Digital Documents and Academic Community
In an essay called "The Social Life of Documents," John Seeley Brown and Paul Duguid have argued that documents should not be interpreted primarily as containers for content, but as the creators of a sense of community. They say, "the circulation of documents first helps make and then helps maintain social communities and institutions in ways that looking at the content alone cannot explain. In offering an alternative to the notion that documents deliver meaning, [there is a] connection between the creation of communities and the creation of meaning." That is, the central focus of analysis should not be on the artifact itself or even, perhaps, on the market as the primary social formation around documents, but instead the focus should be on the function of the artifact and market in creating and sustaining the social worlds, or communities, of the readers. Here, at last, we have identified the missing subject for discussions of the impact of technology and digital documents on social change: the academic community.
Recently the business management literature has begun to consider an interesting variant of this thesis, namely that the formation of a sense of community within electronic commerce on digital networks is the precondition for the creation and sustenance of markets for digital services. For example, John Hagel III and Arthur G. Armstrong argue that producers of digital services must adapt to the culture of the network.
By giving customers the ability to interact with each other as well as with the company itself, businesses can build new and deeper relationships with customers. We believe that commercial success in the on-line arena will belong to those who organize virtual communities to meet multiple social and commercial needs.
Whereas producers controlled traditional markets, they argue, the information revolution shifts the balance of power to the consumer by providing tools to select the best value, creating entirely new modes of competition. The markets of the future will take the form of virtual communities that will be a medium for "direct channels of communication between producers and customers" and that will
"threaten the long-term viability of traditional intermediaries" (p. 204). In the context of scholarly communication, "traditional intermediaries" would mean libraries and perhaps educational institutions as well.
The questions concerning productivity and technological innovation might now be reconstituted as a kind of sociology of knowledge: What kind of academic community first created print genres and was in turn sustained by them? What kind of community is now creating digital genres and is in turn sustained by them? And what is the relationship between the two, now and in the future?
On a larger scale, the relationship between community and digital documents is a problem in national information policy. In the United States, national information policy has tended to focus on the creation of information markets, but the broader discussion of the social and political impact of digital communications has been concerned with issues of community. For example, the Communications Decency Act and subsequent judicial review has concentrated on Internet pornography and its impact on the culture and mores of local communities. Social and political movements ranging from Greenpeace to militia movements have used the Internet to organize dissent and political action; is this protected free speech and association? Universities are concerned about the impact of abusive electronic mail on academic culture.
The bridge between technology and community is suggested by the elements in the analysis of productivity: how new technologies add new value, create new incentives, and enable new kinds of organization. Brown and Duguid argue that our nation's sense of political community was created by newspapers, not so much in the content of the stories, but in their circulation:
Reaching a significant portion of the population, newspapers helped develop an implicit sense of community among the diverse and scattered populace of the separate colonies and the emerging post-revolutionary nation.... That is, the emergence of a common sense of community contributed as much to the formation of nationhood as the rational arguments of Common Sense. Indeed the former helped create the audience for the latter.
Similarly, and closer to the issue of scholarly communication, the scientific letters that circulated among the Fellows of the Royal Society were the prototype for scientific journals, which in turn sustained scholarly disciplines, which are the organizing infrastructure for academic literature and departments. New forms of value, which is to say new uses of information, create new genres of documents, which in turn create literature, which serves as the historical memory for new forms of community.
In the case of print and digital documents, change is not evolutionary because these two kinds of information offer different kinds of value, but they are not opposites. Genre, for example, has been shaped by the physical characteristics of the print medium, including the design within which information is presented (e.g., page layout, font, binding) as well as the rhetorical norms governing the structure
of information (e.g., essay, scientific article, novel). Rhetoric has been described as a structure to govern the allocation of attention, the scarcest resource of modern times. Our frequent complaints of information overload may well reflect the early stage in the development of rhetorical structures for digital media. Certainly we face more information and more kinds of information, but the real problem reflects the difficulty in determining the quality of digital information (e.g., the lack of reputation and branding); or the difficulty of knowing which kind of information is relevant for certain kinds of decisions (e.g., the problem of productivity); or the relatively primitive rhetorical practices that govern new media (e.g., the problem of flaming in electronic mail).
Consider, for example, the technology of scientific visualization and multimedia. Thus far, visual media tend to be consumed as entertainment, which require us to surrender our critical judgment in order to enjoy the show. Thus the problem of the quality of multimedia information is not simply technical, but requires the development of new genres and rhetorical norms within which visual media are used in a manner consistent with academic values such as critical judgment.
Or, consider some of the new genres for digital documents, which might well be described as adding new kinds of value to information: hypertext, the Boolean search, and the database. Most of us did not learn to read these new genres in childhood as part of the process of becoming literate, and we lack conceptual models for learning them other than those derived from our experience with print; there is, perhaps, a generational difference in this regard. The database raises new problems in defining the unit of knowledge: will consumers read the digital journal or the digital articles, or will the unit of knowledge be the screen, the digital analog of the paragraph, which is identified by a search engine or agent? HTML raises the question: who is responsible for the context of information, the author or the reader? As readers jump from text to text, linking things that had not previously been linked, they create context and therefore govern meaning, and reading becomes a kind of performing art. These questions might be described, perhaps, as a legitimation crisis, in that the traditional authorities that governed or mediated the structure and quality of print are no longer authoritative: the author, the editor, the publisher, and the library. Who are the new authorities?
Information technology was designed to solve the information problems of engineers and scientists, becoming instantiated into the hardware and software templates within which new genres and rhetorical forms have evolved, thence into computer literacy training for nontechnical users, and thence the user skills and modes of reading that the younger generation thinks of as intuitive relationships with the machine. Hypertext, for example, turns narrative into a database, which is a highly functional strategy for recovering specific bits of information in scientific research, as, for example, in searching for information with which to solve a problem. Electronic mail is a highly efficient means for exchanging messages but has little scope for lexical or rhetorical nuance. This limitation has little effect on groups sharing a common culture and background, but it becomes a problem
given the diverse social groups that use electronic mail as a medium for communication today, hence, the frequency of flaming and misunderstanding.
In any case, as sociologists like Bruno Latour have noted, the original intent of the designers of a technology does not necessarily govern the process of technological innovation, for the meaning and purpose of a technology mutates as it crosses social contexts. Thus the problem may not best be posed in terms of an emerging cultural hegemony of the sciences and technology over academic institutions, although many of us do not find it intuitive to be giving "commands" to a computer or pressing "control" and "escape" keys.
But the cultural and organizational consequences of information technology need to be thought about, as technologies designed for the military, business, and science are introduced across the academic community. Thus far the discussion of this topic has occurred primarily in the context of thinking about the uses of distance education, which is to say, the extension of the scope of a given institution's teaching services to a national, or perhaps global, market. But there is a broader question about the nature of the academic community itself in a research university: what is the substance of this sense of community, and what sustains it?
It is often claimed that digital communication can sustain a sense of virtual community, but what is meant by virtual, and what is meant by community in this context? The literature on social capital, for example, argues that civic virtue is a function of participation, and those who participate in one voluntary social activity are highly likely to participate in others, creating a social resource called civil society or community. Robert Putnam argues that television, and perhaps other media, are a passive sort of participation that replace and diminish civic communities. The question is whether today's virtual communities represent a kind of social withdrawal or whether they might become resources for social participation and community. If this community is an important goal of digital networks, how might they be better designed to accomplish this purpose? Can networks be designed to facilitate the moral virtues of community, such as trust, reciprocity, and loyalty?
And finally, to return to the question of the productivity of knowledge workers in an information society, and mindful of the heuristic principle that documents can be understood in terms of the communities they sustain, is not the research library best conceptualized as the traditional knowledge management strategy of the academic community? If so, how well does the digital library perform this function, at least as we understand it thus far? The digital library is generally conceived of only as an information resource, as if the library were only a collection, rather than as a shared intellectual resource and site for a community.
The social functions of the library are not easily measured in terms of outcomes, but are an element in the productivity of faculty and students. To some extent, perhaps, libraries have brought this problem on themselves by measuring quality in terms of fiscal inputs and size of collections, and they must begin to define and measure their role in productivity. But in another sense, the focus on
the content and format of information to the exclusion of consideration of the social contexts and functions of knowledge is a distortion of the nature and dynamics of scholarly communication and the academic community.