The tone of alchemical optimism runs unchecked throughout the report, promising to turn a leaden society into a golden civilization. The report observes that, "[i]f the NII were to offer access to everything found in the nation's libraries, museums, theaters, auditoriums, and archives, it could help to dissolve the boundaries that now separate communities, social classes, people of different economic levels, the highly educated and the broad public, and the peoples of different nations. Networks and new multimedia formats for information can reverse current inequities in access to resources" (9).
This ignores the fact that many of the materials in question have historically played an important role in creating and reinforcing those boundaries in the first place; it is difficult to see how an on-line text of Mein Kampf for example, or digitized images of Mapplethorpe's photographs available on the Web can avoid sparking as much controversy as their real life counterparts. I am not saying that we should refuse to place such information on-line, merely that we can expect that such works will generate as much controversy online as they did in their traditional formats; indeed, there may be even more controversy given that it is likely more people will have access to controversial material than at present.
However, the serious difficulty with the report's approach is that access is conceived as access to content; the NII is itself conceived as a transparent vehicle to which everyone will have equal access. Thus information itself is understood as a resource only to the degree that it is a content isolated from the material aspects of the procedures necessary for accessing that content. As I've argued throughout this paper, the desire to abandon the material realm, to assume in particular that problems of access to the virtual realm (if problems are indeed admitted) will resolve themselves, is one of the most prevalent aspects of alchemical infotech rhetoric.xxxiv
The emphasis upon information as content, however, has another purpose. Throughout the report, the phrase "national data sets" crops up repeatedly to describe the result of rendering accessible all the contents of our museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions. The result of having these national data sets is conceived none too subtly as the production of a societal consensus that is lacking now. Creating these data sets will also lead to increased national wealth: "Attention to the automation of these resources into national data sets could open new markets for America's cultural wealth. The United States holds masterpieces from many civilizations and societies as well as the unique riches of Native American artifacts. The worldwide market for cultural heritage information is, on balance, a trade asset to the U.S." (12).
The drive here is to make every piece of "our" cultural heritage the object of public ownership. This may be a laudable aim in relation to classical art masterpieces which for too long have been the privileged objects of an economic elite. But claims by any group to "own" an image then become highly problematic. It has long been obvious that the NII is going to require massive restructuring of existing copyright and intellectual property legislation. How will the museum or gallery that owns the original artwork feel about making its image available for unrestricted duplication across the Net? After all, their cachet depends to a large degree on owning the rights to the reproduction of that image. How will private collectors react, who can see the value of their investment deteriorating if the image is made publicly available? More importantly, if they refuse to allow their art work to be incorporated into the "national data set" what will happen?
Or to take another example, what about the Native American tribe that refuses to allow its artifacts (many of which have probably already been appropriated as national public property without their consent) to be incorporated into the national data set? Will they be forced to comply in order to ensure universal access to "our" heritage? Are we simply to digitize everything that we can get our hands on? And although the writers of the report pay a lot of attention to the technical requirements of creating faithful reproductions from print and image, they skip over the fact that there are many forms of "our cultural heritage" that can only be represented very unsatisfactorily at best over the NII: for example, sculpture, dance, and theatrical performances.