The Case for a New Social Role

(From a talk presented at the FORTH Interest Group meeting, May 23, 1981.)

When CommuniTree started up, some of the first callers were operators of other systems who dialed in to "check us out," so to speak.

Most were complimentary, and generally wished us well with this effort. A few were skeptical about the format and structure of CommuniTree. We would soon get tired, they said, of "cleaning up other people's shit" from the tree. Primates, you know, use excrement to mark their territories, and the last thing I wanted to do was meddle in primate territorialism. I had already thought up the Fairwitness function, but right away I learned something real important from the other sys/op types: users, even users who run their own systems, seldom read the on-line documentation. And given the problems with documentation generally, and overall communications problems additionally, the documentation will mis-communicate in a certain percentage of cases. So, even though we had tried to hedge against this assumption that the sys/op does all the shitwork by putting a note about the Fairwitness in the help files, the user network continues to use the tree with its experience of other systems intact and fully operational. it is only with time, after all, that a new social role can be fully perceived and imbued with sufficient "social reality" to be able to stand on its own.

So, for what it's worth, let me outline here what I had in mind in using the term "Fairwitness."

The word itself comes from the Robert A. Heinlein novel Stranger in a Strange Land. In that science fantasyland, a Fairwitness was an important part of the legal and social system. The Fairwitness was known for hir rather special qualities of mind. S/he had perfect recall, and when asked could describe in great detail exactly what s/he had actually observed, heard or smelled. A Fairwitness would not, or could not by training, make inferences. A Fairwitness stuck to the facts of the matter at hand. Now, just the ability to observe is a great asset in any culture. We have all heard about

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