next up previous
Next: New Terrain Up: Herbert Hrachovec: Editorial Preface Previous: Herbert Hrachovec: Editorial Preface

Electronic mail

Electronic mail and information exchange on the World Wide Web have in recent years developed into indispensible features of scholarly activity. The speed and convenience of computer-mediated communication across the planet are rapidly changing the established patterns of academic transactions. While thousands of philosophers have begun to take advantage of e-mail, web-servers or digital text repositories, systematic exploration of the newly available technology has been lagging behind. There is, it has to be admitted, a colourful offspring of postmodern writing celebrating this alleged telematic revolution. I give just one example:

As communication becomes superbly fast, cheap and spontaneous, conventional institutions of organized rational thought imprisoned in cell-like structures are condemned by their inability to function effectively. Media philosophy is based on the observation that the breakthrough in telecommunication technologies changes the very way we apprehend the world by remaking the institutions that produce perception.gif

Such techno-romanticism may be highly suggestive to a select audience. It cannot, however, offer a serious starting point for investigating this rearrangement of our communication equipment. Invoking the thoroughly familiar cry of a ``radical breakthrough'' does little to clarify the issues at hand. As Mark Dery puts it:

Clearly, cyberculture is approaching escape velocity in the philosophical as well as the technological sense. It resounds with transcendentalist fantasies of breaking free from limits of any sorts, metaphysical as well as physical.gif

The resulting ``theology of the ejector seat,'' as Dery calls it, can hardly satisfy the need to tackle the conceptual challenge provoked by the new medium.

Rather than making sweeping statements about the future impact of electronic networking I wish to call here for a more discriminating approach. There are, to begin with, at least three different types of mail-like data-distribution relevant to public academic interchange: (i) electronic newsletters and journals delivered to an international audience via the net; (ii) contributions to the so-called ``Usenet,'' a sprawling, incalculable collection of special-interest groups, (nowadays) submitted by a mechanism that is practically indistinguishable from conventional e-mail; (iii) so-called ``mailing lists,'' which re-distribute single incoming e-mail messages to an arbitrarily large number of recipients ``subscribed'' to the respective list. Each data-distribution type mentioned here has developed its own characteristics; I shall restrict myself to mailing lists.gif From the point of view of computer science an ``electronic forum'' is a comparatively simple program interacting with a ``mail transfer agent'' to administer automatically an SMTP-based (i.e. ``e-mail'') information flow. Given the fact that such programs have been available for little more than a decade and that a considerable number of scholars has yet to become familiar with their operation, a technical introduction on how to participate in mailing lists has been included in this issue.gif

Knowing how to handle such programs, however, does little to advance our knowledge of their impact on the humanities. An additional effort to describe their application in an academic framework has to be made. The present introduction will begin by indicating the theoretical assumptions and practical arrangements that led to the ``Monist Interactive Issue.'' It will then briefly sketch the development of the project. The archive of all transactions summarized in this issue is available at

next up previous
Next: New Terrain Up: Herbert Hrachovec: Editorial Preface Previous: Herbert Hrachovec: Editorial Preface

Fri Jul 25 22:00:35 MEST 1997