Reconstructing the Agora - Pre-industrial Applications of Computer Communications

Lee Felsenstein, LAV-PC, Inc.

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University April 1, 1992


In examining the changes to human society brought about by industrialization, it becomes apparent that the village structure has found no replacement in urban society. To the degree that village-like situations can be recreated, urban societies gain the quality of "liveability". Village structures are based upon the agora - a public place of assembly wherein public information is exchanged, a sort of commons of information. Development of village-like situations requires the creation of such agoras. Computers make possible this commons of information in conjunction with other media. By handling "pointer" information with great efficiency, it becomes possible to use telephone, print and postal media to support a community of interest even where that community is dispersed geographically. Starting in 1972 from a failed attempt to unify the filing systems of volunteer information and referral agencies in the Bay Area, a walk-up public-access bulletin board system was developed under the name Community Memory. In addition to being the first system to describe itself as an "electronic bulletin board", it created the perceived need for personal computers and provided the organizational model for the Homebrew Computer Club, generally recognized as the seedbed for open architecture. In its current form Community Memory presents a design for a centerless network within which ordinary non-computer-literate people can explore multiple dimensions of information exchange, using the model of the large group or unruly audience. Having the qualities of virtuality, hypertext links, and free-form indexing, it represents the next generation of public-access system. This talk will examine the development of personal computers from the standpoint of the perceived need for the reconstruction of the agora. Future developments in personal computers will be discussed from the same perspective.


Lee Felsenstein was one of the original founders of the Homebrew Computer Club, which was the cradle of the microcomputer industry. He was one of the developers of the Community Memory project in the 60s in Berkeley, a visionary attempt to bring networked computer communication and conferencing to the public, and was the designer of the first portable computer, the Osborne. He is currently very involved with the developing computing world in the (ex) Soviet Union and is still designing innovative computers.


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