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The Internet, The A.G.S.E. Strike, And Me

When the AGSE went on strike against the University of California at Berkeley, my Internet education was about to increase a hundredfold.
Steven Rubio

Issue #4, February 1993

"Anyone may contribute, and every contribution, whether it's a ditty or a dissertation, can be instantly distributed to each subscriber on the list. Stop-and-go conversations are built out of memos and countermemos. Imagine endless streams of replicated digital text pulsing along fiber-optic pathways."
— Adam Begley, in Lingua Franca Jan/Feb 1993

Begley is speaking of "The Internet," a seemingly anarchic computer network composed technically of an enormous array of smaller networks, and composed in actuality largely of academics with modems attached to their personal computers. Internet users for the most part access the net for "free"; someone else (the university? the "government?") foots the bill for the electronic mail, file transfers, group discussions, research and assorted other pastimes. In this, the Internet is fundamentally different from such commercial networks as CompuServe, Prodigy, and America Online, which charge their users for access. After nearly ten years as a paying customer of CompuServe, I was elated to discover during the past semester that accounts on the Internet were available for the asking to faculty, grad students, staff workers, even undergrads. And it was "free."

As it turned out, my past experience as an assistant systems operator on CompuServe gave me a headstart on accessing the wide variety of goodies on the Internet. And my compulsive attachment to electronic communications made me an insufferable promoter of Internet access within my own English Department. Soon we were taking our first baby steps towards an electronic salon for our department, and I admit to visions of grandeur as we joined up with our colleagues in departments across the world for fine-tuned discussions of reading lists and teaching techniques.

However, outside events intervened, as is often the case, for it was at this time that our union, AGSE (the Association of Graduate Student Employees), went on strike against the University of California at Berkeley, asking for recognition of our union by the university as the bargaining agent for its members on issues of employment. My Internet education was about to increase a hundredfold.

Though the English Department (and many other departments in the humanities) are perhaps slower than most to appreciate the joys and benefits of electronic access, AGSE was made up of members from the entire spectrum of academic disciplines, many of which had solid electronic communities already in place. Quickly the phonelines hummed with Email activity, as soon-to-be-famous online identities like nigel@insect, zeynep@redwood and newman@garnet offered their opinions on strike-related events to their Email companions. Eventually someone (it seemed from the vantagepoint of my modem that nigel@insect was always in the forefront, but there were many important contributors) saw a need and filled it: we got a "public" newsgroup called that served as an electronic bulletin board of AGSE-related information, and a semi-private "mailing list" of AGSE members and sympathizers called Strike-Info-List.

The value of these new areas was immense. Through the newsgroup, anyone with access to UCB online systems could read and respond to issues concerning the strike, while the mailing list, where each letter posted to the list was automatically sent to the Email boxes of all list subscribers across the globe, became even more popular as a place where new ideas could be hatched, argued over, discarded or adopted, modified or even ignored, all in amazingly short bursts of time. Newman@garnet might post a suggestion about an agenda item for an upcoming general meeting of AGSE members; srubio@garnet might argue over a particular point; a third member might toss their hands up at the enormous volume of strike-related Email in their box and remove themselves from the list. Substantive issues regarding the strike were hashed out in hours, with no apparent loss of clarity, even with the speed with which we were able to dispatch items.

At some point, online AGSE members began noticing that we seemed privy to certain information previously unknown to us. Someone would offer a proposal at an AGSE meeting, and we would all nod our heads ... ah yes, I read that online yesterday, we would think, feeling a silly sense of importance and even power. Each day a strike update was printed and handed out to AGSE members on the picketlines, and the netgeeks would glance quickly and note that we had received our copy in Email already. With the realization that we had access to this information came another insight: there were people out there who did NOT have access to this stuff. In many cases, we ourselves had only recently gotten online accounts, and so we were able to compare our previous, non-network level of information with what was coming our way now through our modems, and this information was impressive.

At first, the AGSE networkers were perhaps a bit too cautious in our online pronouncements. In the background of every message posting was the odd paranoid fear that the university was reading everything we wrote. Some of this paranoia decreased as we became more proficient in using the resources of the Internet. I spent an hour fiddling with the world-wide "addressbook" of the Internet and came up with an Email address for UCB Chancellor Tien. We sent the Chancellor a few (or a few hundred) messages after that. Other people found contacts outside the UC system; NAGPS (the National Organization of Graduate-Professional Students) had an online presence, along with assorted activist groups, many working on issues of labor and academics. In the meantime, friendly missives came flooding through our mailing list from supporters across the U.S., Canada and Europe. My paranoia fell away, replaced by a sense of community and empowerment.

It was noticed at this time that our own AGSE Executive board seemed to be relatively quiet in the online jungle. Many theories were proposed for why this might be ... some assumed that there just weren't any netgeeks on the E-board, while others cited ominous rumors about what the university could do to our electronic community access if we were specifically connected to AGSE (a fear that would seem in this writer's opinion to be misplaced). In any event, we took pains to identify ourselves as AGSE members and sympathizers, rather than AGSE representatives. Still, I couldn't have been the only one who began wondering what our E-board would think of our online subculture, for we were not always positive in our evaluations of the board's actions. My paranoia returned, only now I was less worried about what UCB thought and more worried about my own AGSE representatives.

For with our spreading contacts across the electronic community came a new and larger sense of ourselves as part of the academic, labor and activist communities. The information we gathered from these new friends did not exactly contradict the information supplied by our union leaders as much as complement their information; nevertheless, it was enlightening to learn of actions and activists other than ourselves who might have something to offer our fledgling enterprise. (The purpose of this essay is not to critique the relationship between the AGSE leaders and other groups such as NAGPS, though the topic deserves treatment. It was disconcerting to find through the Internet that AGSE had been approached by NAGPS in the past, and had rejected them, and it was perhaps more than coincidental that such an action was eerily familiar to those of us who had heard through more traditional channels that the AGSE leadership had also rejected the support of local union organization ... but again, this deserves further treatment elsewhere.)

I was becoming aware of the importance of information access during our battle with the university. It was also becoming apparent that there were haves and havenots in the area of information. There was the AGSE leadership, privy to all the "standard" information, able to go head-to-head with university negotiators. There was the mainstream rank-and-file, privy mostly to the information deemed important enough by the E-Board to pass on to the general membership. And there was the online rank-and-file, who were aware of other, outside opinions, both positive and negative, concerning our action. We also were able to use the ability of Email to exponentially increase the speed of communication, so that ideas which might have been argued over for weeks in the past were hashed out effectively in far less time through electronic media. (I can remember a recent AGSE meeting where we were told that efforts were taking place to make firmer contacts with grad students at other campuses, and I thought, "but we've been talking to them all along, through Email.")

Clearly the online rank-and-file was more informed than our non-networking colleagues. This came through no special abilities of the netgeeks; all things being equal, the only thing which separated the networkers from the other AGSE members was our Internet accounts. Yet here we were, living proof that information is indeed power in the 1990s, able to strategize and communicate instantaneously, without even leaving our homes, and without waiting in every instance for our leadership to inform us of important matters. The modem had empowered us, and offered a democratic alternative to the top-down dispersal of information standard in most hierarchical organizations. However, by empowering only those with the modem, we were also creating an elitist subgroup: the haves (we had modems, we had extended information access) were regularly more informed than the have nots (who did not have modems, and thus had to rely on the netgeeks for that extra information, much as all of the rank-and-file had to rely on the Executive Board for most strike-related info).

The implications for this in the world outside academia are depressing, to say the least. The ability to use the Internet is not solely related to one's financial status, since it is free to all UC students with a modem. Assuming that most graduate students share a relatively equal economic position (a gross simplification, to be sure, but as a group graduate students can be assumed to have more money than the homeless as a group and less money than bank presidents as a group), it wasn't economics that made a difference here, but merely access to and familiarity with online services. But when we move out of the social group of graduate students, we see more clearly the impact of economics on the ability to access information electronically.

For how many of the poor and lower-class citizens of our country can afford a modem? First you need a computer, and even the cheap ones aren't cheap to someone who is looking to pay the rent and buy groceries with the last of their monthly income. Not everyone can afford a computer, anymore than everyone can afford to attend the University of California, where free accounts on the Internet are available to those with a modem. Economics have a clear effect on the ability of individuals or groups to access the new information services; the poorer among us will be shut out. And, judging by the empowerment the online strikers felt in accessing information, those who can not afford access to information will be left behind all too often in the future.

For example, President Clinton and Vice-President Gore have had the strongest online presence of any national politicians in memory, dating back to the campaign itself, when a Clinton/Gore Email service allowed instant access to the election team. (Al Gore is apparently a netgeek, himself.) Now that Clinton/Gore are in power, the ability to reach them or their representatives electronically promises new possibilities for the vox populi. But what about people with no modem, no computers, no money? How are they to get their message across in the Information Era?

Again: at one point during our strike, I posted a summary of our action on two discussion forums of the commercial online service, CompuServe. In the Education Forum and the Student's Forum, I left this summary along with a request for help, questions, arguments, anything. It is of course possible that my missives were uninspiring; it is also possible that, far removed from the Berkeley campus and our travails, a graduate student strike held little interest. In any event, I received half-a-dozen responses at most from this very popular online service. CompuServe access costs a minimum of $6 an hour; it would appear that if it costs money, it better be "worth it." Compare this reaction to that received on the Internet, where I received perhaps half-a-dozen messages every two hours. The Internet was "free" ... no one had to decide between eating a Big Mac and posting a message about the strike, because we don't pay for the Internet. And communication increased, to my mind at least in part because the costs were minimal. But the costs are never going to be minimal for those at the bottom of our economic society.

There would seem to be two lessons here. One, relating specifically to AGSE and our future as a union of academic workers, suggests that electronic access to information is essential to the growth of our union, in numbers, in power, in the ability to reach out to others in the academic community. Some of us are already moving in this direction ... a new UseNet newsgroup with statewide distribution called "uc.grads.union" has begun. There is some dispute about the proper role of Email with AGSE. Some people fear legal restraints from UC on Internet use by organizations such as AGSE. This point has been effectively refuted, at least to my mind, by various members of the online community, but the problem remains: AGSE leadership does not seem nearly as optimistic about the potential uses of the Internet, which, if true, is unfortunate given our current desire to reach out to a wide variety of groups and individuals. (I would be more than happy to have any AGSE leaders dissuade me of the above; I am relying on intuition in the absence of any AGSE leaders in our online efforts so far.)

But there is a second question, an important one: what do we do for those of us who can not, for whatever reasons, access the emerging information networks? Not just graduate students who don't own a modem, but average Joes and Janes who can't afford a computer? I mention this, in closing, because I fear the entrancing nature of communication in Cyberspace will lead, not to a better-informed populace, but rather to a more modern version of Benjamin's flaneur, aimlessly wandering the halls of telecommunication, forgetful of our friends without access, imagining that in experiencing cyberspace we are experiencing all of humanity. As someone who met his future foster son "through his modem," I am a great believer in the power of online communities. But we must not be forgetful of the systemic exclusion of entire sectors of our society from those communities. For now, it is unfortunately clear, the Information Era is unavailable to many.

(Many thanks to all the great online friends I met during the strike, including nigel@insect and zeynep@redwood and newman and delorme@garnet and shepler and erichsu and conan and everyone else @math and all the lizzes@everywhere and all the rest of you I may have forgotten here. To our future friendships!)

Steven Rubio is a graduate student in English at UC Berkeley. His address on the Internet is:

Copyright © 1993 by Steven Rubio. All rights reserved.