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New Terrain

An amazing feature of the language of ``innovation'' is the utter predictability of the cognitive pattern this term imposes on its users. As members of Western civilization we have for centuries been trained to set our hopes on unfamiliar and promising developments. Considerable progress has in fact been made, often validating seemingly unrealistic images and expectations. The advent of internet technology and in particular of a quasi-instantaneous, globally implemented protocol for distributing written messages to any number of persons, has to be seen in this context. It triggers two complementary reactions. First: that such opportunities have never before existed. They might - according to the old habit of thinking - radically change the way we do things. This is the spell language casts on those who use the term ``cyberspace'' or ``global village.'' The second reaction is more sceptical. It amounts to the thesis that on closer inspection many of the advances turn out to be exaggerations, distortions, or simple tricks. Disappointment sets in - to be followed by another ``revolutionary'' movement. Philosophy can highlight the ``linguistic'' presuppositions underlying these oscillations. It might, in addition to that, enter the arena and submit itself to the contradictions determining this field of discourse.

An obvious way to do this is to model the dilemma as a learning process. This approach is taken by the vast majority of the existing literature on computer-mediated communication and academia. Willard McCarty writes on ``HUMANIST. Lessons from a Global Electronic Seminar.''gif ``The Founding and Managing of IPCT-L'' by Zane Berge and Mauri Collins is intended to assist future list-owners in their activities.gif Recently, Charles Ess and Robert Cavalier have offered some intermediary results of their ``Academic Dialogue on Applied Ethics'' which aimed ``to apply, in Internet virtual forums, `conversational ethics' ... to specific and difficult cases ... to provide models of discourse for the Internet ... (and) to determine the possible limits of these models.gif

Experimenting with electronic environments and systematically monitoring the results is the only viable strategy for finding one's way about this new and unexplored territory and most of this issue will be concerned with preparing the ground for a more comprehensive understanding of the dynamics of technologically mediated scholarly interchange. However, before proceeding with a sketch of the framework of the actual experiment, I want to focus briefly on an alternative view. It can be argued that in treating the phenomenon at hand as something to explore and eventually master, an important feature is lost. Claims of ``radical change'' are all eventually domesticated. Yet, the conceptual architecture of such cognitive disruptions deserves to be studied in its own right. Its anti-historical, anti-pragmatic elements might give pause for reflection.

When a device offers some hitherto unattainable functionality, established habits are overthrown. Photography threatens painting, the telephone displaces the writing of letters. A typical situation arises at such junctures. The newly available technique dramatically defamiliarizes existing patterns of conduct, provoking the ``metaphysical'' urge to determine essentials. And this urge arises again in this new medium. Questions like ``What is a book?'' gain special urgency when asked in such a context. ``What are the determining characteristics of scholarly communication?'' is a similar query. Faced with the enhanced opportunities afforded by electronic mail, one could simply add those opportunities to the repertoire of academic practice. This does, however, skip over those - albeit short - moments of shock when all given circumstances seem to be called into question. Take, for example, the occasional occurrence of ``mail bombing,'' i.e. systematic overloading of e-mail accounts by malicious users of the net. Such moments are full of anxiety, provoking both re-orientation and re-enforcement of established rules. Figuring out how this is to be done is, obviously, a matter of pragmatic convenience, depending on powerful political constraints. Yet, the experience of stumbling on the contingency of a given order leaves its trace in everyday (and philosophical) discourse; witness the current unease concerning the impact that electronic networking is going to have. Attempts to paint an utterly utopian picture of the future can be observed along with no-nonsense empirical accounts of certain opportunities for change. My point is that we should discard neither of these tendencies out of hand. Electronic mail is a miraculous tool. One can affirm its (partial) incommensurability with previous forms of communication without becoming a hopeless enthusiast of the new technology.

Mailing lists can either be regarded as fascinating extensions of public writing, or they can be considered as its demise, as the final triumph of machine-driven mass-communication over thoughtful conversation. Rather than engaging in such high-level disputes the present volume offers some evidence on how philosophy might fare in ``cyberspace.''


next up previous
Next: Settling Down Up: Herbert Hrachovec: Editorial Preface Previous: Electronic mail

hh
Fri Jul 25 22:00:35 MEST 1997