The Realpolitik of Virtual
Institutions . . . by this I mean the way that decision-making for
public policy about the Internet is dictated not by
transcendent ideals but by practical,
proximate interests. So studying Virtualpolitik
involves looking at pre-existing rhetorical and
interpretive conventions from traditional institutions of
Why should it matter?
Traditional institutions of knowledge like universities, libraries, and
government agencies often seem
to be in conflict about changes created by an information revolution
they claim to champion. Part of this can be explained by the fact
that individual public institutions can contain many different cultures and that these
cultures reflect particular ideologies
about concepts like "freedom" or "honesty" (as in "academic freedom" or
honesty") that are in turn shaped by factors like national, linguistic,
or theological identity, societal attitudes about ownership and
authorship, and cultural categories of gender, race, and class.
in 21st century
rhetoric, politics, hermeneutics, or
epistemology should be interested
in these conflicts between different stakeholders about how to manage
the presentation of and access to public
information via the Internet.
When you talk about conflict, what
theorists does this work on Virtualpolitik draw upon?
I am interested
theories about conflicts in social
networks that are described by Karl Marx, Jürgen Habermas,
Gregory Bateson, and Manuel Castells.
to look at nuts-and-bolts public policy work by Christine Borgman, Siva
Vaidhyanathan, Lawrence Lessig, and Eric S. Raymond (along with other
champions of the
"open source" movement).
Is this theory about Virtualpolitik limited to recent societal changes created by human-computer interactions or the social impact of computing? Is
that what you mean by "information revolution"?
although research done in these areas is important for this work.
I would argue that there is also a longer rhetorical history to
First, human beings created virtual
environments long before Plato
described his cave in the Republic.
Second, our way of thinking about information (as distinct from
knowledge) was already changing two centuries ago when people like
Thomas Bayes and the Marquis of Condorcet were proposing that our
beliefs about "chance" and "probability" might be flawed.
What is information?
it is defined in Claude Shannon's "A Mathematical Theory of
Communication," is fundamentally associated with uncertainty. The quantity of
information conveyed has to do with the quantity of initial uncertainty
at issue. Shannon's
collaborator, Warren Weaver has said that information has "nothing to
do with meaning," although it does describe a pattern. This is because
not to a single message, but
probabilistically to an entire
set of possible messages. In contrast to Shannon, Norbert Wiener argued for a teleological interpretation of information and insisted that information should properly be defined as negative entropy
How is information different from knowledge?
work, Michel Foucault characterizes knowledge as a traditional form of power. Specific disciplines
constitute their authority by making prohibitions on access to
knowledge and by asserting their privilege (or license) to disseminate
or distribute particular known facts.
Jean-François Lyotard has argued that
traditional institutions of
knowledge, epitomized by Humboldt's model of university,are threatened
by the conditions of postmodernity
as established disciplines encounter "noise in the system."
is knowledge work?
Alan Liu presents
the business paradigm of "knowledge work" in which "cool" "style" becomes both a mark of resistance and a marker of defeat. Insidious caste systems between
"knowledge workers" and "information workers," like those
John Seely Brown describes, may mean that this privileged designation of cultural capital is yet
another manifestation of Virtualpolitik.
James Paul Gee
defines literacy as the control of the uses of language in discourses
for social institutions beyond
the family. He says that literacies were therefore always plural. He also asserts that
Discourse functions as an "identity kit" that comes "complete with the
appropriate costume and instructions about how to act, talk, and often
write, so as to take on a particular role that others will
recognize." In other words, literacy is about much more than mere decoding and often
involves complex social practices of participation and recognition.
Families, of course, also play an important role in literacy,
particularly if family members participate in what Shirley Brice Heath
has called "literacy events." However, the Internet has created
new forms of association and new definitions of "home" for people who
participate in global distributed networks.
What is information literacy?
universities have instituted information literacy requirements, based
on the work of researchers who study practices of information retrieval
and how sources of information are evaluated. The ALA defines
information literacy as "the ability to locate, evaluate, and use
information to become independent life-long learners" but also
recognizes that it includes many kinds of literacy: "tool
literacy," "resource literacy," "social-structural
literacy," "research literacy," and "publishing literacy."
Even the most ambitious programs endorsed by librarians may not be up
to the task, however, since information literacy is grounded in a long
history of complex social practices.
How is literacy different from numeracy?
universities have also instituted numeracy requirements. Like
literacy, numeracy involves participation in complex social practices
and is a much more rhetorical activity than the conventional
understanding of numeracy as a simple decoding of
mathematical symbols and functions might suggest.
What does it mean to talk about "the social life of information"?
(Descartes famously wanted to integrate literacy and numeracy in his
dream of a unified field of knowledge characterized by a
single set of abstract symbols free of indeterminacy.)
phrase, from a book by John Seely Brown and Paul Deguid describes the
importance of the "social periphery" of the digital world that includes
"the communities, organizations, and institutions that frame human
activities." They also consider the possibility that "information
overload" may be a recent cultural myth designed to limit choices in
ways that benefit corporate entities.
What is information
theory is a field in information and computer science that includes
many theoretical endeavors like game theory or signal theory that
humanists are interested in as well. Information theory offers mathematical theories of communication
and explains the effects of entropy
in information systems.
How are new institutions of information shaped
by traditional institutions of
education and digital libraries are still closely allied to their
origins in traditional institutions of knowlege. I don't think we
have really begun to build institutions of information yet.
do you write about institutional
websites so much? Aren't governmental websites too
bureaucratic and anonymous to be expressive of any meaningful ethos
or reflect genuine rhetorical exchanges in the public sphere?
digital culture really so different from traditional culture?
There are centuries of cultural practices around visual rhetoric and peer-to-peer networks, even in
public spheres built around classical oratory or other hierarchical
forms of social organization?
A recent book, The Language of Websites
(Routledge, 2005), essentially asserts this position and claims that
institutional websites are still too close to traditional print.
The author, Mark Boardman, argues that personal websites are the site
of the "real publishing revolution." However, I think many
people overlook the complexity and density of many institutional sites.
There is plenty
of subversive content on institutional websites: one can find
everything from Bertolt Brecht poems to Al Jazeera transcripts
on websites from the federal government. Based on my own
research, I would argue that institutions are characterized by
ideological tensions and battles between competing stakeholders: that's
what makes them of interest to me as a rhetorician.
are expected to do a lot more than simply provide PR for an
institution: they provide reports, speeches, hearings, open letters,
and even certain statistics that are mandated by law to be disclosed.
And even when authorship of a policy document appears to be masked by
anonymous collective of bureaucracy, embedded code can contain
information about its rhetorical and compositional history. Many
institutions feel obliged to publish materials about scandals or
disasters on their websites. And the whole genre of apologies on
institutional websites is fascinating.
authors represented in a recent book, Making
Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (MIT Press, 2005) often
seem to make this argument. I would tend to agree that new
digital genres often borrow from older genres from print and oral
What is the main argument of
much like computer science, provides an interpretive framework that
much more than the study of hardware or software. Yet
many who purportedly study the rhetoric
of digital discourse focus excessively on the technological apparatus,
a conventional view of the study of hypertext and networked
attention to the computer rather than the theory behind it. In the standard model of digital rhetoric,
represented by journals like Kairos
and Computers and Composition,
literary theory is almost always applied to technological applications
considering how technological theories could conversely elucidate
texts. Rhetoricians of digital culture
debate about the merits of MOO’s and MUD’s or blogs and wikis but
address how fundamental paradigms of the public sphere have been
certain new ideas from the discourses of codes and algorithms.
is partly because
information is still largely treated in the Humanities as being
with knowledge, even though information – in its technical sense – is
by information theorists as a construct of uncertainty.
Traditional disciplines that rely on
syllogistic or probabilistic reasoning promulgate initiatives for
literacy” without recognizing a departure from the conventional
knowledge-acquisition model or considering how competing
definitions of information dating back to Claude Shannon of Bell Labs and Norbert
of MIT have created the conditions for a paradigm shift.
Aristotle may be rebuked by contemporary rhetoricians for
his taxonomic approach to discourse, while a rhetoric based on equally
antiquated Aristotilean notions of probability still holds sway. This opposition between
information and knowledge
has important philosophical ramifications, since these competing
have shaped the history of communication since at least the 4th century
when, as Dilip Gaonkar explains, “Aristotle replaces Plato’s binary
between reality and appearance with his own binary opposition between
necessary and the contingent.” Given the
positions of the two ancients, it seems to follow that Plato is the
philosopher of knowledge, and Aristotle is the philosopher of
information. Therefore, I would locate the
between the “two cultures” of academia much less neatly than C.P. Snow,
information science has created new circuits of disciplinary exchange.
historical moment, the transformation of traditional institutions by
media in networked societies has been hyped with utopian or dystopian
narratives about a new public culture.
Yet many public institutions – universities, libraries, and
agencies – have created virtual counterparts with many of the same
conventions or inverse forms of those very same rules.
In other words, the discourses of institutions
of information often function like those of the traditional
knowledge that they emulate.
Specifically, I argue that traditional ideologies of
private property, and linguistic identity are often replicated in
culture. These new online institutions
are also governed by a principle that I call Virtualpolitik
– the pragmatic, provisional politics of virtual institutions
responding to competing interests that are no longer separated by time
digital culture and the circuits of disciplines
Aristotle: the rhetoric of probability after Shannon and Wiener
digital rhetoric and the virtual state
- the war from the
web: an atlas of conflict, government, and citizenship
choosing between traditional discourses and electronic communication
- revolt of the
netizens: political crowds and other hackers of the virtual state
- in country with Tactical Iraqi: trust, identity, and language learning in
a military video game
- reading room(s):
building a national archive in digital spaces and physical places
- a parable of
division: how librarians and academics ended up on opposite sides of
the intellectual property debate
- going digital:
obstacles to building virtual communities in traditional institutions
- honor coding:
academic dishonesty in a cut and paste world
- letters home: the
electronic identity politics of the global student body
desert of the unreal: the politics of virtual reality and serious games
Proposed Table of Contents with Chapter Summaries
Back to Virtualpolitik