L'Affaire PMC: The Postmodern Culture-Johns Hopkins University Press Conversation

L'Affaire PMC: The Postmodern Culture-Johns Hopkins University Press Conversation


Joel Felix listens in on Postmodern Culture’s privatization debate.

The Pitch

Postmodern Culture , the gray old lady of electronic discourse just a link away from ebr and all other web-based journals, I emphasize this non-geographical proximity for several reasons: Web-based journals and e-zines are subjected to the same economic and rhetorical laws by nature of their material (or, non-material, as this case entails) expression. Internet based forums for “critical inquiry” (whether from ebr, PMC, C-Theory, Salon, Suck) may differ in content/rhetorical modes (academic/peer-reviewed or expressly public sphere/ political or simply parodic/sarcastic), yet are materially examples of electronic discourse. What is at issue at this juncture is how the Internet is perceived as the next frontier by New Media forces (a term which generally masquerades for corporate/conglomerate media from television, print, etc., at least in the US. In Europe the New Media was television in the 70’s. is being absorbed into a commercial publisher. Does this augur a shift in electronic publishing models extant? Should the info-liberals revolt? Or will the commercial savvy of academic journals be an end-run around the stretching grasp of Time-Warner Online, its touch the taint of a poison economy for scholarly electronic publishing?

The story is this: Postmodern Culture announced in January (1997) a move from the public (domain) access servers at the University of Virginia to the Johns Hopkins University Press’s Muse Project server, though the current issue of the thrice annual publication would remain free on the Virginia server, to be then phased into the subscription-only Muse archive of PMC. Why? PMC ‘s start up grants from UV ran out. The Muse Project is an initiative to site-license the collective contents of many print-based academic journals published by JHUP into on-line databases available at institutional or individual subscription rates. PMC ‘s place in this collective is shared only by one other journal, Theory and Event - the place, that is, of “electronic only” content. The Muse Project could be viewed as a proactive initiative to wed existing print circulations to the ease of electronic content transfer in order to regain viability in the moribund academic/scholarly journal “market.” Yet in Muse, one might quickly point out, electronic-only content becomes site-licensed not unlike software, effecting a Novell-ization of critical content/information. For a detailed discussion of how software copyright is protected under the copyright law - and thus code is treated as information - see James Boyle, Shamans, Software, and Spleens: Law and the Construction of the Information Society. Harvard 1996.

Moving beyond that first gasp and stepping into the present (November 1997) any web tourist happening onto PMC ‘s Virginia server would be surprised (and I think delighted) to find that not only is PMC still there (one need be suspicious of proclamations that anything will remain free, anymore) but that the archive is there as well, all the contents of all the past PMC s, a click away from the launch page. Presumably, one’s delight is corroded a bit by the link’s warning that the contents through this door are “text only” PMC and JHUP seem very convinced that technology (sgi scripts, hypermedia works, searchable indices) is for the haves, the bare-boned and bony “text only” archive can be offered for free. Of course no one expects those technological bonuses of the subscription PMC to be given away for free, but I do not find convincing that the evidence for the value of a subscription PMC is repeatedly offered as just these technologies. What gets lost in the argument “look what we can do if we charge you?” Hypertext. Never so wholly owned as a genre, hypertext now takes its place in controlled media with its own cable channel. , but that is a story for later. Well, what happened? Call that figurative web tourist cynical, but the last thing he expected was for a commercial contract to be rewritten to extend its proprietary interests into the free domain.

Something Funny Happened on the Way to the Commercial Sphere

The site of this essay is what I’ll call a web event, the process by which PMC announced the move to JHUP, established a listserv to hear feedback from editors/contributors and discuss copyright issues, finally negotiating the current arrangement with Muse.

What interests me is the manner in which a community of scholars plied rhetorical devices to plead their cases in hope of affecting a commercial contract written between PMC and JHUP. When I stumbled into the listserv discussions reprinted below, my first reaction was that it was decent theater, performative in the manner listserv debates can be, with duelling well-reasoned and concise essays. Of particular concern was the editors’ announcing the move with an end-of-an-era flair, citing the emergence of the (presumably, corporate) new media forces trammelling electronic discourse into a profitability paradigm - a paradigm that PMC suggests it cannot sustain by its current distribution model. Much of this rhetoric (and the ensuing contra-rhetoric) has been sidestepped by the negotiation for the free ascii archive but remains as flashpoint for not only PMC but the struggle of commercial and non-commercial interests in the New Media-ted WWW.) Secondly, I was and still am surprised by the outcome of that conversation: the relinquishing of the archive of PMC into the public domain. This is no small accomplishment, and JHUP is the first to be commended for being willing to alter their original agreement (as I imprecisely understand it) with PMC. The texts presented are taken from the various posts to the listserv and Stuart Moulthrop’s introductory essay to vol. 7.3 of PMC, published May 1997.

As associate editor of ebr, I bend a double ear to the conversation: ebr itself, with the publication of ebr 6, is in fiscal uncertainty and considering many of the cost-recovery models discussed by PMC ‘s editors and authors. I offer my view of what has transpired at PMC only to the end that ebr ‘s future is foreshadowed.

The Conversation

(The Narrative dates from March of 1997, some two months after the Project Muse announcement.)

John Unsworth, a founding editor of PMC, opens with a consideration simply outlined as “Why charge?” Unsworth writes of distribution costs, and the facilitating grants from North Carolina: “When we signed (in ‘94) with Oxford University Press, the goal was to work out a way for OUP to become the publisher of all the journal’s forms, but packaging and distributing disk and fiche was as far as we got.” With the collapse of Virginia funding, PMC was now looking at subscription models. Pay-per-view models were deemed inappropriate to the user/reader profile that PMC tested, because they would penalize “users who return frequently to the same material - a typical use pattern for researchers and students.” (No consideration is given to the copyright taboo of saving a document to a hard drive or disk - the likely first response to a pay-per-view system - rather than returning to the online version time and again. Is this finally the reason why pay-per-view systems make publishers nervous?)

Unsworth’s opening reveals another interesting fact: “about half of [ PMC ‘s] traffic comes from the.com wing of the internet.” This discovery seems to have little disturbed the decision to tailor the emerging model for PMC to “researchers and students.” The last motivation for a subscription model appears equally arguable: “…that the journal should eventually cease migrating with its editors, since (we knew from experience) changes in address mean losing and frustrating readers, and lend credence to the general perception that electronic publishing of any sort is ephemeral and unreliable.”

It is hard to believe that this last sentence comes from a founding editor of PMC, the first and still the most “credible” internet journal (a credibility in large part validated by Oxford University Press). The statement best reflects the disjunction seen by many at PMC (contributors and editors) between the desire for academic credibility (stability of publishers and editors, even of URLs) and the suspect ephemerality of electronic publishing.

Unsworth’s argument for stability (seconded by Michael Jensen of JHUP and fellow founding editor Eyal Amiran) is urged as a necessary response to the realities of the tenure-review system, an argument perhaps well made in these difficult academic times, but an argument that also reveals the commodification of academic writing extant - an issue implicit in this debate that few engage. Unsworth’s statement also reflects the desire of PMC to distance itself from its origins by establishing credibility in electronic publishing (with PMC ‘s peer reviewed, cautious argumentation) while nonetheless embracing the benefits of electronic distribution. (On the basis of this I want officially to announce the death of the internet: the internet cannot/ should not be print. If cultural capital and credibility must come from the ability of an electronic form to offer the stability of a print form, then why publish electronically, at all? Why, for hypertext, of course, a subject to which the list discussion will return…)

Russell Potter, a PMC contributor, is the first to respond to Unsworth, and many of his objections will become focal points of the discussion:

…I always thought of PMC as fundamentally different from other journals, in that its functional ephemerality (back in the days, at least, when it was retrieved by -mail or ftp) represented at least partial exception to the old habits of thinking of texts as things, as commodities, texts as substantial material entities. Now, marketed as “America’s oldest electronic journal” (rather ghastly moniker, think), PMC is a little commodity package much like other little commodity packages; it has, as it were, materialized… The Aedificium, to echo a page from Eco, is once more locked, and with Benedictine conviction we are supposed to admit that, alas, it was written that it should be so.

And later in the same post, Potter writes that the authors of works published in PMC prior to the JHUP scheme “have lost the ability to control the dissemination even of our own work, lost the ability in fact to give it away for free, which was part of why I was always glad to have written for PMC.”

Another contributor, Victor Gruer, asks whether advertising might be a way to avoid such controls: “As far as advertising is concerned, to be perfectly postmodern about it all, why are you turning up your nose?…I doubt if amazon.com or Borders would lose any money if they paid PMC to add some links to its site…” In response, Unsworth revises his budgeting costs for PMC from $10,000 to $15,000 per annum, and then asks Michael Jensen of the Muse Project if that cost could be recovered by advertising. Jensen offers an entropic model:

Unfortunately, advertising is hardly a funding panacea for a journal like PMC. Some costs can be somewhat subvened by advertising revenue, but the audience of PMC is sufficiently broad yet small that it makes revenue-generating by advertising hard - especially if it’s not being organized by a professional marketing staff. That is, the time cost involved in soliciting, communicating, processing, designing, and/or emplacing advertising is also substantial, and would be unlikely to pay for itself for an individual journal, were PMC still a “free” journal.

Yet the opposite could be argued: that entropy would in fact result from the application of “mass” advertising campaigns to an academic journal that wants and is lucky to have a “broad yet small” audience. There is no evidence that a target-market, guerrilla scheme for generating advertising revenue was ever deemed feasible at PMC. To John Unsworth’s question, “Why charge?”, I would ask in the interest of those of us without institutional access to Muse content (and unlikely to pony up the $20 per year subscription cost): “Why not experiment with cost-recovery, first?”

John Unsworth responds to Michael Jensen’s summation of ad-futility by taking an even more jaded view of advertising and marketing and their (in)compatibility with the academy (which, interestingly enough, goes unchallenged by anyone in the debate; yet is the increasing adoption of pro-active corporate-style marketing not a subject of hot debate in academic quarters?):

…the kind of effort that goes into journal editing is valued lower, in this profession, than research or teaching: it’s (shudder) service. How much lower than that, on the professional scale, is marketing?

Here enters David Golumbia, furthering Potter’s questions on the access issue: to what extent and how well, Golumbia asks, do Muse’s goals of providing access to scholarly journals dovetail “with the goals of PMC, which is to make dynamic scholarly writing available exclusively on the web?…The radical restriction that has now been placed on access to PMC cannot, by any argument I can think of, be suggested as a promising event for the continuing health of the journal.”

John Unsworth considers the distribution ramifications of electronic-only content on Muse now, conceding that Muse “isn’t as widely subscribed to by Universities or colleges as it would like to be, I’m sure, and this does raise a somewhat peculiar problem for PMC, unlike a lot of Muse’s other journals, which have those print subscriptions already, and for whom Muse is (so far) an alternative distribution method.” And here Potter rejoins, first taking the opportunity to consider the bigger picture of the institutional subscription scheme…

Look, I teach at a college that has zero resources for a project MUSE subscription - it already only has a very few of the journals that are under the MUSE umbrella, and there’s constant pressure to cut those subscriptions on the rationale that nearby schools already have them.

…and casts the debate into a wealth distribution model:

Shall I be crass? The University of Virginia, and/or John’s Hopkins, have money up the wazoo. Either one could, if it wished to, subsidize a journal, or ten journals…Why should poorer institutions put out scarce funds to obtain resources that are ostensibly part of an open intellectual exchange?

But the above was just a warm-up; in the same post Potter writes like an irate shareholder protesting the Muse acquisition:

I particularly do not like the fact that PMC writers are locked away from their own contributions. I have half a mind to urge that everyone who ever wrote for PMC get together and set up our own free archive of the whole damn thing. Along with all other earlier contributors to PMC, I wrote with the understanding that my writing could be disseminated without cost, and I think this bargain with JHUP is a fundamental violation of that understanding.

The legality of the contract between JHUP and PMC now raised, to the extent that it violates the legal (copyright) agreement between contributors and the formerly free PMC, prompts a hasty response from Michael Jensen:

JHUP is granted nonexclusive rights to publish - authors can do with something what they will. PMC ‘s rights model is very appealing in spite of its “threat” to the traditional “rights” of publishers. It fits with our overall mission as nonprofits scholarly publishers, and we’re beginning to adopt it for many of our other journals.

Meanwhile Unsworth responds to Potter’s frank dissatisfaction and hint of rebellion, arguing that “an alternative archive could legally exist,…perhaps…it needs also to be said that…the editors [of PMC ] (not to mention JHUP) would not be happy…” To which, Potter counters that he “and all of the PMC authors [he knows] are (to varying degrees) ‘not happy’ with the JHUP archive, as it has now been re-organized.” “Supposing,” Potter continues, “authors locate their individual texts on their own web sites, and someone makes a page of links to all those sites. Is a page of links a ‘publication?’; A ‘compilation?’; It’s a gray area, I think.”

Sara Wells, the (former) managing editor joins in at this point to discuss the hierarchies of labor at PMC: her points are well made if not well taken: Wells suggests that despite the cost cutting observations offered by Potter and others, it is necessary for PMC to have a salaried managing editor. “Rotating editorships are a mess,” she says Authors are sometimes “confused by the technology,” and it is cheaper to pay a ME to “fuss over the little details” than to bother “highly trained scholars” with them.

Since Wells brings us to the subject of editing, I’ll take this opportunity to offer that ebr has managed to sort through the communications difficulties concomitant with a new raft of editors for each issue. Electronic networks have facilitated this. Any email software with “folder” capability affords a non-techie such as myself the ability to organize and “nest” data far in excess of my ability to do the same with paper, or a file cabinet. In my view: electronic networks allow for rotating editorships, online editing of essays by anyone, including authors as well as editors. Collaborative editing is practiced by ebr: it’s a rare author who will not help proof. The guest editors are asked to proof as well. The bottom line: Every little bit of workload sharing lessens the strain on the collective, unpaid, whole.

Or, as Russell Potter writes: “If I, or anyone, wants the prestige or recognition of editing a journal, seems to me they should be willing to sweat some.”

Potter considers some other approaches to editing for the WWW, in a key passage:

Another thing that e-journals can do that would break up the [workload] somewhat is to discard the idea of “issues” or “numbers.” If, like the journal Surfaces, one simply adds articles to a web or ftp site at whatever point their editorial content has been resolved, one frees up a tremendous amount of time spent worrying over deadlines.

Into the void of further debate about structuring PMC, Eyal Amiran enters to raise a new thread: what has hypermedia meant for PMC in distinguishing its content from the “print paradigms” followed by other journals? “…free publication isn’t possible now if we’re to continue to publish the journal as we now see it, as a professional and scholarly publication in hypermedia on the Web…Hypermedia is a big issue here - it makes little sense for PMC to publish in any other form, today.” Somewhat oddly, though, the value of hypermedia in the publishing equation is not taken up by either editor or publisher until Stuart Moulthrop’s introduction to the May 97 volume of PMC. (Relevant passages from that text are reproduced below.)

David Golumbia now hammers the issue of access and copyright, reminding that: “So far I haven’t read the opinion of any contributor to PMC who is not disturbed by this radical restriction of access to work which, at least in my own case, was submitted to PMC precisely because of its universal availability to Internet users.”

To which Lisa Brawley, an editor at PMC, agrees, and here, remarkably, the tide begins to shift in favor of re-instating the archive. Brawley is the first editor to suggest that the terms of PMC ‘s contract with JHUP are incompatible with PMC ‘s foundational principle of free access:

This much is clear: any responsible, workable model of electronic publishing will need to provide its authors meaningful access to their own work - our current model doesn’t. The problem of author access is a central and symptomatic issue, one that those of us on the editing/publishing side of this discussion have not adequately addressed.

John Unsworth tentatively yields ground in a post that seems very aware that the ears at JHUP are listening: “It might be worth discussing the possibility of aging articles out into the public domain at some point…” And, indeed, Michael Jensen is moved to take stock of the issues raised from the publisher’s standpoint, offering the fullest divulgence of the process by which JHUP has mulled l’affaire PMC, and the fullest apology for commercial sponsorship:

In the rueful, regretful tone of many of the words in this list, it’s clear that there’s a sense among some reader/authors that PMC has “sold out” by becoming part of a subscription framework…What JHUP is trying to do is show that the costs of electronic publishing of high quality material like PMC ‘s can be supported by the scholarly community…It costs labor, time, creativity, and consequently money to enact a viable and sustainable electronic publishing program…We are realistic enough to recognize that volunteer time costs money as well, and that volunteerism has limits; that labor deserves recompense of some kind; that the presentation of scholarship will require ever-increasing levels of improvement in order to keep up with the Frito-Lay site.

Project Muse is not revolutionary enough to mollify the strongest “information-wants-to-be-free” zealots. Cost recovery mechanisms, regardless of the mode, will be objected to by some (we’ve already been called “elitist fascists” for not making everything in Muse free). But most of those with the strongest voices (not just those in this discussion list, btw) come from universities, where they are paid to have opinions, to think, and to (occasionally) teach.

I’m unwilling to be forced into a defensive stance. What we’re doing will benefit PMC, and will benefit humanities scholarship. We’re not charging outrageous subscription rates; we’re not forcing a one-size-fits-all cost recovery model; we’re not luxuriating in profits squeezed from the labor of honest scholars. In fact, we are losing and expect to lose money while supporting PMC for several years. Do the math: $50/yr for institutional subscriptions (with significant discounts for two-year colleges, public libraries, and consortia), $20/yr for individuals. It will be a long time before PMC is “profitable.”

David Golumbia digs in: “Michael Jensen’s remarkable post, unfortunately, does not address the central issue in this discussion…Where the article I wrote for PMC was once available to anyone with web access, it no longer is. Period.” And Russell Potter points to the fact that his institution “simply cannot afford to subscribe to MUSE…And since, as I’m sure Michael Jensen is aware, colleges and universities nationwide are under a budget crunch, MUSE is simply going to lead to fewer people being able to access PMC. The arguments for how great MUSE is are like arguments for how safe a new Volvo 900 is - very safe indeed, if you can afford one. “

When Marjorie Perloff enters she revives the materialist thread of the discussion:

[Jensen’s] arguments are cogent but the big question that remains in my mind is this: once PMC gets to be more or less like all journals (those not on-line) what makes it special? Different? My own feeling is that once one has to subscribe and the journal comes out in its current format, I’d much rather sit in an armchair (or out in the sun!) and read it between two covers than bother to scroll down the screen. I think electronic journals have a different mission.

Perloff singles out ebr for praise in this respect, for putting her review of Franco Moretti online within a month and following up soon after with a response by Moretti, and then her response in turn. “That creates dialogue. This is what electronic publication can do. But PMC has increasingly followed the “normal” model - a bunch of essays, a bunch of reviews - and now the need to subscribe, so what is the ADVANTAGE of this over any normal print journal?”

Now David Porush, taking Perloff’s exhortation to exploit the materiality of electronic publishing even further:

There must be a virtue to an on-line journal beyond the speed, ease and convenience of shuttling the raw data among reviewers, authors and editors. To constrict this new potential into the rut already carved by an older medium (i.e., print) seems an ostrich-like way to proceed. So shouldn’t we be spending a good deal of our time in this discussion wondering how to unleash the potential for academic discourse provided by this new medium rather than worrying over how to make it legitimate by squeezing it into the old boxes?

And finally Adrian Miles re-asserts hypertext as the element that most distinguishes electronic from print publication:

The strength of PMC was that…it was hypertextual (new forms of academic publication and writing), and anyone with net access could read it (from my local library to where ever)…All of a sudden no one at my campus can read my work, and the only way I seem to be able to allow people to read it where they don’t have subscription rights is to make a copy available.

However, where the work may be explicitly hypertextual…all of a sudden it is no longer a case of just sending someone some text, but of needing to send or even self publish a web based version, and in numerous cases this might not be possible, and is probably in breach of the terms of publication in PMC.

Miles’s last point would seem to have pushed the debate yet one step further - what is the nature of copyright of hypermedia works published in a subscription domain? One possible answer is that those would in effect become the property of the domain, as they are relatively non-transportable. As Miles points out, it is not so easy to supply “copies” to interested parties not subscribed to Muse. There is an interesting parallel here to the Eastgate Systems model, with its hypermedia distribution system of 3.5” diskettes that come (for a price) with an executable program (StorySpace) for each work. PMC /Muse will offer no such portability, and one wonders if that will make PMC less attractive to hypermedia authors in the future.

Unfortunately, Miles’ post is the last - no answer comes to the late round of questioning from Golumbia, Miles, Potter, Perloff, and others not reproduced here. Conceivably, the editors of PMC felt that Stuart Moulthrop’s introductory essay for the May number of PMC, which was published prior to the archiving of the listserv in June, would offer their last word.

Whither Linkest Thou?

PMC editor Moulthrop is not presented in my edited version of the listserv conversation because he posted only once, to correct a figure on publishing costs. Therefore we turn to “Decorating the Corpse: Hypertext After the Web,” his intro to the May PMC (vol. 7.3), where we find an anecdote:

Not long ago I learned that in 1997-98, two new literary prizes will be given for work in hypertext, one in the U.S. and one in Europe. When I reported this to a certain writer well versed in “new media,” I received an interesting answer. The givers of the prizes are very kind, the writer said, “but they are pinning medals on a corpse.” My correspondent thought that creative hypertext had a fine future behind it but little in the way of prospects. It was an idea whose time had been.

Writers say these things. Sometimes, as in the case just mentioned, we speak from despair, fearing that the audience for serious work may be collapsing to a singularity. At other times the lament that X is lost may serve as prelude to hubris, for instance when the mourner believes that a bright and promising meta-X (of his own invention) is coming with the dawn. Writing is dead! - and not a moment too soon - long live my kind of writing! Because they can be disingenuous in this way, literary mass obituaries should never be taken at face value. The reader is warned.

Moulthrop then moves into a wide-ranging consideration of the economy of hypertext/hypermedia, starting with the apparent death of the CD-ROM hypertext industry which had been dominated by Voyager:

No doubt the change at Voyager came for various reasons, many having little to do with the Internet, but Voyager’s withdrawal does seem to coincide neatly with the recent surge of interest in the World Wide Web. One has to wonder whether Voyager’s often exquisite products were eclipsed by offerings on the Web - from on-line ‘zines like Salon, Feed, and Suck to the more dubious prospects of “push” media and VRML.

As if gladly putting one central issue to rest, Moulthrop announces that the archive of ASCII text documents will be free, and that (bonus!) it will include future text works for PMC. Hypermedia/Hypertext works will remain within the boundaries of the Muse project, and thus will only be viewable via subscription. “As far as hypertext is concerned,” he writes, “some of us still prefer to go against the flow.” Next:

It would be easy to mistake this perverseness for greed, common as that motive has become. The insistence on hypertext as a cash nexus (to say it bluntly) may seem in line with the rampaging commercialization of the Internet. Ever since the discovery of Web browsing as the fin de siecle “killer app,” the corporate world has been lusting after computer networks with priapistic urgency, and though pundits regularly predict a nasty end to this affair, the ardor shows no sign of cooling yet…Yet as any old cyberspace hand will tell you, it is hard to use the words hypertext and profit in the same sentence without arousing deep suspicion. In the most popular Internet business models, major revenues come not from subscriptions but from sale of advertising space. Advertising - as business has known it so far, anyway - depends on reliable, sustained audience attention, the sort of thing TV, movies, radio, and print provide quite handily. Hypertext systems foster rather different behavior. They emphasize transition and active selection of content, raising the primitive impulse of channel-surfing to something that might be called art. They challenge viewers to become interpreters, working out connections between fragments instead of relaxing into the paratactic flow. In short, hypertext does not go well with mass marketing.

It is difficult to track the intention of the author in the above two paragraphs due to the absence of a specific economic framework for the new media paradigms that Moulthrop offers up. I would guess, though, that the presumed inability of PMC to commodify its hypertexts (i.e., cost-recovery via advertising revenue) was a strong influence on the decision to privatize. Perhaps most troubling here is the application of the “commercialization of the Internet” to the economy of a journal such as PMC at all, a realpolitical statement made repeatedly by John Unsworth, Michael Jensen, and others in the listserv discussion which reaches its nadir in Moulthrop’s phrasing. I am suspicious of this conflation of economies as PMC was never a profit-driven corporation to begin with, it was funded by academic bodies. Is the unspoken suggestion here that academic funding for Internet ventures has no future? That academically-funded journals are doomed if they do not adapt to the increasingly commercial environment of the Internet? The fate of the academy as an alternate economy to “corporate culture” seems very much at issue here, yet Moulthrop does not engage it. Moulthrop is confusing, in my opinion, the fortune of PMC with the fortunes of all non-commercial publishing ventures by not distinguishing between content (the hypertext that won’t be commodified) and container (commercial or non-commercial journals that would publish “hypertext systems”). Moulthrop continues, his irony becoming acute:

How much more comfortable to live in a world where books are books, television is television, and so is the World Wide Web. Why learn to surf when it’s so delicious to drown? As for hypertext, leave that to the hobbyists.

The sum of this, as I take it: When the oligopolies turn the WWW into television the reader cum viewer will lose the ability to meet the challenges of hypertextual practice. Yet, Moulthrop concludes:

Whatever its fortunes in the marketplace, hypertext is far from dead - and there may be hope, in the fullness of years, even for the marketplace, since late-stage capitalism doubtless does not mark the end of history. History is dynamic and therefore debatable - literary history in particular. The reader will have learned by now not to trust an author with a long face and a sad story about his favorite form.

The self-reflexive rhetorical strategy is a welcome respite from the rather bleak scenarios that precede it in Moulthrop’s account. But who exactly is that author in the concluding sentence? Has Moulthrop not just instructed his reader to wonder if, and this is a big if, Moulthrop himself is pronouncing the end of free hypermedia (and long live private, subscription hypermedia) so soon after we have “learned by now not to trust” such pronouncements?

ebr ‘s Future

We must quicken our step now to another issue, the different yet related position of ebr to “cost recovery.” ebr has a fortuitous relationship with its publisher, Mark Amerika, and his altx network, and I’m told by our editor Joe Tabbi that our cost recovery is not for a managing editor (ebr has none) or server costs, but towards the marketing expenses of publicizing each new number and the desire to pay contributors. Tabbi has stated on the ebr listserv that:

…one way of doing this is to get a university press behind us…but a press that…will let us run ‘business’ our own way, using contacts that we happen to make in the course or our work and travels, so that advertising and marketing themselves would be consistent with the improvisational style we’ve used (with varying degrees of success and some confusion) in the editing.

Yet we have seen in the PMC debates that even an enlightened approach to electronic publishing exhibited from a university press such as JHUP (compared to Oxford, that is) is a difficult marriage to the goals of electronic journals and their readers. In my view, advertising sits more comfortably with a journal such as ebr than it apparently did with the editors of the scholarly, peer-reviewed PMC. Additionally, the issue of tenure-review prestige engendered by a relationship with a university press should weigh less heavily on ebr. In any case, tenure-review prestige has never really been a draw for the editors or contributors to ebr.

Of course, PMC ‘s problems are not exactly ebr ‘s. Yet there are similar struggles, for example with the issue of archiving. With ebr 6, designer Anne Burdick has overhauled the journal’s structure, eliminating the need for an archive at all. Our splash page will be only a set of links, back to the first issue or forward to the current. Each issue will be represented in toto. Even more inclusive is the contributors’ page, which will have bios for everyone who’s ever contributed to the journal and links to their works. However, ebr would need to continue roughly five more years to amass the amount of data that has appeared in PMC. Whether this structure can survive the weight of that quantity of data remains to be seen.

Fundamentally, I am uncomfortable with the rhetoric expounded in favor of privatization. I ask that we remember Mark Amerika’s insistence on the need to resist the commodification of new (yes, “new media”) discourse networks, as evidenced in his essay in the inaugural issue of ebr itself - an insistence few disputed in 1995 but which now runs against the grain of vogue net-pessimism.

I can’t resist the big questions: should the web revert to print rules, structures, with subscription based distribution? How does the difficulty in funding electronic libraries affect the availability of digital information vis-a-vis print subscription-based information?

That there is a New Media monster on the loose in the WWW is beyond denial in late 1997, yet why are we to assume that commercial economics will gobble the non-profit “works of devotion” if those latter do not privatize to recoup costs of production? Let us remember that those who are dissatisfied with the economic reward of internet advertising revenue are those looking for profit. The loudest complaint about selling ad space for banners is that they do not recoup production costs as effectively as ad space on television or in print. But the WWW is not print or television (yet), so why not generate what revenue is possible with banners and fit our cost expenditure to that revenue?

Another way to keep costs down, as Russell Potter suggested on PMC ‘s listserv, is to do away with the notion of issues or volume numbers. With that, the costs of marketing and publicizing would decline dramatically. A fine example of this approach is Arthur and Marilouise Kroker’s C-Theory. The marketing/publicity paradigm NEED NOT APPLY to electronic discourse offered for free. Marketing/publicity is geared towards expanding audiences and the residual effect of cost recovery. If one needs to sell a book, one had better hawk it. But the application of marketing to a free journal such as ebr strikes me as an assumption that print (commercial) rules apply to ebr. Those rules simply need not. Production costs for ebr subtracted by marketing costs could be recovered from “enlightened advertising” (i.e., ads that represent groups/commodities we are interested in and support - not Coke but typefaces). Published thrice yearly, with 10 ads per, at a cost of US $50-100 per ad produces between $1500 and $3000. With ebr ‘s marketing budget removed, or lessened, ebr turns a profit. ebr doesn’t need/desire a profit? Halve the ads.

I argue for a stripped down model (which might be accused of mirroring the corporate culture’s “downsizing”) of production that continues to enable ebr for both “its speed-in-turn-around and its “high quality of argumentation,” as Marjorie Perloff stated. We may find that advertising revenue will not sustain that mission, but would it not be better to remain open to exploring all options that exist today in this medium than to wait for a university press to become so enlightened as to meet us on our own terms?

What is there beyond advertising? The digicash, nanobucks system, as distasteful as it is to some, has been gaining momentum in 1997. It does seem that within a few years every action on the net will become a transaction, but the increments of those transactions are much in doubt. My own view is that the adaptation of a national account system, patterned on social securities account-at-birth registration, would work with a cashless, networked society. But this is obviously no help now, and if ebr required magnetic swipes to be viewed we could kiss that 40,000 per month readership good-bye.

Finally I wish to return to the spectre of subscription models. The question might be begged, why resist privatization? Why hold onto the liberal notion of access to free information as essentially empowering? Hasn’t our culture, which both valorizes a “free information” economic system and renders that system impossible grappled with this failed Enlightenment desire long enough? In Shamans, Software and Spleens: Law and the Construction of the Information Society, James Boyle has written of the aporia of the role of “free information” in the liberal political state and its status as commodity and entitlement, “product and process.” Yet he also writes that in view of social distribution models, “When the resource is money, we think ‘socialism.’ When the resource is information, it just seems fair.”

I would like to end with a quote from Erik Bloodaxe, from an editorial in PHRACK, later reprinted in Node 9:

Trade secrets don’t want to be free, marketing projections don’t want to be free, formulas don’t want to be free, troop placements don’t want to be free, CAD designs don’t want to be free, corporate financial information doesn’t want to be free, my credit report sure as hell doesn’t want to be free! Let’s take a step back: how to use a system is information that should be proliferated, how computers network is information that should be spread, new technologies want to be explained, holes ought to be pointed out, bug patches need to be free…note the difference?

The quote is not intended as an example of the hacker ethos - in fact Bloodaxe is dismantling what he sees as the facile usage of the free information mantra in the hacker community. The desire to keep information free is often paraded as an anarchic impulse, towards which much derision is displayed by those who wish to exploit information’s commodity status. Bloodaxe follows this line, but after doing so offers an important distinction: meta-information wants to be free, and it is our (hacker or publisher of “critical content”) onus to act as a system of checks and balances. No revolution here. Yes, capitalism is not likely to fear the contents of PMC, as Moulthrop says.

But PMC ‘s (and ebr ‘s along with any other provider of independent critical thinking) contents have a meta-role as critical information, in my view, whether it take the form of hypertexts which dis-order and restructure the role of reader/writer, content/form, and in doing so resist commodification (as Moulthrop sees it) or traditional leftist critique. In either case (and there are other forms available), content needs free dissemination as counterbalances to totalizing corporate control, as much as bug patches need distributing, and are distributed freely. Think of it as tips on how to use the software.

>>—> Stuart Moulthrop responds