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What is the Peirce Telecommunity Project?

What follows below is a brief sketch of the history of the Peirce Telecommunity Project, omitting detail and documentation. The latter, which is extensive and may be of some value to others interested in the nature and problems of networking and network development generally or to those especially interested in the future of Peirce's philosophy in this respect, will be provided by hypertext inclusion, document by document, as time permits compiling it here systematically. I restrict reference to the various individuals involved to what seems to me to be a bare minimum, consistent with understanding the Project as something which has itself developed as its aim has matured.

The Peirce Telecommunity Project was formed late in 1992 as the continuation of a collaborative attempt to establish an on-line presence for Peirce's philosophy which had begun two years earlier. The original aim was to establish a location on the internet that would function, first of all, to make available on-line the vast corpus of unpublished Peirce manuscript material -- his "Nachlass" or "literary remains" -- in a form which would provide effective access to it to the world intellectual community in general for the first time. But the larger idea was to make that the first step toward establishing what would turn out in time to be the world center for accessing everything in connection with Peirce's work and for communicating with others about it. The culmination and end of the Peirce Telecommunity Project as a special project would be the establishment of Arisbe not simply as a website but as the locus of an ongoing, autonomous, self-organizing, and self-critical communicational process.

The initial collaborative group was the Electronic Peirce Consortium (EPC), whose five primary members (formally representing their respective universities) devoted their available time from late 1990 to late 1992 to developing a detailed practical plan for this while at the same time establishing themselves as credible in the network development world by presentations as a panel group at a number of influential professional meetings, the last of which was at Oxford University in the Spring of 1992.

   This activity resulted in a two-day symposium in Washington, D.C. on June 4-5, 1992, held at the Gelman Library at George Washington University, co-hosted by Georgetown University, and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The Symposium was planned, organized, and conducted by the members of the Electronic Peirce Consortium at the special request of NSF.

   This NSF-funded symposium was entitled "Casting the Net: Toward a Model for Communication and Collaboration on the Electronic Network" and consisted of a convening of some 30 major figures in networking and network development, representing a variety of perspectives on it -- scholarly, governmental, industrial, legal, librarial, computational, communicational -- who were invited by the EPC and NSF to assess our plan as a viable strategy for a network development project that might serve as a model for others, since it was -- and perhaps still is -- the first of its type. Representatives of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) were in special attendance at the symposium as well. At the symposium we presented our plan, opened the floor to the expression of critical response, and responded in turn to that.

   The reason for the extraordinary attention our plan was receiving was that in December of 1991 President George H. W. Bush had, without fanfare or publicity, signed into law a major bill (The High-Performance Computing Act of 1991: promoted especially by then Senator Al Gore, and driven politically by the uniform backing of the largest computer and telecommunications companies in the U.S.) that established the rationale and the initial financial basis (several billion dollars) for the National Research and Education Network (NREN). The idea of the NREN proved to be short-lived, though, and was subsequently and unobtrusively replaced across the year by the idea of "the National Information Infrastructure" (NII) instead, by an adroit renaming process that reflected a substantive decision made by the powers-that-be, during the year 1992, to shift from emphasis on developing education and research networking to emphasis on commercial development of the internet instead. (In the popular press it was labeled as "the Information Superhighway".) The passage of this heavily funded bill a year before President Bush left office apparently took many people in the networking world by surprise, and the convening of our colloquium served the purpose, from the point of view of the invited symposiasts, of providing a pretext for establishing a much-needed dialogue among themselves.

   The NREN legislation had extraordinary significance for NSF as a funding agency as well since it would be one of the chief dispensers of the development money regardless of how the plan itself was conceived or reconceived, but its passage had apparently come as a surprise to certain parts of that agency, too -- the National Science Foundation is divided into a number of semi-autonomous directorates -- and we were commissioned by them to stage the symposium, at a cost of some $30,000 dollars, partly in the interests of bringing a certain part of NSF (and, by accident, as it were, NEH as well) up to par in their understanding of what the full-scale development of the internet seemed to entail and promise, and also partly, of course, in the interest of establishing for the director of that program at NSF a new web of relationships with the networking experts whom we invited to participate. (The request was from Dr. Ronald Overmann, NSF Director for the Studies in Science, Technology, and Science Program.)

   The two-day symposium was a marvelous opportunity for us as developers and an almost wholly unqualified success, in that we -- the Electronic Pierce Consortium -- received at its conclusion a formal endorsement by the participants with remarkably little reservation, given the range of interests and perspectives represented there, and we also were apprised unofficially that arrangements would almost certainly be made for a conjoint funding by NSF and NEH (with NSF picking up the major expense) -- an unprecedented collaboration of the two agencies -- if we made appropriate applications for initial funding from both agencies simultaneously on September 1st.

   The application was never made because it turned out that internal disagreement among the five members of the Electronic Peirce Consortium immediately surfaced which made it impossible to cooperate further on the project, and the attempts to reconcile the differences and take advantage of the opportunity offered were unsuccessful. This is not the place to explain these differences in detail and it will have to suffice here to say that what was fundamentally at issue was (1) whether to continue the egalitarian collaborative structure of the EPC or to replace it by a directorially structured leader-and-team arrangement that would have subsumed the project itself under a pre-existing editorial project of which one of the members was already the director, and (2) whether to continue with the original vision of making the totality of the manuscript materials available to all interested persons generally, as rapidly as possible, or to adopt a narrower and more specialized vision of the goals of the project by making only a selected part of the manuscript material available, and this only to a restricted and highly specialized group during the first few years, deferring indefinitely the aim of general distribution. The explicit sticking point was on the first matter, though agreement to give control over to an official director would have settled the second question as well since decisions of that sort would have been those of the director. Disagreement on this proved to be irreconcilable, and when the two members of the group who favored the new directorial arrangement refused to participate further in the existing egalitarian collaboration the EPC became nonfunctional.

   The Peirce Telecommunity Project was then formed, through my own initiative only, as a special project of the Electronic Peirce Consortium when I perceived that the EPC was almost certainly going to dissolve as a collaborative enterprise in a very short time. I realized that if the original vision that had animated the EPC was not to be lost, for all practical purposes, and if the expertise and understanding of the ways of networking that I had myself acquired during the previous two years was to be put to any use in the service of Peirce scholarship -- if not then my own efforts over several years (which actually dated back to 1989, when I first conceived it) would have been wholly wasted -- it was essential to transfer the vision to another vehicle that would outlive the EPC, without suggesting a discontinuity with the earlier enterprise, as in fact there was none. This was done in late 1992 while there still seemed, superficially, to be some hope of continuing with the EPC itself, though I had by then come belatedly to realize that it was probably already moribund at the time of its apparent success, at the NSF symposium in the first week of June. In any case, the EPC ceased to be functional by the end of 1992 and from February 1st of 1993 on I was the only one still actively committed to the original vision.

   The two dissenting members have subsequently continued their networking activities in accordance with their own evolving strategic vision, first under the name of the "Peirce Database Project" and then under the acronymic names "ACCORD" and "PORT", both of which have (in 1996) a presence on the web. The two other members of the EPC returned to devoting themselves fulltime to the activities at their respective universities that they had been engaged in before the EPC was formed.

   The principle activity of the Peirce Telecommunity Project from 1993 to the present -- that is to say, my own activity since that time -- has been that of developing an initial basis for an on-line community: not, as originally planned, by arranging first for the distribution of the unpublished manuscript materials on-line, but rather by working first on developing a telecommunity that can make use of such on-line resources and is willing to cooperate in developing the on-line center in whatever ways are feasible at a given time as part of a long-range process of communicational interaction.

   The first step in that direction was the establishing of the list-based public discussion forum PEIRCE-L in July of 1993. Given this on-line forum, now well-established, one condition -- necessary but far from sufficient -- for an authentic communicational community of the sort envisioned has been met, and it is hoped that the Arisbe website, by providing a public place with space containing a continually growing stock of common goods and instruments that are used -- and in part produced by -- those already in communication with one another about Peirce, will in time encourage the conditions that will prove to be sufficient as well.

   It is worth mentioning, perhaps, that the Peirce Telecommunity Project, as described in a mission statement formally submitted in a competition staged by the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) in 1993, was one of two model projects selected by CNI in August of that year, and I was especially invited in consequence of that to give an address on the topic at the annual meeting of EDUCOM, held that year in Philadelphia. (The Coalition for Networked Information is a group concerned especially with the promotion of networking, formed by people representing the three most influential user-oriented information technology advocate groups in higher education: EDUCOM, CAUSE, and the Association of Research Librarians (ARL).)

   In its inception, the idea was quite simple at bottom: establish an on-line center for studies in the spirit of Peirce on the basis of his own presence in the treasure-trove of his manuscript material in particular, liberated by digital encoding and transcription from the moldering paper in which it is presently incarnated, in suspended animation, awaiting long overdue interpretation.

      Back then, at the beginning, I thought it possible to make that material available first and then see an international intellectual community develop around access to it as well as to other work of his and of others that could be added to it. As it has turned out it will be up to the interested community to work cooperatively in strengthening itself by developing the on-line resources in whatever ways it can. It is certainly possible if the will is there.

   But is there really any such community yet? There are many people interested in Peirce's ideas, since they are as timely as any to be found in philosophy at present; but that is not the same thing. I think I do perceive the real potentiality of sch a community, though, and an on-line location can at least be established as a place where such a communicational community can be actualized, if that is what is wanted -- or fated, as Peirce might put it. Thus the website Arisbe: the vision articulated as a sort of procedural sketch, a schematized image of a possibility.


This page contributed by: Joseph Ransdell

You can contribute to Arisbe yourself by responding critically to anything you find here, or by providing more information or other resource material, or simply by raising a cogent question. Whatever it might be, your contribution will be incorporated into Arisbe by explicit hypertext inclusion and itself become part of the standing resources here, and thus subject to further critical response or augmentation by others. In this way the collection of materials at Arisbe will grow continually toward the ideal of being the single and universally accessible resource center for all matters of interest in connection with Peirce and his work. In view of Peirce's extraordinary role in American intellectual history and his continuing relevance the aim is a reasonable and appropriate one.
More on this and on how to contribute
Page last modified by B.U. August 11, 2014, earliest on July 18, 2011 — B.U.
Last modified August 10, 1998 — J.R.

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