Charles Henry is director of libraries at Vassar College. He holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University, and is an elected member of the New York Academy of Sciences. He is a group leader for the Coalition for Networked Information and director of the American Arts and Letters Network.
Dancing to the Telephone: Network Demands and Opportunities
Charles Henry, Ph.D. Vassar College
In 1876, in the journal Nature, a new technology called the telephone was described, with some predictions of its future use. Mr. Bell's invention could "at a distance, repeat on one or more pianos the air played by a similar instrument at the point of departure. There is a possibility here...of a curious use of electricity. When we are going to have a dancing party, there will be no need to provide a musician. By paying a subscription to an enterprising individual who will, no doubt, come forward to work this vein, we can have from him a waltz, a quadrille, or a gallop, just as we desire. Simply turn a bell handle, as we do the cock of a water or gas pipe and we shall be supplied with what we want. Perhaps our children may find the thing simple enough" (Aronson, 23).
Today we may find this description a somewhat odd conflation of telephone and radio, but the writer's imagination was genuinely engaged, extrapolating from a new technology its possible uses. What is not odd about this description, and pertinent to this conference, is the manner in which the imaginative vision is framed. A new technological tool is mapped onto existing circumstance rather tightly: the telephone's utility is defined exclusively in the way it substitutes for another technological application--the piano, as a musical instrument, in support of a social construct, the dance.
In this description we note that a human is automated out of the picture (the musician), that the older technology (the piano) is also made redundant, and that the desires of the dancers or party-goers are met efficaciously by the telephone entrepreneur supplying the many forms of music. Also telling are the analogies that underscore the ease of telephone use and contextualize the technology in the more general domain of human invention. The remotely supplied music is gotten as easily as the turn of a gas or water cock, highlighting the pipeline nature of sound transmitted over wires and also "domesticating" the telephone as another aspect of modern convenience that naturally follows on the heels of prior invention.
It should be remembered that when the telephone was first announced, few knew what to do with it. The 1876 description is in part an act of cognitive integration of the new on a cultural scale. The newness can be discerned in the first sentence of the quotation: the image pictured has the sound coming from a remote location on or through pianos in the room of the gathering. While the traditional human player is gone, and the instrumental function of the played piano is supplanted by the transmitted music, the piano as physical object or icon of the dance remains.
This paragraph from over a century ago is cited for two reasons. Firstly, following the title of this essay, the description of what the telephone might accomplish is presented as an opportunity, a composite of advantageous circumstances. At the same time, from this opportunity can be extrapolated a demand: a need, a requirement, that might be adequately met by a new technological invention: inexpensive, automated transmission of sound.
In this respect the opportunity is inextricably linked to the demand, and in fact is quite delimited by the demand placed upon the new technology. Secondly, also related, is the nature of the demand, and hence of the opportunity: the automated, inexpensive transmission of sound from a remote location is described as serving an existing construct (a social gathering or party) and is thereby conservative, framed by preconditions and privileging, while enhancing in certain ways, a prevailing aspect of social synthesis. The employ of familiar objects as descriptive metaphors (gas and water cocks) further grounds the telephone conceptually.
There is much to draw from the short paragraph about dancing to the telephone, for it is symbolic of much of the discussion in the last decade concerning networked technology and the humanities. Typically, opportunities and demands are described separately; idealized circumstances are projected as desired ends, and problems, often technical ones, are cited as obstacles to those ends. Often missing is the inclination to step back and ask: what is the context of the circumstances defined as opportunities? What are the intellectual assumptions that frame the opportunities, and why do those assumptions prevail? What are the constraints of vision--intellectually, culturally, socially, epistemologically? How is a demand distinct from an opportunity?
In the essay that follows I wish to make two simple points: that opportunities and demands are causally connected in fundamental ways, and that the prevailing intellectual order can be a powerful determinate of future circumstance as well as influencing our perception of future needs and requirements.
Publications on the opportunities and demands of the network vis a vis non-scientists proliferate. Both themes have been substantively discussed in many venues since the 1960s. Opportunities, as presented as desired circumstances for humanistic research and scholarship, include the incredible speed of transmission of texts and images; the availability of e-mail for scholarly collaboration; the ability to search vast amounts of text or data effectively and efficiently, with the possibility of new intellectual discovery (Kenna and Ross; Ross, 1995); the capability of accessing multiple drafts using hypertext, and the eventual transforming effects hypermedia may have on writing, teaching, and even our perception of the world (Bolter, Lanham; Negroponte, Perelman in a less scholarly vein).
Also in the category of opportunities inferred from networked technology are new sensibilities: the networks offer a richer forum for community building, the sharing of ideas, and within the arts and humanities a chance for a new interdisciplinarity (ACLS, 1995).
Discussion, most of it informal, has blossomed of late with the introduction of the World Wide Web, Mosaic, and Netscape . The ability to produce on one's own, with very little training, a multimedia networked presence has no prologue; the application for ten thousand home page registrations per week is evidence of the fervor that attaches to this new simplicity and elegance. In many ways the Web embodies much of the earlier pronouncements of networked opportunities--here at last is a means to create a sophisticated presence in what could be a highly collaborative community linked to vast scholarly resources--yet the Web nonetheless tends to compound rather than solve the more frequent demands placed upon the network if it is to succeed as the new, virtual community of scholars.
The demands articulated--those characteristics of the network that are deemed necessary and useful for successful applications--are equally numerous and by now predictable. They include the requirement for interoperability, greatest possible connectivity by schools and libraries to the national networks, coordination of project development to avoid redundancy and idiosyncratic dataset construction, and sophisticated navigational tools, especially as information proliferates.
"Standards", in a variety of permutations, appears frequently, though with little recognition of the paradox of "localized standardization" that the increasingly transparent software tools allow. Other concerns, that translate into demands, include the need to preserve the digital text or image with the highest fidelity possible, ensure its preservation over time, make available adequate documentation of the provenance and history of the text or image or sound recording, as well as the history, when applicable, of its digital migration. There are particular needs for archives (Hedstrom), and scholarly publishing has an intricate amount of encoding and documentation requirements in order to facilitate future access and manipulation of the digital product (Hockey).
What are, really, the distinctions between opportunities and demands? Temporal discriminations, in part: demands connoting a present absence and opportunities an absence rectified in future time. Too often we conceptually divorce technological requirements from the authoritating structure in which they arise, and the authoritating structure (i.e., opportunity) they are meant to furnish. A demand implies a goal, and that goal is, characteristic of the humanities, often the transposition of a procedure, methodological approach, or assumption that has had traditional utility in areas such as printed matter, images, and analog sound, into an electronic replication. At the same time, we often lose sight of the structure that, informally stated, allows us to be in a position to make demands: we are evidence of a system that is hierarchical, ordered by discipline and sub-disciplines, stringent in its mechanisms for advancement, promotion, and recognition of achievement. We accommodate ourselves to these intellectual arrangements as a matter of career choice.
A brief look at the section on Tools (which may itself be classified as a series of demands) in last year's Humanities and Arts Profile publication confirms this. Among those listed include tools for archiving objects and their versions and derivation; tools that link editions; that navigate vast amounts of data; that support annotation systems; that capture texts, images, and sound and their mark-up and history; and that modify documents while preserving credit for authorship and a historic audit trail (ACLS, 32). In essence, tools that automate and, equally as important, preserve, methodologies that first came to prominence in the eighteenth century.
In this way the articulation of a certain encoding feature, degree of image resolution, interoperability for archival purposes, or compression ratio quite often serves to advance an existing way of life. The nature of a demand, e.g., a stated technological requirement in service of a goal, has to be understood from a much broader perspective: aside from the immediate shortcoming of technical facility the demand implies, what overarching construct would its improved materialization privilege?
This argument is akin to some of the questions Foucault raised, particularly in The Order of Things. An Archeology of Knowledge. Essential here is the understanding that knowledge does not necessarily liberate, but involves constraints and determining strategies. This can be intuited from the term "discipline" itself, which denotes training, controlled behavior, states of order, and systems of thinking. The training elicits a (controlled) response, and it is fair to interpret the demands made within the order of indoctrination and reward as reflecting the order itself.
What are the domains, and how pervasive and strong are they in the late twentieth century? If, building upon the theme of this conference, two important disciplinary domains are acknowledged as science and the humanities, then the answer is that the prevailing models are very strong indeed. So strong, in fact, that the powerful tool of computer networks more readily reflects than in any way is allowed to challenge these intellectual structures.
Within the confines of this essay, a glance at one facet of contemporary research with which I am familiar, the study of metaphor, and then an equally brief synopsis of the networked environment, reveal the latter as, so far, a digital reaffirmation of the canonical. A final section interprets this phenomenon from disparate perspectives.
The Intellectual Network
The study of metaphor is a broad and revealing subject for an understanding of the tensions involved with disciplinary crossover. Unlike topics such as affine structures for closed 3- dimensional manifolds with nil-geometry, or Augustan pastoral influence in the early lyrics of W.H. Auden, metaphor draws experts from a swath of fields. Publications on the theory and interpretation of metaphor can be found in literary studies, philosophy, computer analysis of language, cognitive science, fuzzy logic, cybernetics, evidence set theory, and neurobiology. It is unusual, however, for the lines of one methodology to be crossed by another.
From volumes that deal exclusively with or focus prominent attention on metaphor, one gets a sense of where the boundaries are drawn. In Lakoff's monumental study of categorization, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, there is no mention of literary critical theory even though metaphors are discussed at length and with sensitivity. The theoretical constructs of language by Continental writers like Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, Lacan, Ricouer, and others do not appear; in fact, nothing originally written in French appears. Nor do references from critics and theorists such as Richards, Frye, Bloom, de Man, Max Black, or Booth. The philosophers Quine and Austin are included in the chapters, as are numerous citations of Wittgenstein, but not psychologists who have dealt with metaphor and related subjects such as Lacan or Jung.
In some of the prominent anthologies devoted exclusively to metaphor, various denominations of authoritative fields can be demarcated without much difficulty. On Metaphor, edited by Sacks, is almost exclusively the domain of literary theory, with some integration of psychology. Ortony's Metaphor and Thought ranges more widely, in part because the book is a collection of an interdisciplinary conference proceedings in 1977. In this volume reference is made to some of the aforementioned French thinkers, and also incorporates computer science theorists and practitioners like Rumelhart; the historian of science Thomas Kuhn; cognitive scientist Eleanor Rosch and her groundbreaking studies on categorization; early Lakoff; philosophical works by Quine, Austin, Langer, Wittgenstein, and Dewey; the linguists Chomsky and Abraham; I.A. Richards and Max Black, and Empson are also cited.
This collection of essays incorporates many disciplines, but it should be noted that the essays themselves are tightly bracketed within traditional intellectual fields. More to the point, of nearly 500 pages of text, there are only four very brief citations of poetry: a few lines each from Donne and Dryden, and a short line from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet ("Juliet is the sun"); about a dozen lines from Paradise Lost are quoted in a footnote. Thus approximately two paragraphs of the 500 pages are devoted to a discussion of actual poetry. Similar in their aridity regarding references to literary works and creative constructions of metaphor are studies in philosophy and logic such as Cooper and Kittay.
An interesting, somewhat anomalous collection of essays, Beyond Metaphor. The Theory of Tropes in Anthropology, includes arguments framed by standard anthropological writings while incorporating literary and cultural theorists, psychologists, philosophers and philosophers of science, and scholars in the cognitive sciences.
Some recent publications in the field of computational linguistics widen the spectrum somewhat of metaphor studies. Gelernter (1994) tackles the convergence of poetry and digital computers forthrightly, stating flatly that poetry can offer scientifically indispensable facts about thought (3). Gelernter's is a fairly popularized account, and the absence of literary and cultural theorists or significant cognitive science arguments is not too surprising. The work, as expected, is rich in poetic citations, particularly the British romantics, and tends to focus on computer science writings of Fodor, Searle, Penrose, and Minsky, with a cursory nod to philosophical issues associated with metaphor and language study.
Steinhart (1995), describing a computer program called NETMET that can generate syntactically and semantically complex metaphors, relies understandably on cognitive science researchers (Lakoff, MacCormac, Kittay), computationalists, and the rare linguistic analysis. Literary and cultural theories are absent from this article, as is notice of work on metaphor in anthropology.
Different, and intriguing, is Rocha's work (1995) on symbols and metaphor from the perspective of fuzzy logic (Klir) and biology, drawn from studies of DNA as a language, and symbol formation as an inherent property of evolution (Pattee, Pollack, Varela, Minturna, Cariani). Rocha is interested in language strategies as they reflect biological properties as well as how phenomena like metaphors, if seen as sets of related concepts, can be modeled computationally using assumptions common to evidence set theory and conversation theory (Pask), and some principles of first order cybernetics (von Foester).
Questions such as the boundaries of a metaphor, i.e., how it is constrained, which ones work, which ones are not acceptable and why, and what is the "proof" behind the construction of metaphors and similes appear in this author's papers.
Absent from most all of the articles and books on metaphor are references to the study of linguistics, a discipline that purposively eschews the topic of metaphor as unscientific. Consonant with this practice, Pinker's recently popular The Language Instinct constructs a theory of language acquisition without a single reference to metaphor. Similarly, Bickerton's well received Language and Species also has no recourse to metaphor in its argument. This (stubborn) approach led Harris to declare that linguistics as a discipline treats a language as "a system of decontextualized verbal signs" (32) accompanied by a refusal to see the renewal of language as a creative act. The idealized "language" prominent in linguistic writings Harris goes as far to claim is a myth, and has little value in explaining the human condition. Metaphors, as slippery, subjective constructions that require the reader/listener's contextualization for interpretation are logically disruptive to an idealized system of verbal utterance.
What does this mean? The absence of certain writers from selected studies of metaphor can be explained in part due to the non- availability of translations in the case of foreign writers; timing of a book or article, e.g., if a book is published in 1985 it may still take a few years to come to someone's notice; physical limitations of publication space; or the circumstance that published works require an audience that can apply the findings or theories in a practical way (e.g., Mendel's work languished decades for want of application).
But this is to ignore a more obvious truth: few subjects are as widely discussed as metaphors, yet for the nearly universal appeal of the topic the approaches remain largely discipline specific or, if venturing more widely, tightly bordered by the mutually exclusive constructs of humanities and the sciences.
These works tacitly declare that literary theory does not apply to fuzzy logic, or that neural networks and artificial intelligence agents are not relevant to Beowulf, in the same manner as protesting that metaphors are not an appropriate area of inquiry for linguistics. These combinations are not appropriate because we chose them to be so; the fact that Pask's Conversation Theory (CT), which was celebrated in its time and continues to influence the field of second order cybernetics, is never cited in the study of metaphor, says little about the merits of CT but volumes about the authoritative domains of accepted academic methodologies.
The demarcations involved echoes to the narrative versus scientific knowledge described by Lyotard. In Lyotard's scheme "narrative" represented the more ancient, or primitive form of intellectual organization, which included myths, fairy stories, poetry, and other verbal constructs. Scientific knowledge is more abstract, removed of the subjectivity of narrative, and more progressive.
Yet I think there is more to it than this. It is not difficult to see that the academic world is exceedingly fragmented, that certain language codes, or disciplinary lexicons, privilege certain authorities, and interdisciplinary communication is fallow. The fragmentation, while extensive, is also logical: it follows fault lines of earlier disciplinary domains, and the types of fracturing are often not surprising. In fact it is precisely the conservative nature of the fracturing--retaining so much of the original stock in trade--that makes the failure of communication across broadly generalizable lines of humanities and sciences understandable.
There is evidence that the borders are beginning to be traversed. Works such as those as Gelernter's, as cited above, Francis Crick's The Astonishing Hypothesis, Dawkin's River of Eden, Dennet's immodest Consciousness Explained, Churchland's Neurophilosophy, and most of Paul Davies' books touch upon areas ranging from molecular and neuro-biology, evolutionary theory, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, philosophy, literature, psychology and, a newer emphasis, religion and spirituality. Earlier examples of crossover include The Tao of Physics, Pirsig's exemplary Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Hofstadter's Goedel, Escher, Bach. An Eternal Golden Braid.
That being said, all these books and essays are for the most part "popular," and less likely to be taken seriously by the disciplines they unhinge. They are a different genre from the more straightforward, though often sophisticated, popularizations of complex scientific issues of the times, e.g., Chaos, The First Three Minutes, Wonderful Life, and The Finch's Beak. In this respect the popular press is serving as an important area of intellectual convergence in the late twentieth century. The generation of the popular interdisciplinary books largely comes from the sciences, perhaps because the sciences have more authority as intellectual commerce, are perceived to be more relevant to daily life, and have less to lose from this kind of experimentation. Works such as Stoppard's Arcadia (Halliwell) and the plays of Brecht, meditative works like Einstein's Dreams, and some of the systems-science oriented stories by Borges are more literary forays into the rules and precepts of science retold via "narrative knowledge", are far more rare.
To state at the outset that the available information on the networks is structured largely by traditional disciplines is reasonable. Large scale resources reflect demands, which evidently have been couched in rather traditional terms. The Oxford Text Archive, the Bibliography of Linguistic Literature Database, ARTFL, the Eighteenth Century Short Title Catalogue, Music Literature International, Muziek Catalogus Nederlands, Philosophers Index, Religion Index, Yacimientos Arqueologicos Espanoles, and others (Bapty), are for the most part designed for an audience trained in specific disciplines very much in the way of typical university organization, itself a 19th century German construct and a manifestation of earlier beliefs in the understandability of all knowledge.
Centers for humanities research, almost exclusively textually based, located at the University of Virginia, Dartmouth, Brown, Toronto, Rutgers/Princeton, and Iowa, among others, as well as digital text repositories at Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Emory, Georgetown, and Yale, and electronic archives at Virginia, Michigan, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, attest to the continuing dominant influence of humanities as a study of the word, within prevailing subdivisions of literature, history, and philosophy.
The flash and gaminess of the World Wide Web belies its academic propensity to similarly follow existing models of intellectual organization, made more complex by the explosion of personal homepages. The above mentioned text archives and centers almost all have a Web presence, and in this respect the Web is more of a superficial access point than a substantive transition. The architecture and design of the Web also, paradoxically, are at odds with earlier hypertext models for data and storage, retrievability, and publishing. Web usage encourages anonymity and passivity; coupled with the immense fragmentation of individual sites it is unclear what effects the Web will have on humanities scholarship.
Still, the more traditional organizations of knowledge seem to prevail. New sites such as that for World War I poetry http://www.ox.ac.uk/depts/humanities/rose/, and a hypertext Alice in Wonderland http://www.cs.cmu./Web/People/ rgs/alice-table.html/, complement the easily intuited presences found in http://www.biology.html, http://www.Medical.html, http://www.bubl.bath.ac.uk./BUBL/Research.html (scientific research organizations). New internet lists often reconstitute the old order, as with those for the study of William, Henry, and Alice James ( jamesf-l from email@example.com), Albert Camus ("philcamus" from firstname.lastname@example.org), and anes-hist from email@example.com for the history of anesthesiology, to cite those appearing in the last few weeks.
The conservative nature of disciplinary-based fracturing has its benefits (Kuhn), not the least of which is control over change itself. The departments and subdepartments of today's academy share similarities to ancient pantheons, which also served to canonize beliefs and prevent their alteration over time.
Civilization, with or without progress, requires incremental resolution to its questions and codification of its discoveries. Its intellectual revolutions are usually slower and highly structured by what proceed the rise of a new organizing principle. And, not without coincidence, technology can play a determining role in both the conservation of and revolution against the prevailing constructs. The pantheon is the keeper of stereotypes and, in Wittgenstein's sense, the protector of games.
With reference to the ancient world, one can learn from Sumeria the appreciation of a dynamic that has application to the late twentieth century and our extraordinary development of networked information. For the Sumerians, three things signified human civilization: wearing cloths, drinking beer, and eating bread. These manifestations of civilized behavior all share a common aspect: they are transformational in that the cloth comes from weaving wool and flax, the bread from hard, originally inedible grain, and similarly the beer. The apparent, superficial structure of the materials of origin, appearing to be inimical to human appropriation, become essential to human life and define it in new ways (Frymer-Kensky 25-35).
Bread, beer, and clothing also involve technology: they are technological responses to the environment, and the technology is passed along generation to generation as an act of survival and empowerment. In this sense the techne, or the art, of weaving, milling, and fermenting sustains life and perforce needs to be conserved as an act of social and cultural perpetuation.
Two related, additional aspects of Sumerian history have intrigued me for years. The first is the coincidence of writing and the decreasing presence of female goddesses in the pantheon. The technologies of brewing, milling, and weaving were long associated with women (Hallo). They are technologies of the household, where women had control, and these critical civilizing acts were passed on by and through women. With the rise of a new technology, writing, aside from the new kinds of scrutiny and interpretation it entailed, the formulation and transmission of the technological steps that brought about the distinction between nature and culture could be appropriated by anyone literate. With writing, men, who held the most power in government and the politics of war and peace, were empowered to control and transmit the codes of civilization. It seems to me far from coincidental that the decrease in goddesses in the Sumerian pantheon accompanied the proliferation of writing.
The second aspect involves one goddess who did survive the rising prominence of male gods. Innana, also called Ishtar in Semitic, was the goddess who possessed the power of mes, or civilizing knowledge. She was also the goddess of war and love. Integral to the description of Inanna is her most characteristic trait: she wandered. To the ancient Sumerians, wandering was what demons do: they do not recognize bounds, they do not adhere to structure. Inanna wandered, denoting no doubt the turbulence of love and war. But civilization itself, the Sumerians seemed to imply, is constructed with necessary boundary breaking, as is evident in the process of weaving, milling, and brewing. Transformation is both sustaining and demonic.
Our conception of the network, and the knowledge that resides upon it, is a limited one. The frequency of terms such as "highway," or "superhighway," or "infrastructure," or "pipeline" and the like empower the network and those using it only to a point. Drawn generally from industrial models these analogies assist to guarantee canonization of existing models. Pipelines and highways travel from point to point, are easily metered, marked, and controlled, and mitigate against the impulse to wander. It is not surprising that telecommunications and entertainment industries hive to the industrial and commercial analogies, but unfortunate that the scholarly and educational communities have not contributed a more organic or creative set of descriptors.
When looked at in this way, the current landscape of networked technology is old fashioned. A number of writers (Bolter, Nyiri) have described aspects of computer technology as post-modern; Lanham goes as far as to call the personal computer the greatest example of post-modern art (33). Characteristics of post- modernism include an emphasis on plurality, non-conformity, and the breaking down of rigid conceptual structures, not the least of which entails the loss of universal truths, including the notion of progress and the belief in, firstly, the possibility of an objective human perspective and, secondly, that such a perspective can uncover hidden truths in the world around us free from subjective interference.
And technology? Modernism, born in the crucible of discovery and rediscovery in the Renaissance, saw technology as liberating humanity from a more primitive condition, elevated the idea of progress to a universal principle, and felt comfortable with Aristotelian categorizations of the world in rigid and hierarchical parts. The post-modern implications of technology include a computer's, and a network of computers, capability to muddle authorship, ownership, provenance, and integrity. Recipients of an original text file could change the text and send new versions out as if the revised stories were originals; the revised texts could undergo further revision, then be included in a digital anthology as an example of postmodern narrative, further appropriated as a section of someone else's novel without reference or acknowledgment, with nearly endless iterations of modifications, appropriations, thefts, and reweaving.
The irony of late twentieth century networked academic culture should be obvious: most of the demands, and projected opportunities, are regimens meant to prohibit a true flowering of the post-modern capabilities of the network while fundamentally privileging the existing hierarchies and pre-determining constructs of, for instance, author, publisher, instructor, tenure review panel, editor, and the like.
While the fragmentation of knowledge is evident, with an ever increasing plurality of subdivisions and specialization, communication among these islands of activity is very poor (Rorty), and it may be that the disjunctive worlds of humanities and sciences collectively wish to remain so, despite the contentions of more optimistic cultural analysts (Hayles).
We define our condition largely through the questions we ask. That opportunities are limited, or enhanced, by the categorical demands we make in our pursuit of new discovery should be axiomatic. To genuinely, wholeheartedly demand that the humanities and the sciences begin to work together, to actively seek shared methodologies in the belief of mutual enrichment is, in the above definition, a civilizing act. Rather than espousing industrial or commercial models, the network could better be seen as an attribute of civilization, a mechanism that both empowers and destroys, enables and confounds, privileges the existing structure and at the same time wanders dangerously among current demarcations as a wraith eeling along the back streets of Ur .
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