Joseph Gallivan joins the movers and shakers on the invaluable `Interesting People' Net list
The names of Internet groups don't get much more seductive than the "Interesting People" list run by Dave Farber: Who are these Interesting People, you wonder, and how can I get to be one? And the next thing you know you've fired off an inquiry to farber@pcpond.cis.upenn.edu.

Once inside, the Interesting People list turns out to be a boon for anyone who wants to follow the messy growth spurts of the network of networks. The e-mails come, two or three a day, little pulses of information cut and pasted from the Net, or fed in by a curious mixture of powerful industry players, academics, Washington insiders and alert netizens.

One day an article about Rupert Murdoch and digital TV turns up, via an academic in Newcastle. Another time it's an amusing report about a notorious flamer being thrown off a free-speech newsgroup. There have been government statements on encryption policy, a plea for help from a New York designer who has set up a home page for a Brazilian orphanage, or a pithy coda, penned by Dave Farber, to a news clip about rappers being arrested in France.

Farber is Alfred Fitler Moore Professor of Telecommunications at the University of Pennsylvania. The 62-year-old has been in the network game long enough to have done a bit of everything. He worked on CSNet in the 1970s, which got 500 universities and colleges hooked on e-mail. He co- wrote a programming language (SNOBOL), designed a digital phone switch and now researches the sort of ultra-fast networks that can send data at 2.4bn bits (or four Encyclopaedia Britannicas) per second.

As a Nethead, a Bellhead (phone expert), and someone with a political conscience, he can sort through dry-as-dust writings on subjects such as encryption, wireless bandwidths and obscenity theory and then send something coherent to the scrum of venture capitalists, lawyers, engineers and politicians who are fighting over the soul of the Internet.

The list began a decade ago as a favour to a friend who didn't have time to surf the Net. "I just sent him things that interested me. Then he'd say, `Oh, could you put a few of my IBM friends on it?' And then their friends started asking, too. Now I have all sorts. I know Bill [Gates] is on it. And someone, let's say, very senior at Motorola..."

He tells how one listee sent him a sad note about having ordered 10 Motorola cellphones only to find they had their numbers scrambled. "Within half an hour the same guy got a call from the person in charge of servicing for the whole USA. The voice said he didn't know what it was about, just that the Motorola president's office had told him to call."

As the Net has gone mainstream, so has "IP", as Farber fondly calls it. "I've relaxed the standards for getting on the list in the last few years. I do try to weed out the network weenies though, the people who flit from list to list joining everything. I don't want everything to be totally public. And I soon get rid of people who try to tell me what to post.

"I now get a lot of people in business, but I also have a housewife who was just feeling cut off and is trying to break into a new field. It's whoever interests me, really. And the press, of course. You don't have to contribute."

Farber's analysis of his closed list is enlightening. "This one has a funny metabolism. There are days when I put out nothing and people panic thinking they've been dropped. And topics seem to resurface every three months.

"Newsgroups can be beautiful control systems. For instance, all the fuss about the Intel Pentium Bug would rage on the Internet for months, but just as it died down the company would make a statement about it, and start it up again. Trying to control something too far can often reinforce it."

An allegory for governmental regulators, perhaps? "I try to steer it away from politics, although I did disagree with some of my friends who came up with the Clipper Chip. And I've taken Singapore over the coals a few times, but I'm still invited back there."

His signature file reads: " `They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.' Ben Franklin, 1784."

Farber is fully aware of the free service he provides. "I think the really big business of the future will be filters for the Net, human ones. Some things just can't be automated." This is the secret of IP's success: bots and search engines are the equivalent of your dog fetching the newspaper. You need human beings you can trust to filter and edit news, to keep you interested.

"Since it's all stuff I'm interested in anyway, I don't use up any real time on this. The whole thing is maybe 20 minutes a day." With his $1,000 phone, Libretto palm-top, Pilot Personal Organiser and two-way pager, Dave Farber is a virtual omnipresence - browsing, pasting, forwarding, and reacting, as the digital revolution goes on around himn

Dave Farber's home page: http://www.cis.upenn.edu/farber

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