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Possible Internet Futures June 16, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.

In the comments to the post below about edited volumes, Michael Robinson, who runs the Time to Eat the Dogs blog, which looks at the history of exploration and its interaction with science, asks some good questions about ways forward in using the internet to develop “wonky” scholarship, that should probably be answered with a post of their own.

All questions of online scholarship start, but do not end, with Wikipedia. The Advances in the History of Psychology blog has discussed Wikipedia, and particularly the problem of sharing space with enthusiast historians. As Michael points out, this creates especially big problems for a topic like exploration, which have a lot of basic information that should take precedence over more scholastic aspects of it. Should the wonky discussions go under “Exploration,” under a special segment of “History of Science”; or maybe we need an entirely separate resource? But this isn’t a limited problem: Wikipedia’s rules demand that pages be summaries of topics–not storehouses of all available information; and it is forbidden to post original scholarship there. Wonks need to turn elsewhere.

This was the object of the STS Wiki, which seems to have turned up defunct. You can still view a cached version of it if you Google “STS Wiki”. Ultimately, I bet this is the way that scholarship is going, and that the failure for the STS Wiki is probably due to two reasons. First, it was not publicized very well (I hadn’t heard about it until I stumbled across it). Second, our profession does not currently prioritize this sort of online work. The HSS recently did some fund-raising for a bibliographer, but it would probably not be necessary to even have a bibliographer or a cumulative bibliography, if the community was more committed to spending part of their time maintaining a communal resource. This is a reverse case of the tragedy of the commons, where no commons are built, because there is no mutual responsibility for their construction, or even the coordination of their construction. Wikipedia, while open to all editors, is actually based on an intricate series of rules and conventions of format; someone needs to invent and enforce those.

But, the internet represents such a sea change in the way that information is deposited, arranged, and accessed, that I doubt a single resource will be the answer. Michael used the term “carnival of blogs”, which I like. Intellectual conversations take place in real-time or close to it; not through “round table” sessions (which always look suspiciously and disappointingly like ordinary sessions), or in quarterly intervals in journals, which is why I thought it was essential to respond to Peter Galison’s questions in blog format. I’m hoping the carnival of blogs becomes a real thing that helps replace the edited volume and supplements the peer-reviewed journal. Blog rolls and key words (which allow one to access past posts dealing with similar issues easily, and which I’ve begun to stick on archived posts here) will help make blog scholarship become more coherent, and less “thought of the day” oriented.

The great thing is that web resources don’t have to look alike, or have the same sponsorship, and can thus evolve to fulfill a variety of needs. Since this blog is sort of a DIY space for contemplation, which is sometimes fairly critical, I prefer to keep it on blogspot for the time being. But I’d also like to do something like AHP for the history of physics under the auspices of my employers at the AIP, once I’ve completed a couple of other projects. We also do need to face down the Wikipedia problem. The current state of the History of Physics article there begs for academic intervention (I’ve been working on this, actually, and plan to replace what exists with a more organized framework if no one else beats me to it). A more centralized resource could be run by HSS (in conjunction with SHOT, 4S, etc…), which could direct visitors to the various sites that fill whatever wonky or non-wonky needs they may have.

Ultimately, it’s impossible to say what resources will fill what needs, but these things require scholars with a commitment to refashioning scholarship in novel ways, and blending the boundaries between academic, popular, and factual presentation. The best path, in my view, is to keep thinking, trying out prototypes, calling attention to new projects, and seeing what sticks.



1. Michael Robinson - June 16, 2008

Well done Will. Thanks for getting the conversation rolling. I may try to post something on the subject later in the week. I will look at the cached STS wiki. I wonder who started it – or if they have something interesting to say about the effort. If you have a moment, check out Northern Research Network – a site that seems like a hybrid between a blog and a listserv. I’m wondering if this sort of dynamic site might be more useful for the STS community rather than the static directory currently kept at HSS. All best, Michael

2. Gustav.Holmberg - July 8, 2008

Looking forward to your academic intervention! Also, thanks for your postings on Galison’s recent paper in Isis, an example of how we might use blogs for academic discussion.



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