Congress and the Internet First Draft

Since the birth of the internet, Congress has enacted a variety of legislation dealing with how the public uses the internet.  These range from the regulation of internet gambling to net neutrality to the discussion of the internet kill switch[i].  Clearly, Congress is concerned with how the American people are using the internet.

But what about our Congressmen and Senators themselves?  That is the subject of this essay, where a variety of questions will be asked about the relationship between Congress and the Internet.  These questions are: how do Congressmen use the internet, was Congress fast or slow to adopt the use of the internet, and has the development of the internet played a major role in political campaigning?  A survey of several pieces of literature reveals not only the nature of Congress’s use of the internet, but raises important questions regarding both the timing and future of its use.

First, a brief history of the internet.  This is important because it provides a general framework for us to consider these questions about Congress.  Its origins date back to 1969, when the Department of Defense had four computers connected[ii].  After years of development, it entered widespread public use between 1994 and 1995[iii].

Now, let us look at the history of the use of the internet by members of Congress.  The internet came to Congress in 1995[iv].  This owes much to the efforts of then Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich[v].  His efforts resulted in the inauguration of a number of computer systems through which Congressmen could communicate with each other and the public.  They include making it mandatory for committees to make information available online, and THOMAS (Thomas.loc.gov), which provides, “bill summaries and status updates, committee reports, the Congressional Record, etc. to both the public and Congressmen”[vi].  A couple of years later, the U.S. Senate set up the Legislative Information Retrieval System[vii].  The immediate result of all these efforts was that:

By the spring of 1996, 117 members and 58 Senators maintained sites on the internet. By the spring of 1997, 240 House members and 83 Senators were on the internet.  By the end of 1999, 432 House members maintained internet sites, along with all 100 members of the U.S. Senate[viii].

 

This is an amazing transformation to have occurred in sixteen years. Why emphasize that Congress has been utterly transformed in such a short period of time?  The research uncovered an interesting fact about Congress.  It has traditionally been very reluctant to adopt new technologies.  This point is emphasized in Congress and the Internet: Highlights. In the 1870’s, Thomas Edison believed that his idea to install electronic voting machines in Congress would be readily accepted[ix].  Instead, it was defeated by a vote of 86 to 82[x].  Why did this happen?  When he made a similar appeal to this Massachusetts State legislator, he was shut down because it was felt his machine would interfere with the minority’s ability to delay legislation[xi].  The same could be said of Congress.  As the article points out about Congress’s attitude:

Change often brings in its wake both pluses and minuses and has the potential to change the distribution of influence within Congress.               Before lawmakers sign on to change, they want to know: Who stands to win or lose power with the new technology? Are there electoral risks associated with its use? What are its costs and benefits? Will Members become too dependent on the technology? How long will it be before the technology becomes obsolete?[xii]

 

It would take 100 years before electronic voting was used in the House[xiii].  Similar obstacles were faced by television.  Congressional hearings were not televised till the 1970’s, the argument being that people would use their presence as an opportunity to grandstand (those who thought that are probably laughing right now)[xiv].

Why then, was the internet adopted relatively quickly?  The article “The Rise of the Cyber-Legislator: Congress and the Internet in the Last 20th Century” emphasizes the role that leaders played in pushing its use through.  So many innovations were brought to Congress because the Speaker of the House pushed.  The beginning of the article states that the entire study that formed the meat of the material showed that “Ideological extremists and party leaders are consistently more embracing of the internet’s essential characteristics: a national focus and the provision of links to outside sites”[xv].  This suggests the technological revolution moved at a quicker pace in part because it was a top-down approach, rather than a grassroots, which would have had to contend with established interests.  Also perhaps, it’s in part because we live in a far more technological society.  While it was 100 years before electronic voting was used in Congress, it was only about 60 from the invention of television[xvi].  There seems to be a natural lessoning of the time technology spends outside of Congress.  Perhaps then, the internet is simply at some level the inheritor of the trend of increasing technology and new innovations coming out and being accepted sooner.

Thus, we have covered the introduction of Internet use into Congress.  However, there are still the questions regarding how Congressmen use the internet in Congress and during campaigns. Congress and the Internet: Highlights brings up that “both the House and

Senate prohibit Members from using electronic devices on the floor for concern that

they would disrupt the deliberative process”[xvii].  In addition to responding to emails, the article spoke greatly of the rising use of the internet to communicate directly with voters and “virtual town halls”[xviii].  It does seem to emphasize that only a few have done this so far, indicating that we are actually on the threshold of realizing the internet’s potential for Congressmen rather than living in the middle of it[xix].

And as for campaigns, the effect also seems to be small for the moment.  It should be emphasized that “26% of Americans mention the internet either first or second as their main source of election news”[xx].  This figure comes from an article talking about how traditional sources of news are declining, but still used by the majority for issues related to elections[xxi].  Overall, as a tool to communicate with constituents, the internet does not seem to have reached its full potential.

In conclusion, what can we tell about Congress and the Internet?  Despite traditional hostility towards the internet, top-down pressure resulted in the mass and relatively fast introduction of the internet to the halls of Congress.  As can be gathered from the fact that so many parts of Congress place their proceedings online, a sort of transparency does seem to have been enforced[xxii].  Still, the full potential of the internet has yet to be realized by our leaders.  That is something we should probably expect to see in the coming years.


[i] “Internet Gambling Curbs Enacted”, In J. Austin (Ed.), CQ almanac 2006 (62nd ed.), Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 2007, URL: http://library.cqpress.com/congress/cqal06-1421279;

“Net Neutrality”, New York Times, 2010, URL:  http://topics.nytimes.com/topics/reference/timestopics/subjects/n/net_neutrality/index.html; Bianca Bosker, “Internet ‘Kill Switch’ Approved By Senate Homeland Security Committee”, Huffington Post,  06/25/10, updated 08/25/10, URL: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/25/internet-kill-switch-appr_n_625856.html

[iv] John Messmer, “The Rise of the Cyber-Legislator: Congress and the Internet in the Last 20th Century”, 15, URL: http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?sid=1&attempt=1&maxresults=30&maxtopics=56&maxpubs=32&sq=STYPE%28dissertation%29+AND+%28%28AU%28Messmer%2C+John%29+AND+TI%28The+rise+of+the+cyber-legislator%3A+Congress+and+the+Internet+in+the+late-twentieth+century%29+AND+DEGDT%282001%29%29+OR+ISBN%28978-0-49-323241-6%29%29&RQT=309&xsq=STYPE%28dissertation%29+AND+%28%28AU%28Messmer%2C+John%29+AND+TI%28The+rise+of+the+cyber-legislator%3A+Congress+and+the+Internet+in+the+late-twentieth+century%29+AND+DEGDT%282001%29%29+OR+ISBN%28978-0-49-323241-6%29%29&did=728889881&skip=1&rqt=309&vinst=PROD&mfgquery=STYPE%28dissertation%29+AND+%28%28AU%28Messmer%2C+John%29+AND+TI%28The+rise+of+the+cyber-legislator%3A+Congress+and+the+Internet+in+the+late-twentieth+century%29+AND+DEGDT%282001%29%29+OR+ISBN%28978-0-49-323241-6%29%29&fmt=14&ssm=S&startpage=-1&vname=PQD&sortby=N&vtype=PQD&TS=1300847584&clientId=31806

[v] Walter J. Oleszek, “Congress and the Internet: Highlights”, Congressional Research Service, 2007, 11, URL: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/secrecy/RL34148.pdf

[vi] Olezek, 11-12

[vii] Olezek, 11-12

[viii] John Messmer, “The Rise of the Cyber-Legislator: Congress and the Internet in the Last 20th Century”, 15, URL: http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?sid=1&attempt=1&maxresults=30&maxtopics=56&maxpubs=32&sq=STYPE%28dissertation%29+AND+%28%28AU%28Messmer%2C+John%29+AND+TI%28The+rise+of+the+cyber-legislator%3A+Congress+and+the+Internet+in+the+late-twentieth+century%29+AND+DEGDT%282001%29%29+OR+ISBN%28978-0-49-323241-6%29%29&RQT=309&xsq=STYPE%28dissertation%29+AND+%28%28AU%28Messmer%2C+John%29+AND+TI%28The+rise+of+the+cyber-legislator%3A+Congress+and+the+Internet+in+the+late-twentieth+century%29+AND+DEGDT%282001%29%29+OR+ISBN%28978-0-49-323241-6%29%29&did=728889881&skip=1&rqt=309&vinst=PROD&mfgquery=STYPE%28dissertation%29+AND+%28%28AU%28Messmer%2C+John%29+AND+TI%28The+rise+of+the+cyber-legislator%3A+Congress+and+the+Internet+in+the+late-twentieth+century%29+AND+DEGDT%282001%29%29+OR+ISBN%28978-0-49-323241-6%29%29&fmt=14&ssm=S&startpage=-1&vname=PQD&sortby=N&vtype=PQD&TS=1300847584&clientId=31806

[ix] Olezek, 6

[x] Olezek, 6

[xi] Olezek, 7

[xii] Olezek, 5

[xiii] Olezek, 7

[xiv] Olezek, 8

[xv] Messmer, 11

[xvi] “Television History-The First 75 Years”, URL: http://tvhistory.tv/pre-1935.htm

[xvii] Olezek, 14

[xviii] Olezek, 13

[xix] Olezek, 13

[xx] “Internet’s Broader Role in Campaign 2008 Social Networking and Online Videos Take Off”, PEW Research Center, 2008, URL:  http://people-press.org/report/384/internets-broader-role-in-campaign-2008

[xxi] “Internet’s Broader Role in Campaign 2008 Social Networking and Online Videos Take Off”

[xxii] Messmer, 187

Digital Project Draft: Comps are Coming!

Do a quick search on Google for “history comp exam study guide” and what comes up? Well, as of March 23, 2011, the second website listed is HistoryComps.com. That’s right, HistoryComps.com is up and running, and who needs GoogleAds to market your website when you’re already one of the top results?

So here’s my roadmap: after a month of work, book lists and sample comp exam questions for various subfields under US History I (Colonial to Civil War) are posted. These are the main two offerings on the site (book lists and comp questions) and, when completed, will include various historical topics, including US History II, Latin American History, Late Medieval and Early Modern European History, Modern European History, Eastern European and Russian History, History of the Middle East and North Africa, History of East and Central Asia, US Diplomatic History, Environmental History, and History of Medicine. When writing the proposal for this project, I explained that my focus would be on American history while leaving the opportunity for expansion into other fields as the website gains success. However, by posting these possible fields now and allowing students and academics to email their own books lists and comp questions from those subjects of their own interests, expansion may happen sooner than originally intended. Even without help from others, it takes between one and two months to find and post book lists and comp questions for each field, such that an all-encompassing website that includes every historical field should be completed within a year. Either way, a complete draft of my project is available under the US History I section. In proceeding with the other sections, I will essentially mirror the work I have done on this first section.

As a draft, HistoryComps.com now provides book lists divided by nine subfields of early American history such that students can search through a topic like Women and Gender. Once clicking on one of the books (like this one), the student is taken to a page dedicated to that book which shows a picture of the book cover, a link to purchase the book on Amazon.com (I will later include a link to Alibris as well), and a button to search for scholarly book reviews of that particular work on JSTOR. The page also includes directions on how the student might write their own review which they can post in the comments section of that book’s webpage. I chose to use the Disqus plugin for comments as it allows students to post while logged in to Disqus, Google, Twitter, Facebook, Yahoo, or OpenID.  Disqus also allows visitors to click on whether they “like” posted reviews, which gives others a better idea of those reviews which are most helpful. The section on Sample Comp Questions is similar in its providing questions within each subfield and a dedicated webpage for each individual question allowing students to post their own practice essays in the comments sections at the bottom of those pages (like my own essay posted on this page). I also encourage students to email their practice essays if they’d prefer, such that a .pdf file can be uploaded to the page rather than in the comments section.

In the end, this website is meant to serve as a study guide for history graduate students across the nation, and it is up to their participation for it to succeed. Once I have completed enough of the website, an email will be sent to administrators in history departments across the country for them to forward an announcement regarding the online History Comprehensive Exam Study Guide.

Midwifery In Colonial America

Historians have utilized existing court records from colonial Virginia, specifically the records of the General Court, Richmond County Court and Accomack – Northampton County Court to study local history, legal history and even gender relations. Thus far there has been little attention given to women’s history as presented within these records. I am currently reviewing these same records to determine the types of cases which brought women to court during the colonial period in Virginia and who testified in those cases. Specifically, I am searching for the presence of midwives within the court records. Historically, in England in addition to their role in childbirth, midwives testified in court in regard to cases of bastardy, infanticide, fornication, adultery, rape and witchcraft. My research will determine if this aspect of their practice made the journey with them from England to the colony of Virginia.

My website, www.midwiferyincolonialamerica.com focuses on the practice of midwifery in colonial Virginia based upon the information available in local court records. Women seldom left letters or diaries behind, especially midwives who usually did not keep records to protect the secrets of both the birthing room and their patients. In the absence of first-hand accounts, court records can provide a window through which historians can view the lives of these early settlers and gain an understanding regarding their gendered roles, social relations and gendered power dynamics.

I selected a ready-made product such as Omeka.com and a hosting service, BlueHost.com to create my website. I have provided links to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s website, www.dohistory.org, the site for Archiving Early America at www.earlyamerica.com and Colonial Williamsburg at www.colonialwilliamsburg.org which provides information on midwives and apothecaries.

The website currently features a specific case which moved from the local court, through the Court of Oyer and Terminer and ultimately ended at the General Court of Colonial Virginia. So far, I have located all of the records except those of the General Court which contain the final decision and punishment assigned to the case. This website is a work in progress and will most likely continue to evolve as I locate additional resources and information to add to its pages.

The Virtual Memorial:Reconciling Disparity Between Physical and Virtual Presence

 

The District of Columbia’s National Mall is home to four memorials commemorating the sacrifice of American soldiers who served in overseas conflicts.  The World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War memorials are national memorials while the World War I memorial, or the D.C. War Memorial as it is also referred to, is a local memorial that honors the 499 D.C. residents who lost their lives. There is no national WWI memorial.  The WW I memorial “is in extreme disrepair, it is hidden away among overgrown trees and bushes, and it is seldom marked on Park Service or other tourist maps or signs.” Ironically, in spite of the WWI memorial’s physical dilapidation, its online presence is the most advanced and well-represented of the memorial quartet.  It is this marked distinction between the physical and virtual memorial sites that I would like to explore in further detail.

The official WWII, Vietnam, and Korean War memorial websites created and maintained by the National Park Service are utilitarian, bare-bones sites that provide basic historical background, answers to frequently asked questions, and a “Photos & Multimedia” page with a few photos and no multimedia (it should also be noted that the Korean War memorial page does not even have a Photos & Multimedia tab). The World War I memorial, being a local rather than national landmark, does not have an official National Park Service website but The World War I Memorial Foundation, a not-for-profit foundation formed in August 2008, has developed a website to “advocate and raise funds for the re-dedication of the DC War Memorial as a national World War I Memorial.” The World War I Memorial Foundation was inspired by Frank Buckles, the last surviving American veteran of World War I (who just passed away on February 27, 2011 at 110 years old), and honorary chairman of the Foundation. Buckles drew attention to the fact that there was no national memorial, a grave oversight compounded by the fact that the local memorial was run down and neglected.  In response, The National Park Service and announced in 2009 that “it would dedicate $7.3 million of ‘stimulus funds’ to the full restoration of the memorial. Once restored and re-landscaped, and re-dedicated as a national memorial, the DC War Memorial will give honor to the heroic deeds and sacrifice of all World War I veterans equal to that bestowed on the veterans of later wars.”

The World War I Memorial Foundation’s website stands in stark contrast to the official National Park Service memorial websites and serves as an excellent model of what the National Park websites could be with some alterations and improvements.  First, the Foundation’s site is visually appealing, displaying striking color photographs that evidence the solemnity and quiet grandeur of the memorial to its best advantage. The poor condition of the physical site is not readily apparent in the images to further exhibit its former (and future) splendor.  The site creator chose to use visually stimulating interactive media whenever possible: using a Google map satellite image of the memorial as well as a video archive.  A “news” page keeps readers abreast of any memorial related news and events, and they offer visitors the opportunity to subscribe to their online newsletter.  Considering this is a non-profit website primarily concerned with raising awareness, obtaining signatures for their petition, and soliciting donations, the website was created with remarkable care and attention to detail.

It is extraordinary that the “forgotten” memorial should be possessed of the most impressive website.  Its striking virtual presence almost mocks its material decay. What is most surprising, however, is not the incongruity of the WWI memorial’s physical and virtual presence, but the disparity between the physical and virtual on the National Park Service websites representing the other three memorials.  That these popular, well-maintained memorials should have such uninspiring online representation is startling.  Perhaps, The National Park Service assumes that an improved online experience is not necessary since they are not concerned with increasing awareness, revenue, or foot traffic; but, by neglecting and letting their websites fall into “disrepair,” they are missing out on the opportunity to transform their sites into exceptional educational tools.  As it is now, the National Park Service’s websites merely provide an adumbration of the memorials, almost concealing more information than they provide.  In the final project, I would like to explore how the National Park Service can enhance their web presence using sites like the World War I Memorial foundations website as a model.

Kirschenbaum

Matthew Kirschenbaum is an associate professor of English at the University of Maryland.  He is also the associate director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, making him more than qualified to write Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination.

Mechanisms takes a new approach to studying new media and born-digital writing.  Kirschenbaum explores the contemporary by using case studies from earlier decades to show how technology has changed over time.  In the first chapter Kirschenbaum explains what he describes as ‘Forensic Materiality’ – which “rests upon the principle of individuality” – data leaves distinct marks that are used in computer forensics.  The second chapter is given over to storage technology, specifically, hard drives.  This makes the book unique in its field, as this is a topic that has not really been explored or written about until Mechanisms.  Kirschenbaum argues that it is essential to understand the hard drive in order to fully comprehend new media.

The third chapter focuses on, what Kirschenbaum labels, ‘Formal Materiality’ – “the impositions of multiple relational computational states on a date set of digital object” (9).  The example he gives for this is a digital media file, which contains multiple layers.  Using a walkthrough of the game, Mystery House, Kirschenbaum proves how Forensic Materiality and Formal Materiality complement each other.

Chapter four and five are similar to chapter three in that they use examples (Joyce’s Afternoon and Gibson’s Agrippa, respectively) to show how new media and electronic writing are changed, erased, repeated, and stored over time.  Using computer forensics, Kirschenbaum illustrates how the digital is more material than it may first appear.  It is a tangible thing whose layers can be peeled back despite that fact that we cannot touch the files.

The book is well written though I find it a bit dense.  I was slow in understanding what he meant by Forensic Materiality and Formal Materiality but with later chapters that included the walkthroughs, I was able to gain a better understanding.  This book was definitely written for an audience with some prior knowledge of the history of technology.

How do you think Kirschenbaum’s argument influences us to think differently about storage and born digital media?  Considering how deeply computer forensics can probe into a hard drive or other storage, what should remain private and what should be public?  What effect will this have on ethics?

I leave you with a quote: “Product and process, artifact and event, forensic and formal, awareness of the mechanism modulates inscription and transmission through the singularity of a digital present” (23).