Problems in the Global Village

On 13 September Professor Harold Thimbleby of the Department of Computer Science at Middlesex University gave a lecture with the above title at the Annual Festival of Science, i.e. the conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which was held this year at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. I was present at this lecture, which was almost entirely devoted to the issue of pornography on the Internet, and was greatly concerned by the unbalanced view it gave of the Internet, and the sensational terms in which it was couched.

Particularly given the venue, the lecture predictably led to a great deal of media coverage and controversy. Harold Thimbleby's colleague Peter Ladkin has asked me to summarize the stand that I took, and my viewpoint on these matters. I have done so and produced this page - but only with the greatest reluctance, since I had decided to withdraw from what seemed to me to be an increasingly futile debate.

To summarize my views: Harold Thimbleby in his talk, and to a slightly lesser degree in his written text, has to my mind provided a highly unbalanced and deliberately sensational picture of the Internet. Amazingly he claimed that it contains "very little interesting material". Instead, he described it as being full of pornography, characterizing it in the following terms: "The Internet has been called a global electronic village. If so most of it is a heavily used red-light district." He cited some unpublished researches of his own in support of these allegations - the only published source that he cited in support of the allegations was the now thoroughly-discredited Rimm (or CMU) study.

The day after Harold Thimbleby gave his talk I too gave an invited talk "Electronic Highways: Cruising the Internet" at the BA Conference. I made brief reference to the problems of pornography, and then in response to a question from the floor, a much fuller statement about the topic. Harold Thimbleby came up to me afterwards and congratulated me on having given a "well-balanced" account. I am prepared to assume that this was meant sincerely - I therefore am at a loss to understand why he does not accept the validity and seriousness of the many criticisms of his talk, and act accordingly.

Peter Ladkin, in one of the messages he sent to me urging me to prepare this summary of my views, characterized the differences between Harold Thimbleby's and my positions in the following terms:

"Brian would prefer to sit back and consider. That's one view. Another is that when there's a fire, the heroes are the people who rush to the spot and help, no matter how clumsily, and not the fireman still back in the station figuring out which tie to wear with his uniform. But is there a fire?"
My response to this was:
"It's idiots not heroes who run towards a small fire, which the fire service is already aware of and trying to deal with, carrying a bucket of paraffin - as perhaps are those who try to persuade them not to do it."
Peter also said:
"HWT is trying to address that issue in a manner which he considers intellectually honest."
to which I replied:
"One can be intellectually honest, and still counter-productive (to put it no stronger). The man who cried "fire" in a crowded theatre was, presumably, being intellectually honest!"
Let me end by making it clear that I readily accept that there is much pornography, and very offensive pornography at that, available on the Internet (but also via many other media). However this is something that was already well-known, and had already been the subject of a great deal of media publicity, in the UK. Further publicity of the sensational form occasioned by Harold Thimbleby's talk and press interviews have, I believe, made the tasks of (i) persuading various official organizations, societies, etc., to use the Internet as a vehicle for providing (interesting!) information to the general public, and (ii) determining and putting in place effective well-judged technical, administrative, and/or legal solutions to the problems of misuse of the Internet, much more difficult than they already were.

Brian Randell
23 Sept 1995

To Dig Deeper

I protested at the time of Harold Thimbleby's lecture, and afterwards in a letter to him, which I copied to the private mailing list of the Conference of Professors and Heads of Computing. (All British university departments of computer science are members of this Conference, and all professors and heads of departments of computer science are on its mailing list - at least that was the common assumption, which turned out later to be incorrect in the case of Middlesex and Professor Thimbleby.)

I now find that Harold Thimbleby has made the text of my letter publicly available via his Web pages. I have therefore decided to provide here the text of the three letters I have sent to the CPHC mailing list on the subject of his lecture.

My first letter was an attempt to persuade him to moderate his stance and issue a retraction.

The very brief second letter was a copy of my reply to a letter from Professor Michael Harrison (that he had copied to CPHC).

I then received a lengthy response from Harold Thimbleby that made me realize the futility of my well-meaning (but I now realize naive) efforts to get him to try to help undo the harm that I and others felt had been caused by his lecture and his media interviews. I therefore produced a summary of the correspondence I had received (together with his response, and my reply), and incorporated these into a final letter to him and to the CPHC.