What is this list FOR?
Mon, 25 Apr 1994 10:48:27 -0600
Well, I have been posting to this list on and off for more than two
years I think. I have been reading a lot of speculative journalism about
the way that electronic communication is transforming human relations.
But what I see is that we are busy assimilating this new form of
communication into existing social relationships and institutionalized
forms. Contrary to what the techno-utopians say, we want to know WHO WE
ARE TALKING TO.
Giiving our bio sketches to the list is a way of making it seem like we
are all sitting around the electronic campfire. But, you know, it is not
like that at all. I posted a message here a couple of weeks ago about
clear writing, citing Richard Jenkins' superb book on Bourdieu. Lo and
behold, I got an email message from the man thanking me - someone on the
list forwarded my comment to him, through another colleague. Last year I
posted a humorous satire of an academic journal, and a month later it
was published in a column in the Chronicle of higher Ed. Every now and
then I hear from long-lost friends and colleagues, who saw my name on a
post and decided to reestablish contact (my deep apologies to any that I
have neglected to return messages from!).
This is not a campfire.
Institutional economists have a term for the time and effort that it
takes to get and transmit information - it is a "transaction cost." High
transaction costs, argues Douglass North (1993 Nobel Prize winner), are
one of the basic reasons for the kinds of social groups we have. High
transaction costs make it reasonable, often, to depend on others instead
of doing things ourselves (I do great violence by oversimplifying). But
here we have a form of communication with VERY low costs. I am willing
to sit down and write email when I would be loathe to write a letter or
even make a phone call! Who KNOWS what kinds of social effects this will
have. I see some levelling (people with different status positions in
the discipline exchanging information), but also persistence of a lot
of divisions and hierarchy. Commoditization creeping in (did you hear
about the guy who posted a zillion advertisements over the net last
week? A lawyer soliciting business!). And so many mixed expectations and
sociolinguistic frames! Some people find the publkic exposure
terrifying. Others become exhibitionistic (perhaps self included),
abusive, unrestrained, effusive. Foss has found his speakers' corner.
For some it's a library and a board of consultants. This is exciting
stuff. Anthro-l has become a part of my daily conversation, something I
look forward to checking. I miss it when I am in the field
(unfortunately I am working on north americans this summer, so my field
is right here).
I am still waiting for some form of emergent function to appear here
though. I have been hoping that the kinds of collaboration that appear
from time to time would build. Instead conversations come and go, and
when people help each other it is open, generalized reciprocity that
does not lead to any intensified social ties. I sense that there is some
potential here for us, as an electronic community, to take on a
worthwhile project which will have some real effect on the world.
Frankly, every day I find myself tugged towards my committments to real
political, economic and social problems; I want to give more of my time
and effort to local environmental issues for example, and I am involved
with several groups in Belize, my second home, raising money for high
school kids, and getting a community development project off the ground.
I need to give more time to my students too.
I guess the upshot of all this is that I am wavering about where this
list is going, and my own committment of time to it (though clearly not
to many other internet resources). I would like to hear other people on
the list on this - are others beginning to feel this way? Are there
possible uses for this forum beyond sending each other references and
engaging each other in conversation, making announcements from time to
time? Inquiring minds want to know!
PS Is there anyone else out there who is not mourning Tricky Dick?
He had the DC cops beat the hell out of me in 1972, and I never got to
beat him back.