XI. A Communications Network for Change in Higher Education
Preface, 2008: This study’s main value now is to remind us of how fully-fledged a model of decentralized print communication had developed already with the technologies of the 1940s. Though related to contemporaneous networks of scientific inquiry, its scopes of input and participation and flexibility far exceeded the scientific examples, and were probably unique in our culture and the world’s till then – as would be appropriate for the scattered society most concerned with anticipating the technological potentials drawing us into the future. Though “zines” were not unique to s-f fandom, its puny, ephemeral network may have amounted to the most intensive concentration of amateur publishing in our land and perhaps the world. (The only competitor I can think of is the society of poetry.)
From the later 1960s onward, the impulse of expression swelled and radiated outward from the science-fiction-nourished counter-culture, as emergent technologies continued to make this easier – culminating by the mid-1990s in a “zine explosion” of over 50,000 independently-produced and –distributed print periodicals here, of unlimited diversity, before cybernetic developments took over and multiplied this figure one-hundred-fold, still rising. Amid such chaotic riches, decentralized networks of purposeful inter-communication have continued to evolve. Their properties were so prefigured in the first fanzine network, and in my proposed and feasible adaptation of this forty years ago, that only the unanticipated quality and consequences of immediacy appear novel now.
A Real Model of a Specialized Communication Network
In the mid-1950s, when I knew its world, science fiction/fantasy (s-f) was a young literature with an audience of perhaps 200,000 in America. This population was rich in scientists and in intellectual and social deviants -- or freaks, as they're called now [and later nerds.] Within it was a subgroup, largely of freaks, who formed a loose nucleus held together by friendships, avocational bonds, and a specialized communication network.
S-f is rich with esoteric references to this nuclear society. Its members were writers and magazine people, collectors of magazines, specialists of the literature and its writers' lives, people who functioned as social links in this diffuse hamlet society, young followers and devotees and romantics of the field, and so on: an odd genre's fauna. Collectively, they called themselves Science-Fiction Fandom; individually, fans.
Fandom began taking shape in the late twenties, following the proliferation of magazines touched off by Gernsback's pioneering Amazing Stories. It is thus deeply a communications phenomenon. This may account for the sophistication of its communication network, which -- like Fandom's structure, its social and professional functioning, and the circus spectrum of its population -- had more or less stabilized by the late forties.
In size, structure, and the general topography of its communications, Fandom closely resembles the "floating colleges" that Derek J. De Solla Price (1) posits as the fundamental intracommunicating intellectual groupings throughout much of science. Price's model particularly describes professional social groups operating in frontier fields of scientific and technical innovation; so to find it applicable to the generating group of an innovative literature may not be surprising.
Like a floating college, Fandom was a system in dynamic equilibrium, with a relatively high rate of turnover among its thousand or so members. Of these, some 10 percent were central, being both more densely connected with each other and more prolific and influential. Like a floating college, Fandom's population was relatively mobile (though as a result of personal life-style, rather than of government grants). And like a floating college, Fandom had three levels of communication: personal interchange of visits and letters; local, regional, and national meetings; and published communications.
In this last respect, Fandom differed from Price's model, though in each case publication was the only uniform currency of communication. The publications network of a floating college generally consists of one or several professional journals -- e.g., The Worm-Runners' Digest -- to which several hundred members contribute more or less actively. The domain of uniform circulation of these journals defines the floating college's territory. Within it, an informal mechanism arranges for individual distribution of reprinted articles. (Xeroxes of work-in-progress also circulate, among quite small subgroups. )
Fandom's publications' network was much more complex, partly because it was an amateur, second-order system. Fandom had a first-order, centralized system already: the s-f magazines themselves, which are essentially a professional literature, uniformly subscribed to, with no arrangement for reprints and little accommodation of responses. But Fandom publications formed a sophisticated information network not only because they were an auxiliary amateur system free of rigid professional necessities, but also because they serviced the needs of an unusual population.
One index to this is the range of subjects an important fanzine (from "fan magazine", the staple unit of publication) might deal with -- e.g., analyses of the literature, personal memoirs of fanfolk, deviant psychotherapeutic theories, archaeology and mythology, rocket fuels, the history of printing, gun lore, and bad jokes. S-f fans, as a class, had a bewildering array of interests. They were diverse in other respects as well, as autonomous and as prone to cliques as artists. Their publications system had to deal with this, and deal also with their urge and need to be bound together by more than professional and intellectual concerns: actively to be a society.
Fanzines, circa 1955
Against this background, an indigenous medium evolved: the fanzine and its distribution system. In form, the fanzine was mutable. Some were "one-shots" -- on a single sheet, tossed off by a beery group for fun one evening, or of many pages. celebrating a person or an event.
Most fanzines were periodical. In a constant flux, new ones appeared, to flourish or limp for a few issues and disappear. Some specialized in neophyte literature of the field; others were periodicals of debate. Some represented the interests of an intra-communicating subgroup of Fandom; others, one person's thought and writing. Some followed jagged editorial policies; a few set standards of excellence for a decade.
Fanzines had a fairly standard physical form. Most had printings of between 50 and 200 copies, and were indifferently mimeographed on hand-cranked machines in basements somewhere, or at the office after-hours. Some were jobs of excellent craftsmanship printed in hand-set type, or by the Gestetner mimeo, which at the time was the highest-quality inexpensive mass-reproduction system available for amateur use.
Most "one-shots" were distributed to a specialized extension of some standard mailing list. Some periodicals had their individual lists, and were also sent to anyone requesting them. (Constant and intimate reference to each other among fanzines kept this system of requests functioning fluidly and actively.)
Other periodicals were organized into more elaborate distribution pools -- e.g., the Fantasy Amateur Press Association. FAPA had about 120 members, of whom maybe 40 contributed regularly to the quarterly mailings, each of which included these regulars and about 30 more fanzines on an ad-hoc basis. Every three months or so, your FAPA dues would bring you this thick motley bundle of multi-papered fanzines, mailed from some central assembly point (which rotated regularly among various clusters of members in the country).
Faced with maybe a thousand pages of mailing, you would sort out the fanzines you followed regularly and respected, the one-shots of friends, and whatever else looked interesting, Some reference might turn you on to something you missed last round. And you in turn might write in reaction to something in the mailing and distribute it the next mailing in some friendly fanzine or as a one-shoter.
So, by the mutable medium of the fanzine, several thousand people, organized in depth around an open-ended subject field, were joined in a loose, active communications system. They were connected, not by a central publication, but by a delicate shifting network of overlapping information spheres. Within this network, the specialized common language of Fandom evolved, without wiping out local dialects, assimilating new components naturally from the network's variegated inputs. Since the network was generated by many autonomous centers, it formed a public free economy, in which standards of taste, relevance, and competence were highly individual and competed on an open market. And the decentralized quality of the network also provided the space and freedom for the development of intra-communicating social and intellectual sub-groupings.
Refinement of the Model: A Computerized Fanzine
Consider the problem of constructing a useful communication network for the domain of educational innovation, which needs to be defining itself constantly in new directions. The members and groups of this floating college of change tend to be young, autonomous, and highly individual. Many can tie in to institutional resources and have access to mimeo or Xerox facilities and sometimes mailing funds. They generate a multicentered conversation with strong inputs from diverse sources-- computer technology, existential psychology, social action, and so on -- that needs to be peculiarly free.
The principles of the fanzine network need only be married to computer technology to form the basis for a real experiment. Here is the hybrid model in its extreme form; most of its essential features are realizable (somewhat differently) with current technology and budgets.
The system's heart is a big black box that accepts inputs in the form: TYPED MANUSCRIPT + DISTRIBUTION LIST. (They may be punched in directly from peripheral consoles.) Their form is perfectly free. Individuals and groups may publish once, sporadically, regularly. Essays, notes, reports, computer-transmittable pictures, monographs, dinner invitations, recruitments, whole journals with an open variety of editorial policies and functions. There is no central and limiting sense of what is appropriate to the conversation. (It may be expected to become recognizably deformalized, personalized, and more flexible.)
You -- an individual or a group -- draw information from the system at your console, or as print-out mailed to you at convenient intervals by the central computer. What you receive is completely personalized. You have a list of small periodicals you follow and you ask to be sent the work of your friends and some others, whenever it appears. Any inputs on some subjects are to be sent to you automatically; and summaries or notices of inputs on some other subjects. You also receive what friends and strangers choose to send you. But every item you get is marked with a priority -- you can set the categories up to your own taste -- and so you're free to ignore unsolicited junk.
You are free to select the distribution of what you produce: this is an art, which you can let some editor in the network handle for you. As a receiver of information, you encounter the network as a flexible instrument or game, at which, as at the game of the Sunday Times, you must develop skill to learn how to get what you need out of what's available. (In this and other respects, the network encourages participation.) Constant cross-referencing to articles, themes, and sources will be an important feature of the network -- even more than in present floating colleges -- and you will have to learn what combination of journals and intellectual gossips is your best guide to the multiplex literature. (The fanzine network generates such specialized guides.)
The central feature of this hybrid system is the freedom it permits and encourages. Needs for information can be defined and satisfied on an individual (rather than mass) basis. Though the conversation has no central government, a common vocabulary of change can still grow, and will: ideas get around, especially in such a rumor-quick system. Unlike the relatively closed conversations that heavily centralized professional journals seem to generate, the structure of this network encourages a conversation quickly open to new components and directions, one that keeps a constant diversity of themes in rolling contact. (Some editors will become specialized channels for new terms without closing off others, filling that niche in the ecology of conversants.) And, perhaps most importantly, the network also facilitates the nucleation and development of subgroups organized on any basis of work, ideas, or friendship.
At the end of Chapter VII, I sketched a few aspects of change in social process as our civilization comes to extend itself through high computer/communications technology. Here we have a more detailed (though overly print-oriented) model of the freer processes of information that become possible. It will
Is It Practical?
How could a real experiment along these lines begin? Take the several thousand people working at the edge of change in higher education, in programmed instruction, community action affective education, counseling, sociology of education, video. etc. They already communicate informally and partially, by Xeroxes and reprints and through ancillary specialized journals.
They would assess, centralize, rationalize, and extend this present distribution system. Most inputs would be distributed to only several hundred people, and a central facility could compensate for authors who can't take advantage of the growing availability of high-speed Xerox and cheap offset. Inputs for systemwide distribution could be mimeographed or offset. Distribution assignments and requests could easily be correlated and prioritized by computer, as in the fully computerized network. At worst, individual periodic issues of this diffuse "magazine" could be assembled by hand according to computer list. Funding for this information network could come in the form of a graduated support-fee. (2)
A Note on Experiment
A group that attempts such an experiment might make a simultaneous self-study of the way the creation and use of this network affects the character of correspondence, both printed and written. Perhaps only an impressionistic account can be had of the difference in the way public ideas grow. But hard quantitative data should be obtainable on some aspects of the conversation's change.
For example, the distribution and mean of audience-size for papers should shift, perhaps in this manner:
There should be kindred shifts in the distributions of papers (information) received by individuals, along variables like size, shared audience, recentness, informality, use-resultant cross-referencing, and so on.
All such factors relate intimately to the ease and power with which a massive group can think together. For surely the topology -- the connectivity, directionality, etc. -- and the technology of the group's communications net largely determine the way ideas are formed and exert their influence. By such quantifiable factors, one trace of this can be followed.
(1) D. J. De S. Price, Little Science, Big Science. Columbia University Press, 1963. (See pp. 70-90.) Price calls them "invisible colleges," but the term "floating" is both more appropriate and already in use in our field. I interpret his model slightly differently than he sets it forth.
(2) Perhaps depending on input/receipt use. See G. Pask and H. Von Foerster, "A Predictive Model for Self-Organizing Systems," Cybernetica, Vol. Ill. No.4. 1960. Their models of self-organizing data-interchange systems might aid description of the change process which this network's creation would comprise.