issue and getting more important all the time. Finally as catchall, there was some people who were awarded this for so many different things that I can’t really classify them in one group.
I’ll talk a little about each of these groups in turn. First of all, the whistleblowers. The first Norbert Wiener award was given to Dr. David Parnas, who was the first person to prominently speak out against the strategic defense initiatives. He was tremendously influential in making a lot of scientists realize there was an issue here that had to have attention paid to it. Daniel McCracken also put a lot of work into preventing the deployment of Anti-ballistic Missile Systems. The award was given for more or less the same thing as it was for Nira Schwartz and Theodore Postol who were basically whistle blowers on defense contractors that were fudging the numbers in preparation for missile defense, which is to my mind, even worse than working on it at all.
It’s bad enough to work on it knowing that it might be bad, but then to lie about what it’s going to do is pretty horrible. The last one in this category was Peter Newman. Probably a lot of you here are familiar with him. He spent nearly thirty years running the Risks Forum, which has been dedicated to publicizing risks associated with computing technology, from missile defense to the risks of Y2K to everything else you can think of. This was one category of people. In terms of putting people first, this is probably where the award went most often. It went to Joseph Weizenbaum, who some of you are familiar with from his work in the 1960’s at MIT. He accidentally found that a silly little program he wrote to emulate a Rosarian psychotherapist was effective enough in creating its illusion that people were baring their souls to it and confessing all their deepest secrets to a time sharing system. We didn’t even have the internet yet, and they were finding a way to expose all their secrets.
Antonia Stone got the award. She created an organization called “Playing to Win” and did some other work, basically trying to extend technology to the most under-privileged. Many of you are probably familiar with Kristen Nygaard, the founder of Participatory Design. The idea behind Participatory Design is that the people who are going to use systems ought to be consulted in their design, that it would make systems that are both fundamentally more usable and more useful to those people. The first organization on this list is the Institute for Global Communication. This was a very early … I believe it was the first non-commercial ISP. It was the organization behind Peacenet and Econet and Womensnet and Labornet and various other nets you might have heard of. They brought a long of non-profits and activists on the internet even before it was open for commercial use.
Also in this category the award went to Tom Grundner, who was the founder of the Freenet movement. I doubt I need to say much more about that, but in the early days of Internet networking, and pre-Internet networking, he made network technology available to a whole lot of people who couldn’t get it any other way. Mitch Kapor got the award. I had the privilege of giving it to him myself for a number of things. He was, as you probably know, a founder of EFF. He was a founder of Lotus before that. He’s one of the few people I know who’s gotten rich on digital technology and then devoted perhaps the lion’s share of his effort to trying to make sure it was used well. He’s provided a tremendous ethical role model for entrepreneurs, which we really wanted to highlight. He inspired me, frankly.
Finally in this category, Douglas Engelbart, as far back as the 1960s, realized that for people to get the most out of computing, we were going to need user interfaces that were easy for people to use and natural and worked with us rather than making us work with them. He’s most famous for having invented the mouse, but that’s the tip of the iceberg of the work he did.
The third category is privacy. Four times we gave the award to people who were working on the privacy area. You’ve probably all heard of Philip Zimmermann, the author of PGP and some more recent efforts. He risked going to jail for trying to make safe encryption technology available to everyone. Marc Rotenberg founded EPIC as a spin-off from CPSR ,and has worked tirelessly since to try to influence Washington to protect privacy. Barry Steinhardt has been a privacy advocate for ACLU, EFF, and other organizations. Finally, this fellow Bruce Schneier, who you may have heard of got the award a few years back, I think in 2008, for all his work to protect privacy and civil liberties and to educate people on these issues.
The fourth category that awarded for was fair and open Internet governance. The Internet has been governed historically by an incredibly open process, a meritocracy of people who got together and discussed the rules and tried to work out rules that were maximally fair and efficient. This process was open to everyone, but as soon as the Internet became a commercial and commercially important thing in the 1990s, a lot of forces started to work against that. Most notably, perhaps, in terms of the domain name system, where all of a sudden the control of the domain’s name system was worth millions and millions of dollars. We see that most recently in the opening up of top level domains, which almost anyone can do now if you’re willing to shell out I think, it’s a hundred and sixty thousand dollars a year to ICANN, which makes you wonder how successful we’ve been at controlling this process. Karl Auerbach has been the people’s voice on ICANN, the Internet Committee for Assigned Names and Numbers, for many, many years, and has worked very hard to make sure that it wasn’t just corporations deciding how we allocated domain names and things like that.
The other two in this category were not individuals or people. We gave the award once to the Open Source and Free Software movements. That was interesting because it’s hard to give an award to a movement. We thought of just giving it to a stuffed penguin, but we ended up bringing in Eric Raymond as a representative, not an official representative, but as an representative of the movement. I think he joked that he was the representative because he was the loudest, which is probably true. Then the Internet Engineering Task Force, which has set the rules of the road for the Internet since the beginning, and has set the standard for open governance and concern for the needs of all in the way the Internet evolves. An interesting sideline about this … I’ve spent most of my career, off and on, working for the IEATF, working on internet standards and such. Even longer than that, Norbert Wiener has been one of my great heroes, but it wasn’t until I read one of the papers for this conference that I realized that the principles of the IETF were fairly directly derived from Norbert Wiener’s own principles and writings. There’s a paper from Elizabeth O’Conner, yesterday’s session, that points that out. When I read that you could’ve knocked me over with a feather to realize I had gone thirty years and not seen the connection.
The final category was the catch-all. We had several people who were all around activists and got the award for several things. Severo Ornstein and Laura Gould were early activists for CPSR, basically organizers. Barbara Simons, for those of you who don’t know her, has been active in a remarkable number of things: women in computing, human rights in computing, and most noticeably in recent years electronic and Internet voting. She’s one of the great, sane voices in this area who actually thinks it might matter if people could hack voting machines. It could. Finally, the last Norbert Wiener award was given to Gary Chapman, a long time CPSR executive director who built CPSR up and worked on many other causes. It was given to him posthumously right before CPSR disbanded.
Those are the kinds of people and organizations that got the award. What did it accomplish, now that it’s in some sense over? First of all, every year there was some guaranteed publicity for good causes. It was very easy to at least briefly draw some attention to the causes that these people had worked on when we handed out the award. For a small organization, it was remarkable how much attention we managed to draw to this award. We also, I think, highlighted some role models for young and future IT professionals. If you look at the world that our children are growing up in today, the heroes are people, and I hate to single anyone out because they’re all probably equally whatever, but someone like Mark Zuckerberg, who set out to make it easy to gossip about girls at Harvard and ended up becoming a billionaire. That’s the role model for people, right?
This award helped create some role models that you might consider more positive, of how people can love technology, and have a career in technology, and still remain conscious of and work for the benefit of humanity. It also documented some unsung heroes. Some of the people in this list, I hadn’t heard of until they were nominated, and they deserved to be better known and this helped them to be a little bit better known. Of course, it honored Dr. Wiener’s memory. I never had the privilege of meeting him, but I find it hard to believe that there’s any kind of tribute that he would have appreciated more than one that contributed to ensuring that the technologies he helped to create were used for mankind’s betterment.
What does the future hold? As of now, nothing, because CPSR has disbanded and the award is not being given anymore. As I said before I’m not too broken up about CPSR disbanding. It was like, it had lived its life, it had a lot of descendants and it’s hard to cry too much, but the award was left orphaned. I think it’s a shame if the world doesn’t have an award like this, and if the world does have an award like this, I think it should named for Norbert Wiener.
I do think that resurrecting the award would be easy. It was always done on a very, very small budget when CPSR did it. In fact, the typical year we would manage to come up with enough money to fly the winner to the awards ceremony. That was the financial reward that was there. I don’t think we ever paid any actual monetary award or anything like that, but with resurrecting the award, I think we could be more ambitious. I think we could get a modest endowment and do some very useful things with it. Obviously it’s always appealing to give someone a tangible award, some kind of money for all they’ve done, but I think even more important, for this kind of award we could, with a relatively small amount of money, send the winners on lecture tours.
In thinking about this it’s occurred to me that if the awarding organization could pay for the plane travel, we could probably arrange for a whole set of universities to sponsor the local arrangements and living arrangements, locally. That would mean that the winners of this award would be going from college campus to college campus providing a role model in education for the next generation of computer professionals. I think that would be wonderful. We would also with a little bit more money be able to publicize it more aggressively, drawing more light towards the causes and the winners, and also to drive more nominations via advance publicities for each year’s process.
In case you haven’t guessed, I’d like to resurrect the award. I’ve been talking with a few people here and I apologize to the people I was supposed to meet with last night. I got violently ill last night and I’m sort of okay now, but I really do want to talk with anybody who’s interested in helping resurrect this award. The biggest need by far is volunteers.
First of all, for organizing, for publicity, and for fundraising if we’re going to be able to do anything more than just award it to a name. I think the second biggest need is an organizational home and I’ve talking with a couple people, Greg and others, about SSIT, which seems like it might be a good home. Third, an endowment. Putting a bit of an endowment behind this could allow us to do a lot more. It could allow it to become something that universities begin to rely on as a regular part of the year, having the Norbert Wiener winner come through and give a lecture. I think we could really make a difference with this.
If you’re interested, if you think this is a good idea, catch me here or send mail to either of these addresses. I’m eager to talk to people, eager to figure out how we can put together something that will keep this from dying with CPSR and will help preserve the best tribute I know of even considering this conference, to the memory of a great, humane social thinker and technological pioneer. Thank you.