Information infrastructures and future directions in digital scholarship

Any attempt to understand the impact of digital technologies and the digital medium must take into consideration the underlying processes that support, regulate, and structure computers and the Internet. Human interaction with technology is more than a simple reciprocal exchange between technology and the human mind; it is an interaction between the user and a series of systematic actions undertaken by the technology per the guidelines set forth by an array of programmers, developers, corporations, and governments. These guidelines, which form the layers of the informational infrastructure of the Internet, are the result of a desire for access to certain kinds of content and the business models that evolved in an attempt to control access to content. Every technology possesses a history, and the most recent studies of digital technology and the Internet increasingly acknowledge that the history of computers and the Internet constitute a vital component in understanding not only the impact of these technologies, but the long-term implications of them as well. In Tim Wu’s The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, and John Palfrey and Urs Gasser’s Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives each author approaches their subject with a keen awareness of the ways a historical examination of computers and the Internet can inform understanding of the processes and structures that frame human interaction with technology and the digital medium. This awareness brings a complexity and thoroughness to their analyses that many previous studies of the impact of technology lack.

Of all the authors, Wu is the most historically-oriented. In the book’s introduction he writes that he disagrees with technoutopian visions of the future as well as the “insistence that we are living in unprecedented times.” Instead, he asserts, “the place we find ourselves now is a place we have been before, albeit in different guise” (Wu, 14). He states that one of the goals of his work is to provide an account of the development of technologies in times past so that the future can be made better. This is particularly important, he argues, given the increasing significance of information in society, the role of the Internet in purveying information, and increasing societal reliance upon the Internet for access to information. Wu focuses on the relationship between content, content providers (especially as they relate to issues of access), and informational infrastructures. He examines this relationship via historical trends in the emergence and development of a variety of technologies, including radio, telephone, film, television, and the Internet. His thesis consists of two parts: first, that certain patterns exist within the development technologies and that these patterns offer useful insight into the future of the Internet and, second, that whatever the future of the Internet and information may be it depends “far less on our abstract values than on the structure of the communications and culture industries” (Wu, 13).

Wu utilizes a concept he calls the Cycle as a framework for understanding the development and structuring of technology over time. It is highly derivative of Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction, which holds that innovation and economic growth reinforce one another and therefore the destruction of stagnant ideas is necessary for economic vitality. Wu only credits Schumpeter with “inspiring” the Cycle, arguing that Schumpeter’s theory does “not account for the power of law or the government to stave off industrial death” (Wu, 28). This is a key point for Wu and one of the more valuable aspects of his work. His history of twentieth century technologies reveals that the involvement of corporations and governments has been crucial to both the shaping and the success of radio, telephone, film, television, and the Internet. At the same time, however, corporations and governments have also restricted the development of technology, typically as a means of minimizing their economic risk and establishing control and dominance over the ways the public accesses and utilizes technologies. Wu provides many examples of this practice, but his explication of AOL Time Warner’s efforts to dominate the Internet offers a lesson digital humanists should bear in mind when creating for the Web.

As Wu explains, Time Warner attempted to build and purchase the means to control content and access to content on the Internet. Time Warner and other cable companies recognized the importance of the Internet as source of content and worked to buy up Internet companies so that they could also control the distribution of content. Time Warner united with AOL, which had already positioned itself as an Internet Service Provider and creator of content. But AOL expected its users not only to access the Internet via AOL but also to access only the content on the Internet AOL made available to them via its “walled garden,” a closed digital environment controlled and managed by AOL. AOL Time Warner’s attempt at vertical integration eventually failed because it utilized a business strategy that ignored the nature of the Web. The essential structure of the Web is open; therefore AOL Time Warner’s assumption that its users would be satisfied with access to only part of the Internet was both misguided and short-sighted. Companies such as Google have since created quite successful horizontal structures in keeping with the openness of the Web. The methods of the digital humanist must likewise be as horizontal and open as possible if digital scholarship is to garner recognition and be sustainable.

Zittrain’s work builds upon Wu’s emphasis on the significance of informational infrastructures and processes in influencing human interaction with the Internet. Zittrain focuses on a concept very similar to Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction: “generativity.” Generativity, Zittrain explains, refers to a system that enables users to create new content without relying upon assistance or input from the original creators of the system. Interaction with technology, in this sense, takes place on a two-way basis: users are free to both interact with content and create content without the intervention of the original creators of the technology. Zittrain asserts that generativity is the key to innovation and creativity on the Internet, and he worries that generativity may disappear in favor of minimized maintenance requirements for the personal computer and increased online security. Zittrain agrees that undesirable and criminal exploitation of the Internet’s flexibility and openness must be stemmed, particularly if generativity is to be preserved. He believes sentimentality about the Internet’s “intentional inaction…may be self-defeating:”users will continue to demand greater protections online and reduced maintenance requirements, therefore discussions about the future of the Internet and personal computers should focus on ways to meet these demands while simultaneously preserving and promoting as much openness and generativity as possible. Zittrain offers several suggestions for ways to solve this “generative dilemma” (Zittrain, 165; 36).

Zittrain rejects Internet appliances such as Kindles and gaming devices, as well as hosted environments such as Facebook and Google Maps, as too restrictive. One cannot program a Kindle, for instance, and the use of hosted environments such as Google Maps is bound by terms of service that the hosts can change at any given moment. Zittrain likewise rejects the idea that the Internet should contain a combination of closed and open appliances and services, as he believes this will lead to the restriction of generativity to a much smaller segment of the population (namely to professional developers). He argues: “We ought to see the possibilities and benefits of PC generativity made available to everyone, including the millions of people who give no thought to future uses when they obtain PCs, and end up delighted at the new uses to which they can put their machines” (Zittrain, 165). The more people with access to machines and services they can manipulate, experiment, and create with, the more innovation and diversity of innovation that will result. Zittrain cites two projects he is involved with, herdict and, as examples of ways to combine a measure of regulation with popular online action to simultaneously promote greater online security and openness. Digital humanists must also consider security if their work is to be sustainable, and much can be achieved to this end through collaboration with individuals in the technical know, but Zittrain’s arguments regarding generativity hold the greatest value for the Digital Humanities. Digital scholarship that is created transparently and is interactive in nature is more likely to spur just the sort of innovation and experimentation that can support a healthy online environment while also encouraging greater engagement between scholars and the public. Palfrey and Gasser offer some observations on human interaction with technology that can similarly aid the efforts of digital humanists.

Palfrey and Gasser examine the habits of so-called “digital natives” in an attempt to determine how digital technologies and the Internet are changing human notions and standards of privacy, collaboration, and the consumption of information. They define digital natives only as persons born after 1980. Palfrey and Gasser’s failure to offer any qualifications in terms of the varying levels of access to and usage of digital technologies and the Internet constitutes a serious flaw in their conception of digital natives, yet their observations contain some value. Employing a tone that is often cautionary, Palfrey and Gasser not only assert that humans possess the ability to adapt to technology but also that adaptation is a positive rather than a negative response. They point to the jarring transformations that accompanied industrialization and urbanization as an example of a time when adaptation aided people’s abilities to cope with an emergent social order. This provides some useful historical context for their arguments. But the majority of their discussion is general in nature; each of the topics is examined in broad terms and far more observations are made than arguments.

Palfrey and Gasser raise the typical questions about younger generations’ more open definition of privacy, greater willingness to provide personal information without consideration of the long-term consequences, resistance to control of their online experiences, exposure to ever larger quantities of information, tendencies to view information and knowledge as equivalent, and inclination to skim and multi-task rather than concentrate on deep immersion on a single task or subject. Much of this contains nothing new or particularly groundbreaking. But the authors also acknowledge the emergence of large collaborative movements to create and share on a scale not seen in the offline environment. Digital technologies and the Internet promote creation, collaboration, and sharing in ways that engage the interests and talents of a wide variety of users. If digital scholarship is created in such a way that it takes advantage of the essential structure of the Web and the benefits of horizontal, open-source programs, coding, and platforms, it may be possible to build a form of scholarship that is not only interactive and sustainable but inspiring as well.

*This essay was written in the haze of finals week for a seminar with Professor Will Thomas, HIST 946: Interdisciplinary Readings in the Digital Humanities. The syllabus for this course can be found here.

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