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See the Theory

By Derek Winkler


CTHEORY, one of Canada’s oldest and most-significant Net-based publications, has suffered a grave injustice. This summer it was nominated for a Canadian Internet Award in the category of Best Internet Publication – Electronic, and failed to win.

This by itself is a disappointment, but not a scandal. It was up against some pretty stiff competition from the likes of eye Weekly and Southam@Canada, established media outlets with ready supplies of both cash and content. Other worthy contenders for the award included obsessively meticulous hockey site Le Coq Sportif, West Coast current affairs site NetBC News Web, and The Internet Business Journal, to name a few. All nice sites. You could see how one of them might win a popular vote, but none of them did.

And then there was The HyperInfo Knowledge Power Centre. This is a site so lame, so lacking in content, so poorly designed and unpleasant to look at, so obviously intended to serve only the function of selling product, that it can barely be described as a publication at all, except in the sense that catalogs and sales brochures are also publications. It would be hard to justify spending money on electricity to keep this site’s server running. That’s how excrementally unbearably awful it is. Hold that mental image.

None of the nominees have the pedigree and Net-wide respect of CTHEORY, of course. The three-year-old site racks up a million hits a year. An AltaVista search turns up 800 links to CTHEORY from other sites (Broken Pencil has 24. Ah well). It’s a sort-of academic publication on speed, a multidisciplinary refereed electronic journal, taking as its subject matter the bleeding edge where theory, technology and culture perform reconstructive surgery on each other.

The whole scene is moderated by Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, who have day jobs as a political science professor at Concordia University in Montreal and as general editor of the CultureTexts book series for St. Martin’s Press respectively. They also have side gigs as lecturers/performance artists on the digital culture circuit. Their most recent book, “Hacking the Future”, comes bundled with a CD featuring the two of them reading excepts of the text over an ambient-techno soundtrack.

Serious people play at CTHEORY. The first four names on the list of editorial board members are Kathy Acker, Jean Baudrillard, Bruce Sterling and R.U. Sirius, and that’s just for starters. When you read through some of the most recent articles, like “Net Game – An American Dialogue” or “Memetic Flesh in Cyber-City”, you know you aren’t at Hotwired anymore. New articles go out to an e-mail listserv weekly, fetching up on the website later. The feedback rolls in from across the globe, from academics, engineers, journalists, writers, artists and assorted techno-fringe people.

“I got a phone call the other day from a video maker in Finland who wanted to start an electronic journal in Lapland,” says Marilouise, “and he said he watches CTHEORY very closely and wanted to thank us, because it really helped them develop their own site, so that was quite good.”

“CTHEORY is an opening on the world,” says Arthur. “In Canada there’s a lot of bunker mentality, but the whole point is to simultaneously be aware of and maintain a respect for Canadian circumstances, and to take an interest in the world and in global culture.”

“Being here in Canada, we’re able to bridge what goes on in the States and what goes on in Europe and Japan,” notes Marilouise. “We’ve been able to take that a step further electronically. We wanted to do that in print, but we were only able to go so far.”

Flash back to the University of Winnipeg, 1976. The Internet was still a Cold War experiment, the Web was about 15 years into the future, and the Krokers had just launched a new academic publication called The Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory. Despite the rather dry name, it was a daring push at the envelope of what a scholarly journal could be. It was thematic, each issue taking on a topic such as Ideology and Power in the Age of Marxism in Ruins, or Japanese critiques of technology. It was multidisciplinary rather than narrowly-focused. It was cosmopolitan rather than pure Can-con. In fact, the CJPST was once refused a grant “because it wasn’t parochial enough,” recalls Arthur.

By the time the CJPST had reached its fifteenth anniversary in 1991 it had been transplanted to Concordia and had become a highly respected intellectual review. Unfortunately, rising postal rates, rising paper costs and the GST were squeezing the production budget and making the journal more expensive for readers to buy. Moving the whole show onto the Net would cause those problems to simply vanish.

“The granting agencies in Canada are encouraging all of their funded publications and journals to go on-line as fast as possible, and they’re doing it for no particular intellectual reason,” says Arthur. “It’s purely financial. They’ll be cheaper to put out.”

Worse than the money crunch, however, were the long downtimes between issues. The twice-a-year publishing schedule was just too little, too late for what the Krokers wanted to cover.

“We couldn’t publish articles immediately the way we wanted to,” says Marilouise. “An article in a journal shouldn’t be a book. You want the article in, you want to send it out to referees, you want to have the person re-work it and you want to have it in print within a month or so.”

So after that fifteenth anniversary issue, the CJPST curled up in a paper cocoon and transformed itself into the all-digital CTHEORY, first in the form of an e-mail list, later with a website added on.

“It was very shocking for our readers,” says Marilouise. “We got lots of response, people saying, ‘Why are you doing this?’ But it enables us to do what we couldn’t do as a print journal. We can publish immediately if there’s an event-scene. If people want to talk about the French election or whatever, we can get it out the next week or we can get it out the next day if we have to. You can play around with the format and the style. We went to San Francisco for a month and we wrote ‘Thirty Cyber-Days in San Francisco.’ That’s the kind of thing we couldn’t do with a print journal.”

The jump to electrons involved some trade-offs, naturally. Trade-off number one is that not everyone recognizes the value of an electronic publication. Unfortunately, those people are usually the ones who hold the purse strings.

“[We’ve lost] a concrete publication that you could hand someone who’s not on the Net and say, ‘This is what I’ve been doing.’ That’s the only problem,” says Marilouise. “Right now we’re having a problem with Concordia University. We only have one person who’s paid, our listserv manager, and we really couldn’t manage without him. They want to pull the plug on his position, and it’s very very hard to show these people who are not themselves on the Net what we’re doing.”

Trade-off number two is very McLuhan: it is necessary to let the medium shape the message. Articles that go on for thousands and thousands of words do not translate well to the screen, because nobody is willing to stare at a screen long enough to read them all. Shorter articles and essays became preferable for CTHEORY. Still, the website had to be designed carefully in order to keep such a text-heavy presentation from looking dull.

That job fell to Carl Steadman, CTHEORY’s web editor, who is probably best-known these days as co-founder of Suck. The design he came up with passes on all the trendy multimedia web widgets in favour of clean simplicity.

“I’m really proud of the way CTHEORY looks on the screen,” says Steadman. “I think the simple black text on the white background, with the first three words of every paragraph bolded, makes for something very readable and pleasing to look at. I think CTHEORY does a good job of focusing in on the text, by making the text itself a design element. And the simplified design isn’t just pleasing to the eye, it becomes very cross-browser and cross-platform. At the same time, it isn’t simply plain black text on a gray background – there is a sense to design to it, one that just happens to work across multiple browsers and displays.”

The CTHEORY site leans so much towards the clean and simple look that there are almost no graphics on display at all. This will change over the next year or so, however, as CTHEORY teams up with some Swedish multimedia wizards to try out a few more things you can’t do in print. The publication may be mostly words-in-a-row right now, but you can’t stand still if you want to stay on a moving edge.

“In the future, CTHEORY will certainly be trying other methods of approaching the intersection of theory, technology, and culture, even as that horizon continually moves further distant,” says Carl Steadman. “Remaining topical and relevant is key, and publishing on the web allows us to do that.”

This is what an electronic publication can be when it’s done right. CTHEORY does more than digitize random personal rants or recycled magazine features. It serves as the hub of a global intellectual community. It provides a forum for high-grade thought to a world-wide audience on a constantly updated basis, and it does it with very little cash. It would be greatly missed if it were suddenly gone, and there aren’t many Canadian e-zines you can say that about. It is simply the best electronic publication in the country.

So who won the 1996 Canadian Internet Award for Best Internet Publication – Electronic? You guessed it. The HyperInfo Knowledge Power Centre.

That’s the injustice. How such a site even came to be on the same ballot with a forum like CTHEORY, much less the winner, can only be attributed to alien mind-control devices or round-the-clock spamming of the public voting system. Spokespersons for the Canadian Internet Awards did not respond to e-mails proposing this hypothesis.

But never mind. Broken Pencil is pleased to award CTHEORY the coveted title of Best Internet Publication – For People With Half A Clue.

Montreal e-zine duo transform academia

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