'User agent' is a great idea that has been weirdly perverted.

Nobody these days (even highly technical people) has a user agent. (Maybe @drwho does.)

A user agent is a piece of software controlled by the *user*, that performs the automatic tasks the *user* has instructed it to. It communicates with other user agents, automatically, on the user's behalf.

Today, the term 'user agent' means 'long, misleading browser-lineage-identification string'. It identifies one of ~3 corporations.

Imagine if we actually *had* user agents.

Like, imagine if our computers were doing things we wanted them to do, automatically, on the network. And, it was our computers doing these things, instead of a rental service like ifttt or google alerts that's selling info on the back end. Imagine if they stopped doing things when we told them to stop.

Imagine if non-technical users had this too.

'User agent' is basically 'daemon, but controlled by an end user'. And, it's a thing we really need & don't have.

@enkiv2 I remember I think it was the early 1990s, lots of talk about 'software agents'. They were sort of the buzzword term, the 'neural networks' of that decade.

I don't really understand even now what lab that hype came from, and why it went away?

@natecull @enkiv2 i've never really found the "software agents" line of thinking very compelling, or at least it hasn't been very compellingly _presented_. it always felt like hype in much the way that VR or that weird brief period when XML was going to save the world did.

on the other hand, if the idea is just that people should own and control computers which do things with their data in their interests, well, that sure does sound like a pleasant contrast to the status quo.

@brennen I can say that even the term "software agent" sounds sort of dull, uninterestingly hands-off, and like something the average person wouldn't think they needed or was qualified to mess with.

Exactly the opposite of the hands-on, approachable, and self-ownership feel that future tech stuff needs to have.

Meaning no offense.
@natecull @enkiv2

@erosdiscordia @brennen @enkiv2

Well, on the one hand, part of the 'software agent' fuss was sort of linked with, um, personal organizers, early handhelds, the idea of an 'electronic butler/secretary' and so there WAS quite a bit of that 'hands-on, approachable' hype about it? You'd have a personal 'Agent' who would be a sort of pseudo-personality in your computer?

But then the other side of the 'software agents' thing was... mobile code, that you'd transmit? I guess 'cloud server' ate that?

@natecull @erosdiscordia @brennen @enkiv2 part of the issue is that "software agents" was used in the late 90s to mean a lot of different peripherally related things… mobile code, filtering rules, ifttt-type triggers, and I think even at one point program trading (of securities)

@kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen @enkiv2

oh, definitely!

That's part of the weirdness around the term. It got generalised to the point where it meant 'any program doing anything' and at that point.... why even use it?

@natecull @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

Something that got lost in translation is that user agents should be communicating with each other. I think if we had a "user agent communication standard", even if we just renamed jabber, it would be less of an issue.

Download a new user agent from 'inhuman resources' or 'central casting' to do a particular job & it checks in with your assistant agent to plug into your planner system, whatever.

@enkiv2 @natecull @erosdiscordia @brennen This is wrong, historically speaking. AFAIK the origin of the term "user agent" is in email; it's in e.g. tools.ietf.org/html/rfc1341 from 1992. Also in POP3 tools.ietf.org/html/rfc1081 from 1988. In hat context there was definitely not the idea that one user would usually have several agents or that the agents would talk to each other directly. In 1982 RFC 822 doesn't say "user agent" and uses "agent" in an incompatible way.

@kragen @natecull @erosdiscordia @brennen
That chronology can't be right. The term 'user agent' was used in science fiction in this way in the mid 80s, at the latest.

I'll take a look, but I've got a sneaking suspicion that the idea of a user agent is about as old as the idea of the filter bubble (the 'Daily Me' proposed at Negroponte's lab in the late 70s) or the Internet of Things ('Ubiquitous Computing' at PARC around 1979).

@enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

'Agent' has been a term of art in mail handling for a while, hasn't it? 'Mail User Agent' 'Message Transfer Agent' . Makes sense that HTTP inherited SMTP terminology.

But where did that 'agent' terminology come from, I wonder? And when? Mid-1980s, I assume?

@enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

As kragen said, RFC 822 (1982) uses the term agent:

'AGENT (person, system or process)'

which makes sense that it was an abstracted concept for 'person or system' in, I guess, DARPA systems thinking around then?

@natecull @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

Wikipedia is claiming that the concept of the software agent has its origin in the actor model (so, early 1970s). This makes sense: 'agent' and 'actor' share etymology, & 'agent' is a less misleading way to express 'one who performs actions' -- particularly 'one who acts on behalf of another'.

Actor model has, inside it, the assumption that agents communicate with other agents.

@enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

Note that 'Wikipedia' in this case is Carl Hewitt, who tends to spam references to his Actor model *everywhere* and annoys the editors by doing so.

I would take all references to the Actor model as having priority with a grain of salt.

@enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

But here's another reference to 'agent' in RFC 822, suggesting it was in use in 1981 to mean 'automated computer system process'

Not in the early-90s sense of the agent-hype phase, no. But presumably all terms originate somewhere.

<< Oppen, D.C. and Dalal, Y.K. "The Clearinghouse: A Decentralized Agent for Locating Named Objects in a Distributed Environment," OPD-T8103. Xerox Office Products Division: Palo Alto, CA. (October 1981).

@enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

<< Binding is an important architectural component of
a distributed system, and the clearinghouse serves the role of
"glue" that binds together the
many loosely-coupled, network·visible objects. >>

huh is that why Novell Netware always called its 'registry' equivalent 'the bindery'? Always thought that was a weird name.

@enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

But I assume that 'agent' must have been a term in use in network thinking in military/science thinking in 1981 to mean 'anything that acts on the system', ie a person, an organisation, an automated system.

A 'software agent' would then specifically be an agent which was software, so, not hardware and not a person.

Talk of *software* agents then would have arisen in a later environment where software was more decoupled from hardware.

@natecull @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

There are hits for both 'software agent' and 'user agent' in literature from before 1980, though (as you'd expect) not many:

@natecull @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen


Rule-directed Interactive Transaction Agents: An Approach to Knowledge Acquisition : a Report Prepared for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency by Donald Arthur Waterman, 1978:

"A user agent is a program that can act as an interface between the user and [...]"


@enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

Makes sense! DARPA terminology and framing of the problem would always precede use of the term in a DARPA product (eg SMTP)

So 'user agent' in 1978, but as a broader clas of 'transaction agent'?

I guess 'transaction' was a very common term then for 'activity on a computer system'. On-Line Transaction Processing.

@enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

It's interesting that we've moved from 'user agent' to 'user INTERFACE', a subtle shift that downgrades the abilities of the agent to just... something like a control panel for a machine.

Though an app today is still a kind of user agent (has credentials to do things on the user's behalf) but we don't tend to use that term...

@natecull @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

It's too bad I can't tell what this book is, because it looks like a fascinating read & a clear example of the 90s use of 'user agent'.


It may not be 1977 (just like the title probably isn't "P") but it's clearly pre-90s & probably pre-80s based on the typeface.

@natecull @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

Correction: 'P' appears to be a corrupted duplicate copy of "Exemplary Programming in RITA" by Waterman again.

Looks like Waterman at RAND either invented or popularized the idea of a user agent as a software agent sitting between the user & other 'agent'-style programs, in the mid-70s.


@enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

ha, Waterman also wrote a 1986 'Guide to Expert Systems' so he was in on all the buzzword loops

@natecull @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

Well, there's a sensible connection here.

His model of a user agent is clearly a planner system with an ontology about how other agents work -- like an expert system for writing shell scripts.

(In fact, I think that's the main part of 'user agent' that we're missing: what we call user agents are not expert systems anymore, so they don't do anything more than provide new handles for existing functions.)

@enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen


It appears that around the same time and place and set of people who were building out Internet email, this 'agent' thinking was taking shape.

Some of it maybe turned into 'object' thinking and just changed names...

... or what's now called Service Oriented Architecture?

But some of it maybe got lost in, I dunno, the AI Winter at the end of the 80s or something?

@enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

Very cool!

Production systems in 1978, hmm. I think that's where expert systems developed from? Which would explain Waterson being into both.

@natecull @enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen So, I came across this via a boost. I think Emacs satisfies all of those to some extent. Sadly, though, one can't really fit *all* their computing into Emacs unless they live in a computational vacuum.

@cadadr @enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

My big problem with Emacs is that it is based on then-fashionable 1970s ideas of how we should interact with computers, and it completely ignores our existing real 1980s-2010s desktops and four decades of key/mouse conventions.

There's gotta be a way to square that circle... surely?

@cadadr @enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

I mean just little things like the Ctrl and Alt key possibly being caught by your desktop OS and doing Very Bad Things if there's a collision between the OS and Emacs.

That's just... something that really shouldn't happen in a modern piece of software that understands that it does not have 100% control of a text terminal.

@natecull @enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen
Emacs does come with many tradeoffs. Some config might near "squaring the circle", but normally mouse is rather useless in Emacs (I use it for menu bar, links, buttons). You don't have useful context menus. But the general usefulness offsets it IMHO. With most apps, all you get is what the dev gives you. W/ Emacs, *everything* is configable, debuggable, modifiable, always.

@natecull @enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen Key interference is theoretically a problem but often you don't encounter big clashes (a notorious one is Alt+Tab, which can be worked around by ESC TAB, also bound to C-M-i), possibly b/c Emacs devs trying to avoid them. My biggest problem is hitting C-q and the app closing, no warnings. It's horrible design to close app w/o confirmation, and the OS needs to ensure that.

@cadadr @enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen

I really like the idea of a configurable anything-environment, but I just have never got the vibe from Emacs that it cares about me or my wants in the slightest.

@natecull @enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen Yeah, it takes quite some work to make Emacs address your wants, but it is possible to make it do what you want, exactly. I would love to have an OS w/ a similar env, but a modern UX. Say rightclick the clock & edit/eval the source. Midclick and get its docs. Connect apps randomly. Eg when I mail someone, add some stats to a spreadsheet. In Emacs could do it w/ Rmail&Org.

@cadadr @natecull @enkiv2 @kragen @erosdiscordia @brennen re: "right click a thing and view/edit its source" that's kinda how smalltalk worked/works. At least that's how I remember it last time I was messing with Squeak (a long time ago)

@edheil @cadadr @natecull @enkiv2 @erosdiscordia @brennen Yeah, Morphic in Squeak can do this. It's pretty awesome! MVC doesn't let you do this in Smalltalk, though.

@cadadr @natecull @enkiv2 @erosdiscordia @brennen One of the things I've been thinking of for BubbleOS is a generalized OS-level undo facility that is capable of undoing "close app" actions without any special effort on the app's part; not sure if that's going to work out.

@enkiv2 @kragen @cadadr @natecull @erosdiscordia @brennen
Apparently both threads have been lost already?! (Does anybody have a cache of them? They were wonderful & so much good discussion didn't make it into my summary.)

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