'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.

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

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@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 @enkiv2 @erosdiscordia @brennen Read it more carefully, though; it's talking about secretaries or people loaning you their terminals, not Rmail.

@kragen @enkiv2 @erosdiscordia @brennen

Person *or* program.

<< The Sender mailbox specification includes a word sequence which must correspond to a specific agent (i.e., a human user or a computer program) rather than a standard address. ... For example in the case of a shared login name, the name, by itself, would not be adequate. >>

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