Sigdoc '96 Keynote: Information, Economy, and Community.
I am on the English department faculty at the University of Virginia, where I teach literary theory,
hypertext, American literature, and postmodernism (in various combinations). For the last seven
years, I have been a co-editor of the first peer-reviewed electronic scholarly journal in the
humanities , Postmodern Culture--a publication which I helped to invent, and which I have seen
through the many changes in internet delivery mechanisms since 1990, from listserv to ftp to
gopher to the World-Wide Web. For the last four years, I have been director of an institute which
fosters computer-based research projects across the disciplines of the humanities--about 25
projects so far, in architecture, literary studies, religion, music, linguistics, history, art,
archaeology, and other fields. At the Institute, I have worked with a number of industry partners,
beginning with IBM, whose three-year equipment and personnel grant established the
infrastructure of the Institute, and subsequently with Sun, Sprint, AT&T, Electronic Book
Technologies, and other technology companies. What I have to say today, on the subject of
information technology and its economies and communities, is framed by this experience and
comes from this point of view.
Before I go on, I'd like to get a rough sense of your background and point of view, too:
--How many currently employed by educational institutions?
--How many currently employed by corporations?
--How many corporate employees with advanced degrees or hours towards them, or have held an academic job in the past?
--How many academics who have requested or received support from corporations, consulted with corporate clients, or held a corporate job in the past?
--How many think academics are self-indulgent and unrealistic?
--How many think corporations are short-sighted and unwilling to take risks?
The theme and title of this conference is: "MARSHALING NEW TECHNOLOGICAL FORCES:
BUILDING A CORPORATE, ACADEMIC, AND USER-ORIENTED TRIANGLE." I take it
that this implies two things: first, it implies that the corporate/academic/user partnership is
something that has yet to be created; second, it implies that technology is going to help build that
partnership. There have been attempts to build these partnerships, though, and information
technology alone has not been sufficient to accomplish the task. I want to suggest that the reason
we're not satisfied with the results so far is that we haven't really tried to combine the respective
communities on equal terms or equal footing, and we also haven't understood the economy within
which those communities take shape.
I'd like to start by examining the successes and failures of an institutional framework that has tried
to include all three parties, albeit in imperfect harmony: it's one that I know well, because I run it.
The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities is unusual, among humanities research
computing organizations (indeed, among academic organizations of any kind), in that it is
fundamentally interdisciplinary: rather than being focused on the work of a single author or the
literature of a single discipline, it serves projects in very different--even apparently unrelated--fields. It is also unusual in that it brings computer professionals (programmers, systems engineers,
systems analysts, user support specialists) and humanists (faculty and graduate students) into a
long-term, collegial relationship with one another. This is important, because only prolonged
contact permits each group to understand and appreciate the culture and expertise of the other. It
takes time to learn a foreign language, or a foreign world-view, and immersion is the best and
fastest way of doing it. When this cross-cultural experience takes hold, the results can be
impressive: there is an old proverb that says "a fool can ask more questions than a thousand wise
men can answer," and with respect to humanists and computer technology, the same is true: once
humanists have understood that the computer is a general-purpose modeling tool, as well as a
communications medium, they want it to do things that are well beyond the horizon of what's
possible today. And as George Bernard Shaw said, "the reasonable man adapts himself to the
world; the unreasonable man expects the world to adapt to him. Therefore, all progress depends
on the unreasonable man." Or woman, I would add.
For their part, the computer professionals who mediate between the goals of the researchers and
the limitations of the technology are often forced to think in new ways, outside established
practices and familiar methods. And when the Institute staff develop new software applications to
meet these needs, they do it in consultation with the people who will use that software--with the
result that the software often develops in ways that the programmers, acting on initial
specifications and their own understanding of the goals, would not have predicted.
In this scenario, academics are users as well as researchers, and the computer folks are
researchers as well as product developers. Our users, and our programmers, are grappling with
problems that are quite generalizable, and even though their demands might go beyond what the
general public needs at the moment, I don't believe that they go beyond what will be needed in the
To take a specific example: we have been working for some time on developing a web-based
unicode browser that would use SGML markup to provide synchronized search and display of
texts in multiple character sets. For most of the business world, at the moment, Latin1 (the
character set for English) plus one other character set is sufficient--they may have a local audience
that uses Hebrew or Japanese or Greek or Cyrillic, but everyone else uses English. Hence,
Netscape, Java, the Web in general do not support 16-bit character encoding and display, or don't
do so in any useful way. Our effort in this area grew out of a religious studies project that wanted
to study parallel texts in many different languages, but if we succeed in developing this tool, it will
clearly have an immediate audience outside of religious studies in other academic disciplines, and
it is not difficult to imagine a much larger audience taking advantage of the tool once it is
Other examples of this kind would include our java-based image annotation tool, Inote, a project
spawned by the needs of literary and historical researchers, or our work in adapting SGML to the
description of architectural and archaeological sites, or our application of three-dimensional
modeling to humanistic data (for example, to recover a sense of scale when displaying artworks
on the web, or more abstractly, to model and map census data from the Civil War). It is
characteristic of humanities research to want to deal with data of very disparate types, to want to
represent that data with a high degree of aesthetic as well as quantitative fidelity, and to want to
relate that data actively and interactively to other research in other places and in other disciplines.
These researchers want all the extant records, want to search them all at once, and want a
coherent and concise display of the results. And indeed, we want them to want that, because if
we can provide it for them, we can provide it for a much larger audience, who will want it too,
once it occurs to them that they could.
What's missing from the picture at the Institute, though, is that third party, the commercial
partner. This is not to say that our efforts have been unsupported by the industry: as I mentioned,
IBM, Sun, and other information technology companies have provided us with significant
resources. But what hasn't happened (yet) is the involvement of commercial partners as resident
members of the IATH community: our contacts with technology companies are generally sporadic
and intermittent, and there isn't a lot of feedback in either direction. The technology or funding
that comes to us from these companies usually comes without a commitment of personnel, and
often without a formal reporting arrangement. Even when we might want to provide information
about the strengths and weaknesses of the technology we've been given, there is no channel for
this kind of communication; if we want access to engineers or programmers, it is often difficult or
impossible to get. In part, I think this is because technology companies still have a hard time
imagining that humanistic research might have, or might produce, market value. In fairness, I
note that they are helped to this conclusion, in many ways, by humanists themselves, who tend to
regard the market as a taint, and business as anathema. But even in the sciences, where
collaborative relationships between academic research and the business community have a longer
history, we are hardly overwhelmed with examples of the rapid development and effective
commercial deployment of products resulting from academic research.
For example, we have corporate-sponsored places like Bell Labs (now known as the company
formerly known as Bell Labs) and Xerox Parc; we have places like MCNC here in the Triangle
area and a number of state-sponsored technology transfer centers in other states, such as the
Center for Innovative Technology in Virginia; and we have many University-based Centers now
that, in one way or another, try to bring together the research capabilities of university faculty
with the product development and marketing capabilities of business. A particularly interesting
example of this kind of joint research and development project is, I think, the Computer
Applications and Software Engineering (CASE) Center at Syracuse University, one of New York
State's original Centers for Advanced Technology . With (last year) 4 million in federal funds, 2
million in corporate support, and 1 million in state money, this center incubates and spins off small
technology businesses, supports graduate students, involves faculty researchers, and works on
product development with large corporate sponsors. What's notable about CASE, the Syracuse
example, is that unlike most of these others, it actually brings into direct contact more than two of
our three categories (business people, academics, users).
The oldest example of a corporate-sponsored research facility, in the field of information technology, is probably the organization formerly known as Bell Labs. In its heydey, these labs fostered pure research on terms that would once have sounded academic, but on a scale that no university of the time could equal. According to Samuel P. Morgan, a member of the Bell labs Research Area beginning in 1947 and, during the early seventies, Director of the Computing Science Research Center,
If there aren't a certain number of things taken up in the organization every year that don't work out, we're not being sufficiently aggressive, or innovative, or we are not gambling enough. . . . We work on percentages, and of course this is true throughout any research organization. We've got to have a certain number of failures. . .
Many an academic longs in vain to hear this kind of rhetoric from deans and provosts today: in
fact, it is only a very large accumulation of wealth that makes it practical to gamble in this way,
investing resources in doing research with no immediately obvious economic benefit, and as
universities have been "downsized" they have become increasingly concerned about the immediate
marketability of research results, in no small part because the corporate and government sponsors
of that research, themselves downsizing as fast as they can, impress that concern upon them.
If you went today to the corporate-sponsored research facilities like Xerox Parc, you would still
hear echoes of the emphasis on the importance of pure research, but you would also hear distinct
overtones of a short-term market orientation. In talking about Xerox Parc, its director, John
Seelye Brown, says: "We're trying to build a culture here where people are willing to take risks, in
fact love to take risks, but on the other hand also care about having a major impact on the world."
This is, it seems to me, a very straightforward statement of the issues: on the one hand, you want
to foster innovation, but on the other hand, you want your research to have "a major impact on
the world" --and one assumes that for the corporate sponsor that impact is expressed in the
marketability and profitability of the products of this research.
The record shows, though, that organizations like Parc and to a lesser extent Bell labs have
always had the problem of not recognizing and seizing on those marketable products its
experiments have produced--and their failure in this regard has, on the whole, been our good
fortune, resulting in longer-term, less predictable, more generalized and more extensive benefits
than would likely have been the case if the early patents had been secured and/or protected. The
list of products in this category is impressive: the mouse, bitmapped graphics, the graphical user
interface, Unix, postscript, the PC architecture. The list becomes even more impressive if we add
to it some of the enabling non-proprietary standards (ascii, tcp/ip, sgml) and software products
(mosaic, netscape, java, perl, and a huge host of shareware) that drive the development of cross-platform, networked information. These products don't all have the same history or the same
status--some of them do have owners, some of them do retain patent rights, some of them do
have elements for which one has to pay--but they have in common the surrender of immediate
economic gain (sometimes inadvertently, sometimes partially, but sometimes deliberately and
completely) in favor of widespread use--in short, they behave according to the imperative of our
new and poorly understood information economy. The newer brand of collaborative research and
development center, like the Syracuse example, no doubt have a higher rate of success in turning
research ideas into patents and proprietary goods, but I think it is too early to tell whether they
will have the same impact as these earlier, less "businesslike" ventures. Personally, I am inclined
to doubt it.
If we are going to figure out how to bring academic researchers, corporations, and users together in the most effective, most felicitous, most productive way, we need to learn the principles of this economy and the lessons of its brief history. As John Perry Barlow puts it, in his essay called "The Economy of Ideas:"
With physical goods, there is a direct correlation between scarcity and value. Gold is more valuable than wheat, even though you can't eat it. While this is not always the case, the situation with information is often precisely the reverse. Most soft goods increase in value as they become more common. Familiarity is an important asset in the world of information. It may often be true that the best way to raise demand for your product is to give it away.
I take the time to lay out this perspective and these examples because they represent an interesting
point of commonality between what academics do and what business people do. Academics
(especially in the humanities) get paid indirectly for their research--not on the basis of sales of
their books, but on the basis of the familiarity that accrues to their ideas. In the case of academic
research, economic property and intellectual property are often separable, and the former is often
much less significant than the latter. In the information technology business, these things can also
be separated, and one can often see that indirect profits are more significant than direct ones: you
give away postscript, and drive the sales of postscript printers; you give away netscape browsers,
and drive the sales of server software and intranet applications; you give away a hardware
architecture and drive the sales of an operating system (in the case of PCs) or vice versa (in the
case of Unix). It is true, in both academic and commercial instances, that the indirect benefit may
go to someone else, but it is also true that in the aggregate, an information economy grows best
and most rapidly, to the benefit of the largest number of people, when it is based on free or low-cost exchanges, universal access to basic goods and services, and profusion rather than scarcity.
If you'll bear with me, I want to follow Barlow's argument one step further, through his comparison of the nature of value in physical and informational goods:
In the physical world, value depends heavily on possession or proximity in space. One owns the material that falls inside certain dimensional boundaries. The ability to act directly, exclusively, and as one wishes upon what falls inside those boundaries is the principal right of ownership. The relationship between value and scarcity is a limitation in space.
In the virtual world, proximity in time is a value determinant. An informational product is generally more valuable the closer purchaser can place themselves to the moment of its expression, a limitation in time. Many kinds of information degrade rapidly with either time or reproduction. Relevance fades as the territory they map changes. Noise is introduced and bandwidth lost with passage away from the point where the information is first produced.
For academic researchers, access to new information, and even to work in progress, is the most
valuable kind of access: in most academic disciplines, information that is more than a few years
old is probably worthless. In the business world, the same is true, but the cycle can be much,
much shorter: the clearest example of the same principle is the price you pay for stock quotes
which you could get for free ten minutes later.
Capitalism thrives on difference, and it thrives by exploiting the difference between adjacent
economies: it wants to produce goods cheaply, and sell them dearly. In a global economy, this
practice is now called "outsourcing" and it is and has been the subject of much controversy in
labor and treaty negotiations. Outsourcing is a practice, though, that depends, as Barlow says the
physical property system in general does, on limitations of space: if you can hop across the border
and buy cheap, it doesn't work. In an information economy, based on temporal rather than spatial
limitations, the difference that will drive capital is lag-time. Maybe that's fine: if the broker will
pay for information which the historian, later that afternoon, can have for free, both economies
can still function. And there may be other differences to consider: for the academic researcher, a
large number of failed experiments may provide more information than a single resounding
success; a solution which takes you 80% of the way to addressing an intractable problem may be
more valuable than one that takes you 100% of the way to addressing a commonplace and well
understood one; innovative beta software, even if it crashes with regularity, might be more useful
than a stable but more limited product; and so on, and on.
There is another kind of difference worth considering, in the attempt to understand information
economy. This is not so much a temporal difference as a relational one, and it turns on the fluid
relationship between users and information. In most of our thinking about the value of
information, we fail to take this fluidity into account. This is why publishers, for example, fail to
understand the absurdity of the widely feared scenario in which a user downloads and prints and
xeroxes and distributes for free the information he or she has only once paid to access. But as any
user will tell you, in a world of networked information, value inheres not in the part, but in the
whole and in its potential. If I come to a large, dynamic database of information on two
consecutive days, I most likely do so with two different purposes, two different queries, two
different demands. The path that I take through that data is of value to me at the time I take it,
but my results are only valuable to someone who comes (at nearly the same time) to the same
database with the same query. The next day, my activities of the day before have not consumed
the value of the resource, because I now have a different question, and require a different cross-section of the data. Unless I can download the entire database and the tools that help me use it, I
can't appropriate (in the old, physical sense) its potential value, to me or to others.
With respect to users, there is one other important and fluid characteristic. To use myself as an
example again, sometimes I am a general audience, and sometimes I am a specialist. On the web,
in particular, I never want to pay for the information I seek out in my capacity as a general reader--I'm simply not motivated to do so. If I can't get it for free, I'll go look somewhere else, and if I
can't find it anywhere, I'll go without it. On the other hand, when I am browsing as a specialist, I
am highly motivated to find a particular piece of information--motivated enough to pay for it,
especially if the transaction is immediate, the charge is low, and the relevance is high. This
behavior implies a commercial practice which (I know from experience) most information
providers (especially publishers) consider perverse: in short, it suggests that you should give away
the information of interest to the largest number of people, and sell the information of interest to
more limited audiences. If you are providing an online journal (to take an example at random),
you might give away the current issue and license the archive of back issues; if you are putting
William Blake online, you would give away Songs of Innocence and Experience, and sell The
Marriage of Heaven and Hell; if you are publishing a scientific database, you would provide
abstracts and results for free, and sell access to the data on which those results are based. The
rationale for valuing readers or users who don't pay goes back to Barlow's point that "familiarity
is an important asset in the world of information:" unless I have had significant free access to
general information from a particular resource, I am not likely to know about it, value it, and
return to it when I want more specialized information in the same vein. Moreover, the availability
of the general resource may affect the direction of my specialization, and may shape the need I am
later willing to pay to have filled. In his conclusion, Barlow says that "the economy of the future
will be based on relationship rather than possession. It will be continuous rather than sequential"--I would agree, but I would add that one will probably play a sequence of roles in these
relationships, some of which can lead to the exchange of money, and others which will not.
And this, it seems to me, is the key to understanding the emerging information economy--not only as a global phenomenon, but also as a local one that affects the everyday practice of the university and the corporation and the average user in very practical ways: it depends on motivations that sometimes exceed the property system. To return to the historical example of Unix (or actually, its predecessor, Multics), it is worth noting that communication--not the business of communications, but communication itself--was a motivating factor in the design of this operating system. As Dennis Ritchie recalls,
Even though Multics could not then support many users, it could support us, albeit at exorbitant cost. We didn't want to lose the pleasant niche we occupied, because no similar ones were available. . . . What we wanted to preserve was not just a good environment in which to do programming, but a system around which a fellowship could form. We knew from experience that the essence of communal computing, as supplied by remote-access, time-shared machines, is not just to type programs into a terminal instead of a keypunch, but to encourage close communication.
Information demands and depends on communication, and the two together are "a system around
which fellowship could form." I would argue that if we understand the nature of information, the
different economies in which it is distributed, and the ways in which its value exceeds the idea of
property, we can in fact build a community which includes research, product development, and
the user on equal terms.
What might this community look like, and how might it work? Well, oddly enough, I think it
would have to be residential--communication takes place in many ways today, through many
channels, but face-to-face communication is still our highest-bandwidth channel, and sharing
work-space is still a good way to increase the odds of accidental discoveries and happy accidents.
It would include the three categories of people we have been discussing--researchers, business
people, and users--and it would do so on terms that provided rewards appropriate to each, in
accordance with the different reward structures that apply to each. For the researcher, this might
mean time to experiment and the luxury to fail; for the user, this might mean ready access to
support and a role in shaping the tools; for the business person, the reward might simply be the
opportunity to watch the other two go about their work and observe their successes and
frustrations. It's worth remembering, too, that these roles might be mixed and sequenced in
various ways: as in the IATH example, the researcher may be a user, and the product developer
may be a colleague. In fact, one of the principle benefits of this sort of arrangement would be, it
seems to me, that it makes possible that shifting of roles, depending on the situation. I even
believe that there is a place in this community for computing humanists, not only as consumers of
information and information technology, but also as researchers who pose some of the most
unreasonable challenges to that technology, and who therefore are the best hope of technological
With respect to the products of this collaboration, and the bad old property system, I am sure that there would be difficult issues to address, and I am sure they would best be addressed up front. The researcher is not going to want to be told what problems to address, the business person is not going to want to be deprived of a product, and the user is not going to want to be treated as a guinea pig. The institutions that fund this kind of collaboration are going to want to see profit fairly distributed, when there is any, and loss fairly shared when there isn't. But even here, face to face with grim reality, I think we should bear in mind the words of Thomas Jefferson (patron saint of the University of Virginia and of the Information Age):
He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. (Letters, qtd. in Barlow).