FLEX History, Experiences

Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: Macroinformation.org &
Knatz.com / Teaching / Society / Social Order / DeGate / FLEX / Experience /
(FLEX is of course the Free Learning Exchange, 1970)

Mission: to acquaint the world with FLEX as a stifled antecedent of the internet
@ K. 1998 11 20

Supported by the public, FLEX could have created the human world’s first level playing field
only true internet
Not supported by the public, FLEX (together with bus fare) gets you a ride on the bus.

The Future That Never Happened

1999 06 16 One might think that thirty years after the events I ought to be able to write a coherent, simple history and not need to be patching it and building extensions twenty-four hours later. Not so. The future that didn’t happen in our past is just as complicated as the one that did. Furthermore, I am more impoverished now that I was then, and I’m now under constant attack, including physical. I notice something this morning that I have to stick in immediately, hoping to coordinate it into a new writing of this section in the near future.

TIME has launched a series on the 100 most influential people of the century. The issue of this March 29 (1999) focuses on Scientists and Thinkers. I finish the article on Rachel Carson, turn the page, and there it honors: “Tim Berners-Lee, Network Designer — From the thousands of interconnected threads of the Internet, he wove the World Wide Web and created a mass medium for the 21st century.” The picture shows Mr. Berners-Lee, born in 1955, building one of his first computers in 1976. It reports him writing i>Enquire in 1980 and proposing a global hyper-text project called “WorldWideWeb” in 1989.

… convergence is not universal
… and not all splendid opportunities are seized

Jared Diamond

Ivan Illich developed his network designs while working with thinkers who’d been laboring on the concept for years. By 1971 his articles had circulated among colleagues, been thrice published in the NYR, and Deschooling Society was selling well. By 1971 I was circulating my FLEX publications around Columbia, NYU, and my neighborhood. By January 1972, my articles were coming out in organs with ever-wider circulation. Others were interviewing me and publishing their versions. I was appearing on the radio nearly weekly. An interview was videoed for cable. And by mid-1972, FLEX had its own cable “show”: FLEX resources scrolling down the screen twenty-four hours a day.

One day the phone rings. It’s a reporter from TIME. He wants to come over right away. He talks to me for a few minutes. Confides how he’d noticed FLEX on the cable, reported it to his bosses, and received the imperative instruction: “Find that guy.” He arranged to introduce FLEX and me to the bosses. A few minutes into that interview, I began to believe that the others in the room were intelligent and that I could safely hint at a few more of the implications than I was rehearsing to the public at that time. It was my strategy to offer the learning resources and peer matching first, and only gradually reveal where it led: universal, politically free, public information: FIX. I didn’t attack the schools. I didn’t threaten to replace them. Neither did I carry it forward to show the implicit absorption of institutions that dole information, ever raising the price (not to mention the cost): news-organs, governments …

First it seemed that they were going to get behind it in a big way. Then at least one of them scowled. He whispered to another. They asked if I’d retire beyond the door so they could discuss something. Sure.

I waited. Time passed. The secretary finally brought me my hat. I’d been dismissed.

Did TIME suddenly sense its own demise in my words? I certainly hadn’t meant them to. (Though why should anyone need a newspaper if he can tap into the news services that the newspapers get their data from at greater speed and less cost? Whatever the reasons, the result is the same: TIME buried any intentions they’d had of publicizing FLEX.

How dare they in 1999 act as though information that goes past them is a good idea, that if computer networking “were a traditional science, Berners-Lee would win a Nobel Prize” [Eric Schmidt, CEO of Novell]? In 1972 TIME was a major squelcher of the ideas. NEWSWeek, IBM … They have no right now to support what they refused to nurture when asked in 1972. How dare IBM ride the internet like a colossus?

Berners-Lee wrote the protocol. Good for him. I never intended to write any damn protocol. By 1971, I was talking to two of the ten authors of FORTRAN. Sure they could cross-reference a database. As soon as I came up with a little money, they’d be happy to.

What’s the difference then between the WorldWideWeb of 1989 and the FIX / FLEX of 1971? For the former, you need your own computer, your own telephone lines, your own IPS … With FLEX all you needed was a postcard. Or a phone call. Or to walk to the nearest FLEX kiosk (if only the public had provided the money to open such kiosks). In other words, the web is for people who already have privileged access to information. The more you have, the more you can get. FIX / FLEX was for everyone.

The History

First: Personal Background

The system FLEX tried to embody was proposed by Monsignor Ivan Illich. Sr. Illich
had the practice at that time of publishing his manuscripts via the publishing facility of his own CIDOC (Center for Intercultural Documentation) in Cuernavaca and distributing them for comment among his associates. I first heard of him when a draft on his invented subject of deschooling was published in the New York Review of Books. It was then my habit to read every article of that organ carefully as soon as I received my subscription. I made an exception for the Illich article for a couple of reasons:

1) I read the articles to learn,
not to rehearse my own beliefs.
Deschooling Society? What could such a piece possibly tell me that I didn’t already know? me, an arch-enemy of schools since childhood (though, of course, I was still in “school”).
2) It had to be a joke. Who but a prankster would choose for his pen-name the title character of one of Tolstoy’s greatest short stories?

A week passed. But I couldn’t file that issue till I had read all the articles, so I gave it a shot after all. Mama mia! I was riveted. This character, whoever he was, had articulated nearly everything I’d ever thought on the subject but also nearly everything germane I’d ever read that had struck me as in any way cogent: in the real world. That in itself would have been amazing enough: but he further articulated criticisms I’d never imagined. This guy had blown past me and left me, Butler, Shaw, Goodman, etc., in the dust. The writing was exquisite, crystal clear (if you could follow it. Like Fuller, he’d to a degree invented his own language in order to be able to express his meaning). Damn, if I hadn’t met another genius: perhaps the greatest of all living thinking/writers. Best of all, he had a solution: so beautiful, so simple, so elegant.

I’d already let a week pass while the world went further to hell. I didn’t waste another moment: I wrote him care of NYR. I told him that if he could use a capable slave in his endeavor to found a free learning institution, he had one.

The author had put the dream of a democratic Electronic Village within practical reach. I’d gotten my first glimpse of that Village in a series of articles starting with the earliest numbers of Horizon Magazine in 1960. (I don’t mean that the “series” had been intended as such by the publisher; they just appeared and I read them, one, then another.) One early piece was by Arthur C. Clarke, science fiction master and inventor of the communications satellite. I’m sure I’d read some of Clarke’s fiction before then, but that was the first time I was registering his name. These articles envisioned a world in which rare documents were scanned and the data stored on a computer so that it could then be downloaded via a device that we have come to know as a modem. Scholars have long had access to original artifacts; futurists of the early ’60s were seeing a time when amateurs could have access to facsimiles. So much of “progress” is sham; that would be genuine.

The possible
is richer than
the real

Viscount Ilya Prigogine

I saw how Illich’s design related. Inhabitants of the genuine villages of the past didn’t need their identities and attributes recorded in an external data base, then cross-referenced for multi-purposed access; everyone knew everyone. But no longer. The apartment dweller in New York has no idea whether or not his “neighbor” is on the list for the next Nobel Prize. Indeed, the neighbor may already have one without others on his floor
note it.

I volunteered my devotion in writing. Then I went back to wondering how I was ever going to get out of the trap I’d put myself into with the best of intentions: swallowing the juvenile indignities of graduate school so that some other moron institution would let me get at some of the good students. In other words, I had to finish my cursed Ph.D.

Before the month was out, I received a letter with Mexican stamps parading across the top and postal Spanish rubber-stamped all over it. “Ivan Illich, CIDOC,” read the return address. I guessed it really was his name. More mailings followed and I became one of the elect associates invited to review his manuscripts before publication. NYR followed with two more articles.

Incipiently Public

By the time the book version, also titled Deschooling Society, came out (all this was happening in 1970-1971), I’d written some of the preliminary material for FLEX. (Bear with me: I intend to digitize as much of it as I can and post it here: text only at first, possibly as facsimiles later.)

Illich’s original response had named one Denis Detzel as a fellow American interested in realizing the learning data base concept. Northwestern University was the only “address” mentioned. I wrote care of that institution and received no answer. (I never did get to ask Denis if he’d ever got the letter.) Meantime, I was showing my material around Columbia (where I still lived) and NYU (where I was still matriculated as a doctoral candidate). The first response was enthusiastic: “That could fly.” But the enthusiast offered nothing further. Some reactions were indifferent; others, hostile in the extreme.

All original ideas
are at first ridiculed,
then refuted,
then taken for granted.

It was by that time clear to me that I would never again teach as a regular faculty member of any institution but FLEX. Finishing my Ph.D. remained important to me mainly for the contribution my thesis
on Meta-Oxymoron would make, not only to English letters, but to our understanding of our intellectual, spiritual, and indeed, scientific, provenance. I also hoped it would (ahem) legitimatize FLEX to some degree. But once my oral examination proved to me that the core of the graduate faculty at NYU remained recalcitrant in refusing to understand my work (or were they simply unable?), it became additionally clear to me that I wasn’t going back. I’d go directly to the public in all things. I redoubled my efforts to publish my fiction. Once my stories were known and FLEX was reinventing the ancient marketplace for learning, I would write what I had to say about Shakespeare in a series of “popular” books: my Meta-Oxymoron thesis being the first of them.

A neighboring attorney volunteered to do the legal work for incorporation for free so long as I came up with the fees to the state. He recommended that I gather a board of Trustees for the non-profit entity and I did: Ivan Illich, Everett Reimer, Roy Innis, Nat Hentoff, Msgr. Robert Fox, Dr. Larry Grimes, Ronald Gross, Rev. John E. Halborg, Dr. Steven Marcus, Dr. Sidney Morgenbesser, & Dr. Helen Volkomener. I found a local terminal with access to a mainframe computer at Princeton University, but also knew that there would be no need to use it until there were too many old-fashioned 3 x 5 cards to handle. I designed a set of registration forms and local papers started interviewing me and printing my articles. Before long I was sitting for the camera of the cable TV stations, giving interviews on the radio, and finding free publicity in far more major organs than I’d started with. Once a young reporter at Time saw FLEX‘s “expert” listings on Manhattan Cable, he was assigned to “find that guy.”

We must be the change
we wish to see in the world


If you read around a bit in the teaching, writing, or biographical sections, you will see the ambition of this site and perhaps imagine the difficulties involved in realizing that ambition. Frequently, the more important a file or section, the more diligently I work on it, the more (temporarily, I trust) discombobulated it becomes. I can’t afford to take such sections down till I perfect them. This isn’t art; this is survival. Not for me (I’ve already sacrificed my life); for you.

As Good as It Got

Calls trickled in. The mail was very interesting. One day the door bell rings and one Noreen Connolly introduces herself as a junior associate of Illich’s preparatory to rolling up her sleeves. Charles Herr is another volunteer who offered yeoman’s duty for a considerable time. Bob Price is already credited above with having designed the logo. There were many other volunteers over the next few years.

Soon the mail was international. I started hearing of a
Learning Exchange
note in Evanston, IL. Denis Detzel’s, it turned out. For years neither of us could be sure who was “first”: clearly, he’d known about Illich’s work ahead of me. His associate, Bob Lewis and I finally figured out that FLEX went public first, but only by a whisker. The last FLEX Newsletter that I published listed seventy-two other learning exchanges, in North America alone. [See FLEX Documents (Sub-)Menu] Since I had by that time corresponded with interested parties from every continent, and had encouraged and advised people thinking of starting them in places like Finland and Australia, I doubt that my list was complete.

more coming

I invited the public to fund its own freedom. In four years some dozen of us raised less than $2,000. By 1974 my wife note was begging me to join the normal economy. Once she stopped paying the bills and an intensive week of fundraising failed to buy a single meal, the daily activities of FLEX faltered.

I never could comfortably figure out “charges” for FLEX. I never wanted anyone to be unable to use it. But ten cents, three dollars, twenty dollars … even with a thousand users, even had the thousand users used it every day and paid every time, wasn’t what was needed. All of the labor was volunteered, but none should have needed volunteering. It wasn’t even money that was needed, in any amount. What was needed was resources (resources, that money, alas, can in fact buy): computer time; computer terminals, many many terminals; places, spaces, phone service and other utilities … food, shelter, clothing, family expenses … How many resources? How much money to appropriate them? How could I know?

I made up a budget for $100,000. Did I know our real needs and add it up? No. I picked what seemed like a round figure, a possible figure, and then added things until it came out right. IBM was one of the first corporations I presented it to. After a while their Director of University Relations called me in. Wow. The conference room (once I and my briefcase got past the guards for the bomb threats) was long enough to bowl in. The table was all wood, no nails. You could see the pegs, top or bottom, and polished like you wouldn’t believe (though not epoxied like a table in a cocktail lounge).

“You think you can do this for $100,000?” he asked me. “World-wide? I should think $20 million a year would be more like it for New York City alone.” He’d know better than I. Wow. Think of it. Saturation ads like the airlines! I told him how I’d come up with the number. Anything. Give us anything. Anything would be better than nothing. I left it unsaid that IBM would be selling a few more mainframes, that existing mainframes would be further taxed on their “time.” (I had access to one at Princeton and was pretty sure I could get into Columbia’s when use demanded it. I knew some of the people who could write the software for the data-base.) (1970, remember. You couldn’t buy a spreadsheet program in those days, but I was talking to two of the people who’d written FORTRAN, for example.) (God, how they hated their employer.)

OK. Last thought before putting this up and leaving the balance for another time: Do you know what he said preparatory to my leaving? He shrugged and said, “Well, I’ll show it to the powers. But I wouldn’t hold out much hope. This is a good idea. They very rarely respond to good ideas.”

One of my proposals went to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. They paid a guy to follow me around, observing: paid FLEX nothing.

I told FLEX Trustee Ronald Gross that maybe it was too abstract for the public to grasp, maybe they’d respond to something more material. I conceived of a proposal for the New York State Council on the Arts: a gallery in which any artist had the right to exhibit: once. (And FLEX would have an office to piggyback on.) A gal in the proposals office said she’d help me with the form. Guess what? My proposal was never answered: but — suspicion is appropriate — she was awarded a grant for a gallery in SOHO to exhibit new artists: that is, she got the grant for exposing previously unexposed artists. Funny she didn’t mention to me that she had any such similar proposal in the works at the time. I presume my proposal found its way to her wastebasket after she’d emasculated the idea, changing “any” to “selected.”

I decided to succeed in business and to fund it myself. By 1979 an accountant told me I was a millionaire. It’s true that I had four million dollars worth of inventory, but the market took a turn and I was cash poor. FLEX‘s
existence seems now permanently to be the road not taken. History is filled with instances of social and moral leaders having too few followers. And we can only know of a tiny percentage of those who must have existed. Slavery must have had dissenters from its inception. Lincoln became president respecting the separate laws. But most of us associate only one name with opposition to slavery.

In my soul I live in the alternative universe I tried to lead you toward. Unfortunately, I eat my meals in the miserable one you (or inertia: it makes no difference) preferred.

2001 09 08 It took me two and a half decades to write this file at all and now four years later I still haven’t finished it. But today I add this memory. A girl friend in graduate school arranged for me to speak at an NYU teachers convention there on the future of education. I’d passed out my literature. Teachers were to de-guild themselves, eschew coercion, make their own contracts with students or parents … My turn came. I started to speak. The first teacher to rise and interrupt was a black teacher: a large male. He pronounced FLEX “elitist.” Excuse me? A free marketplace is elitist? Freedom is elitist? Of course he was practicing “authorsmanship,” where you heard something about a book you haven’t read and accuse it of lacking exactly what it’s famous for possessing: D. H. Lawrence didn’t have the courage to confront gender issues. I might as well have been preaching the de-guilding of medicine at an AMA convention. Others continued to interrupt, to obfuscate: all sounding highly ideal in their rhetoric. Not one teacher, not even Ron Gross who was present, complained out loud about the irrelevance of the interruptions or the seemingly coordinated misrepresentations of the subject that were coming back at me.
(Authorsmanship is always accompanied by a reliance, usually accurate enough, that the majority of your listeners will themselves likewise be ignorant of the material referred to: We’ve all heard of Einstein, none of us have read Einstein. The oddball who does know the material referred to will stand no chance against the tide of coordinated ignorance.)

Teachers are people who get paid to practice slavery. Teachers further are people who are not likely to be hired as teachers in a free marketplace. Of course they’ll say or do anything to protect their sinecure.

2002 07 17 Years are sliding by without my finishing this important section of Knatz.com’s FLEX directory. Before it is finished it will need its own sub-folder. I start one today with a story I thought I’d already told here but now find I’d only referred to in my Kleptocracy folder.

More FLEX Experience files (t come):

FLEX Finances

Labor Committee Debate

Yahoo Deschooling Forum


Who’s Who and Who Wants What in Modern Society:

Preparing to move from Waterville, Maine back to New York City, I had a bed to get rid of. I called someone listed in the Yellow Pages. He came, offered me $75. It struck me as too little by half, but what was I to do? He counted out the bills.

A woman from across the street came up. I’d never seen her, never spoken to her, never heard of her, had no idea who she was, or what she was interested in. “Is that bed for sale,” she asks. I’m thunderstruck. “It is,” the broker answers. “How much?” “$150.” “I’ll take it.”

The guy makes a fast $75. Never had to carry the bed an inch. Paid no rent, no overhead on that particular transaction. I was incensed. But then, what do academics know about business? I didn’t know much, despite my success with Columbia’s Refreshment Agency. Had I time, I could have advertised the bed in the local Pennysaver. I could have organized a garage sale.

With FIX, I wouldn’t have had to do any of that. Neither would my neighbor have had to buy the Pennysaver or notice the garage sale sign and then make her way to the sale. Just ask FIX: “Who in or near Waterville, Maine has used beds for sale?” There goes the middle man. I’d have gotten the $150 I needed; she’d have gotten the bed. The guy in the Yellow Pages would have to figure out some other way to make a living. So too would the Pennysaver and the Yellow Pages.


Learning Exchange: (Evanston)
Denis Detzel and Bob Lewis’s Learning Exchange in Evanston IL opened almost simultaneously to my FLEX in New York. Denis Detzel had known Ivan Illich for years. Indeed, Ivan Illich’s first answer to my interest named Denis Detzel of Northwestern University as being on the scent. No other particulars, however, were given and my letter addressed to Denis Detzel, care of Northwestern, was never answered. We did get together for a couple of weeks in Cuernavaca, but that was after both exchanges were functioning.

The Evanston Exchange was slightly better funded and better housed. It was mentioned on the floor of the Senate and got written into the Congressional Record.

FLEX‘s last newsletter published a list of other exchanges world-wide. I never heard of any getting funding beyond the volunteers’ pocket change other than Evanston’s grant from Quaker Oats.

FLEX was given some resources that turned out to be very costly: an “office” in Hell’s Kitchen had no lock on the door. My typewriter was stolen. Noreen’s bicycle was stolen. One day I came in to find the Free Food recipients dumping our files on the floor so they could steal the boxes to carry their carrots away in.

Beyond 1975 I don’t believe any of us had been able to remain active. I am not aware of any exchange toughing it out as long as I did. As you see, I’m still trying. But FLEX hasn’t paid its corporate taxes or been able to advertise or maintain an address or phone number since the mid-seventies.


Wife: principle source of funding for FLEX

FLEX’s only regular income was mine, and, at that time, my only regular income was Hilary’s:

Paul and Hilary
pk & Hilary at her mother’s cottage
in ski country

Hilary by the fire
Hilary by the fire

(Shameful, but the shame is on the society, not on me.)

Hilary had “bargained” to support me, expecting me to take over soon and support her, the wife and mother. So did I. I was offering a public service: the public should have shared enough resources with us to keep us functioning. The public didn’t. Therefore, Hilary was the only one. But, in fairness, I must add: I saw no evidence then and see no evidence now that Hilary ever “understood” what it was about. It was me she was attached to, not unimpeded, aided but unregulated information. When, however she decided no longer to support me, then the aborning, would-be entity free-information lost “99%” of the volume of its voice.

Shame on you, the public for not relieving her of her burden. Shame on her for pulling the rug out from under the world’s first public internet: and for kidnapping our son, the public backing the kidnapping.

Free information, non-coercion, dissolving kleptocracy … these things are of the greatest importance. So is learning a little humility before the group mucks with family.

(In other words, Hilary had every right to decline to support what no one else was supporting. Hilary had every right to go back to her mother. Hilary had no right to steal a father’s son from him. When she left, if she left, she should have left alone.)

(And don’t underestimate my role in driving her away.) (Still, it didn’t occur to me that she could so successfully steal my fatherhood.)

2012 10 31 Funny to see how tiny were my image uses in 1998. I could re-scan those images without too much trouble but the silhouetting was a lot of work in PhotoShop.

DeGate Menu Deschool Menu

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
This entry was posted in DeCentral, deschool, pk Teaching, social order, society. Bookmark the permalink.

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