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Mendicant Sysops in Cyberspace

Copyright © 1994 Nick Arnett, Campbell, Calif., USA

"Convergence," the hot buzzword to describe the crossovers between computing and communications, is not new, even though the technologies are. Today’s convergence mirrors the European 15th century intersection of printing and cheap paper. Prior to then, in order to get many points of view of a subject as a scholar, you had to travel from library to library, since the extremely valuable hand-made manuscripts were chained to tables. As you read each manuscript, you had to figure out its organization and structure, a difficult task because each "publisher" tended to have its own methods. Many of the clues that we take for granted, including punctuation (!), weren’t invented or weren’t standardized. You couldn’t take notes, since paper was difficult to come by, so you had to memorize all sorts of obscure information, including idiosyncratic clues to the organization and structure of the manuscripts.

Today, as we work on our modern technological convergence, we have reproduced the confusions and frustrations of the 15th century in cyberspace. We find ourselves wandering (albeit quickly) from Web server to FTP site to WAIS source to newsgroup, hoping to stumble across something interesting, but most of the time we can’t quickly figure out how the owners or managers of the information organized their stuff. It often takes time just to determine that the desired piece of information does not in fact exist at the given site.

We memorize strange access codes, path names, Uniform Resource Locators, and other idiosyncrasies of the online sources. There are no standard title pages, tables of contents, indexes, or punctuation, and there are few (if any, depending on your range) navigational tools that span the various islands of information. We’ve even created new punctuation – "emoticons" that help avoid misunderstood humor, for example.

Current events mirror the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe. A professor puts some papers on the Internet to share with his peers and finds that to his surprise and dismay, people all over the world read and interpret them in ways unintended. This echoes a recorded conversation between Martin Luther and Pope Leo X, in which Luther said, "It is a mystery to me how my theses, more so than my other writings, indeed, those of other professors, were spread to so many places. They were meant exclusively for our academic circle here… They were written in such a language that the common people could hardly understand them."

The Wittenberg church door was Usenet for Luther’s community. The printing press, like today’s Internet connections, made it cheap and easy for many new people to get copies, including some who, scandalously, wished to make money by printing them – the "Wired" magazines of the mid-Renaissance.

The dissemination of Luther’s theses was the pope’s own fault, depending on your view of ultimate responsibility. Leo X had proclaimed that souls in purgatory could have their sins paid via indulgences – printed papers, often bearing religious images. The pope’s decision allowed the bishop of Mainz, Germany, to raise money for a building project by having a local fellow, named Gutenberg, and others print lots of indulgences. The printers, hungry for more work, started scouting around for sensational stuff that would sell well among the common folk. Apparently, the ancestors of "Hard Copy" came across Luther’s theses nailed to the church door and said to themselves, "Hey, copyright law won’t be invented for centuries, so we can make a fortune selling this stuff. It’s heresy, and we all know how heresy sells!"

Our information navigation problems are being solved by means quite similar to those of the 15th century. Just as the mendicant scholars of those days helped interpret, organize, and disseminate information in exchange for free room and board, today’s "mendicant sysops" often trade free access to commercial online services in exchange for doing the grunt work of organizing, maintaining, and interpreting today’s navigational nightmares. Like the educators, church, and businesses who supported mendicant scholars in the 15th century, universities and businesses provide "free" access to many of the volunteers who do this work on the Internet.

These are the people inventing the punctuation of the global digital network, title pages, indexes, and catalogs. In doing so, they’re forming new collaborations among education, science, business, the humanities, the arts, and all of the other human pursuits present on the net. And just as those collaborations produced some of the greatest fruit of the Renaissance after Gutenberg, by letting people see the world through new eyes, the net’s great promise is to balance today’s homogenized, mass-media information overload with easy access to many points of view.

Who will choose the new punctuation, the new layouts, the new indexing schemes? For good or ill, it will probably be the same kind of people who chose them after the time of Gutenberg – publishers, eager to sell. Most publishers have seen digital networks primarily as an inexpensive distribution medium. We imagine that we can reap huge profits by saving the costs of printing, paper, and postage. On reflection, those seem not to be costs but falling barriers to entry. Publishers shouldn’t expect profits to rise; they should expect competition to heat up. It’s cheap – $2,500 plus $50 a month – to put a server on the Internet. The standard-setters won’t necessarily be those with the deepest pockets. They’ll be the people who figure out how to organize, punctuate, and navigate the terabytes of information that are only milliseconds away.

Meanwhile, be careful what you nail to the digital church door.

[Nick Arnett is president of Multimedia Computing Corp. While starting a new venture in information navigation, Arnett is also working on a project to begin rebuilding the Sarajevo library via the Internet (see the World Wide Web server below for more information).] sarajevo.html

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