"Like the Internet, the humanities and the arts have as a primary purpose making connections: between events, concepts, disciplines, institutions, and individuals. As a conceptual network, the humanities and the arts encompass multiple styles and perspectives; they interconnect memory and innovation, imagination and interpretation, knowledge and inspiration" (Humanities and Arts on the Information Highways 25). I would argue, however, that the purpose of the humanities is not to make connections, but to explore the process whereby one might make connections--or not.
The report, however, conceives of the function of both infotech and the humanities according to the conduit metaphor of communication. This model is predicated upon the existence of a single sender and receiver, a clear point to point transmission of data, and a desire to minimize "unnecessary" signal noise. This model is, as N. Katherine Hayles points out, no longer adequate to explain the way communication functions in a postmodern environment; a model that conceives of communication as radiation is considerably more useful. Furthermore, a great deal of what the humanities (and even more so the arts) do requires failure, miscommunication, or communications that are not understood as such until many years later. Hayles is not alone in having pointed this out, but it is precisely the endurance of this model upon which I am focussing.
The alchemical rhetoric, the instrumentalism, and the emphasis upon information and communication as defined by their content may derive in part from the original Clinton Administration Task Force reports, where one finds such statements as the following: "The humanities, arts and museums will provide much of the educational and creative content on the NII and the exciting and interactive teaching tools to read to children in and out of school" (134).
The Task Force report evinces little interest in the methods of study in the humanities, only in their objects of study. And admittedly, given the emphasis upon those objects of study as a national resource and means of generating national consensus, what need would there be for processes of interpretation that could create individualistic alternative interpretations of the national data set, ones perhaps not quite so conducive to national unity?
But the real problem with this slippage of "virtual" communities into "virtuous" ones is not so much the vision of the future that it offers, but its strategic misreading of cultural processes. In their "pack rat" attitude that advocates an unrestrained digitizing of everything in sight institutions like the Getty et al and the Clinton Task Force appear to be trying to inure themselves against cultural loss. In this they are fighting a losing battle, for every major technological shift (whether it be the shift from hand copied manuscripts to machine printing, or a more general shift from a subsistence to an industrial economy) invariably involves the loss of a large amount of information, either in the form of particular skills or older kinds of information which cannot be accessed under the new technological regime. But what is occurring in the discourse surrounding the uses of infotech and the NII at the highest levels is an attempt to use the promise of new technology to recover some very specific kinds of losses: the loss of America's economic dominance, its national pride, and the mythical "national consensus" that supposedly once governed the relations of its peoples with one another.xxxv