Saturday, January 29, 2011

Before the Twitter revolutions, there was the Usenet revolution

Polina Antonova and Eugene Peskin operating Kremvax, the link between
Relcom and the West

The first example of relatively large-scale citizen journalism online was during the August 1991 coup attempt by eight high-level Soviet officials. There were two days of confrontation between demonstrators and troops, during which all Russian media except Usenet news groups were shut down by the authorities. Usenet, a precursor of today's Internet discussion forums, carried traffic into, out of and within Russia (70 cities) during the days of the coup attempt.

One of the quotes from that time foreshadows subsequent attempts to shut the Internet down. Polina Antonova of RELCOM, the Unix distributor that operated the network wrote:
They try to close all mass media, they stopped CNN an hour ago, and Soviet TV transmits opera and old movies. But, thank Heaven, they don't consider RELCOM mass media or they simply forgot about it. Now we transmit information enough to put us in prison for the rest of our life.
After two tense days, the coup failed and president Mikhail Gorbachev was restored to power. For more on the role of the network during the coup attempt, see:
The following video clip (3:13) was part of a documentary on the Internet. (It includes a short interview of me at the time -- no white hair :-).

Usenet played a relatively significant role during the Soviet coup attempt, but there was also some Usenet traffic during the 1989 Tienanmen Square protests. Everyone is familiar with the heroic image of the unidentified man stopping a column of tanks on June 6 1989 -- the day after troops had opened fire on protesters.

But, there was some Usenet traffic as well. Olivier Crepin-Leblond has saved a description of the situation that was posted by a Sun Microsystems employee on May 23. It describes the optimistic time before the storm, beginning with:
The situation here seems getting better and better. All army members are blocked outside Beijing city. The people’s life in the city looks as normal as usual.
Here is a movie clip of the tank man at Tiananmen Square:

This clip was not on the Internet at the time, but it is today -- providing a dramatic view of a heroic act and illustrating the futility of China's attempt to erase the memory of the event.

Update 8/20/2016

Slate has published a relatively long post entitled "An act of courage on the Soviet Internet" on RELCOM's role during the Soviet Coup attempt of 1991. The article describes my involvement at the time, but fails to link to the archive of the network traffic and other material, which is available to historians and others interested in the event.

I believe this was the first example of active citizen journalism involving the Internet. The Internet has given us a means of documenting historical events in detail -- "big data" for historians. We need a mechanism for discovering and preserving such archives.

Update 1/12/2017

Mark Graham, who relayed news over the Sovam Teleport link during the Soviet coup attempt, just sent me an article on their activity at the time. Unfortunately, the data they transmitted and received has been lost. Our archive is still online at the State University of New York site mentioned above and, even better, it is online at the Internet Archive.

Update 7/7/2018

For an excellent article on the role of RELCOM in the Soviet Coup attempt, click here.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Tablet PCs will impact education, but it will take time.

Many new tablet computers were announced at the Consumer Electronics Show last week.  Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal predicted that they will flood college campuses.

I agree that we will soon see students and professors carrying iPads and other tablets on campus, and, in the long run, I think we will view, annotate, discuss and share most of our teaching material on tablet-like devices.

But that is the long run -- they will not be part of mainstream education for many years.

Mainstream impact requires ubiquity.  Today, chalk and white-boards are ubiquitous.  We take them for granted and use them in every class.  Internet-connected computers with overhead displays are becoming widespread, and will also be taken for granted in the classroom.

Ubiquitous hardware is necessary, but not sufficient to drive major educational impact.  Standards are also needed.  The chalkboard works because we assume everyone speaks English or another language, and PowerPoint and Flash video are widely accepted standards for the classroom PC with a projector.

It will be some time before we can assume that nearly everyone has a tablet computer with a fairly standard hardware configuration.  It will take even longer to settle on standard formats for storing, annotating, and sharing teaching material.

Once the machines and standards are in place, we will see a significant impact on mainstream education, but that will not happen over night.

In general, we underestimate the time for a promising new technology to be adopted, but we also underestimate the extent of its impact on our lives, organizations and society when it is finally applied. I think this will hold true for tablet PCs in education.

(For an 18-year old article along these lines, see -- you can see what I got right and what I got wrong :-).