Before we begin, we might note that the social institution of research has witnessed many media come and go in its time, most of which will not be discussed in ths paper. In fact, we will focus on the spoken word, the advent of writing, manuscripts (rolls and codices), and the advent of printing, and then attempt to extrapolate to the Internet. In a way this is taking the easy route as it is the road well travelled. However, these media are important because they represented magnitude increases in both spatial and temporal dimensions over their predecessors in history, and thus became the dominant media of society in their days.
A more spatially extended medium will give researchers access to a larger group of people. This will allow them to collect data from a wider array of sources, providing more data, making it harder to resolve a controversy by being ignorant of outlying data. Researchers will be able to argue with larger numbers of interlocutors, increasing the pressure to develop stronger theses. Strong theses will be disseminated to large numbers of people, and then taken up by large numbers of people, and thus be harder to overthrow. Finally, effective ideas will attract the interest of larger numbers of society, making it perhaps possible to find a willing funder or potential new students.
A more temporally extended medium preserve arguments and constructed facts for longer periods of time. The longer a medium preserves a representation of some notion, its level of fixity, the more coherent its representations are. The more coherent representations are, the less secondary authors (those coming after) can modify the notion to fit their own worldview; and conversely, the less coherent, the more adaptable a notion is to individual and local perspectives, the more it becomes uncontroversial simply because it means all things to all people, and thus it is destroyed. Conversely, the more fixed a medium is, the more strongly criticized notions expressed in that medium as there is no other way to disrupt their influence them. The more criticism a notion can withstand, the more it becomes a fact, the more capable it is to dislodge a conservatively held social belief (of course, previously a 'fact'), and the more society will be able to progress.
The two dimensions are interchangeable. The longer a notion is fixed, and thus extended in time, the more researchers (even generations) will have access to it. The wider a notion is spread, the longer it will survive, as redundant copies of the notion can be used to inforce stability.
In either case, whenever a magnitude order more powerful medium comes along, it stands to reason that it will create massive changes to the structure of alliances that hold facts together since more people are brought to bear on the facts, people with heterogeneous perspectives, demands, interests, and biases. As such, upon introduction of a new medium, the first priority is to restabilize existing information. This tends to follow a pattern:
Since stable information becomes increasingly easy to understand, it becomes simpler to express, and thus easier to understand, and even simpler to express. Eventually the ideas become integrated into society after being distributed more effectively by this more powerful medium. This process will interest more people in the ideas, and thus increasing numbers of people will have opinions on this StableBase. Latour (as well as Plato, Aristotle, Galileo) argues that incoherent and inconsistent opinions, however, are a distraction and often counterproductive to research. Thus, the most serious and brightest of the "amateurs" begin to exclude the fickle and slack, creating the dichotomy between specialist and the laity. Standing out leads to the acquisition of funding; and it is clear that richer societies had better research. Exclusion of outsiders naturally leads towards self-organization, and therefore disciplinization. Self-organization leads to the creation of 'schools' (could be within existing institutions) in order to enculture new generations in that discipline.
Interestingly, in every major epoch, research is incredibly conservative (considering its purpose of deriving new ideas) about switching to the new medium. It takes AnIndividual who truly understands what the new communications medium can do to completely reform the institution, simply by outperforming the rest of the research society by orders of magnitudes.
The next major transition is from the printing press to the Internet. The Internet is a very strange and therefore unpredictable phenomenon in the lineage of media because it is like all media before. Like oral cultures, speech on the Internet can often become directly received by audiences as thought, except this speech is called software. Like manuscript cultures, the readers have control over when to copy information as that is the fundamental architecture of the Internet, yet only a few servers or hosts control the copies that everyone reads, making information on the Internet easy to change and therefore vulnerable to tampering or censorship. Like print, copies are exact, and they can be read all over the world. Unlike any new mass medium beforehand, the cost of using the Internet is considered affordable by most people in our middle class Western society.
Obviously whatever happens will ultimately largely shake up academia. The model above can help us make predictions. For one, the global reach of the spatial extent of the Internet will help academics reach new potential allies and interlocutors, and thus a shift in disciplines is likely. Second, the huge collection of printed materials will be transferred into the new medium eventually and then reorganized and integrated into a new stable base of thought, which will then expose contradictions and inconsistencies that will lead to new major breakthroughs. Copyright law is retarding this process, but it will be a long one anyway as the amount of information to transfer and integrate is beyond comprehension.
On the other dimension, information on the Internet is very fragile. It is constantly changing, going off-line, becoming corrupted, or not even being recorded. The solution will have to be similar to the days of manuscript culture when information was also very fragile. New social institutions like libraries will be needed to maintain the fixity of this information. However, the centralization of ancient libraries made them vulnerable to control. Undoubtedly the social institution for the Internet will be based on spreading a large number of copies around the Internet, automatically and rapidly. Depending on the structure of this social institution, criticism on the Internet will either be more like manuscript criticism in the form of marginalia and other annotations or like print criticism in the form of a series of articles. The World Wide Web has elements of both. On one hand, the authoritative versions of texts will be owned and controlled by few people, making it easy to place criticisms of a text directly on the text, just like marginalia. Any archiving and distribution system could easily automatically spread these annotations as well. On the other hand, most web sites do not allow readers to leave annotations on the texts, forcing them to criticize from other websites, just like article authors must criticize in new articles. This secondary system makes it harder, obviously, to understand a text in its context as surrounding criticisms are not directly visible. An archiving institution that did not propagate secondary criticisms along with texts would compel this print-like criticism, and thus continue the explosion of information. In reality, however, good search engines can compute in real time criticisms referring to a text even if they are not stuck directly on those texts. Google today is like a real-time Science Citation Index in the 1960s.
Finally, boundaries are always questionable, and academics are always consequently conservative. Plato did not like writing because he felt it disrupted his memory technique. Academics of the day shied away from the early printing press because it was used by quacks and pseudo-scientists. Many professors today have negative opinions about material on the web, complaining it is not peer reviewed (Arms, 2002). The case has been made here and by Latour that the notions of peer review and disciplinarity are induced by creating boundaries between academics and the laity. Just because the Internet as a whole belongs to the whole of society, that does not mean that academics cannot carve out their own space under their control. It will probably take someone young who has grown up with the technology to demonstrate just what the new medium can do, just as Aristotle did with writing and Tycho Brahe did with the press. Maybe it will take more than one person, but no doubt a few individuals will lead the way. Fortunately, we live in the age where people have grown up with computers and the Internet for their entire reading lives, so we will likely begin to see the changes soon.