In fact, the promised Information Revolution is not-so-subtly slipping into an Entertainment Revolution, a slippage which is itself the result of a certain amount of confusion at the highest levels of public debate concerning the role that culture--and the Humanities and Arts as agents of culture--is to play in relation to infotech.
In 1994 the Getty Art History Information Program in collaboration with the American Council of Learned Societies and the Coalition for Networked Information sponsored the creation of a report entitled "Humanities and Arts on the Information Highways: A Profile." The report is a broadly conceived response to the Clinton Administration's release of two reports: "Putting the Information Infrastructure to Work" (1993), and more specifically, a position paper on "Arts, Humanities and Culture on the NII" in a second report entitled "The Information Infrastructure: Reaching Society's Goals" (1994).
Despite the latter report's advocacy of the important place of the arts and humanities in the National Information Infrastructure it remains vague concerning both the specific technical requirements of making such involvement possible and the procedures that need to be set in motion if the humanities and arts are not to be relegated to a poorly maintained dirt road many miles from the Infobahn. It is these concerns that motivated the publication of Humanities and Arts on the Information Highways, and on this level the report does an excellent job in highlighting existing investigations into the possibilities of infotech for the humanities, as well as the complex technological base that is going to be required to realize the Task Force's vision.
But as an indication of how some of the more powerful humanities institutions see their own role in the National Information Infrastructure this report is profoundly disturbing. It presupposes a large degree of consensus not only concerning the definition of information, but also concerning its "national" importance. Indeed, it becomes apparent that the role of the humanities and arts is seen by these institutions as being vital precisely because they are capable of manufacturing national consensus, using their place within a US technological infrastructure to reinforce that nation's ideological infrastructure. The opening paragraph of the report sets up the major parameters within which the argument of national interest will coalesce:
The NII is at the center of an American information revolution that will profoundly affect the ways in which we communicate, learn, work, and govern ourselves. The nature of a democratic society requires an educated, and informed, citizenry. Information is not only a keystone of democracy but also one of the nation's most critical economic resources. Information is an educational, research and creative asset accumulated by past generations, invested for the future. Electronic technologies have the potential to transform information from a scarce, inequitably distributed and fragmented commodity into a true public good, one that is virtually inexhaustible as well as perpetually renewed and expanded (7).
This paragraph is a virtual checklist of many of the problems with the discourse surrounding infotech: the uncritical utopianism, the instrumentalist approach (the report as a whole is filled with references to information as "tools" etc.), a distributive logic that defines information as a commodity and a national resource. And when the report notes that "Information is an educational, research and creative asset accumulated by past generations, invested for the future" it is actually talking about the knowledge to be derived from information. But the larger problems with the report derive from its definition of "access" to information, and what that presupposes concerning the definition of information itself.