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Philosophy and the Information Superhighway

Philosophy and the Information
The extraordinary capacity of computers to hold text is familiar to
anyone who uses a word processor: an average book will fit
comfortably onto a 3.5″ floppy disc. With the growth of easy
means of communication between computers an immense quantity
of information has become available on a world-wide basis. The
links may not yet amount to a ‘superhighway’, but they are fast,
efficient and increasingly user-friendly. Moreover, like the roads,
the system is free to users (though the Clinton administration has
made some ominous noises about introducing charges). It is open
to anyone with access to a computer connected to JANET (the
Joint Academic Network in Britain), INTERNET, or one of the
other electronic communications networks that now span the
globe. That means almost everyone teaching at an institution of
Higher Education in this country, often including postgraduate
students, and sometimes undergraduates as well.The material
available on-line falls into three broad categories.

Library Catalogues and Bibliographic Indexes
It is now possible to consult remotely not only one’s local library
catalogue, but those of many other major libraries both in this
country and world-wide. Most allow free access, but not the
British Library. Scandalously, its information services are being
run as a commercial enterprise. Numerous indexes and abstracts
of journal articles are also on-line, but again often only
commercially. For example, Philosopher’s Index, Sociological
Abstracts, Citations Indexes and Current Contents are all available
– at a price. The recently started ‘International Philosophy Preprint Exchange’ (lPPE), however, is free. It holds pre-publication
drafts of philosophical articles, which can be downloaded, and
also the Contents pages of a growing number of philosophical
journals (including Radical Philosophy).

Bulletin Boards and Discussion Lists
Bulletin Boards and Lists are another source of information. They
work via e-mail. Bulletin Boards are just that. Items of news and
notices about meetings, conferences, jobs, etc., are posted out
electronically to subscribers and are there to be read when you log
in. Discussion lists are more participatory. People send in points
for discussion, questions or comments to the list, and they are sent
on to all subscribers. Anyone can then reply or not as they wish.

Since electronic communication is so fast, a culture of brief and
immediate response has grown up among e-mail users. The
proceedings on a List are more like a conversation than a series of
written exchanges. Lists are thus a sort of leaderless seminar
between participants scattered all over the world; and, like other
forms of leaderless discussion, of variable interest.

There is a huge and ever-growing variety of Lists and Bulletin
Boards catering to all interests. For example, PHILOS-L, a
philosophy bulletin board run from Liverpool by Stephen Clarke,
is a useful source of information about philosophy in this country
Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

(there are equivalents for N. America and Australasia). The
DERRIDA List is a lively and active discussion group, covering
not just that philosopher’s thought, but a broad range of topics in
both continental and analytical philosophy. PSN (Progressive
Sociologists Network) is both a bulletin board and discussion list
for left wing social scientists (mainly N. American); SWIP-L is
for feminist philosophers. There is a HEGEL list; others have
recently been started focusing on NIETZSCHE and HEIDEGGER;
and there are many, many others. Quality and interest vary. Try
them and see.

The World of Gopher
Numerous books and articles are now available on-line, and the
number is growing rapidly. Many classic works of philosophy,
literature, politics etc., are available free. The gopher system has
made them easy to access and acquire. It is entirely menu driven
and constitutes a great leap forward in user friendliness. Texts can
be down loaded at the press of a key onto your local system and
from thence, if you wish, to your own Pc. The advantage of
having texts in electronic form is that they can be searched very
rapidly for words or phrases. For example, you may want to find
the references to ‘human nature’ in Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts
(available from the Marx -Engels-Archi ve at PSN). A job like this,
that would previously have taken a great deal of painstaking
labour, can now be accomplished almost instantly.

A staggering amount of material is available, and it is growing
more rapidly than systems to index it all. Although’ gopher space’

can be searched (with a facility called ‘veronica’), it can still be
difficult to locate what you want. Good places to start are the
American Philosophical Association and the PSN gophers. A
remarkable feature of the gopher system is that from any gopher
site you can connect directly to any other, world-wide. Starting at
the PSN gopher, you may locate another useful looking site. You
can then connect to it and repeat the process if necessary, until you
find what you are looking for.

Talk of an information ‘superhighway’ is exaggerated. It is
more like a maze of lanes and byways, connecting a mass of
villages and townships, depots and warehouses, amongst which
one can as easily get diverted and lost as arrive where one wants.

Happy hunting.

Some useful addresses:

Bulletin Boards and Lists:;;
DERRIDA@cfrvm.earn; HEGEL@villvm.earn;; HEIDEGGER and NIETZSCHE:


PSN:;; IPPE:; (philosophy texts)
Sean Sayers (

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