EESE 5/1996

Paul A. Fortier

A Humanist Travelling in Cyberspace

Some of the earliest and greatest examples of the novel genre - Don Quixote, and Tristram Shandy - are structured around the image of a trip, a tradition which has continued to this day. The great French novelist, Stendhal, alternated titles like Promenades dans Rome (1829) or Mémoirs d'un touriste (1838) with novels like Le Rouge et le Noir (1830) or La Chartreuse de Parme. These examples illustrate the fact that travel can be considered an aesthetic experience - an opportunity to expand one's consciousness through the very act of traveling. Some of the essays in this volume take such an approach to travel in the electronic geography of the Net. I want it understood from the outset that I do not denigrate this outlook, although I have chosen a different perspective in this essay.

Virtually all of us have traveled as tourists. We have enjoyed it, and profited from it. But when we travel for business we tend to have a particular attitude. We want to get from point A to point B as quickly and as comfortably as possible. We probably even plan on using the travel time to catch up on our rest, to do routine paperwork, or to prepare for upcoming work at the destination. We are not interested in meeting new people as we travel, and are certainly not interested in hearing their "interesting" life histories. We don't really look forward to the pilot's announcements pointing out local features of note in the geography we are over-flying, or giving statistics on the number of r.p.m.s achieved by the engine of the aircraft.

Those who take the tourist's attitude to travel on the Net need no convincing; they already find the excursion into the technology interesting, and intellectual challenge, liberating, or just plain fun. This essay is not directed to them. I am hoping to reach those colleagues who take the business traveler's attitude to technology.

I keep hearing that many academics, particularly those in the humanities, are technophobes. I have trouble finding evidence for this opinion. My colleagues travel by car or by aircraft without hesitation. They use photocopies, telephones, typewriters and word processors. Their interest can be demonstrated by my experience organising a session on "The Humanist and the Electronic Text" at the 1989 MLA Convention. Whoever assigned time slots evidently assumed, as I did in all but my most optimistic moments, that the topic was of marginal interest at best to the attendees of the MLA Convention. So my session was assigned to one of those dreary 8:30 A.M. slots on the last day of the convention. Many of us have had the experience of being present at the start of such a session, to discover that the three presenters outnumber the audience. At the MLA in 1989, at 8:30 in the morning, there were more people than could be accommodated by the seventy-five chairs in the room, and people kept coming in to stand long the walls. In such a context, it is difficult to talk about humanists being allergic to technology.

As Jean-Claude Guédon pointed out at a recent conference, the use of the fax has become commonplace in the last few years in spite of the fact that it uses very sophisticated technology. As he astutely observes, everyone knows how to use the telephone, and everyone knows how to use the photocopier, so adapting to the Fax requires no acquisition of new knowledge (Guédon 1994: 3-4). This is a striking example of the business traveler's perspective. In striking contrast, use of the Net even today still involves arcane conventions, which vary from one mailing system to the next, and opaque technical language.

A primary aim of this essay is to demonstrate, using examples drawn from my professional experience, that the time and effort required to travel the Net are indeed worth the trouble for the person who approaches it from the business traveler's perspective.

My first experience with networks occurred in 1970. I had just moved to a new university and was beginning a project making heavy use of the computer (there were only mainframes then). A substantial programming effort, as well as the conversion of large amounts of information from printed to electronic form, were planned. I had been working for a few years using punched card technology. After a few minor technical difficulties - like finding the on/off switch on the IBM 029 card punch - I had internalized and could identify with punched cards. The data were physically present and could be handled, and even read from the top of each card.

My new university had a system allowing users to telephone the computer and connected via modem. Data went to disc, and could be input and updated interactively, then submitted for further processing on the mainframe. After dialling the computer's number and placing the receiver in the modem, one went through a procedure to identify oneself for accounting purposes. This procedure was not complex and could rapidly be memorized. A set of codes was used to control recording and modifying data, and although these were rather simple they did not correspond to any expectations. When all was ready more codes allowed the data and/or programs to be submitted to the mainframe for processing, and the results to be read at the terminal. All of this was carried out at the blinding speed of 120 baud (this is not a typo, one hundred and twenty baud, or about twelve character per second) using an IBM Selectric typewriter mounted in a base the size of a large typing table, which contained the electronics. These machines were rented out by the Computer Centre, whereas card punches were available without charge in central locations.

Geography convinced me to accept the extra expenditures in training time and rental costs required by this technology. To reach the Computer Centre from the offices assigned to me and my assistants, people had to go down four floors, walk about half a kilometer to the Engineering Building, then go up six floors, and wait in line for output. The round trip, even in summer, could not frequently be done in under thirty minutes. The terminal and network put access in terms of convenience and time saved completely outweighed the learning and dollar costs. The main difficulty I encountered was convincing my granting agency that the equipment rental costs involved were a legitimate project expense. I used the computer this way for ten years during which teleprocessing (over a distance of less than a kilometer) became second nature to me.

The next step in my introduction to the Net came in 1981, when I began a year's sabbatical at the Université de Montréal. This university's mainframe was a CDC machine, and all my software was written in PL/1, which could run only on an IBM machine. Some investigation revealed that the nearby École Polytechnique (Engineering School) did have an IBM mainframe, and would allow me to use it. The only drawback was that this institution was about a kilometer away from where I was working, and almost directly up the mountain for which Montreal is named. One walk up the mountain in the pouring rain convinced me that this was not a viable option, and would become less so when winter set in. Further enquiries led to the suggestion that I use Datapac (a commercial network) toconnect with the IBM at the Polytechnique, from a terminal in the research center where I was located.This meant learning the conventions for teleprocessing on the IBM at Polytechnique, which were slightly different from the ones at home, as well as those for the CDC-driven terminal system at the Université de Montréal, which were quite different from what I was used to. Using Datapac was a pleasant surprise; all I had to do was telephone a local number, hit the [ENTER] key on the terminal once contact was established, and type an 8-digit number. The next response was a request to logon from the IBM machine at Polytechnique. So, after much running around, and having learned three new sets of conventions, I was back to the situation which I had enjoyed at my home university. I was able to use the vast processing capacity of a mainframe computer without leaving my office.

I was very pleasantly surprised to learn that although Datapac was a commercial system, its costs were so low that Computer Services did not consider it cost-effective to pass on charges to users unless they exceeded an amount far in excess of my needs. Without realizing it, I had moved from using a strictly local network to a national network with the potential to connect with a large number of computers across the breadth of North America. All of the motivation for this upgrade in technological capacity was practical and convenience-oriented; it had little to do with fascination with technology for its own sake.

The next stage of my integration into modern technology arose from a very human situation. A collaborative article which I was writing with a colleague at Montreal wasn't finished when my sabbatical came to an end. My colleague suggested that rather than lose momentum, we continue the collaboration electronically. It turned out that from my user's point of view, processing on the Université de Montréal's computer via Datapac was the same whether I was in Montreal itself, or 1200 kilometers away in Winnipeg.

Using a rather quaint mainframe word processor, we each input our sections of the article, then passed them on to our opposite number for comment and revision. Almost naturally we developed ways of signalling where changes and queries were located. Minor changes could be checked on the screen, more substantial re-writes or additions were carried out on paper after the draft was printed at the computer center. When the inevitable requests for revisions came from the journal editor, these were handled very quickly because we each could have a go at revising, and keep each other in the picture. This approach used it on several subsequent occasions, including a couple when the colleague was at the same university as myself.

In the case of collaborative writing, the advantage of the computer is speed and flexibility. The material is transmitted virtually instantaneously, but can be read and worked on when, and using the medium, one wants. In this particular case, I had already mastered the conventions of the word processor and of the transmission software, so the incremental cost of these advantages was nil.

The developement of the Internet, and e-mail, as well as the increasing numbers of people using them has been a mixed blessing from the perspective chosen for this article. On the one hand, they have vastly increased the number of discussion groups - people of like interests trading information and opinions. Many find this possibility for contacts beyond their own institutions and geographical areas vastly stimulating. My personal experience, after membership in several electronic discussion groups has been that the transfer of useful information has not been congruent with the costs in time and disc storage space. Others might balance the narrow perspective which I have chosen.

For the business traveler, the Net has had a marked positive influence on the trading of professional favors, or "networking" in another sense, which is an integral part of an academic's life. I have used the Net to request letters of recommendation, to circulate draft documents (articles, or gant applications), to initiate or respond to requests for information, and generally to put people in contact. A striking example of this aspect of networking occurred when a colleague from the Southern U.S. sent me an e-mail request for information about a conference in Israel in which I was peripherally involved. I replied that the deadline for submissions was three days away, and that the colleague should contact the local organiser in Tel Aviv at an e-mail address which I was supplying to ask about electronic submission. He did get a response back from Israel in time able to submit his abstract by the deadline.

This anecdote highlights the advantages of the Net for communication. Like the telephone, it is virtually instantaneous. But it does not require that the receiving party be physically present at a given time and place (which frequently results in "telephone tag"). Like ordinary mail, it moves on a store and forward basis to an ultimate destination where the recipient can find and act on the message.

This combination of speed and convenience suggested a solution when a problem came up preparing for a committee meeting. Five of us, from four countries (Belgium, Canada, U.S.A., and U.K.) corresponded by e-mail in November to prepare a meeting in March at which we would draft a report on an aspect of encoding standards. It quickly became evident that two finddamentally opposed positions were possible: minimalist and maximalist; we agreed that the opinion of people with experience encoding texts would be useful in deciding which approach to recommend. The obvious solution was to run a survey. A questionnaire was devised and - using e-mail contact - revised and approved by the committee. In early December it was sent to about 200 potential respondents using e-mail addresses obtained from a number of sources, and forwarded to a number of electronic discussion groups. Many of the people originally contacted passed the questionnaire on to other interested parties. By the end of January, we had about fifty responses from experienced users. A clear consensus emerged from the survey. At the March meeting, it was possible to frame recommendations in the light of wide experience.

Without the virtually instantaneous contact of e-mail, it would have been unthinkable to get a questionnaire designed, revised and approved in 90 days. When it was a question of contacting and getting responses from colleagues even more widely scattered than the committee, only the resources of the Net made it possible. Two cautionary notes should be sounded as a result of this experience.

When sending out the questionnaire on the basis of address lists received from elsewhere, I used the mailer's facilities for mass mailing, i.e. sending the same document to multiple addresses. I suspected that there would be some outdated or misspelled addresses in the lists I had, but didn't consider that a problem. I should have. The whole batch of addresses (say about fifty) went to each node necessary for forwarding the material to each destination, to a total of roughly three hundred). Software at most nodes checked all the addresses on the list, not just the one to which it was sending the message. The result was that I got back literally hundreds of warning messages from nodes all over the U.S.A:, Canada and Europe, cautioning me about invalid addresses. For the first few days after the mailing, I had to keep checking and deleting these messages every couple of hours, so that my allotted disc space would not be exceeded, and messages lost. This extra call on my time was not something which I had planned on. If I had better understood the process, I would have sent out the questionnaire in smaller batches, say no more than ten destinations at a time, and would have cut down substantially on the extra work. Basically, my error was a fundamental one. I had forgotten that Murphy's famous Law is operative with the Net as with every other aspect of computing.

The second functioning of Murphy's Law came to light when the final committee report was composed - after several consultations and revisions, mainly by e-mail, of course - and forwarded, again by e-mail, to the plenary body. This internal document, rough and perhaps too forthright, certainly not policy and never intended for public consumption, was within days circulating on the Net, which caused no small irritation in some quarters. I have never determined whether it was an error on my part that forwarded this document to a public discussion group, or whether someone else did it, either inadvertently or on purpose. The lesson is clear, however. Any document or e-mail message on the Net is, potentially at least, a public document. This technology does not seem compatible with the concept of confidentiality.

I have chosen to discuss this example in some detail because it highlights a number of pitfalls as well as advantages in using the Net. Clearly the overwhelming advantage is speed. This comes to the fore in the activity of making public the results of research whether the form be conference presentations or published documents. I have participated in electronically organized conferences at all levels from program organiser, committee member, or referee, down to the lowly status of rejected submitter. In all of these cases, the only paper to change hands was the final copy of the conference program. The advantages of speed and convenience to this mode of organization are such that paper can be expected progressively to be replaced by electronic media. A detailed account of these advantages was given by Dan Brink and Don Ross (1991).

Similarly, electronic submission of journal articles speeds up the process, from evaluation, through revision, copy editing, to the final submission to the typesetter, if indeed a typesetter is to be used at all (see Harnad, 1991 for the advantages of keeping Learned Journals solely in electronic form). I have used the electronic approach when editing a special issue of a journal, and would not dream of going back to the older, paper-based technology.

The value to the writer of the increased speed of communication available through the Net becomes evident when one thinks about the process whereby articles are accepted, or conference sessions are organised. Most of us have suffered through multi-year delays in getting articles back from journal editors - sometimes not even with acceptances. Anything that would speed up the process would be welcome.

With conferences there is the deadline provided by the date of the sessions. But as most of us know, delays are replaced by short cuts. It is not unheard of for papers submitted weeks after the closing date announced in the call for papers to be accepted; sometimes they are being submitted and accepted days before the formal sessions begin. Where such special treatment is impossible, for instance at the MLA Convention, other problems can arise.

The MLA requires that sessions programs - speakers and titles - for the December Convention be finalized in early April. Text of announcements of sessions and calls for papers to be published in the Association's March Newsletter must be provided in the first week of January. Rather than give hostages to the call for papers system under such impossibly tight deadlines, the overwhelming temptation is to fast track a cerrtain number of colleagues whom one "knows" will give a good paper. Then one goes through the motions of issuing a call for papers. The inbreeding and stultification which can result from this is an obvious danger. Yet, this approach has become so wide-spread within the organization that session chairs actually have had to be reminded that they should at least acknowledge receipt of papers submitted in response to a published announcement. I know from experience that it is possible to circulate a call for papers widely on the Net in January, receive submissions by e-mail, circulate them by e-mail for committee evaluation, and finalize the program copy by the April deadline. In this case the capacities of electronic communication do foster the free and open interchange of ideas which is our professional idea.

In 1790 the national Assembly redrew the geography of France to make things smaller. It swept aside the provincial administrative structure inherited from an aristocratic past, and set up in the place of provinces eighty-three departments. The underlying principle was that no place in a department should be more than a day's travel from ist administrative center. This principle was instituted to give the people easy access to government and this make government more responsive to the people.

Using today's travel technology - jet aircraft - the same organizing principle would justify division of the entire world into at most four departments. The shrinking of our world is a fundamental geographical change brought about by successive advances in technology; the Net is only the most recent example. It does have the potential to make our profession more responsive, more collegial, more responsive to new ideas, less stuck in ruts imposed - or at least justified - by the delays inherent in older technology.

Two hundred years after the formation of the departments, the French National Assembly grouped them together into structures which bear a surprising resemblance to the old Royal provinces which had been suppressed in the name of open and responsive government. It seems that after trying for two centuries, France was obliged to recognize that some things do not change.

There is a cautionary note in this for those of us who expect the speed and facility of communication brought about by the Net to change not just the geography of our profession but also to foster a more open and democratic academic establishment. Geographical changes do not change cultures or people - not in France since the Revolution, not in our profession since the advent of the Net. It must be recognized that the same speed and facility of communication which allowed the committee described earlier in this article to base ist recommendations on wide consultation, could have been used by us to limit our perspective to that of a small group of like-minded individuals. The very progress which is being hailed as the harbinger of a new attitude could be used by hide-bound in-groups to make their positions even more solidly entrenched.

This of course brings us back to the metaphor of the business traveler. A business traveler can be an agent of a relief agency bringing sustenance and comfort to victims of a natural or political calamity. A business traveler can also be a representative of the international armaments industry which drains resources away from providing the basic needs of the people in those underdeveloped countries who can least afford it. Like geographical features, the technology is neutral. It is up to us to find the courage and the commitment to use it wisely. Will we?

Works Cited

Brink, Daniel, and David Ross (1991): "Planning a Conference by E-mail: Pluses and Pitfalls". 107th Convention of the Modern Language Association of America. San Francisco, Dec. 27-30, 1991.

Guédon, Jean Claude (1994): "Flexible Design for Shifting Objectives". In: Proceedings of the 1993 International Conference on Refereed Electronic Journals. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba, 3.11-3.14.

Harnad, Steven (1991): "Post-Gutenberg Galaxy: The Fourth Revolution in the Production of Knowledge." In: Public-Access Computer Systems Reviews 2:1, 39-53.

This essay was first printed under the title "A Business Traveler on the Internet" in Works and Days 23/24, Vol. 12, Nos. 1-2, 1994, The Geography of Cyberspace, ed. by David B. Downing and James J. Sosnoski. We are grateful for the permission to republish it in EESE.