CHWP A.6 Best, "Dehumanizing the Internet: The Control of Display"

1. Democracy on the Internet, and the Growth of Control

In the early, heady, days of hypertext, writers like George Landow [2] argued that the electronic text would allow for a great democratizing of the process of communication, because it could be constructed by the reader both by contributing to it, and by creating a unique path through intricately linked hypertext nodes rather than a single linear path from page one to the end of the book. It was to be the medium that expressed the dynamic of poststructuralism, in all its difference, contingency, and self-reflexiveness. In the opening paragraph of his 1994 collection of essays, Hyper / Text / Theory, Landow claims for hypertext a central position in modern critical and literary theory: he manages to mention just about all the big names (Derrida, Barthes, Bakhtin, Foucault, and others) as he establishes his thesis: "The very idea of hypertext seems to have taken form at approximately the same time that poststructuralism developed, but their points of convergence have a closer relation than that of mere contingency, for both grow out of dissatisfaction with the related phenomena of the printed book and hierarchical thought" (Landow 1994).

The Internet seemed to be a triumphant demonstration of the accuracy of this insight: a medium where freely available information in various formats would be interlinked in new and powerful ways, extending the meaning of the "text" to include graphic, audio, and video materials. It was to be a medium of splendid democracy, where anyone with access to a computer was able to set up a site publishing his or her beliefs; in a vast cooperative venture, eventually whole libraries would be placed on line, providing unlimited access for all (Ess 1994). The machine would enhance human potential, providing a forum of communication and a resource for rapid access to and dissemination of knowledge. The Internet would become the ideal communications network which Jay Bolter described as: "a hypertext in which no one writer or reader has substantial control, and because no one has control, no one has substantial responsibility" (Bolter 1991: 29).

At least in the short term, some of this promise has been realized. The work of pioneering scholars [3] is making resources available to us and our students; electronic mail has changed the nature of informal communication within all kinds of communities; groups that allow for "threaded" discussions have provided a forum for the interchange of all kinds of reputable and disreputable ideas; and the technology has made space available for the eccentric and the personal, with home pages populated by all kinds of oddities -- several students of mine looking for research resources on Shakespeare found a page of a family dog by that name. In some ways at least, the Internet can be seen as a medium that is flexible, varied, informative, infuriating: surely a reflection of humanity, if not yet of the humanities.

One key to this development has been the essential anarchy of the medium, a space where those contributing can say what they like, do what they like, even if most of us do not like what they like. But anarchy makes many people nervous, and some attempts to control this ideal space for communication are inevitable. The US Communications Decency Act of 1996, ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, was perhaps the most wide-ranging attempt thus far to institute political control on the content of Internet sites. The desirability of this kind of control is a matter of legitimate debate, given the real and perceived relationships between communication, knowledge, and power; it is certainly the case that untrammeled communication has always been seen as subversive of authority, and we must expect authority to attempt to control it.

The language of the Communications Decency Act is interestingly revealing of the expectations of our current governmental structures when it comes to the relationship between adult responsibility, economics, and power: service providers were not to be prosecuted if they "restrict[ed] access to such communication by requiring use of a verified credit card, debit account, adult access code, or adult personal identification number". [4] To be adult is to be in possession of credit. The kind of economic control implied here is becoming increasingly pervasive, in part because of the simple need for those publishing on the Internet to fund their activities. For many years it has seemed that the Internet was free, or almost free, especially for those of us privileged to have access to networks and equipment through our place of work. But even in the academic world, the need to answer to the bottom line has led to mechanisms by which those accessing the new medium are paying for the privilege, not only in the cost of connect time, but in the exposure to advertising, and in the number of publications that are asking for subscriptions or "pay per view" mechanisms. Familiar commercial pressures are shaping the Internet so that at times it appears to be turning into a kind of glossy magazine -- Chatelaine, PC World, Hustler, Travel West, depending on the content of the particular site.

An extension of the growing tendency to provide various kinds of economic control is the closely related issue of copyright, and the legal challenges to what are seen as violations of intellectual property. In the UK, New Zealand, and various states in the US there are legal challenges that attack the right of one site to link to another without permission, and possibly having to pay for the privilege. [Hypernote 1]

Quality content costs. Even for those who are trying to make academic materials freely available on the Internet, someone has to pay for the servers, the connections, the networking, the exhaustive business of data entry. And the means of financing these costs is increasingly moving from the generosity of our institutions to the traditional capitalist means of paying for printed materials, even if it means that some sites will soon look more like the Shoppers' Teleguide channel.

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[H-1] There is an interesting paradox, worth exploring in a fuller essay: precisely at the moment when technology has made copying so easy as to be trivial, whether through the photocopy machine, or electronic cutting and pasting, the right to copy has become intensely vexed. It is a further twist that at the same time poststructuralist theory in particular is asking searching questions about the nature of authorship, and pointing out the degree to which all texts are contingent on other texts; techniques of sampling as a method of creating new forms, in both audio and graphic formats, are an illustration of the difficulty of determining both the nature and the rights of authorship. In the light of these challenges, it might not be difficult to construct a modest proposal to abolish copyright altogether.

A useful gateway to discussions about copyright is "Copyright and Fair Use", Stanford University, at <>. The National Initiative for a Networked Cultural Heritage (NINCH) fosters discussion and maintains an excellent page at <>. On the legal challenges, see Kleiner 1997.


[1] This paper was originally presented as part of a session on "Technologising the Humanities/ Humanitising the Technologies", a joint session of ACCUTE and COCH/COSH at the 1997 Learned Societies meeting at Memorial University in Saint John's, Newfoundland.

[2] See in particular Landow 1992 (especially chapter 6, "The Politics of Hypertext: Who Controls the Text"). See also Landow & Delany 1991 & Landow & Delany 1993.

[3] In my own area of the Renaissance, general collections of high quality are available from Renaissance Electronic Texts (U of Toronto) at <> and the Perseus Project (Tufts U) at <>. The Oxford Text Archive continues to grow; they are now providing a number of fully tagged SGML texts (<>). The University of Hull provides material on women's writing in the Renaissance and Reformation at (<>). Further sites provide texts of individual authors, notably Middleton's plays from the University of Virginia (<>) and the work of Richard Bear on Sidney (<>) and Spenser (<>).

[4] Quoted as recorded in the electronic journal CYBERSPACE-LAW (#71, 12 March 1997); see <>.