After the Gold Rush: Sustainable Information Culture

Stuart Moulthrop
University of Baltimore, USA
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Abstract: Some think we are living through a grand capitalist jouissance: an era of burgeoning productivity and commercial returns pushed on without limits by information technology -- the Dow ascends to 30,000 and everyone marries a multimillionaire. To the more discerning eye, however, these look more like end times. Whether or not the suitors ever consummate their alliance, the proposed merger between America Online and Time Warner Communications probably marks the closing of the Internet frontier, at least as far as its more tenuous ventures are concerned. The next few years will probably not be kind to most enterprises in Web design and e-commerce. The age of easy money has ended.

If these concerns seem distant from the world of digital art and communications studies, think again. As scholars like Janet Murray and Geoffrey Rockwell point out, humanists have developed major stakes in fields like digital culture and information design and hence depend quite heavily on the vicissitudes of technology markets.

Murray recently challenged the academy to define an interdisciplinary approach to electronic communications, a project that seems long overdue. Yet we will not advance very far with this work until we understand the historical process in which we are engaged. Murray may well be right to call for "standardized professional training grounded in principles that do not change"; but it bears noting that the professions for which we are preparing students are changing rapidly indeed.

This paper offers a first approximation of sustainable information culture: an approach to digital communications based not upon unlimited growth but upon the transformation of markets, organizations, and social relations through our common use of networked systems. It differs from Murray's vision of seamless information spaces and Bolter and Grusin's technological meliorism by understanding the tension between mass-media and networked interests not as a neat, dialectical process but as a ground of permanent contention. I end by suggesting that we may need design principles or disciplinary rules less than we need a new politics.

About the Presenter: Author of Victory Garden and other hypertext fictions, as well as numerous articles on hypertext and information culture; Editor Emeritus of Postmodern Culture; 1998 Communications Studies International Fellow at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology; Director, Electronic Literature Organization.