3.921 electronic communications (87)

Willard McCarty (MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca)
Wed, 10 Jan 90 20:34:33 EST

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 3, No. 921. Wednesday, 10 Jan 1990.

Date: Wed, 10 Jan 90 13:27:35 PST
Subject: [DCGQAL]A0234!On Electronic Communications

Willard's observation that through various "electronic seminars" ..."We
are building something but don't yet quite know what." rings true to me.
One of the characteristics of the electronic medium is that it permits a
polyglot of "levels" of communication, from casual and ephemeral, to
modes that look and act increasingly like "official" publication,
especially in the academic environment. Not "understand[ing] the basic
materials at hand," may derive from a natural consternation which arises
in the face of such a hybrid soup.

"Navigation" issues are all the rage in network management, but I think
there is another quality at issue here. In the world of print, over the
course of the last half millennium, we've become sensitized to (and,
indeed, reliant on) subtle, but no less effective, "clues" to help us
discern quality from chaff. Such clues come from the presentation,
obvious editorial attention, design details, and even the manufacture
quality of books; quite as much as they do from the formal verifications
of a publisher's imprint or a colleague's endorsement on a dust jacket.
Indeed, while many were bemoaning the fact that desktop publishing would
inaugurate a new era of "uglification," some of us were considering what
would happen when a book, _lacking_ any intellectual merit, might
nevertheless be packaged in a form that projected the opposite, through
its attractive and well-crafted aesthetic presentation.

Whether we like to admit it or not, such clues play an important role in
our initial reactions to books, and our subsequent willingness to engage
ourselves with the ideas books contain. We are, in a certain way, more
superficial (or is it "more sensory-sophisticated?") than we readily
admit. But we may have to forego the comfort of such clues in the
future, or replace them with others which may be considerably different.

In the electronic medium (such as the one in which we are now
participating), the analagous "clues" have not yet congealed. But there
is a far greater _range_ of electronic expression than exists in print.
Defining a canon of markers similar to those of print is apt to be
difficult. There seems little chance that the homogeneity and formality
that characterizes print will be readily transferred to the new medium.
Rather its opposite, there will be a variety of forums, legitimizers,
imprints, and guides. What is likely to play an increasingly important
role is the more human "networking" that permits an exchange of
recommendations, endorsements, or independent verifications. This lower
form of networking - paradoxically - is facilitated by electronic

All this suggests that it will be _content_ (the liveliness and
pertinence of commentary) which will be the prime motivator for
participating on one electronic seminar over another. This appears to
be borne out by the experience of ENGLISH: insufficient material to grab
the attention of a critical mass of people.

To end on a philosophical note, I find that I am called upon to be more
_optimistic_ about my colleagues and electronic friends, _trusting_ that
the expression of perhaps half-formed opinions will permit a kind of
symbiosis that does not elsewhere exist on a daily basis. These are
somewhat strange qualities to emerge from so sandy a technological
soil... but so be it. The immediacy of electronic collaborations
provides exciting prospects. For that reason, it is a satisfying medium
in which to participate. But I fully agree with Willard that we do not
yet understand the forces and ramifications of the kinds of
communication facilitated by this medium. Perhaps self-reflection will
provide some insights.


Chet Grycz
Scholarship and Technology Study Project
Czeslaw Jan Grycz | BITNET: "[DCGQAL]A0234 Grycz" <XB.DAS@STANFORD>
University of California | - or - CJGUR@UCCMVSA
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