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Arrangements, Rearrangements

Deviating slightly from the format originally envisaged Herbert Hrachovec sent the following opening statement to a group of 29 colleagues that had subscribed to the Democracy List in response to its announcement on ``philosop,'' the general purpose mailing list for philosophical news and projects.

Two inappropriate ways to initiate a discussion in an electronic forum are: to offer a substantial, carefully argued paper, or to come with an open mind and very little else. Scholars are not yet accustomed to the specific kind of interaction an automated, globally connected mailing system makes possible. There is a strong urge to simply continue in the old ways, or to jump into cyberspace after leaving all professional caution (and sometimes good manners) behind.

I have, therefore, not written a ``target paper'' to be discussed in this list in the same way in which one would proceed in traditional philosophical conferences. One of the most fascinating qualities of the net is its potential to support a new kind of common, interactive collaboration. This can, however, not be taken for granted. Most of the excitement of a project like the ``Monist Interactive Issue'' comes from experimenting with the opportunity afforded by the unfamiliar medium. (Nov. 4, 1995)

Three topics of possible common interest were then mentioned. (1) The promise of a new procedural egalitarianism, (2) democracy as it is actually talked about and practiced on the net, and (3) the possible effects the net is going to have on existing Western democratic culture. Two dossiers were included in this opening message, one from the usenet group ``talk.politics.guns,'' the other from the ``philosop'' list. The first (from April 1995) dealt with the Oklahoma bombing, gun control and militias in the United States. The second (from August 1995) concerned private tutorials on the Internet as a ``revolutionary'' development challenging the established system of higher education. Those texts happened to be the most pertinent examples of the glory and misery of free infobahn exchange available to the moderator at that time.

Even though these sources were extremely provocative they failed to elicit any response. The general exposé that had accompanied the opening message also went unheeded. Approximately three weeks later (and after three attempts on the part of Herbert Hrachovec to get a discussion going) the first reaction came in:

Yes there is someone here! It does take time to read the docs and do your everyday work! A couple of quick notes. In ``Democracy and the Internet,'' Herbert Hrachovec says: ``Network technology provides hitherto unparalleled opportunities to organize and conduct an exchange of ideas among free and equal partners.''

But are they really free and equal? Am I in a small town in Cape Breton, Canada, equal to someone living in a larger centre with greater opportunity to access libraries, museums, cultural events, etc? Does the technology play a part? For example, is someone with a slower modem equal to the fastest cruisers on the net? And what about ``free,'' for as we all know it costs just to get on the web, and can everyone purchase the same amount of time? And does the amount of time one can purchase impact on equality?

(John Paul MacDonald, Nov. 22, 1995)

This message, together with a contribution from Ravi Arapuraka on shortcomings in e-mail writing (Nov. 23, 1995), triggered off a discussion that went on for two weeks but did not develop further momentum. So in mid-January Herbert Hrachovec wrote:
This is a meta-message.

Something is going wrong with this mailing list. There have been several exchanges last year, but we never succeeded in establishing a continuous discussion about the issue of democracy in the net.

I hoped to revive the proceedings by summarizing what had happened up to the beginning of 1996. But nothing has come of this either.

Are there any explanations, suggestions or some helpful criticism? This project has been started in an experimental spirit and we lacked a clear picture of what it could achieve. I do not want to sound too pessimistic, but up to now it has been disappointing.

Sorry to distress you with this bleak note. But this group ``mii-dem'' obviously needs some feedback from its subscribers.

(Jan. 16, 1996)

Some participants agreed with this assessment and pointed to the artificial quality of the list. But there was no new impulse coming from within this group so Herbert Hrachovec decided on mii-dem_olition:
I will freeze this list as announced earlier. All participants will be taken off the list, as I try to think of a new setup.

When the project is ready to start again all current subscribers will be notified.

Thank you for your understanding and so long.

(Feb. 9, 1996)

On reflection it seemed clear that the initial enthusiasm had been naive and had overlooked vast differences in interest which potential list-members would have. Anonymously collecting partners for a scholarly exchange on the sole premise that it would be a good idea to discuss issues of democracy electronically had not proved to be a viable idea. A new setup avoiding such pitfalls was called for. Six weeks later an announcement explaining the change in format was posted to the relevant philosophical lists:
Rather than depend on automatic sign-up I shall, this time, discuss the plans and prospects of this experiment with whomever indicates his or her interest by writing to me personally. Hopefully this will lead to an agenda that a significant number of participants feel committed to. If such an agenda can be agreed upon, I will propose a second run of ``Democracy and the Internet'' ( here.

If you consider participating you might like to have a look at the ``Democracy Workshop'' I have installed at

(March 27, 1996)

17 persons responded, indicating their general interest. To them the following proposal was distributed:
It seems obvious that ``mii-dem'' should not simply attempt another unguided discussion. But it is equally clear that it should not straightforwardly apply academic rigour to electronic space.

One way to achieve this might be the following. If some of the participants would be prepared to offer their views for discussion we could spend a week or two discussing each of them in turn. Initial statements could be quite short and elaborated upon in follow-ups. After this introductory phase has run its course we could review the results and decide on how to continue.

I realize that for this strategy to work some of you must be willing to shoulder the main burden of the discussion for a certain amount of time and all of us must be prepared to exercise some self-discipline in following rules not completely adequate to the potential of electronic communication. But any procedure striving for academic respectability _a_n_d_ reaching out into the unknown domain of cybertalk is bound to lead to some strange melange.

(April 9, 1996)

This appeal to contribute some of one's own work and actually to take responsibility for a certain period of time met with widespread approval. Several proposals came in, three texts were eventually made available on the site indicated and adopted for closer scrutiny, those of Fiona Steinkamp, Paul Treanor and Charles Ess.
All of them have agreed to start off the discussion of their respective texts in due time. (There might be a statement by other participants later on.) (April 25, 1996)
The ensuing discussion followed the pattern agreed upon and - finally - created an environment of prolonged, interactive exploration of the issues. The next section will summarize the lines of thought put forward and discussed.gif It was only by spending a considerable amount of time in arranging a proper format that this electronic exchange could develop a life of its own. This sounds utterly banal from the point of view of ordinary (academic) professional life. Still, it is a truth that had to be re-discovered.

next up previous
Next: Lines of Thought Up: Herbert Hrachovec: Could Democracy Previous: Doing philosophy via e-mail

Fri Jul 25 22:00:35 MEST 1997