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...Australian Studies beyond Gutenberg

Gordon Fletcher & Anita Greenhill, Faculty of Humanities, Griffith University.

This paper first appeared as
Fletcher, Gordon & Anita Greenhill (1996) "Australian Studies beyond Gutenberg", Crossings: The International Newsletter of Australian Studies, vol.1, no.2, pp.35-40.

The combination of electronic textuality and high-speed, broad-band networks, which enormously increases the rate of transferring and hence sharing of documents, promises ultimately to reconfigure all aspects of scholarly communication, particularly those involving education and publication. (Landow in Snyder, 1996:116)

The mark of academic enquiry is continuing dialogue. (Walter, 1989:39)

Australian Studies' proclaimed purpose "of crossing and effacing conservative, traditional disciplinary boundaries" (Irving, 1994:3) is well served when the computer-mediated communications of the World Wide Web are brought to this dispersed discourse community. Australian Studies is well positioned, with this mandate, to accept and utilise the Web, and other tools of the Internet, as an altered library paradigm, a new method for the ordering of knowledge and a tool for communication. As a medium, however, the issues surrounding the Web and its relationship to Australian Studies cannot be accepted as unproblematic or dismissed as solely a shift of output format from paper to aether. The contribution that 'text' makes to the construction of identity, the production and maintenence of contemporary culture and the development of academic discourse must be re-evaluated in this non-linear and interactive environment.

The Web is a space of sociality which shares the features of both human interaction and printed documents (Snyder, 1996:51). The exploitation of pioneer and larrikin images to represent Australian forays into global networks is an indication of the sociality which can be ascribed to activities that go beyond just reading. The larrikin's preparedness to have a go is well represented within the electronic community of hackers and it is not without coincidence that early 1990s Australian journalism regarding global networking tended to focus upon these particular Australian contributions. Reports of Australian students who 'cracked' famous US sites such as NASA and the White House help project the image of the larrikin as part of an Australian electronic identity. The larrikin is complemented by other less nefarious but equally valid and recognisable identities. This range of identifiable sociality and the technical features already available prevents any conceptualisation of the Web as simply a library without walls. Web sites which have utilised the paradigm of the library have done so within a 'real-world' framework which distinguishes 'text' from communication. Smith identifies a similar arbitrary separation in the 'ways in which the content of a [news]paper is coded for the reader - as news, as comment, or as advertisement' as a result of the 'canons (and ethics) of editorial policy'. (1981:11). Distinctions such as these, made within electronic mediums, may be unnecessary and detract from the capabilities of hypertext to contextualise and position 'text', in its broadest sense, to the benefit of a discourse.

Models of publishing, such as the refereed journal, have served as a starting point for the conduct of communicative practices within this new medium but these forms do not exploit its distinctive features (Harrison & Stephen, 1995:595; cf. Smith, 1981:323). The scale of change that such exploitation can bring is analogous with the paradigm shifts experienced with earlier 'new' medias such as radio and television. The once new combination, television which simultaneously broadcasts audio and video, was initially conceptualised as radio with pictures. This view of television is revealed in program formats such as the nightly news bulletin. These formats, however, fostered the development of cultural forms which were specific responses to the manner in which the medium was, and is still, 'read'; for example, the sequential 'real-life' drama of Fire or Neighbours. Television's capabilities also provided opportunities for the invention of cultural forms which were unable to be presented in other existing medias, such as the half-hour of investigative 'journalism' which accompanies nightly news bulletins or the managed aggression of Gladiators. Regular cross-media critiques, such as MediaWatch, as the ultimate reflexive output of mass media can only be presented in a medium capable of presenting all forms of widely distributed mass media, a role for which television is singularly capable.

New medias, then, are distinguished, in part, by the opportunity that is created for new cultural formations. From this perspective, virtual libraries which continue to maintain distinctions determined by existent forms of printed textuality can only provide, as with the libraries of actuality which they conceptually mirror, partial communication with the discourse communities being served. The virtual library model which incorporates wider attempts to digitise or replicate the 'real-world' is further hindered by copyright, authorial and economic uncertainties which accumulate in the transition of material from an analogue to digital space. A more achievable path for dealing with the vast body of existent printed material may be to catalogue publicly rather than digitise the 'real-world'. However, despite the social and economic barriers to the realisation of the virtual library, it is this model, and that of ejournals, that provide the platform from which new cultural practices will be built. These existent cultural forms, of the virtual library and ejournal, already contribute to processes of identity construction which define both the imagined community and notions of 'Australia'. The peculiarities of the space permit a selective re-emphasis of political and geographical boundaries and an assertion of claims for unique social and cultural features within the national identity. Australian Studies in this post-Gutenberg environment, not positions the discourse of 'Australia' but also contributes to the construction of an electronic national identity.

The most minimal hypertext publishing paradigm provided by hypertext links within Web pages prevents text, in whatever form it may assume, from becoming isolated from alternate perspectives, contemporary discussions or the institutional context in which the author is writing (Hickey, 1995). The monolithic significance of permanent text is devalued in this space and, arguably, returned to a pre-Gutenberg cacophony in which permanently printed text competes with other textuality for a voice that contributes to the dynamic construction of discursive discussion. Scholarly communication, however, is defined by its authoritative voice. The authority of texts, irrespective of the form they assume, will necessarily be indicated by the successful negotiation of a critical review process. However, within electronic environments, the processes of evaluation must become more immediate and interactive to preserve the timliness of the information and to widen the cultural forms that 'text' may assume. Many of these issues have already been addressed within science discourses. The American Physical Society's e-print archive acknowledges the importance of electronic publishing to the fulfillment of its oobjectives and in doing so has shortened the publishing chain from author to reader while still maintaining the quality impated by peer reviewing (Kelly, 1995). Information quality, an indefinite and subjective position with printed works, becomes an increasingly problematic concept under the weight of new cultural forms of publishing and the increasing volume that this widened scope generates. However, all discourse communities maintain internal self-critiques which becomes systematised within published communications (Harrison & Stephen, 1995). These checks, the criterion of quality employed and the practice of publishing itself will necessarily adapt to the possibilities of electronic publishing.

The Web itself provides a consensual form of quality control through the need for 'text' to possess inward hypertext links. Unacceptable electronic material is effectively judged by not receiving links from those sites already determined as authoritative within the discourse, such as those of the various Australian Studies Centres. Although this cannot ensure a base level of quality for the Web in its totality, it does provide an indicative ranking. Web search engines will find most related resources for any given topic but preference and the ranking of the returned results is often determined, at least in part, by the number of links to the particular site. The construction of an authoritative web for Australian Studies may be hindered, in part, by the call to authority, on a more emotional and less critical level, which the use of Australiana can invoke. The peculiarity of Australian geography, flora and fauna, and the supposed national obsession with sport are conveyed through various icons, colours and texts employed in 'Australian' Web pages. The most visible indication of 'Australia' on-line is the range of colours and combinations which appear to confirm many myths of identity; the green and golds of sporting representation blend into a patische of colours which display various homages to the reomaticism of Heidelberg. Similarly university Web servers, search engines and databases present a menagerie of wallabies, koalas, dingoes, brolgas and wombats competing for authority among the redgums and wattles. These sites have no inherently Australian qualities or claims to authority other than their location and particularly Australian domain names. Overarching these and other competing voice for authority and representation is the seemingly safe symbol of the Australian continent which has become, arguably, the most common landmass iconised on-line. This image appears to be incongruous baggage in a space which itself cannot be located physically. However, this icon may be an increasingly detached symbol which can represent the ideals of an emerging national electronic identity. Australian Studies is not a neutral observer of these dynamics but an actice voice in the interpretation and construction of these competing identities.

Electronic 'publishing' provides the opportunity to seek a best practice which serves Australian Studies and those 'looking in' to advantage. 'Publishing' best practce may not include positivist projects to 'digitise the world' retropspectively but, alternatively, seek to work with post-Fordist philosophies of flexibility which accommodate the socio-cultural needs and knowledges of the intended audience and contemporary styles of reading and study (Snyder, 1996). Such practice could accomodate the multiple authorship of 'text' which would arise through the public exchange of, over time, of Australianists in various areas of discussion. Similarly, public forums in which queries can be both posted and repsonded to may develop into a 'just-in-time' text-book which addresses specific musunderstandings that have been identified by students of the discourse. The development of new forms of new forms of electronic 'publishing' releases academic enquiry from the conventions, and restrictions, of ink on paper technology. The success of this project will only arise, however, with the support of university administrators who determine the measures of academic prowess and the range of 'acceptable' academic activities. The paper-based textbook, monograph or journal article is not threatened by these projects but, rather, complemented by the different communicative and pedagogic strategieis that computer-mediated communciation facilitates.

Pre-existent social, historical, economic, political and cultural baggage which we bring to electronic social space, however, prevents the Web from immediately becoming a medium for post-Gutenberg publishing practice. Australian Studies, or at least part of it, is already available to the privileged users of technology in a more immediates and accessible manner than is possible through conventional medias. Sociological distinctions, however, remain as evident as they are in 'real-life'. The differences between men's and women's participation in the Web, and Internet generally, is one indication of the persistence of these distinctions. Women's participation is claimed to be present in a range from 'about 5%' of the total users up to 36% of all users of the Internet (Australian Women on the Internet). Once on-line, however, personal identity constructions become unbound from the support of direct physical cues. This may actually be an empowering position for those women who are 'on-line'. The image of the ingenious bushgirl has, with modification, been called into service as an electronic representation. Geekgirl, a broadly technology orientated magazine for women, contributes to the formation of electronic identity which combines the independence, sexuality and wit familiar from this earlier representation of white Australian women. Indigenous Australians' largely unrepresented, or negative, presence with images of Australia are also challenged when the Web is employed as a tool for empowerment to redress 'real-life' constructions.

Barry Jones's discussion of post-industrialism indicates that the changing structures of employment and education, and the significance of the global economy similarly weighs upon the distinctions, sociality and control of electronic spaces (Jones, 1982). The Web's position within the information economy of contemporary post-industrialism has an increasing influence upon workplace practice. The Web has brought new roles, such as 'Webmaster' and 'CWIS Officer', into the framework of education institutions but this has apparently been offset by the belief that the opportunity has arrived for 'thinking machines' to do 'teaching'. These damaging policies for pedagogy, which fail to distinguish resources from practice, apparently arise with their appeal to economic rationalist agendas which minimally subscribe to the empowering aspects of this technology. There is, however, a continual need for the wider issues of access and equity to be considered at both an individual and institutional level. In educational environments it has become convenient to assume that students enjoy the same privileges of access and technological knowledge as staff. Course material that is provided on-line is a useful and immediate way of keeping a subject, or entire discourse, accessible but it is of little utility in an environment which makes access easier for 'wired' campuses across the world than to the students enrolled in the course itself. Similarly, it is easy to incorrectly envisage the Web as a network of all the world's universities. This perspective can exclude whole institutions, faculties or research units from the flow of information and the electronic expressions of a discourse community. Wiseman summarises the issues affecting the 'information-poor', by saying that, 'the Internet is not the human race and access to the necessary hardware and cabling will be dominated by the rich for a long time yet'. This warning regarding the influences of capital upon electronic space is similarly accompanied with a caution towards the dangers of 'romantic technocratic fantasies'. These fantasies have an impact upon the conceivable range of discourse communities by supporting a cultural hegemony which could place electronic publishing out of the reach of specific researchers or units.

The discourse community of Australian Studies is the ultimate arbiter, in the light of social, political and institutional practices, of the role and legitimacy of the Web for Australian Studies. The opportunity exists to achieve the construction of a community which is not only imagined but interactive within an electronic Agora of immediate debate and support. The electronic space of the Web already provides the technical capability to serve as a library, classroom, conference hall, journal, phonebook and tool for administration and co-ordination. The international range of Australian Studies has use for these capacities to strengthen and develop the multi-disciplinary discourse community while avoiding 'separate departments of scholars specialising in discrete disciplines'. The futures provided by the Web cannot, however, be claimed as utopian, partly due to the dystopic baggage we bring to this space and, partly, through the complexities that are introduced with new paradigms of pedagogy and publishing. The most definitie claim that can be made is that the future is different. Irrespective of these academic ruminations, 'Australia' and meanings of Australian-ness are, and will continue to be, defined, at least in part, within the social space of the Web.