UNESCO Social and Human Sciences
 
You are in the MOST Phase I website (1994-2003).
The MOST Phase II website is available at: www.unesco.org/shs/most.
 


 
UNESCO Social and Human Sciences
 
You are in the MOST Phase I website (1994-2003).
The MOST Phase II website is available at: www.unesco.org/shs/most.
 


 

The Internet for Social Scientists

by Craig McKie and Paul de Guchteneire


What is the Internet?

The Internet is simply a very large number of interconnected computers. These computers, (each with its own address or 'IP number'), are connected in a single global co-operative by wire, by fibre optic cables, by satellite links or by telephone lines. The manner of connection is not nearly so important as the fact that each member computer can exchange large amounts of digitised information freely across the world with any or all other connected computers. Distance has thus ceased to be the decisive factor in human intellectual life. As a result, the social scientist can ill afford to ignore the power of the Internet to both disseminate and to collect and sift information in all its forms.

From the point of view of the social scientist, the Internet offers access to unimaginably large amounts of information, data, and interpretative material in a timely, cost-effective, and comfortable manner. Further, the user can easily become an active contributor to the body of knowledge on offer in the world with very little additional effort. Contributions can be made through the exchange of electronic mail with distant colleagues, through postings to the USENET newsgroups, and to topic-particular e-mail discussion groups (listservs) . Integrated with everyday work, the Internet offers an incomparable opportunity to actively participate in the accumulation and dissemination of a truly global body of professional social science knowledge, expertise, and opinion.

Using the Internet is getting easier all the time, in no small measure because of the rapid adoption of the World Wide Web as a presentation standard for all manner of digital materials including text, graphics, programmes, and even audio and video across the Internet. Use of 'the Web' is based on a 'point and click ' approach in its full graphics form, and the use of the keyboard arrow keys in the less attractive text-only mode. Both methods are easy to master, hard to break, and are forgiving in the extreme for novices. And, when a resource is located, its location can be saved so that the address (or Uniform Resource Locator, the URL) need never be written down or committed to memory. The saved URL, which is stored together with a descriptive title of the user's choosing, can be easy recalled and used. The Web itself has become the contemporary equivalent of the great library at Alexandria, though it is much more robust than its predecessor because it is not flammable, nor is it subject to the intrusive influence of any single government. The Web is a liberated zone of free and, if necessary, anonymous expression.

How can social scientists benefit from the Internet....

Social Scientists can benefit in many ways from the use of the Internet toolset. In general, the Internet delivers better, faster, more timely communication with colleagues and sources of information than has ever before been available to social scientists. It offers enhanced collaboration, better dissemination of one's information, instantaneous peer review, and low barriers to publication of drafts and requests for comments. It can also be used to acquire huge public datasets from a multitude of national data services and international agencies. Fast searches of recent periodical literature are also available free of charge as are current information sources on contemporary geopolitical events. Taken together, these tools allow social scientists to become active participants in the events which shape and illuminate contemporary social processes and discourse. They are a marvellous addition to the set of skills offered to the world by social science as an institution.

In the future, new tools will be added to this toolkit. Already, experiments with slow scan television carried over the Internet have made it possible for professors in one continent to conduct interviews of colleagues in another 'live' in the classrooms of each. Though the sound quality is excellent, the slow scan television is yet not up to commercial standards but the spontaneity of such exchanges of views renders the video quality of little significance. Also available are software packages with enable two-way telephone-like voice conversations between colleagues over the Internet which are free of charge and scrambled to prevent interception. In general, these new and experimental software advances are free of charge (for example, CuSEEme television, PGPphone, and Nautilus)

The MOST Clearing House on the Internet.

MOST makes use of the full potential of the Internet to disseminate information from the programme and to facilitate the co-operation of researchers in the joined international projects. Since the distance between the partners in MOST projects is usually big, some projects are even world-wide, co-operation through the Internet has become the only reasonable alternative for efficient communication and collaboration. The MOST Clearing House provides several tools for collaboration such as e-mail discussion lists, the circulation of draft documents and the facilities to give feedback to working papers. For the broader scientific public the Clearinghouse provides access to all publications and documents of the programme in the available languages, and to an Events Calendar that features up-to-date announcements on upcoming events. A publicly accessible databank on Best Practices in policy-making is in preparation. Finally, several discussion lists in which interested scholars can discuss the themes and projects of MOST are being established.

The MOST Clearinghouse can be reached at http://www.unesco.org/most

Tools of the Internet....

· Electronic Mail - e-mail

allows you to exchange information, files, manuscripts rapidly and effectively (including files from the common word processing packages if suitably encoded). Many exchanges of messages can take place during a working day. The effect is that of a conversation between interested co-workers. Also possible is active collaboration on a single project between several colleagues thousands of kilometres apart who may never have actually met each other. New collaborations become feasible; old ones become closer and more continuous. Because time zone differences can be overcome ('conversations' need not be confined to times when both parties are 'logged on'), the range of possible collaborators is greatly expanded. Every user has his or her own unique e-mail address. It looks like someone@somewhere.com. The first term is the user's logon name and the second is his or her home machine's name. Use is as simple as composing a memo and sending it off to its destination with a few key strokes. It is however mandatory that you know the correct e-mail address of your intended recipient.

· Listservs

are dissemination engines. They are e-mailing lists which can send single e-mail messages (including many sorts of files if desired) to an unlimited number of recipients who are members of a list. Any member of a list can, with one message, address all of the members of the list. Listservs are maintained at a single location and to write to the entire list, all that is required is a single message to the listserv. Listservs can be started on almost any Internet host computer that has the required (free) software installed. In principle, any group of e-mailers who share a common interest can start a listserv on any subject imaginable. Lists can be open to all or closed to all but welcome applicants. Postings can be moderated (reviewed by an editor) or unmoderated; additionally, e-mail postings to the listserv can be encrypted so that the source of a posting can be truly anonymised if desired. In addition, there are features which allow compilation of daily message packages rather than or in addition to allowing the individual retransmission of submissions as soon as they arrive. Some list owners also maintain archives of submissions.

· Newsgroups

Another way in which information is circulated by Internet users is by posting to and reading of the USENET newsgroups (of which there are now thousands). Newsgroups are topic specific. One simply posts information or a question in the form of an e-mail message to a newsgroup or newsgroups which seem appropriate for your interests. Readers `subscribe' to newsgroups they wish to read using reader software such as tin. Since posting and reading are independent actions, and there is no obligation to do either, it is never certain who may read your posting. In practice, some newsgroups are very well read, particularly where they have come to be a place for debates on topics that attract a large and active audience. You may post questions and receive advice from others very quickly, sometimes in a matter of minutes. In essence, strangers (who may post anonymously should they wish) may become your information agents in many remote locations simultaneously.

· The World Wide Web

is the most sophisticated venue of information exchange on the Internet. The user has access to millions of 'Web pages' which may contain data sources, information and/or other onward 'links'. The resources of Web pages maybe viewed with a Web browser (such as Netscape) or textually (with a text based browser such as Lynx). It helps to know where to start. One good place to begin is Yahoo in California, a site started by two students at Stanford University. Its address is http://www.yahoo.com. It has a well developed social science component of useful links. All addresses on the web are in http format (hypertext transport protocol).

· Telnet

· is the modern traveller's friend. When you have an Internet account and you are travelling, a colleague with access to an Internet account wherever in the world you are may help you to telnet to your home Internet account. You may then logon and use it as if you were in your own office, reading your e-mail for instance. There are no additional charges for this service no matter how distant the telnet connection is nor how long it lasts; its part of the toolkit.

· The older tools

· There are several older Internet tools. Without going into detail here, they function to distribute free software, information and allow simultaneous real time conversations between dispersed participants. These tools are still valuable but their functions tend now to be 'buried' in other more sophisticated software packages and are thus hidden from view.

Where to Start....

· Getting Connected

Every user needs access to the Internet by means of a 'member' computer. Many professionals choose to do this by means of a personal computer, a modem and a telephone connection to an Internet 'host' computer. In the academic context, a connection may be provided in a number of different ways: Ethernet cable, internal telephone systems, fibre optic connections, and so on. Each, though, provides a 'pipe' between the Internet and the user's machine. Connections come in many gradations of quality. Since faster is better, faster also tends to involve more expense. In the future, very fast connections (by which is meant high volume connections) will become commonplace, perhaps through the shared use of cable that now is only used for the delivery of television cable services to households. Obviously, the quality and quantity of high technology infrastructure available to the user is a function of the national wealth of his or her country.

· Learning the skills

One of the charms of the World Wide Web is that it is to a large and growing extent self-documenting. Once 'there', you can easily locate free learning materials to further develop your skills. However, getting 'there' is still a formidable hurdle. While it is possible to buy printed reference material, it is best to learn from an experienced user. Becoming an 'information apprentice' seems, on experience, the best way to learn the tricks, the shortcuts and the 'magic' instructions. In part this is so because the Internet runs for the most part using the UNIX operating system at its base. This system is as arcane as it is beloved of Internet programmers; commands are not intuitive and often could never be guessed by the novice. Direct instruction by a trusted and knowledgeable colleague is the best solution. Often, it takes just a few hours of tutoring to overcome the initial barriers and enter the self-documenting zone of the Internet. While this initial step requires a degree of faith, the novice will be richly rewarded by newly granted access to the developing world of shared data, knowledge, research advice, publication and hopefully wisdom.

... and Onwards...

· Routine use

Once you have reached your goal of easy use, you may well find that the Internet toolset becomes a part of everyday life, moving far past professional use into all aspects of personal existence. Having easy access to the world's newswire services in real time and major newspapers and newsmagazines before they are published tends to do that. Embracing this sort of change in learning styles is deeply enriching on a personal level and brings us all a little closer together.

· Your Own Mailing list to establish and maintain contact

Once you have identified members of your own particular Internet community, no matter where they might happen to live in the world, it is possible for you to establish your own mailing list or listserv to remail messages from any member of your list to all members of the list. USENET postings and listserv messages inviting colleagues to join a new listserv on some narrow specialised topic is a normal part of the world's information traffic nowadays.

...to Augmented Services.

· Setting up your own Internet Services

You may wish at some time to actually establish and maintain your Internet services on a machine over which you have exclusive control. In order to do this, many elements of hardware, software, and registration have to be put in place. For instance, you must obtain a computer over which you have authority and which has the technical capacity to serve as an Internet host. It need not necessarily be powerful and expensive though each helps in some respects. Such a computer must be provided with a high speed network feed from some other member machine on the Internet. It must also be given a unique IP address by some registration authority such as the INTERNIC. In addition, it must have access electronically to a router computer which has a current copy of the IP addresses of other Internet member computers. Further, specialised software such as UNIX, Web server software, and e-mail software must be installed and properly configured. In general, a high level of sophisticated knowledge is required to carry out these tasks. Should you choose to assume this responsibility, you will also have to take necessary precautions to guard the security of your site since attacks by hackers can be confidently predicted. While there are security software tools and expertise available to you, you may well find that the routine keeping of system logs is a requirement and that trouble can develop at any time of day or night. (A low budget version of this software universe called LINUX is available for modest personal computers running in a low volume context.) You, as system administrator must also decide how external users will access your service, whether by telnet, dial up access, or exclusively as external Internet Web users visiting from other Internet hosts. Committing to offer dial-up services to others may itself pose formidable technical and expense challenges.

· Maintaining a WWW site to publish your own information, reaching a global audience

Once you have access to an Internet service, whether run by yourself or by others, and once Web server software is installed, it is quite simple to begin to publicise information on any topic through your own Web page. Editing tools are available on the Web to help you master and construct HTML documents for your web site. One of the best ways of learning how to do this is to look at the HTML code which other users are employing on their web pages. All Web browsers allow you to view the source coding for others' pages. Copying of features which appeal to you is an easy and effective way to get started. It is also useful to register your web pages once they are constructed and available with some of the many registries of Web pages. This will allow users around the world to locate and visit your site based on your brief description of its contents. In addition, there are page-seeking Web robots (such as Alta Vista) which actively search out and catalogue the contents of new web pages all the time.

Other Resources you may offer

You may use your Web site to offer virtually any form of digital resource to other users. You may for instance make available databases, papers you or others have published, software you wish to give away or announcements you may wish to publicise. The situation with respect to copyright on Web documents is not at all clear and there is little guidance available. In general, normal good citizenship on the Web includes not appropriating the work of others for your own gain without permission. Having said that however, it is the very essence of the Web that copying of files takes place without hindrance. Indeed, that is the main attraction of the World Wide Web as it has evolved.


Craig McKie
Carleton University, the Centre
for Online Studies International,
and Ingenia Communications Corporation,
Ottawa Canada
Email: cmckie@ccs.carleton.ca

Paul de Guchteneire UNESCO MOST
Fax + 33 1 45 68 57 24
E-mail p.deguchteneire@unesco.org


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