The following statement was written and posted for the course Impact of New Information Resources: Multimedia and Networks , taught at the University of Michigan by Howard Besser in Winter of 1996.


Bill Robboy

Web documents frequently bear the caveat (or excuse) "This site is under construction." So frequently, in fact, that it's regarded as a cliche. (Can a medium this new have cliches?) This disclaimer is an attractive out for people like me, prone to procrastination and the evasion of criticism.

But there's something more interesting about this. It points up how on the Web, there's no clear demarcation between published product and work in progress, or for that matter, discarded draft--the page you see today may be trashed tomorrow. "Work" in the sense of the process of creating, and "work" in the sense of the thing you've produced, can't be sorted out from each other with any certainty.

That's what's fascinating me about the Impact course and about information technologies. They call into question what seemed like familiar boundaries between different aspects of information: process and thing, access and item, thought and artifact, content and form. When a cartoonist submits his work to the press, is he selling an artwork (as the state of California contended in a tax case), or an idea (as the cartoonists maintained)? Does the answer hinge on the electronic transmission of the work (as the court found)? When you access a digital document on a network, are you merely "viewing" it, or are you "copying" it in your computer's memory for the time it appears on your screen (as framers of the government's position on copyright have contended)? If a video is transmitted over phone lines, is it a conversation? Have these distinctions been made permeable by technological change? Is Justice Stevens' sense of the "uniquely intrusive" nature of broadcast media an intuition of this penetration of conceptual boundaries? Is the hysteria over pornography on the Internet really an inarticulate reaction to this indecent breach of the walls between categories? Those are the questions that seem to percolate up out of the media coverage of information technologies, and that's what's interesting me in this course.