Techne: Internet 2.0

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


Technology is a modern word that combines the Greek techne (skill, metier) with logos (knowledge). Techne crudely translates into the craft of knowledge and is not just the skill of technique or creating a form. A developed empathy for ‘techne’ is critical to developing interdisciplinary electronic scholarship. This skill is necessary to balance employing the right technology for the right humanities problem. For a humanist, it is not simply the technology that is important; it is how it is used 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 culture without communication devices, and technology cannot exist without community. This may seem like a common sense statement, but it worries how little of this common sense prevails. Historians, for instance, use technology to write history but often need to reflect upon the technologies they employ. Those trained in the academic monologue and its cognitive mind map’ often need help to think outside of the knowledge construction’ parameters of the tools of their craft. And technologists often uncritically embrace new media tools without the slightest awareness of the political values they may be advancing.

If the Internet is a revolution, then it is a revolution that emanates from privilege rather than oppression. The Internet came from some of the world’s most affluent societies, their richest universities, and the 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 dominant ways 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 silenced by restrictive information flows. Through the work of several people, we can now understand some of the plights of cultures worldwide that would not otherwise have access to a publishing mechanism with worldwide retrieval.[3]

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

Accordingly, intellectual thought has quickly migrated to the new scholarly communication mechanisms when many of the public aspects of academic culture have largely been marginalised by the pressures of a consumerist and product-based society.[5] For a researcher within the humanities, it is now easy to find valuable resources online, essentially placed there by the Humanities Computing field and the library and information sciences. However, much work still needs to be done to encourage researchers to move the medium forward in the Humanities field.

As an interdisciplinary researcher in Internet research and the Humanities, the most significant challenge I have faced is not 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 of research, it is a medium that needs to be more egalitarian (as some would tell us). It is characterised by new forms of hierarchy and competing communities of interest (as is any medium).

Some of these competing interests are within Internet critical theory, some are in the Information Technology sector, some are artistic, some are corporate, and 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 technologies within the Humanities.

Interdisciplinary angst

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

For instance, the sort of techno-centric declarations coming from some in the design community may be contrasted with the Humanities Computing field that only sometimes engages with interface designers. As a network, the Internet is as diverse as the society in which it is embedded. We must develop strategies to celebrate these diversities rather than allow one group to standardise and dominate our use. This is especially difficult for the humanities if this group has commercial imperatives.

An illustrative anecdotal example of a clash between research cultures is when I presented an interactive map produced at the Virginia Centre for Digital History in the US to a colleague.[6] It was a map of a battle 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 advanced within the ‘ivory tower’ of self-referential deference to technological technique and a historic-technical schema.

Global theories of usability, interface design, and even hypertext theory that deny disciplinary trajectories and cultural differences are intended to privilege one profession. I find it extraordinary that some Internet community members 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 naive to believe that one medium can somehow prevent the larger ingrained structures of cultural practice. In Australia, technological education generally comes from a heritage of practical and vocational training, whilst the middle classes have traditionally valued the Humanities. [8] Many of our technology universities cannot afford nor do not believe their students are 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 does not serve the critical skills and functions of the broader Humanities.

Information Technology does have a close relationship with industry, and for a Humanities scholar, this causes a lot of friction. Because the skills gained in new media research are directly marketable to drive, the boundaries between what is in the commercial interest and what is in the public interest sometimes need to be understood. 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 too much research in Australia that could be described as ‘corporate curatorial’ or research 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 address seriously. Midlevel consumer software is sometimes the only tool available for many students, and institutional repositories still need to address this issue.

Many Humanities Computing projects offer helmsmanship for documents relating to canonical Western thought but disregard the fact that this thought needed to be advanced logically and linearly in the first place. For instance, some of the most important documents of the French Enlightenment 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 need to be more discerning about the technology they employ to advance a particular argument, it is not the role of the author to ensure that their 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 area for improvement in electronic research is that it covers a broad range of skills. These skills (depending on the project, of course) range from academic writing, web design, oral history, and online video production. This is cognitively confronting, if possible, in some works.

Humanists usually have highly developed thesis writing skills. Still, we are not only judged on our ability to write well but 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 daitre 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 a technical one. One mouse click by the user may represent one hundred hours of work for the author. Again, empathy for research cultures is a hard-learned 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 has enormous ramifications for Historians who need to develop new methodologies and techniques to deal with this data. Less than a dozen documents throw light on the period of the 5th Century of the Dark Ages, but there needs to be more data in today’s world. As Thomas Eriksen states in his aptly titled Tyranny of the Moment:

The point is to avoid attending as many lectures as possible, see as many films as possible, and 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 to make the filtering of information the main priority[12]

As tides of information lap at our door, books and the academic monologue provide an essential historical, political and educational solution for cognition. We should maintain these skills, even if we are to go through post-industrial paradigm shifts. Those who tell us that all technological change is progress towards removing privilege are probably profiting handsomely from these shifts. We need to find conciliatory transitions into the technical jungle of the Internet regarding what is essential. Again, it is all about balance.

It is challenging to prescribe a standard use of an inherently interdisciplinary medium. Negotiating this interdisciplinarity may be one of the most excellent skills required of the new media researcher. Researchers arrive at new media from several different backgrounds, and each brings fresh perspectives. We have a choice regarding how new media technology is used in our disciplines; however, some schools and some sections of the Humanities have more options or dissimilar ambitions than others. Succinctly, different authors face different realities.

The most significant benefit of engaging with new technology in academic practice is that researchers learn to communicate their ideas through one of the most exciting mediums in a few generations. I prefer the model where an academic may propose a project and hire someone to build it. 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 many of the old academic hierarchies remain the same.

We also need to ensure that incentive and meritocracy systems are in place to reward innovation and effort within this medium appropriately. Far too often, individuals who have yet to make intellectual investment in digital technologies are, paradoxically, cited in the broader field of electronic scholarship for 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 we took for granted became dis-rooted, re-branded, and circulated in contexts never imaginable.

Suddenly, conservative laissez-faire politics became ‘radical’, academic merit became ‘hierarchy’, democracy became ‘unrepresentative’, and boundaries became not healthy and robust components of 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. Identifying new researchers entering this field without the oppressive weight of immature and unrealistic expectations is liberating. Welcome to Internet 2.0.

[1] See: “Histories of the Internet” The Internet Society (Accessed 20 August, 2002)

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

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

<> (Accessed 28 August 2002)

[4] See: “Netsizer” Telcordia Technologies (Accessed 20 August 2002)

In 1993, there were just 130 websites.

[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.

<>(Accessed 21 August, 2002)

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

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

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. The OECD rates Australia as one of the ‘low-intensity’ countries in its sector report. Australian IT education has an immense capacity for producing skilled workers who understand the practical issues of using and applying information technologies, but usually, the software applications are made elsewhere. Australia, in an educational sense, seems to be positioning itself as a second 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

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

For a more extended discussion of IT education, see:

Isaac Balbin’s “Old Economy/New Economy: Why Australia Missed Out on the IT Revolution” The Alfred Deakin Lectures (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 political agendas, rules, contexts, hierarchies and antagonisms to an imagined other. Determinism utilises a proprietary language and culture. 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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