14 November 2010

Toys for boys: an alternative view of the internet

It has been a while since I wrote here, but with a new son, I have been busy. However, not I have to get back to thinking about the archive, digital repositories and the "virtual" museum. In the course of getting back to thinking of this, I revisited a number of in-house publications that emerged out of a project we did back in the mid-1990s, in the callow age of the web. The Virtual Teaching Collection was a groundbreaking project that developed new many approaches to museum collections access. The fact that the project itself didn't go anywhere, is a long story, but like many origin technologies, they are more about ideas than actual apps.

Anyway, reading through some of these publications, I thought it would be a good idea to present them here for the first time on-line. They are historical works, now, and their references are interesting reading more than 12-15 years later, but they are also fascinating in how forward thinking they were. I present them here for historical interest. Here is the first one, a paper presented at the Museum Studies Department at the University of Leicester in 1995.


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Toys for boys: an alternative view of the internet

Dr. Robin Boast

Cambridge University

Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Original presented to the Christmas Conference of the

Museum Studies Department, Leicester University

December, 1995

We have all heard of the Web. Many of us have actually used it — surfed it — and explored its many resources. We have already heard a great deal about the Web today, and some of you may have explored at this mornings demonstration. However, the majority of us, like almost every other person in the world, know the Web mostly through what is written about it. Our conception of the Web is molded far more by the constant bombardment of hype and ideology than any reflexive exploration of the Web itself. Even those of us who are "veteran" Webphiles find it very hard to understand the Web removed from its mythology.

But exactly what is the Web and what use is it to Museums? To answer the first question we can look to its most popular sites, including Museums, to see what it is that the "best" sites offer the average Web surfer. If we assume that the Web's strength is its ability to offer the individual choice — in its ability to construct an electronic Piagetan paradise — then by virtue of choice, these sites should best define what the Web is and what's so good about it.

In my endeavor, in writing this paper, to be as objective as possible, I did not simply wander the Web looking for those sites that seemed to have the most visitor numbers. I did, in fact, consult the professionals. Pinpoint Ltd. is an American Web company that, on the basis of several criteria, evaluate Web sites for their content, presentation and experience value. Using Pinpoint as my guide, I was able to discover what the most successful Web site in the world was. It is called Peeping Tom's Home Page.

And, no, it's not what you think. I know that everyone assumes that Porn is the most popular service available on the net, and you would not be far wrong, but Pinpoint's top ten includes not a single Porn site. Granted, this is largely because they refuse to review porn, but that's not the point. Peeping Tom's Home Page is, in fact, a series of links to live video cameras around the world. You can log in and see what it is like in Stockholm, and then revive yourself with a view of the current sunset over Maui. You can see what's happening in Manhattan at this moment, or have a look at Hollywood (it was 3:30 in the morning when I had a look). Most importantly, of course you can have a look at the famous Cambridge University coffee pot.

Peeping Tom's is what we call a links page. It is not a series of linked information, but a list of links to other places. There are also pages that are hypertext guides with a variety of linked information, usually produced by one person or institution, and served-up for you to wander around. Most of these pages also allow you to search on some criteria to get a list of information. This is true of the Movie Database, one of the top ten Web sites, where you can search for a variety of information about almost every film that has ever been made ... except for the film itself ... or any pictures of it. There are also sites that offer services, sort of a virtual mall, and just about as appealing. However, these sites are also very popular on the Web.

The problem with these popular sites, as with almost all sites on the Web, is that they are often far less about information than they are about advertising. This is not really a new phenomenon, although the Web has been rapidly commercialised over the last six months. On the Peeping Tom sites you always have to go through a page telling you all about the wonderful company or university department that is kindly, and through its technical expertise, bringing you the live image. Granted, the many on-line databases, like the Movie Database, are services provided by enthusiasts, but these too are increasingly becoming commercialised. And the digi-malls, well need I say more.

The World Wide Web is fast becoming a commercial media where goods, services, academic reputations, university admissions are marketed to the cyber public.

Of course museums are not involved in this petty form of marketing. We work to much higher ideals, we seek new and innovative media to improve access to our vast collections and expand our audiences.

A quick tour through the top 5 Museum sites defines the unusual picture:

In first place is the National Zoological Park in Washington DC. Not a page that I would particularly recommend with far too much emphasis on virtual marble, but plenty of cute and cuddlies.

Next is the Museum of American Art. This is the place to go if you are keen on cowboys and western sculpture — Wild West I mean. Again, the visitor here goes for an affinity with the content rather than due to an educational zeal.

Third is the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, a pedestrian site with good images.

Fourth is the Michael C. Carlos Museum, by far the most interesting site of the lot. This site is as close as you can get to a virtual museum with the interface completely through a gallery guide. However, the Carlos Museum gives you access not only to the galleries, but to all the Museum's various offices and officers. You can visit the Director or stop off and see who works in Security, or even visit marketing or education. This museum has a truly open door policy — well, virtually.

Finally, and the most bizarre, is the International Museum of the Horse. This is a very boring page that seems to extol the virtues of the horse in America as though this was representative of the universe. Why this page should be so popular can only be explained by the vast number of horse owners in the US.

What is most striking about these sites is the shear dominance of the American Museums. Why are these museum's Web sites so popular? The Science Museum's pages have had over 600,000 users over the last three months. Are they better presented than ours? Certainly we cannot argue that the presentation of the International Horse Museum is better than Jim Bennett's Oxford University History of Science Page. Is there something more to this that we haven't been told? You have to wait until 11th place before a non-US museum appears — in this case our own Natural History Museum.

The top 5 museum sites, and the top 20 for that matter, represent a ragtag collection of American museum Web sites. Granted, the visitor numbers for museum sites is far lower than many corporate sites, but there is really nothing to unite these sites in quality, content or experience. They are all largely dull, badly designed and offer only the most superficial information. They are, I am afraid, merely on-line prospectus for the museum. On-line adverts to tell the Web populace what a wonderful place these Museums are. But where are the vast number of Europeans? Where are those of Asian and African decent? Where is their interest expressed in these sites? If they are the most popular, why are these people visiting the National Zoological Park in Washington. or the International Museum of the Horse?

Perhaps we have been missing the point? We have been told that the Web is a place for all people. That you cannot tell the gender of a person on the Web, or their race, or their income. That there is no barrier to access. Except a small monthly charge. And the cost of a computer of course. Oh, yes, and at least a bit of computing knowledge. Oh, and then, of course, a belief in the unquestionable worth of uncontextualised and unreflexive information is quite useful as well. But everyone believes that — don't they?

If everyone does believe that, and if even the vast majority of the people of the developed world, at least, have reasonable access to computing, then we should see quite a diverse cultural and socio-economic audience on the Web. So, if that is the case, why are all these people, from diverse and varied backgrounds visiting digi-malls, or looking at a coffee pot in Cambridge, or educating themselves at the International Museum of the Horse?

There is another very useful site on the Web. It is at Georgia Tech. It is a site that, every six months or so, releases summary statistics about Web use. Most important for us is the statistics that they collect on who is using the Web. Here are some of their statistics:

The different ages of people who use the Web is quite interesting. The age of those who use the Web is both universal and fairly young.

In respect to income, please notice that in the United States there is a clear peak among the middle income groups, while here in Europe there is also a large peak in the lower income groups. This is not because our lower income groups are more Web savvy, but because in Europe our universities give all their students free Web access and students tend to be on quite low incomes.

The general level of education of Web users is quite interesting. In the United States, the level of education is quite low, while in Europe it is quite high — peaking around the Masters Degree level. This is probably due to our high student Web population. But we still don't see many at the lower end of the socio-economic scale here.

More telling are the more personal statistics. The ones that mark us more clearly than do the ambiguous and varying factors of income, age or education.

What about gender? Computers started out, and largely remain, a male preserve and the Web doesn't seem to be doing much to reverse that trend. Women buy more mobile phones than men, there is an almost 50-50 split on Fax ownership, so why are women staying off the Web in droves?

Race is another important indicator, not the least because it is so strongly linked to socio-economic trends in the West. But also because it is these people that need a greater voice, and, after all, as I stated before, you can't tell a person's colour on the Web. Or can you. Perhaps we cannot see their colour, but what is being said, what is being offered, does not seem to be of much use unless you are white.

Most telling of all is where the Web audience is located. What countries do our Web population call home. We all know that the largest Web population is in the United States, but did you know that it was this large? 85% of all Web users are American! No wonder they are all so fascinated by the American Museums, they are all Americans.

Now the Georgia Tech statistics are obviously biased towards the United States. Even though they work quite hard to get a world wide picture, there is inevitably going to be a bias towards the US. But even if we accept that these statistics are only generally correct, there is a phenomenal dominance of white, middle-class, American, males on the Web. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the primary audience of any Web site are the white, middle-class, American, males.

Why is this so? We have been told that the Internet grew out of a US military computing system that was distributed so that it could not be knocked out in the case of a nuclear war. That this computing system was increasingly used by the defense research community and then slowly appropriated by the universities. And that now this network is being distributed throughout the world as a universal communications system.

This is a lovely, evolutionary history of progress and transformation — real swords into ploughshares stuff. Though in some respects technically true, it is, substantively, incorrect. The real history of the internet, especially as we see it today, is far more interesting and far more political.

In 1991, the US Congress, backed by the then President Bush, with bipartisan support in both Houses, passed the National High-performance Computer Technology Act. This Act had a direct impact on what was to become the Internet revolution, but the most immediate effect was to boost federal support of the Internet by about £625 million per year.

Why should the US government do this, and why do it in 1991. The Cold War was beginning to wind down. The Regan years of excessive military spending were over — the US government could no longer afford such luxuries. Congress, especially the Republicans, have always been very wary of computers and computer access. Even today, among many of the Congressional big-wigs there is a Techno-fear that borders on paranoia. So why spend such a large sum on what amounted to an educational computer network.

The 1991 bill was largely the work of two Congressmen — one Democrat, the other Republican. Both are science, and science fiction, nuts, and both are self confessed 'futurists'. Both of these men embraced computers and computing as the future of telecommunications and saw the Internet as the basis of America's educational and commercial future.

It was largely, and some argue almost exclusively, through the work of these two Congressmen that the 1991 bill was passed and the Internet as we know it was born. Both are well versed in the technicalities of the Internet and computing — a knowledge that industry experts recognise as being unique on Capital Hill. And this knowledge, as well as their involvement with the developing network infrastructure of the US has certainly helped their careers, at least in part. For both have, over the past 4 years, been given quite significant promotions.

So who are these two Politicians, Capital Hill's own cyber-nerds? They are none other that Vice President Al Gore and Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich.

Al Gore, as I am sure you all know, is the person who coined the phrase, "The Information Superhighway". He says that it was at a meeting with some computer heavy-weights in 1978. Many of his aides are less sure, and some attribute this evocative association to the mid 1980s.

Gore's idea, as he put it, was to create a national infrastructure that would fulfill his vision of "a little girl in Carthage, Tennessee" — Gore's childhood home — "going home after school, settling down in front of a machine not much different from today's Nintendo, and having at her fingertips all the information in the Library of Congress." (A. Gore). This was Al Gore's vision, and it quickly became America's vision, and then the worlds. The vision of a vast information network connecting all the parts of America which, supported directly by the federal government, would grease the wheels of education and commerce as the interstate highway system of the 1950s did.

This analogy, between the information superhighway and the interstates, is not fortuitous. Albert Gore Sr., the Vice President's father who was also a Senator, was one of the architects of the US interstate highway system in the 1950s. A network of motorways, supported by government, with access to all, enabling contact, movement and interaction was a powerful image for the young Al Gore Jr.

Far more important, for the Americans, was Al Gore's role in the passing of the National High-performance Computer Technology Act in 1991. He was central to its passage even though ultimately it became a Republican initiative. It certainly helped swing a large number of leading-edge constituencies in the Presidential Primaries of that year, thus catapulting Al Gore from Senatorial cyber-nerd to Vice Presidential Candidate and, ultimately, to Vice President.

Newt Gingrich has had a slightly different path into political cyberspace. As an Associate Professor of History at West Georgia College in the 1970s, he went to hear Alan Toffler, a leading American futurist, speak in Chicago. Newt was already well versed in the writings of Toffler and was already tailoring himself as what he now calls a conservative futurist. After being elected to the House in the 1980s, Gingrich met Gore and both worked together on many committees on Capital Hill during that decade to further what both saw, and still see, as the way forward for universal communications in the 21st century — the internet.

However, though Gingrich was seen as an intelligent and extremely well informed politician on internet matters, he was seen as a definite outsider. With a Democratic President in the White House and what must have seemed as a permanent Republican minority in the House, Newt Gingrich was not much of a player, except from the sidelines.

All this changed with the 1994 elections. As we all know there was a Democratic route on Capital Hill and the Republicans took both Houses. The Vice President presides over the Senate, but as of the 1994 elections, Newt Gingrich presides over the House of Representatives. Gingrich had his chance, not just politically, but also to mould the future of computer networks to his plan — to his vision.

On his first full day as Speaker of the House, with all the nation's media in attendance, the one day where he was assured of the complete dominance of the nations media, Gingrich chose to speak of practically nothing else but computers. As he spoke to the House Ways and Means Committee, the Committee that sets spending policy, the only definitive proposal that he put forward that day was a tax credit for the poorest Americans to buy a laptop. He has since retracted this proposal in that it was really a sound-bite rather than a meaningful policy, and it was pointed out that the poor don't pay taxes anyway. However, that day he also vowed to put Congress on-line.

This was no small proposal. Congress has resisted going on-line for years, and no party more than the Republicans. For a Republican Speaker to be proposing such access was nothing short of radical. But Gingrich was actually suggesting something even more radical — something far beyond what even the Democrats were suggesting — he said that the citizens should have access to everything — bills, speeches, committee reports, everything — and that access should be free. And, by-the-by, he has done.

So why should we care that the two most powerful politicians in America are cyber-keen? Isn't this a very good thing? Won't this herald in the golden electronic age that much quicker? Well, first of all, I'm yet to be convinced that an electronic golden age is approaching. Mostly, though, what worries me, and many others in the computing industry, is the battle that is developing between Gore and Gingrich on the future of American Telecommunications. As we have seen with the internet, what America does, the rest of us more or less do by default. The shear scale of the market, the shear scale of the ideology, largely determines what is available for the rest of us. As Marc Rotenberg, of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre, has said, "On competition, access, privacy and rights, they're fighting over the future of America's communications and information infrastructure."

The battle has already started for what the information superhighways of the future will look like. At the heart of the battle is a belief, a belief that is shared completely by both Gore and Gingrich. The belief in a network that is "digital, connected, decentralised, ubiquitous: a network of networks, controlled by no one, buzzing with competition among firms of all sizes and among innovative individuals, but with plenty of room for those who want just to talk." (Wired, 1995) The battle is, rather, between two fundamentally different visions of the proper relationship between the federal government and the emerging cyber world.

Gingrich believes completely in the effectiveness and efficacy of the private sector, and holds complete contempt for Washington. A self-styled "conservative futurist", Gingrich is an American Thatcherite.

Gingrich's philosophy is summed up in a 110 page white paper which received full support of Gingrich, "The Telecom Revolution — An American Opportunity". It is a conservative policy document on the how to make his central vision for the internet work. At its heart is a doctrine of rapid, radical deregulation. Cable-rate regulations? Gone. Cross-ownership restrictions between cable and broadcasting and between broadcasting and newspapers? Gone. As Gingrich recently said, "I think it's pretty clear we're at a point where we ought to just liberate the market and let the technologies sort themselves out over the next 10 or 15 years." (Gingrich)

Al Gore takes a different tack. He does not advocate government control and supports privatisation of the internet. He believes that private enterprise should build it and pay for it. However, he also believes that such a foundational universal service requires regulation and control. Not the least to avoid large corporate interests building a monopoly and controlling the media (much as Labour has recently done with its proposed agreement with BT).

The latest round has been over the Republican bills to reform the Communications Act of 1934. An Act that both sides agree is completely inadequate to cope with even late 20th Century communications. The battle was on the usual partisan lines: Gingrich thought that the bills didn't go far enough in removing regulation and pushed for the abolishing of the Federal Communications Commission. Gore arguing that the whole package went far too far, leaving the door open for a late 1890s style Robber Baron development of the internet. In the end, the latest House Telecom Bill was the usual compromise.

This was not the main battle, though. With US annual direct and associated internet revenues of around £160 billion, this is a fight that is not going to die down soon. The battle for the internet is not a battle between the peoples of the world. It is a battle between corporate and governmental interests almost exclusively in the US. Mostly, though, it is a battle between two men. Two men who epitomise the constituency they are fighting for. White, middle-class, American and male, they epitomise the vast majority of cyber-folk and the ideology that this "revolution" is about access and free exchange of information. It is, however, ultimately, about making money and control, and whatever is the outcome of the next two to three years of legislative battles in the States, this outcome will fundamentally determine what the internet may become.

We all need to be aware of what the internet is and who it represents. Not the hype, but the reality. We also need to recognise, and effect through our works, the need to influence the development of all forms of telecommunications towards real access. As museums, we cannot do this by simply accepting the hype of the internet and offering up more of the same restrictive icons electronically. We do not need virtual museums, we need means of access and communication which speaks to new audiences and more directly to our local communities.

We may be able to effect this development, but only in a small way. We can only achieve and effect by concerning ourselves with what we produce, rather than on what we produce. The internet is not the answer, it is but a medium. The question is whether it does become a medium within which various groups and interests may find a voice, or whether it will remain, as it largely is today, a passive and restrictive toy for boys.

Prolog:

Better known as Black Thursday, on the 8th of February, 1996, the US Telecom Bill passed both houses of Congress and is about to become law.