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Networks, Knowledge, and Territories
Since 1995, the Ecole normale supérieure's Internet Workshop has brought together researchers from various disciplines involved in assessing the impact of computer technology on the worlds of knowledge. Among the issues addressed are writing processes, the research of information, exchange networks, and the transmission of knowledge.
In this context, the Internet lies at the heart of our investigations, insofar as it is not only generating new, electronic social relations and reorganizes traditional ones (through the transmission of the technical knowledge necessary for working with the computer) but also becoming a medium for the communication of knowledge (in the form of Web pages, data bases, etc.). Such a study of the Internet leads us in turn to that of the practices proper to library research: information retrieval, reading, synthesis, commentary, and so forth. But the Internet also generates another library function, which is that of the «laboratory»--a place of discoveries, encounters, and exchanges of information.
If recent technological developments (and specifically the Internet) are transforming our relationship to writing and the presentation of knowledge (hypertext, indexers, integration of images and sounds), such dynamics have long been under way. Standards for formatting and storing texts have posed serious problems for the preservation of information for over fifteen years. In more basic terms, the emergence of possibilities for sorting, calculation, or graphic representations, which have completely transformed research in the social sciences, originally had nothing to do with the invention of the Internet. Thus, we may conclude that it is computer science, and not simply the Internet, that is transforming the researcher's working conditions.
In order to arrive at a better assessment of these new relations to knowledge and writing, we have adopted a comparative approach, notably through collaborations with historians, anthropologists, philosophers, and others whose work deals with the history of networks, the material conditions for the transmission of knowledge, the history of writing, and so on.
Through both quantitative and qualitative surveys, we are also pursuing our evaluation of the uses of Internet by researchers inorder to probe the reasons for their variety. We shall study the possible transformation of practices (collaborations, research dynamics, etc.) generated by the Internet and, for the sake of precision, we shall complement this study with graphs of interrelations and maps visualizing the dynamic of electronic exchanges between various research institutions. This effort will allow us to define a new territory, with its axes, borders, highways, and byways, and also to compare the collective representations that it generates to those produced before the expansion of the Internet (and still alive and well in certain fields of research). This work will be carried out in collaboration with geographers and sociologists.
In addition, we shall study several concrete examples of the "intrusion" of the electronic media into researchers' lives, for it is no longer possible to avoid using them (as is demonstrated by the catalogue system introduced in the new Bibliothèque Nationale de France). We shall also evaluate the impact of these tools on the researcher's intellectual processes, the advantages and disadvantage of the interface, the circumstances behind its construction (discussions, etc.). From there, we shall go on to consider available software, which does not always provide the time savings and intellectual freedom we expect. And in a more technical context, workshop participants will learn about the protocols ensuring the operation of the Internet so that they can also master the technological aspect of the subject.
To extend our comparative approach, we shall carry out surveys aimed at the broader community of «netsurfers», which will allow us to measures proximities and distances between this general public and the world of research.
We shall also evaluate the influence of Internet-related discourse produced by another medium, the press, on researchers' intellectual and territorial representations, whether or not they actually use the electronic network. We shall limit ourselves to the newspapers most commonly read by the scholarly community (Le Monde etc.), beginning with articles specifically dealing with the new technologies and then expanding to other headings. Indeed, Internet interacts with a growing number of subjects, as can be seen from various lawsuits, citizens' initiatives, proposed legislation, and so on. As has always been the case, the Internet Workshop remains attuned to current events.
This program is made possible by financial support from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.
Organization: A combination of formal presentations, technical sessions, and reports on work in progress.
Calendar: Workshop sessions take place on the second and fourth Friday of every month, from 10 a.m. to noon. See the schedule.
Éric Guichard, 20 October 1998
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