Techne: Internet 2.0

…people, institutions, companies, and society at large, transform technology, any technology, by appropriating it, by modifying it, by experimenting with it. Castells 2001

Summary

Technology is a modern word that combines the Greek techne (skill, metier) with logos (knowledge). Techne crudely translates into the ‘skill of knowledge’ and is not just the skill of technique or the skill of creating a form. As I will argue, a developed empathy for ‘techne’ is critical to the development of interdisciplinary electronic scholarship. Without this skill it is difficult to find a balance between employing the right technology to the right humanities problem. For a humanist it is not simply the technology that is important; it is how the technology is employed in a cultural, social, and intellectual context that is important (beyond the sometimes narrow process-based technical discussions).

Mapping your mind

Manuel Castells says that technology and society cannot be separated; we cannot understand society without communications devices, and technology cannot exist without society. This may seem like a common sense statement, but it is worrying just how little of this common sense actually prevails. Historians, for instance, use technology to write history but often do not reflect upon the technologies that they employ to do this. Those trained in the academic monologue and its cognitive ‘mind map’ often find it impossible to think outside of the ‘knowledge construction’ parameters of the tools of their craft. And technologists often embrace new media tools uncritically without the slightest awareness of the political values that they may be advancing.

If the Internet is a ‘revolution’ then it is a revolution that emanated from privilege rather than oppression. The Internet came from some of the world’s richest societies and their richest universities and wealthiest military research laboratories and corporations. From Switzerland, to Harvard, to Berkeley, to Stanford, to MIT, to Bell Laboratories, to the University of Melbourne, the Internet began as a top-down technological insurrection from within a class that often has a predictable set of values as guiding principles.[1]

Some of these principles include a privileged appreciation of the value of education, global opportunism, an anti-Labourist tradition, Libertarianism, and scepticism for any form of governmentality that seeks to moderate economic and political power. It is not surprising then, that many of these ideas have become some of the dominant ways that we understand the Internet.[2]

However, the Internet has also been an incredible democratising medium through giving political expression to marginalised groups and individuals whose voices would otherwise be muffled by restrictive information flows. Through the work of a number of people, we can now understand some of the plights of cultures around the world that would not otherwise have access to a publishing mechanism with worldwide retrieval.[3]

Radical and progressive groups (for better or worse) are now able to hastily exchange their ideas internationally and form alliances that may help to moderate some of the more oppressive forms of globalisation. Although much work still needs to be done in terms of the provision of access to the medium for less-advantaged groups, we are a long way in front of where we were just a few years ago.[4]

Accordingly, at a time when many of the public aspects of academic culture have largely been marginalised by the pressures of a consumerist and product based society, academic thought has been quick to migrate to the new scholarly communication mechanisms.[5] For a resarcher within the humanities it is now easy to find useful resources online, largely placed there by the Humanities Computing field and the library and information sciences. However, there is still much work to be done in terms of encouraging researchers to move the medium forward in the Humanities field.

In reflection, as an inter-disciplinary researcher in the field of internet research and the Humanities, perhaps the greatest challenge that I have faced is not so much applying the Internet tools, but learning to navigate through research cultures that are often antagonistic to one another. Although the Internet and Information Technology are groundbreaking in terms of their passage across many aspects research, it is a medium that is far from egalitarian (as some would tell us) and it is characterised by new forms of hierarchy and competing communities of interest (as is any medium).

Some of these competing interests are within the field of Internet critical theory, some are in the Information Technology sector, some are artistic, some are corporate, some are vocational. Learning to pilot through competing cultural capitals is a must for electronic scholarship, especially since there is still enormous resistance and misunderstanding about Internet technolgies within the Humanities.

Interdisciplinary angst

If the Internet and the broader new media communication technology field are as important to our society as we are continually told, then we need to network together some of the more insular pockets of Internet discourse. Many Internet researchers are blinkered by technological technique and discount the fact that the Internet is a broad based innovation, cutting across many disciplines and modes of thought.

The sort of techno-centric declarations coming from some in the design community for instance may be contrasted with the Humanities Computing field that almost never engages with interface designers. As a network, the Internet is as multifarious as the society in which it is embedded and we need to develop strategies to celebrate these diversities, rather than allow one group to standardise and dominate our use of it. This is especially perilous for the humanities if this group has commercial imperatives.

An illustrative anecdotal example of a clash between research cultures is when I gave a presentation to a colleague of an interactive map produced at the Virginia Centre for Digital History in the US.[6] It was a map of a battle that occurred in the Eastern Theatre of the American Civil War and represented many months of effort and specialist historical knowledge. My colleague, an IT expert, proceeded to take one look at the map, did not seem to engage with it on any level (apart from technique), then after one click of the mouse, we were brutally taken forward two centuries to a map of Washington DC property prices!

The point is that the processes of the Internet are an integral part of it, however, what about disciplinary frameworks, or empathy for intellectual context? Technology is not only advanced within the ‘ivory tower’ of self-referential deference to technological technique, but also within a historio-technical schema.

Global theories of usability, interface design, and even hypertext theory that deny disciplinary trajectories and cultural difference are intended to simply privilege one profession. I find it extraordinary that some members of the Internet community believe that web users cannot concentrate beyond thirty seconds of video or that reading academic writing online is somehow beyond them. [7] In short, mediums compete, professionals compete, and different sections of society will (within their abilities) use and adapt the medium to suit their needs.

The questions concerning technology and society go back centuries and it is naïve to believe that one medium can somehow obviate the larger ingrained structures of cultural practice. In Australia, technological education generally comes from a heritage of utilitarian and vocational training whilst the Humanities have been traditionally more valued by the middle classes. [8] Many of our technology universities cannot afford nor do not believe their students worthy of a critical Humanities education, thus engendering an a-political, functional and determinist view of technological production.[9] This suits a corporate appetite for skilled labour, but it perhaps does not suit the critical skills and functions of the broader Humanities.

Information Technology does have a close relationship to industry and for a Humanities scholar this causes a lot of friction. Because the skills gained in new media research are directly marketable to industry, the demarcations between what is in the commercial interest and what is in the public interest are sometimes not understood. One could make the argument that the commercial interest is the public interest, however commercialism already dominates nearly every aspect of our society, and there are vital modes of intellectual and cultural production that only exist in our public universities.

There is already probably too much research being produced in Australia that could be described as ‘corporate curatorial’ or research that is focussed on consumer software made overseas. [10] But this is unfortunately the reality of much of the independent student authorship in this medium that the field of Humanities Computing is yet to seriously address. Midlevel consumer software is sometimes the only tools available for many students and institutional repositories have also yet to address this issue.

Many Humanities Computing projects offer helmsmanship for documents relating to canonical Western thought, but disregard the fact that this thought was not advanced logically nor linearly in the first place. Some of the most important documents of the French Enlightenment, for instance, were ephemeral and marginal to the printing processes of the time. They are now some of the most historically significant documents to survive the French Revolution.

Although an author may be discerning about the technology they employ to advance a particular argument, I am not sure if it is the role of the author to ensure that there work is technically canonised for eternity. There are some important unanswered questions here but it is unrealistic to assume that addressing them all is the role of the author.

Another difficulty encountered in electronic research is that it covers such a broad range of skills. These skills (depending on the project of course) range from academic writing, to web design, to oral history, to online video production. This is cognitively confronting, if not impossible in some works.

Humanists usually have highly developed thesis writing skills, but we are not only judged on our ability to write well, we are also measured on our ability to engage and position ourselves within the world of humanistic ideas. The ideas that constitute one’s field are augmented by evidence, then selection, interpretation, integration, analysis and argument. Together this is within the raison d’être of the research.

A researcher with their ‘mind mapped’ to the codex may not understand the decisions taken in compressing twelve hours of video so it can be accessed via a dial up phone system anywhere in the world. For many, this is a political choice as much as it is a technical choice. One mouse click by the user may represent one hundred hours of work for the author. Again empathy for research cultures is a hard learnt skill.

‘The Tyranny of the Moment’

I draw on the wisdom of Mike Featherstone who claims:

We are entering a phase of our history in which the availability of recording devices to conserve and represent information about human beings, their culture and their external nature abound.[11]

This, of course, has huge ramifications for Historians who need to develop new methodologies and techniques to deal with this data. There are perhaps less than a dozen documents in existence that throw light on the period of the 5th Century of the dark ages, but in today’s world, there is way too much data. As Thomas Eriksen states in his aptly titled Tyranny of the Moment:

The point is no longer to attend as many lectures as possible, see as many films as one can, have as many books as possible on the shelves. On the contrary; the overarching aim for educated individuals in the world’s rich countries must now be make the filtering of information the main priority[12]

As tides of information lap at our door, books and the academic monologue provide an important historical, political and academic solution for cognition. These skills are not something that we should diminish, even if we are to go through post-industrial paradigm shifts. Those that tell us that all technological change is a progress towards the removal of privilege are probably profiting handsomely from these shifts. We need to find conciliatory transitions into the technological jungle of the Internet in terms of what we think is important. Again it is all about balance.

It is difficult to prescribe a standard use of a medium that is inherently interdisciplinary in nature. The ability to negotiate this interdisciplinarity may be one of the greatest skills required of the new media researcher. Researchers arrive at new media from a number of different backgrounds and each brings to it fresh perspectives. We have a choice as to how new media technology is used in our disciplines, however  some schools and some sections of the Humanities have more choices or dissimilar ambitions than others. Succinctly, different authors face different realities.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of engaging with new tehnology in terms of academic practice is that the researcher learns to communicate their ideas through one of the most interesting mediums to come along in a few generations. I am not the greatest fan of the model where an academic may propose a project and then hire someone to build it for them. This only reinforces the old class divisions in the Australian education system between the ‘practical’ technical colleges and ‘theoretical’ universities. I agree that new technologies have novel ways to see and engage with the world but a lot of the old academic hierarchies largely remain the same.

We also need to make sure that the systems of incentive and meritocracy are in place to appropriately reward innovation and effort within this medium. Far too often individuals who have made little or no intellectual investment in digital technologies are, paradoxically, rewarded in the broader field of electronic scholarship for actually not making this investment. Again it is about balance.

In the mid 1990s, the Internet captured the popular imagination fuelled by a wave of market fundamentalism, libertarianism, economic rationalism and entrenched populist conservatism. Many of the norms that we took for granted became dis-rooted, re-branded, and circulated in contexts never thought imaginable.

Suddenly conservative laissez-faire politics became ‘radical’, academic merit became ‘hierarchy’, democracy became ‘unrepresentative’ and boundaries became not healthy and robust components of a respect for difference but walls that contain privilege. In reflection, the turbulent period over the past few years has been the incidental initial conditions of a medium that reached critical mass during the superstitious times of the fin de siecle. It was the Internet’s golden age. It is liberating to identify new researchers entering this field without the oppressive weight of immature and unrealistic expectations. Welcome internet 2.0.


[1] See: “Histories of the Internet” The Internet Society

http://www.isoc.org/Internet/history/index.shtml (Accessed 20 August, 2002)

[2] Such as the ‘cyber libertarian’ movement.

[3] See: The Association for Progressive Communication (APC)

<http://www.apc.org/> (Accessed 28 August, 2002)

[4] See: “Netsizer” Telcordia Technologies

http://www.netsizer.com/ (Accessed 20 August, 2002)

In 1993 there were just 130 web sites.

[5] See: “H-Net Humanities and Social Sciences Online” Op.Cit.

[6] “Eastern Theatre of the Civil War” The Virginia Centre for Digital History (VCDH), The University Of Virginia.

<http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/vshadow2/MAPDEMO/Theater/TheTheater.html>(Accessed 21 August, 2002)

[7] This quote from Jakob Neilson, the acclaimed elder of ‘bread and butter’ usability is revealing:

“Animations may be thus serving a function similar to that of marble columns in banks: to visibly demonstrate status and influence”

Jakob Neilson, Designing Web Usability, New Riders Publishing, Indiana, 1999, p.143.

[8] There is a complex set of reasons for this that is perhaps indicative of some of the emergent global hierarchies within and between post-industrial societies. Australia in a global sense is an under-performer in the Information and Communication Technology sector and the OECD rates Australia as one of the ‘low-intensity’ countries in its report of the sector. Australian IT education has immense capacity for producing skilled workers that understand the practical issues of using and applying information technologies, but usually the software applications are made somewhere else. Australia in an educational sense seems to be positioning itself as a ‘second tier’ country: this is that we are adept at providing workers that service the needs of the global information economy, but we have little capacity to provide the education that teaches the fundamentals of computing to provide long-term research strategies beyond the immediate dictates of the market.

See: OECD report on “Measuring the ICT sector: Information Society”, 5 September, 2001 OECD

<http://www.oecd.org/EN/longabstract/0,,EN-longabstract-0-nodirectorate-no-1-1348-0,00.html (accessed 23 June 2002) p30.> (Accessed 28 August, 2002)

For a longer discussion of IT education see:

Isaac Balbin’s “Old Economy/New Economy: Why Australia Missed Out on the IT Revolution” The Alfred Deakin Lectures

http://www.abc.net.au/rn/deakin/stories/s291491.htm (Accessed 23 June, 2002)

[9] Technological determinism is circulated, maintained, and advanced within the pre-existing hierarchies in the world in which we live. Determinism has its own political agendas, its own rules, its own contexts and hierarchies and antagonisms to an imagined ‘other’. Determinism utilises a proprietary language and culture and although it cloaks itself in ideas of interdisciplinarity, deterministic discourse discourages intellectual critique, dissent, and justifies itself with the high ground of capitalist practicality. Determinist rhetoric is only interested in other knowledge so that it can demonise it, remediate it, appropriate it, make it better, wrestle it out of the hands of the ‘elite’ and make it more ‘democratic’, more in touch with ‘the people’.

[10] Balbin Op.Cit.

[11] Featherstone Op.Cit, p180.

[12] Thomas Hylland Eriksen, The Tyranny of the Moment: Fast and Slow Time in the Information Age, Pluto Press, Sterling, Virginia, 2001, p19.

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