FAQ about Virtualpolitik by Elizabeth Losh

What is Virtualpolitik?


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 knowledge. 

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 "academic 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.

Who should care?

Anyone interested 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 in theories about conflicts in social networks that are described by Karl Marx, Jürgen Habermas, Gregory Bateson, and Manuel Castells. 

I also like 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"?

Not really, although research done in these areas is important for this work.  I would argue that there is also a longer rhetorical history to consider.

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 commonsense beliefs about "chance" and "probability" might be flawed. 

What is information?

Information, as 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 information refers 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?

In his theoretical 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." 

What 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.  

What is literacy?

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 such 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?

Many 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?

Many 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. 

(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.)

What does it mean to talk about "the social life of information"?

This 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?

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 knowledge?

Distance 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.

Why 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?

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.

Websites 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 an 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.

Is 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?

The 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 culture.   

What is the main argument of this book-in-progress?

Digital rhetoric, much like computer science, provides an interpretive framework that encompasses 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, so that a conventional view of the study of hypertext and networked communication directs 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 without considering how technological theories could conversely elucidate literary texts.  Rhetoricians of digital culture debate about the merits of MOO’s and MUD’s or blogs and wikis but rarely address how fundamental paradigms of the public sphere have been reshaped by certain new ideas from the discourses of codes and algorithms. 

This is partly because information is still largely treated in the Humanities as being synonymous with knowledge, even though information – in its technical sense – is defined by information theorists as a construct of uncertainty.  Traditional disciplines that rely on syllogistic or probabilistic reasoning promulgate initiatives for “information 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 Wiener 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 ideologies have shaped the history of communication since at least the 4th century B.C.E. when, as Dilip Gaonkar explains, “Aristotle replaces Plato’s binary opposition between reality and appearance with his own binary opposition between the necessary and the contingent.”  Given the epistemological positions of the two ancients, it seems to follow that Plato is the consummate philosopher of knowledge, and Aristotle is the philosopher of information.  Therefore, I would locate the new divide between the “two cultures” of academia much less neatly than C.P. Snow, because information science has created new circuits of disciplinary exchange.

At the same historical moment, the transformation of traditional institutions by digital media in networked societies has been hyped with utopian or dystopian narratives about a new public culture.  Yet many public institutions – universities, libraries, and government agencies – have created virtual counterparts with many of the same rhetorical 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 institutions of knowledge that they emulate.  Specifically, I argue that traditional ideologies of nationalism, private property, and linguistic identity are often replicated in digital 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 and space.

  1. digital culture and the circuits of disciplines
  2. hacking Aristotle: the rhetoric of probability after Shannon and Wiener
  3. vitualpolitik: digital rhetoric and the virtual state
  4. the war from the web: an atlas of conflict, government, and citizenship
  5. whistle-blowers: choosing between traditional discourses and electronic communication
  6. revolt of the netizens: political crowds and other hackers of the virtual state
  7. in country with Tactical Iraqi: trust, identity, and language learning in a military video game
  8. reading room(s): building a national archive in digital spaces and physical places
  9. a parable of division: how librarians and academics ended up on opposite sides of the intellectual property debate
  10. going digital: obstacles to building virtual communities in traditional institutions of knowledge
  11. honor coding: academic dishonesty in a cut and paste world
  12. letters home: the electronic identity politics of the global student body
  13. the desert of the unreal: the politics of virtual reality and serious games

Proposed Table of Contents with Chapter Summaries

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