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September/October 1998
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Maxwell's Silver Hammer: The Irresistable, Irrepressible Christine Maxwell
...an Interview with ISOC's VP of Membership
By Mark Stokes
mstokes@bendnet.com

I recently had the pleasure of talking with Christine Maxwell -- in the virtual sense, that is. She and I exchanged several e-mails between my office in northern California and hers somewhere in southern France. Although she has served as both a teacher and a developer of educational materials for grades K-12, Maxwell is a 25-year veteran of the publishing and research industries. She was cocreator of the McKinley Group and the Magellan online directory and search engine (creator of New Riders Official Internet Yellow Pages, published by the New Riders imprint of Macmillan); marketing director of Pergamon Press Publishers, Science Research Associates; and director of research for Macmillan. She serves as vice president of the Internet Society Board of Trustees and is a trustee of the Santa Fe Institute, a multidisciplinary research think tank for sciences of complexity. The author of numerous papers and presentations, Maxwell is a world-renowned and much-sought-after speaker on the subjects of education, publishing, and the Internet.

What's outside the Box?

If Maxwell has one defining characteristic, it is her ability to pursue her vision, thinking outside the proverbial box to create new ways of thinking about, communicating with, and gaining information from the Internet.

Like most of us, Maxwell's current thinking is deeply influenced by the amount of time she spends on the Internet. "Because of the way the Internet works," she says, "I feel as if my brain has had to shift in the way it functions and processes information. This was most disconcerting at first, but now I find myself thinking in the round about everything. Since I began using the Internet, I feel I don't think about anything in the same way. I've become far more aware of the mind as a self-organizing, amazingly adaptive system, and I make a conscious effort to take advantage of these new thinking processes. I feel as if they have been there all along, but I just didn't know how to access them. Now I do."

An experienced globe-trotter, Maxwell is not unaccustomed to working and dealing with people from all over the world. Her shift in thinking, therefore, possesses a natural global outreach. Still, she admits, the Internet has enabled her to meet and work with people she might never have met otherwise. "I can say without doubt that I am not the same person today, because of the very special people I've met first online, and then often in person," she adds. "The Net has this extraordinary effect on everyone who starts surfing. We all are truly entering a new era of human endeavor and existence: the space-time continuum has absolutely undergone a paradigm shift. It is a wonderful, exhilarating, and extraordinary time to be alive."

Those changes have helped Maxwell create her own standards of success: not money, not fame, not climbing to some business or achievement pinnacle, but ensuring that content itself as well as the capacity for users to find the specific content they seek and use it via the Net is achievable. Given the radically changing nature of technology and the fact that many people tend to apply old, traditional ways of publishing and disseminating information to the new technology of the Net -- which a lot of the time doesn't work well -- Maxwell's vision is a welcome gift.

On Publishing and Information Dissemination

Throughout her career, Maxwell has seen numerous changes in publishing and information dissemination, and she discusses the subject with intimate familiarity. "The first big change in publishing that I became aware of since I began to work in this field," she points out, "was the shift from traditional publishing to electronic publishing, or online database publishing. All of this started users down a path on which they were demanding pieces of information rather than the whole element. They wanted, for example, a single journal article rather than the whole journal itself. During the late 1970s, I was already exposed to electronic publishing, which ran alongside the traditional routes of microfilm, fiche, journals, and books as well as the advent of CD-ROM publishing.

"Then I saw huge changes in the print industry, changes that moved us away from the expensive and time-consuming web press production process to the faster, print-on-demand arenas of Linotronic typesetting. But all of those changes don't hold a candle to the revolution we're now experiencing in publishing -- changes brought about by the advent of the Internet." Once exposed to the possibilities the Internet was offering in the field of publishing, Maxwell permanently shifted her attention.

Maxwell believes her greatest and most innovative publishing achievement has been the creation of the Magellan online guide and search engine. "I believe that in creating Magellan, I was one of the first to really focus on the importance of the change in the professional World Wide Web publishing process in regard to providing expert assistance in the process of locating valuable content. I helped focus people's attention on how to separate the wheat from the chaff on the Net at a time when others were more concerned with just finding everything, no matter the quality. And I wanted to put in place a variety of routes to guide people to the right information," she says.

Maxwell first developed the New Riders Official Internet Yellow pages, published by Macmillan. Then she and her partners at the McKinley Group developed the database of reviewed sites into Magellan, the first truly online Michelin guide complete with star ratings for the Internet. The McKinley Group then sold the product to the Excite search engine, an event about which she still has mixed feelings. "When the company was sold to Excite," she remembers, "I believed at the time that it was in the best interest of McKinley's shareholders. In retrospect, it didn't turn out to be in the best interest of Internet users. Excite was a very different kind of company, whose editorial grasp of Internet content was entirely different from ours. Although Magellan can still be found online, nothing remains of its original soul."

Following the sale of Magellan, Maxwell leaped to her next pursuit, which is to build a new Web publishing process for publication of high-value content -- as opposed to large amounts of varying content of often questionable value -- on the Internet. The company is known as Chiliad Publishing, and Maxwell serves as its president and CEO.

A Remarkable Background

Maxwell's modus operandi derives from two sources: her family and her extraordinary experiences. "Both of my parents," she says, "had a strong work ethic, which they instilled in me and my eight brothers and sisters when we were very young. They also communicated a very clear understanding that advantages always come with responsibilities -- that there was no such thing as a free ride."

In addition to support by a very close-knit family, Maxwell was exposed to publishing at an early age. Her father, publisher Robert Maxwell, was the creator and founder of what became one of the great scientific publishing houses, Pergamon Press, now owned by Elsevier. Maxwell's formative years put her frequently in the presence of world-renowned scientists, politicians, and businesspeople from every corner of the world. Although the experience of those advantages was indeed enriching, she admits being unnerved during her youth by feelings of inadequacy in the face of people whose levels of knowledge and experience were overwhelming. "It was difficult," she says, "for a youngster to find ways of being part of their conversations." Out of that foundation, she found the will and the creativity to become a successful print publisher and editor; the creator and driver of Internet information businesses; a multilingual trinational citizen of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States; and a mother with a young family to nurture.

The way Maxwell operates as a publisher was greatly influenced by her father, an extraordinary visionary in her eyes as far as publishing was concerned. "I learned an enormous amount about the art of publishing and about the importance of cultivating personal relationships with authors and editors and thus truly valuing their expertise," she says. "I would also say that in my latest 16 years of work experience, I've found the confidence to trust in my creative abilities, to come up with my own inventive ideas, and see them through to completion." That philosophy is the key to Maxwell's methodology. In any form of publishing, she believes, today it is process -- not content -- that is king. Without creation of a new publishing framework and process for the Web, content can neither flourish as effectively and creatively nor be constructed as collaboratively as it needs to be in the interactive world of the Web. "We need to figure out how to bring publishing expertise and author expertise back into the center of Web publishing, and that can happen only by our being open to fundamental changes in copyright handling and author remuneration," she says.

On Content and Internet Publishing

To gain a deeper understanding of Maxwell's views on content and Internet publishing, I showed her a news item that had crossed my desk recently, and I asked for her comments. The item, run by Wired and titled "Net Said Not a Revolutionary Tool," quotes Patrick Ball, an American who trains human rights activists around the world in the use of information technologies. According to Ball, who is with the Science and Human Rights Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, "The Internet so far has helped dissidents with outside pressure and analysis, but hasn't done much to foment revolution." The reason, he says, is that in Latin America, for example, the poor lack access to telephones, personal computers, and the Internet. In other countries, such as China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and Singapore, however, he thinks the Internet can help fuel resistance.

Maxwell's reaction was immediate and to the point. "I think the question here is wrong. The Internet itself is a revolution. It is causing movement of information, feelings, and thoughts among peoples who before the Net rarely had the opportunity to connect. In that context it is already causing millions of revolutions in people's thinking and in their ways of being and working. And multiple evolutions are happening. Let's not look to the Net to see revolution happening only in the old traditional militaristic sense. How backward and unenlightened it is to keep looking for patterns of the past to reinstill themselves in the communications network of our future," she said.

Maxwell further points out the participatory requirement that users filter and interpret content responsibly. "The Internet allows different points of view to flow and be found," she says. "It allows the public to make up its own mind about issues and events, not just one side of the story. But then we have the interesting dilemma of making up our minds about what information to trust. We need to develop a certain maturity in how we think and be less willing to rush to judgment in that context. The old adage that says that if you give people food, they'll eat for a day, but that if you give them the means to grow their own food they'll take care of themselves and their families for life, is extremely true of the effect of the Internet, particularly in poor areas."

To support her position, Maxwell gives two real-life examples. First, she cites the secretary of the ISOC-Egyptian Chapter, Tarek Kamel (tkamel@idsc.gov.eg), about the chapter's efforts to place the Internet even in some of the poorest villages in Egypt. "Concerning the issue of the priorities of the development," says Kamel, "we are always thinking that investment in the future of the younger generation should run parallel to establishment of basic needs. The real leapfrog will happen only if the socioeconomic development starts at the grassroots: in villages and smaller communities."

In outlining that plan, Kamel says, "We started with establishment of small information and computer centers in the villages, and the experiment proved successful in the development of basic skills among the young generation. Therefore we decided to provide these computers with basic connectivity using VSAT terminals and low-end connectivity facilities.

"This provides those small communities a window to the world and accelerates the globalization process for them. Again, it has been considered to be as important as -- not more than and not less than -- basic needs." Thus, true and careful consideration of the Net as in and of itself a mode of revolution and valuable content is at work.

In the second example, Maxwell recalls a story a colleague told her that does indeed show the vitally important role the Internet plays and has already played in helping drive and inform on revolutions around the world. "I cite the example of a close colleague's life, during the time when [Mikhail] Gorbachev was taken to the Crimea as part of a coup. Isn't that synonymous with revolution? She received news from 400 independent journalists during the five-day period and sent the information to Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe. The Soviet government seized control of the mass medium but had forgotten about the Internet, which remained the primary medium of communication for Gorbachev and for millions worldwide who needed information about the coup. The Net is revolutionary, and it's being used in revolutions as we speak."

On Being a Woman in the Publishing and Internet Worlds

I asked Maxwell how she felt about being a woman amid all of this change and revolution and in business in general. "I find being female a positive advantage in the business world of the Internet," she answered. "I always seem to see issues differently and go for the more creative solutions. Personally, I have not come across the so-called glass ceiling at any point in my career, perhaps because I have always refused to describe setbacks in my career in those terms. My father used to send me on speaking missions, filling in for him when he couldn't get to an event at which he was scheduled to speak. During the time I was growing up, he would grill me and my brothers and sisters, stripping us mentally in front of professors and all kinds of visitors. I can't tell you how many times all I ever wanted to do was to drop through the floor and disappear.

"So no encounters that I have now or situations I find myself in -- where for the most part men predominate -- ever seem as difficult to deal with. I can always find a way out and move beyond any situation. It is a true gift never to be afraid of others and to trust in one's own capabilities to do right by one's own judgment of what is right. And being around my father for so many of his working years gave me an opportunity to see how extraordinarily perceptive he could be, even about issues and areas of knowledge about which he was by no means an expert. I think I have learned how to relate what I do know to areas I am only tangentially familiar with and find the essence of a problem that pertains to that domain. Part of the key is asking the right questions, because those who are far more expert than you are are always happy to supply the right answers. Then one has the opportunity to prove oneself to be a very attentive listener and learner."

Maxwell believes one of the greatest skills she's learned is the ability to hone in on the important issues in any given situation. "I really do know how to listen to others and how to encourage them to give their best if they're working with me," she says. "I would never ask others to do what I would not do myself. As far as women are concerned, in my position as vice president of the Internet Society, I really want to try to encourage women throughout the world to view the Internet as a great equalizer. The so-called glass ceiling is what stops people from fulfilling their career ambitions. I think the changes being brought on by the Internet really open up opportunities for women. You don't know what somebody looks like when you first meet on the Internet -- whether the person is tall, thin, old, young, or even a woman or a man for that matter. Therefore, people can't make the kind of snap judgments that they probably would when a person walked into the same room they were in. I think this is a tremendously important differential for women today, and I encourage women to do what they can to learn key skills that will help them be successful in the workplace of tomorrow."

From her personal perspective, being female has only enhanced Maxwell's contributions. From a general female perspective, she feels the Net helps free women to pursue opportunities in ways not perceived before. During our conversation, I commented on the breadth of her reach globally by indicating that she seems to be a world citizen rather than one tied to a specific city or country. This is the essence of a new perspective of women via the Internet.

"It is true that I feel I don't belong to any particular country," she says. "I do feel like a global citizen. I think women have a particularly important role to play as they rear young children into the new millennium. I believe that as geographic frontiers become less relevant and as we find that becoming citizens of the world means something to more and more people, women -- and all parents -- must learn how to educate their children in what it means to live locally and act globally. It's more than just words. We are only just beginning to understand what global citizenship is all about, and the Internet is fundamental to our ability -- both women's and men's -- to achieve a better and more effective understanding of our individual and collective role in this highly networked world."

On the Future of Publishing and the Internet

Encouraging expert collaboration in new ways to bring about new, exciting content connections is a key point for Maxwell, who voices concern over what she sees as the abdication of professional publishers from the true role of Web publishers. "I'm afraid the new mass publishers with giant resources -- the AOLs, the Microsofts, and the Excites of this world -- will become the purveyors of new and much lower-grade, lower-common-denominator publishing standards," she says. "Most professional publishers have not yet figured out what it means to transfer their valuable imprint into the world of the Web. Until they do, their publishing baggage of the past will continue to act like an albatross around their necks. In my own way, this is the publishing future I am trying to do something about. You'll have to watch this space to see whether I become successful in fulfilling that mission." Although for business reasons specific information must currently be closely held, it's a good guess that Chiliad, Maxwell's new company, will be a powerful influence in addressing that issue.

Maxwell's Role within the Internet Society

Maxwell's statement for her ISOC board position is one that many consider a breath of fresh air. She encourages women's increased participation in both the Internet and the Internet Society. She advocates the free flow of information, narrowing the gap between rich and poor, and engaging the world community to support this fundamental shift in the way we do everything. As vice president and trustee on the society's board, is Maxwell achieving those goals?

"The reason I did this in the first place was that I found I was already receiving so much good from using the Internet myself and I wanted to give something back. I felt that becoming a trustee of the Internet Society was the best vehicle for me to have a chance of making a difference. I believe that the society's role is well covered by its mission statement, and I wouldn't want to see that mission altered: helping guard the Internet so it can be used by all, helping it to grow and helping information flow freely, and doing everything possible to encourage Internet self-governance so that governments around the world have less reason to try to take over. I believe the right of access to the Internet is now as important to the world's citizens as is the right of access to fresh water. The Internet is to the flow of information to the mind what a well or the flow of a river can mean to the continued existence of life itself."

In an effort to realize those goals, Maxwell accepts as many speaking opportunities around the world as possible, spreading what she calls the gospel of the Internet. Some of those tours include speaking in Merida, Mexico, on the topic the Knowledge Worker of Tomorrow; on the future of Web publishing at Cainet '98 in Egypt; and most recently at Gulf '98 in Saudi Arabia on the topic Knowledge Management and Knowledge Skills for Workers in the Next Millennium.

"I feel my contributions in this regard have been making a difference," she says, "inspiring people to become avid users of the Internet and to be unafraid of beginning the process. I also believe people need to be made aware of their own responsibility for populating the Internet with content in their own languages and about their own cultures rather than just complaining about the fact that English predominates on the Internet.

"I try to inspire all to realize they have something unique to give to the Net and that even though they may be starting on the Internet only now, that does not diminish the importance either of what they can gain from using the Net or of what they have to give," Maxwell says. She adds that she feels good when she hears her views are inspiring to women, especially in parts of the world where women's freedoms are severely curtailed or only just beginning to blossom. But she admits she's equally concerned about the use of the Internet in education at all levels. "I am quietly working away at a Web publishing process I believe will have a profound effect on education at many different levels," she says.

Maxwell notes that the Internet Society is run by a unique group of people who are not on the Internet Society board for the money or the fame, but truly for the good of all Netizens. She says she feels honored to be on the board and "will continue to strive to fulfill my original board position statement of encouraging women and the elders in our midst to become active on the Internet and of helping support Internet self-governance and the free flow of information everywhere."

This particular trustee does not consider herself and her peers to be alone at the top in any way. If anything, she feels the opposite. "I would encourage every reader of OnTheInternet to make it a personal goal to go out and recruit a colleague or friend to become a new member of the Internet Society and to try to do so on an ongoing basis."

Maxwell is passionate about the Internet Society's message and believes the organization's members should feel good about spreading that message. "We can never take the freedom of the Internet for granted," she says. "It is the duty of each of us to help watch over this extraordinary, most precious resource. I believe the very health of our planet and our ability to live in more global harmony in the new millennium depend on it. All members can give this way, for what comes back to them via the Internet will always be far greater in terms of human connections, savings, and opportunities. That is the nature of this cybermagic. Cyberspace must be nurtured, kept as free from regulation as possible, and not just plundered. That is the Internet Society's mission: to nurture its growth for the good of all. And if my words here have encouraged even one more person to nurture and give back to the Net, then I will consider all my own efforts worthwhile."

And Then There's Her Spare Time

After absorbing all of Maxwell's ideas, I found it hard to imagine that this person actually has time to do anything else. But she does. "I love being with my children, whom I count among my proudest accomplishments. I enjoy watching them discover the world and grow into secure, happy, and generous children."

Maxwell also loves walking into the wild -- far from the madding crowd, as she says -- along the beach or into the mountains, whenever she can find the time. "I don't take nearly enough opportunity to do that," she says, "but when I do, I feel renewed. Riding, snow skiing, and windsurfing. I love being in nature or out on the calm, open sea with the wind blowing in my face and where speed is wonderful to feel, but it's under my own power and at least semicontrollable!"

By pursuing her vision with innovative, outside-the-box thinking in the round, Christine Maxwell truly does wield a silver hammer that is helping forge useful information delivery, the Internet of today, and our world into the future. She welcomes your correspondence via e-mail at maxwell@isoc.org.


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