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The Machado socio-technical system: a culture clash


What is a socio-technical system?

A socio-technical system is a conceptual tool we use to help us understand the entire system within which any particular computing system is embedded. The ethical issues hardly ever arise about disembodied, abstract, systems. Instead, ethical issues arise when a computing system comes into contact with the real world: thus socio-technical system. If you need some more background about socio-technical systems, we provide an overview.

But for now, simply remember that a socio-technical system can include hardware, software, physical surroundings, people, roles, procedures, laws and regulations, and data and data structures. As you can see, a socio-technical system can be quite complex. In this document, we will help you discover some of the more important pieces of the socio-technical system surrounding the Machado case.

An overview of the pieces

Machado's message was sent on a computing system that used the Unix operating software and network protocols. The mismatch between the collaborative cultural environment in which Unix was developed and the large, institutional culture in which Machado used the system is a central player in the case. Thus, this software, its procedures, and the culture that spawned it are important parts of the socio-technical system.

The Office of Academic Computing (OAC) was the primary administrative structure that has responsibility for the network and computers that Machado used, and thus their personnel and procedures are part of the socio-technical system.

Machado used a style of writing called "flaming" that originated in discussion groups on the Internet. It was through such discussion groups that Machado learned this style. The social assumptions of these discussion groups thus become an important part of the socio-technical system.

The University of California, Irvine (UCI) is a relatively young university, dedicated to providing a place where students can encounter each other and the world of ideas. Thus, the rules and social expectations of the university system become an important part of the socio-technical system.

National law enforcement became involved in the case, after it became clear that Machado could be tried on the grounds of violating the civil rights of the Asian students he threatened. Finally, Machado’s personal circumstances interacted with all of these pieces.

The parts of this socio-technical system are intertwined: Unix software and networking protocols, the culture of online discussion groups, and university culture are all closely related and inherit rules and expectations from each other. Discussing one will likely lead to discussing several. You should not merely tolerate this complexity, but look for the patterns within it so you can welcome it.

The Unix computing culture (from which smtp and finger emerged)

Unix is an operating system first conceived of in 1969, and that has been continuously evolving since that time. An operating system is responsible for all the basic operations of the computer (at that time, a DEC PDP-7) including the file system, ways of interacting with files and peripherals (printers, screens, keyboards), user utilities (like copy) etc. Oddly enough, it was first designed to serve as the underpinnings for a game called "Space Travel," but it quickly became evident that its potential was far greater. It was called Unix in what Dennis Ritchie (one of the designers) has called a "treacherous pun" on the system it was designed to replace: Multics.

Thus, the Unix operating system was born in a computing research lab, to serve the esoteric needs of computing researchers. In the early to mid 1970s, it was widely adopted by academic computer scientists. Its wide adoption can be explained by several factors:

  • It was a flexible and robust operating system
  • It was inexpensive
  • The original designers of the system were open in discussing its operation and adapting it to different environments,
  • It served as a good teaching tool (it was mostly written in a high level language called "C," and you could use the system while studying the programming language and rewriting the system itself).

A culture of cooperative computing arose around the development and study of Unix and C. Academics (at Berkeley, Stanford, Purdue, Univ. of New South Wales), and researchers (at various Bell Labs sites) shared their problems and insights on the system and negotiated together what they thought the best implementation of the system would be. Disagreements produced alternative versions, but substantial cooperation was a hallmark of the community.

Networking became practical with the advent of uucp (Unix-to-Unix copy) and electronic mail became a way for these researchers to communicate with each other. As networks became more sophisticated, a series of protocols were established using a procedure called "Request for Comment." These RFCs were public documents that took advantage of the collaborative atmosphere and structured the discussion by focussing it on a document until there was general agreement on the standard. This procedure emphasized collaboration among colleagues.


Finger originated at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in the mid-1970s. Because collaborating among programmers was an important part of the culture, it seemed like a good idea to be able to see who was on a system at any one time so you could ask them questions or get them to problem solve with you. Finger was designed to show you whether a particular person was logged on at that time, where they were (what terminal they were using) and other useful information about your programmer colleagues. If you typed the command without listing anyone, it showed you all the people who were logged on at that time. Again, this was useful to find out who else was up at that time and on the system.

This system command, designed for use among collaborating colleagues, was used by Machado to target individuals with Asian sounding names. He simply entered the finger command without any arguments and found all the people (and their login names) who were logged on at the time. Since a standard, friendly feature was to have login names reflect your real name, Machado could use the login name to look for people who were likely to be Asian. Here we see that a computing system designed under one set of assumptions (friendly interaction among programmers) can become a severe liability when it is used in ways that violate those assumptions (to target people for harassment).

Recognition of this issue is evident in the change in tone of RFCs from the early implementation of a network-based finger command (RFC 742 from 1977) to a much later implementation (RFC 1288 from 1991). The early RFC makes no mention of privacy issues or other difficulties, while the 1991 version has clear and direct warnings about the problems you can get involved in when you implement a finger server on a networked system.



Simple Mail Transfer Protocol was originally established in 1982 with RFC 821. It defines it goal as "transfer[ing] mail reliably and efficiently." It is technically based on TCP (transmission control protocol) a part of the early ARPAnet's Department of Defense standards. Efficiency and reliability are the watchwords here (as they were for all the ARPAnet projects).

For instance, a time stamp line was to be inserted as a new header by every machine that handled the mail. If User1 sent email to User2, it might not go directly from one machine to the other (since there might not be a direct connection, or forwarding might be set up). But as it moved from machine-a to machine-b to machine-c each machine using SMTP would place a new time stamp header on the mail showing the date and time it had been received, and the identity of the two machines. This tracking helped in answering two questions: "How long did the message take to get from each machine to the next?" (efficiency) and "If it failed, where in the chain did the failure occur?" (reliability).

The issue that the Machado case brings up is the mismatch between the Unix culture that valued efficiency and collaboration and the UCI culture that required surveillance cameras, security measures, and tracking. The SMTP headers that were originally designed to serve as efficiency markers became security trails that allowed the OAC to track down the original sender of the hate mail. Thus a computing system that was designed under one set of values was used by people with a different set of values for purposes not originally foreseen.


The Office of Academic Computing (OAC)

The OAC was a long way from the small, friendly groups of computing researchers that formed the early world of Unix. Like most academic installations, they used Unix as their primary operating system. But they also had hundreds of open personal computers in labs all over campus in an urban area. They had thousands of users on a modern university campus with a great deal of turnover in the student population.

In response to this logistical nightmare, the OAC had implemented policies about appropriate computer use (see the OAC background document in the case narrative). In addition, they had mounted surveillance cameras in their computing labs so that they could videotape the people in the labs. This combination of measures helped them to catch Machado when he sent his hate mail.

But they were still running an implementation of the finger program, and this allowed Machado to find his targets. There were procedures in place that worked on most cases, but in this case, led to a short delay in catching the author of the hate mail. The two administrators for OAC did take prompt action to remove Machado from the lab when the incident was reported. But they did not actually read the email in the incident until at least the next day. Upon reading the death threats in it (the students who reported it had not mentioned these) they decided that it was a matter for the police to handle.

The incident then rapidly escalated until the FBI was involved in prosecuting a federal civil rights case. Thus we have three worlds coming together, the Unix computing culture, the large-scale modern university, and the legal system.


The world of online discussion

Online discussion forums range from the dryly professional to the raucous and outrageous. Some discussion groups are specifically set up to facilitate what is called "flaming:" long, ranting, messages that personally attack those with whom the author disagrees. This form of argument by name-calling is usually frowned upon in most Internet discussion groups, but it occasionally rears it head, gets labeled "flaming" and those doing the flaming are asked to quit.

In some ways, the mail Machado sent out was the classic flame. Much of it was in all capital letters, a classic form of electronic shouting associated with flames. Many vulgar curse words were used, and the targets were called names. Again, a classic flame. However, there were differences. The mail was not sent to a group, but directly to individuals who had been chosen because of their race. In addition, the email made direct death threats. Not of the general "You should die" variety, but specific "I will hunt you down and kill you." At the trial, the defense for Machado made a point of emphasizing the flame like nature of the email, while the prosecution pointed out the direct, targeted threats. This argument became so central that newspaper reporting on the trial began to talk about the "flame defense."

This case can certainly motivate a discussion of online behavior and the appropriate rules for it. But it also shows the difficulty people (like Machado) have with the boundaries between different cultures. What looks like a fine, and even funny, flame in one context can look like a serious offense in another. The electronic world does not make it easy for people to make these distinctions on their computer screens. Here is a design problem for thoughtful software engineers: how can a communications system make more evident to users the social context of the current communication?

The context of U.C. Irvine and the surrounding community

If you read the background document on Machado and on the UCI community, you will begin to see some of the underlying racial tension that exploded with Machado's email. The Hispanic population in California had been rapidly increasing, while their admission to university had hardly changed from its already low level (and in some places gone down). On the other hand, Asians were far over-represented in California universities given their percentage of the California population. This is a difficult issue to approach in the classroom because of the vehemence with which differing opinions are held. But if you discuss it, make sure to turn attention back to the case by reminding students that the arguments are another example of a culture clash occurring in this case.

UCI, like most other universities, tried to create a climate in which people could discuss ideas, even if they were unpopular. Thus, UCI was committed to the value of free speech. But Machado's speech crossed the line when, instead of being simply racist, he threatened specific Asians with death. Most universities do not encourage racist speech among students, though some tolerate it because they value free speech. Officials at universities use the word toleration carefully. Behavior is tolerated if it is allowed but disapproved of.

Machado felt like he had a tremendous amount of pressure on him to succeed for his family, but that both circumstances (his brother's murder) and the university system (his low grades) were conspiring against him. There was reasonably convincing evidence presented at the trial that Machado was clinically depressed at the time he made his two hate mailings.

It is easy to think that Machado should have sympathized with the Asians rather than threatening them. But to do this is to fall prey to the "model minority" myth. Minorities are thought of as greater failures than majority members if they express racist ideas or otherwise show anger and resentment. Suffering usually does not make people noble.


Law enforcement

Part of Machado's problem was that his case came along at the wrong time -- or, for the FBI, at just the right time. No one had yet shown that hate mail sent over email counted as illegal. The FBI needed a case to prove this, and Machado was the lucky trial case.

The accused in a previous case in Michigan (United States v. Baker, 1995) had been acquitted of threatening rape over electronic media (with a "fictional" story that used the victim's real name). But Machado's email seemed like it could pass muster because of its specificity.

It was still a tough case to try, and the first attempt ended up in a mistrial because the jury was hung favoring acquittal. But additional evidence about Machado's attitude and habits turned the tide in the second trial.

Here we come up against another culture clash in the socio-technical system, this time between the legal system and university culture. The primary job of universities is to establish a climate in which students can be educated. Thus, tolerance and care for the individual are emphasized. Almost all electronic mail offenders are dealt with in-house at universities. UCI has even established a sort of "traffic school" for those who break the rules. This both confronts the offender with clear evidence of the wrongdoing and provides a supportive way for people to learn to do better.

But the culture changes when you enter the legal system. Here primary goals are enforcing the law and careful establishing and following of procedures to assure justice is done. The Machado case was a chance to establish a precedent of email as a medium for hate crime. Thus, finding Machado guilty provided not only justice in the case (from the perspective of the prosecutor) but also put the case (and the prosecutor) on the map of legal precedent. The only responsibility to Machado was to try the case fairly.