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The Parable of the Bulletin Board -- for fun
From: David Farber <farber () central cis upenn edu>
Date: Wed, 8 Feb 1995 10:44:36 -0500
From: Wulf Losee <WLosee () Getty Edu>
Subject: The Parable of the Bulletin Board
Once there was a wealthy city-state whose populace was extremely literate.
In every square and market place of the city there were bulletin boards.
Some of the boards were provided by Council of Elders (who managed the
city); some were provided by private citizens; some by merchants; some by
the temples; and some by academic institutions of the city-state. Anyone,
citizen or non-citizen, could post to these boards, and much of the
intellectual, political, and commercial discourse of the city-state played
itself out on the thousands of scraps of paper stuck to the boards each day.
It came to pass that an anonymous accusation was pinned to one of the
boards, accusing a wealthy and influential merchant of financial misdeeds.
The merchant, with all his heart, believed that these accusations were lies.
So he went before the Council of Elders and said to them, "See, I have been
libeled, and my good name defamed. My business will surely suffer, and, if it
does, I will no longer be able to make the generous financial contributions to
your Council that I have in the past." The Council, not wanting to show
overt favoritism to the merchant, decided that from hence forth
anonymous postings would be outlawed. Any posting to any bulletin board
in the city would need to bear the signature and the address of the person
who posted it (hmmm, sounds like Los Angeles, doesn't it? -- ed.). The
board owners would be obliged to remove any anonymous postings from
their board or face severe fines. Some of the board owners did not have the
time to check all the hundreds of postings that appeared every hour on their
boards, so they opted to tear down their boards. And the discourse of the
city was muted somewhat by the law against anonymous postings.
The wealthy merchant was satisfied with this arrangement, though "Now no
one can anonymously libel me," he thought. But the next day thousands of
leaflets, bearing the wealthy merchant's signature and address, were posted
on the remaining boards of the city. On them were printed a public apology
from the merchant confessing his financial misdeeds. "These signatures are
forgeries!" cried the merchant. "I have been libeled by someone using my
good name falsely!"
The merchant went back to the Council of Elders, and proposed that each
posting to the city's boards would need to bear the unique seal of the person
posting. The Elders agreed to the suggestion and proclaimed that only
postings with complex and intricate seals (which would be 'impossible' to
forge) would allowed on the bulletin boards of the city-state. Now it was no
coincidence that only the expensive government-sponsored seals
manufactured by the Seal-makers Guild (who were patrons of the Elders)
could be used. Only the wealthiest fifty percent of the citizens of this
city-state could afford these expensive seals, and so the discourse of the city
was again diminished.
Unfortunately, the Seal-makers, thinking no one else had the technology of
metal-working, carelessly threw their molds in the trash. Soon a thriving
black market in forged seals (made from the discarded molds) sprang up. For
seals were now the key to trust, and unscrupulous individuals could use them
for their own profit. Within a week the postings defaming the wealthy
merchant reappeared on the bulletin boards of the city -- each bearing the
merchant's 'unforgeable' seal.
Enraged, the wealthy merchant went back to the Council of Elders, and
demanded that the board owners be made legally responsible for the content
of the postings on their boards. The Council agreed. The small board
owners cried, "Alas, we cannot afford to violate the law, for we do not have
the time nor the resources to read every message that crosses our boards.
Nor do we precisely know what is a libelous posting and what is merely an
outspoken posting." Of course, the Lawyers Guild offered to advise them
and protect them from courts for 'very reasonable' fees, but the small board
owners did not have the money. So it came to pass that only the three
wealthiest board owners could stay in business, for only they could afford the
lawyers to dispute the merchant's claim of libel.
And still the scurrilous messages appeared on the remaining three bulletin
boards of the city. After long and intricate legal maneuvers, the merchant
was unable to extract damages from the wealthy board owners. But each
party had spent so much on their lawyers that they now were willing to
compromise. The board owners agreed to restrict access to their boards.
Only authorized users could enter through the locked and guarded gate to the
boards, and those users needed to show extensive proof of their identity and
sign all sorts of logs accepting their liability for libelous postings. The
merchant was now content. "No one, but no one, will be able to libel me
now without leaving a trail to his doorstep!" Only those people wealthy
enough to be able to afford the fees of the Town-Criers Guild and fees of the
Messenger's Guild (who by the way were immensely happy with the
disappearance of the bulletin boards) could continue to do business. So the
discourse of the city was muted to a small fraction of what it once was.
Still the scurrilous postings appeared on the three big boards. The merchant
persuaded to Council of Elders to use its watchmen to observe the boards.
And the watchmen returned with an explanation. "Oh, noble sir," they said,
"these libelous postings are pegged to the board by an ingenious method.
They are shot on darts over the city's wall and thus they are posted on our
boards." The merchant replied, "Well go outside the city's walls and capture
the man who is shooting these darts." The watchmen replied, "Alas, noble
sir, that is outside our jurisdiction." The merchant went to the Council of
Elders and demanded that city-state declare war on their neighbors, but the
Council replied that there had been a precipitous drop in the tax revenues,
and all the mercenaries had been discharged. The merchant in a helpless
rage started foaming at the mouth, and he died there on the Council Room
floor from apoplexy. No one mourned his passing, though, since most of
the inhabitants had left the city-state to find a living elsewhere.
One of the Elders got the bright idea to repeal all the ordinances regulating
the bulletin boards, but his fellows replied, "Are you crazy? The bulletin
boards were what got us into this mess in the first place!"
- The Parable of the Bulletin Board -- for fun David Farber (Feb 08)