Humanities in the 21st Century

From Humanities (September-October 1995), a bimonthly review published by the National Endowment for the Humanities, edited by Mary Lou Beatty

When Endowment Chairman Sheldon Hackney talked recently with classics professor James O'Donnell of the University of Pennsylvania, they discussed the computer revolution in the university classroom and what it means not just for teaching but for the society as a whole.

Sheldon Hackney: You are at the forefront of a revolution in teaching, driven by and made possible by the computer. I've been intrigued by some of your writings on Gutenberg and the fifteenth century revolution -- by your observations that the fears of traditionalists at the time of the invention of movable type were right. Do you see the network computer as another phase of the same revolution? Will it be another step toward democratization of communication, or is it something entirely different?

James O'Donnell: That's right, that's right. I started rummaging for fifteenth and sixteenth century criticism of the print medium, expecting that I would be able to show that there were silly people in those days who had silly fears and anxieties which proved to be unfounded. I was chastened and sobered to realize that the people who criticized had it right. They said that the unleashing of the power of distributing the written word would give rise to unorthodox and heretical opinions, and they were right. They weren't thinking about Martin Luther, but I dare say they wouldn't have been surprised by Martin Luther and by everything else that followed.

Having discovered that, I needed to back off and say, "Now wait a minute. Why did this succeed?" The answer seemed to be that the medium was so powerful that it created a system of communication that was just so much larger, so much faster, so much more capable of generating economic resources that it simply swamped the legitimate concerns of the previous generation, creating its own new system. The slightly good news is that that new system was so powerful that it had within it the resources to go back and address some of those concerns. Not all of them--the concern for unorthodox opinions getting loose--that genie didn't go back in the bottle.

I think we have to use these earlier transitions as models in order to understand what we're going through now. The innovation of language itself was one such; the innovation of writing, certainly another; the innovation of print, certainly a third. We're down at the bottom of the pyramid, two people like you and me talking to each other face to face. Writing creates a larger community in which discourse can move back and forth. It doesn't devalue the face-to-face communication. In fact, face-to-face communication is itself enriched and complicated by being able to refer to written communication.

Print puts another layer still on top of this inverted pyramid. And what we're doing now is putting, yet again, geometrically, one more much larger layer on top. It will create a much more powerful universe of discourse and at the same time a much more complicated one. Many things that we have become accustomed to will be shaken or changed. Existing power relationships that we're comfortable with will be shaken, and existing power relationships that we're kind of tired of will be shaken.

We don't, by and large, as human beings, have a history of giving up some technology once it has been introduced and going back to a quieter, simpler life, even though there will always be voices who encourage us individually and collectively to think about trying to do that.

Hackney: Especially when the new technology provides so many benefits as well as perhaps some dangers.

O'Donnell: The example I like to use is that of the automobile. You and I accept that our convenience in using the automobile is purchased at the cost of about forty thousand lives a year. We could save that cost if we were willing never to drive more than twenty miles an hour, but we decide that we want the convenience that we're used to, we accept the cost.

I think we need to be candid with ourselves that that's the kind of tradeoffs we make.

Hackney: Let's extend this analogy a bit. When the automobile or the horseless carriage first came in, people thought of it as a direct analogy to the carriage or wagon. It was just a faster carriage or wagon. It turned out to be much more than that. It was much more significant and permeated our lives much more than that simple analogy.

Is the same thing going to be true of the computer? Here at the NEH, we have begun to fund projects that put humanities programs on CD-ROM. The first wave is clearly people making books in electronic form, with the advantage of having visual material, even moving pictures and sound, built in. They're still recognizable books, texts that are illustrated with these other things. But something else will eventually come out of this. Can you discern the outlines of what might come out that is non-booklike?

O'Donnell: I'm leery of trying to prophesy too much. But think of yourself when you sit down at a personal computer and fire up a word-processing program. The first thing that word-processing program tells you is that you're at page one, line one, character one of this document. It's as though the machine is imagining that you have an endless roll of paper running through this box in front of you and you're now able to manipulate that paper more efficiently. All of the word processors expect you to be producing something that will come out of the machine and be printed. The process still assumes the thing on screen is just an intermediary on your way there. But in the last couple of years, with the World Wide Web in particular as a form of interface, we're getting to a point where people say, "Well, there are documents that will exist only in electronic form, that are only to be accessed in electronic form." There is a different kind of syntax of how you arrange such documents in order to communicate efficiently. That's to me a first inkling of the changes in mentality that come along in the second stage.

What I think is most useful at this point is to look at the ways in which the existing technologies have given shape to institutions.

Because I earn my living and would not mind earning my living for another twenty or twenty-five years in a university setting, I'm most conscious of the vulnerability of the university community. It has had some of its value depend on bringing together books and artifacts in a central location where people need to come in order to have any contact with them. If you decentralize, dematerialize, and distribute that information, then there is one reason less for people to come together for finite, extended periods of time--four years, eight years, whatever it is--in a single physical location in order to pursue wisdom.

The value that we still have to offer is presumably that of face-to-face communication, but we need to reassess just what it is we do best face to face, how much of that we need, and how to organize an economics and a social structure around that interaction that makes sense. Will we see students coming in for shorter periods of time? Will we see students going to several different locations in order to pursue their education, and meanwhile pursuing a lot of it far from the physical setting and doing so by networked information? Will the students physically in front of us have other teachers who are thousands of miles away competing with us? I think they probably will.

Hackney: What do you do so far in your own course?

O'Donnell: I've done a variety of things in both on-campus and off-campus courses. On campus with the students who are paying tuition to the University of Pennsylvania to come and sit in front of me, I've found that the use of the electronic technology enriches the quality of interaction that I have with them both in the classroom and out of the classroom. Doing e-mail with students at eleven o'clock at night gives me a form of contact with those students that I didn't have before. A kid has a question at eleven at night. Those questions fairly rarely turn up at office hours the next afternoon. There are a lot of disincentives to remembering the question, caring about it, getting to the faculty member's office at the right time, waiting out somebody else's appointment, and so forth. If instead that question is launched at eleven at night, I often answer it at 11:15 at night. And my own practice has been that when a kid sticks his head above the parapet that way to ask something, I come right back and ask something else and try to keep that conversation going.

Off campus, I've been experimenting with delivering seminars away from the physical setting of the University of Pennsylvania campus. Three or four years ago, a colleague and I were co-teaching a seminar on the life and thought of Pope Gregory the Great--fascinating character, author of several major best sellers in the Middle Ages, now hardly remembered--and were joking that it was probably the only graduate seminar on Gregory the Great being offered in the United States this year, and maybe the only one this decade.

We looked at the ten students sitting in front of us and said, "Look, your typical graduate seminar at Penn has ten students in it, three of whom really desperately want to be there, three of whom are pretty much happy to be there but it's not a primary concern of theirs, and three of whom would just as soon be someplace else, but this was the only thing that was being offered at the right time that kind of fit...." How much better, we thought, if we could export a few of the people who didn't really want to be in our group--to put them in rooms where they'd really rather be--and at the same time find the other half-dozen people in North America who are going to bed without a seminar on Gregory the Great every night and pining over it.

About the same time, there was another example involving our colleague, Bob Kraft, who helped organize a seminar on the Internet where several hundred people were involved in textual criticism of a new critical edition of the Hebrew bible. The issue arose of how they were handling evidence from the Dead Sea scrolls, and the next day a message came from Emanuel Tov in Jerusalem, who is the head of the Dead Sea scrolls project worldwide, with his opinion. Bob Kraft said later, "I don't ever want to teach a seminar on Hebrew textual criticism again where it's just me and half a dozen students alone in a room with each other without that kind of high-quality input."

Then, about a year and a half ago, as I was about to teach a graduate course I'd taught before on the life and thought of Augustine of Hippo, I had the idea of expanding it by letting in auditors, by having an e-mail discussion list that anyone in the world could sign up for. More than five hundred people signed up at one point or another. About four hundred stuck to the course for a whole semester.

Hackney: Wow.

O'Donnell: They ranged in geography from Hong Kong to Istanbul and we had lively participation from all directions. What we did was we had a regular seminar on Monday afternoon--a seminar in a real room, talking to each other. The students took turns as rapporteurs, going home that evening and writing up a report on the day's discussion and putting it out for the five hundred people on the list. That would then be the stimulus for discussion which would go on back and forth through the week that followed. I would come in the following Monday afternoon and, as often as not, quite contrary to the usual experience of a teacher leading a seminar, I would come into the room and not get a word in edgewise in the first ten to fifteen minutes because the discussion was already up and running. There was an interaction back and forth between the people in the room and the people not in the room.

Incidentally, I discovered that that kind of writing assignment for the students in the room turned out to be a very positive one. They had to write up clearly and convincingly a somewhat complicated body of material. It was no longer just an exercise in trying to impress the professor, but an actual exercise in communication not only to and from the professor but with and among peers.

This experiment was, by all accounts, a rich success. In the fall of '94, we took it one step further in a course on Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy. With the arrangement that we'd call it general studies at Penn, we made it possible for people outside to take this course for graduate-level credit. We had four hardy pioneers who signed up, one in Atlanta, one in Dallas, one in Pocatello, Idaho, one in Nigoya, Japan. We also had about two hundred people on an Internet discussion list and about ten students in the class.

The paying customers not at Penn got additional e-mail attention from me, had specific assignments and so forth. We also used what's called a MOO, on-line conferencing software, to get together once a week for a real virtual class or a virtual real class--I'm not sure what the terminology should be. But 8:30 Tuesday evening turned out to be a good time, so the fellow in Japan was there first thing in the morning, and the others were there in the evening.

There's software involved which gives you a textually described, non-graphic virtual space in which to communicate. We have one which looks remarkably like the University of Pennsylvania campus. When you enter it, you are standing in front of a library. We have a virtual seminar room and other appurtenances.

The best example I can give of how this works came in the boundaries between the class and the outside of the class. One week at 8:35 p.m., Pocatello and Atlanta hadn't showed up yet, and then suddenly on screen you get a little message, "Jack has arrived. Cindy has arrived." And Jack says, "Hi. I'm sorry. We were upstairs by the Coke machine talking. We lost track of time." Now, they weren't upstairs. There isn't a Coke machine there. They weren't talking. But they did lose track of time. And in this space, there is a virtual upstairs and a virtual Coke machine.

My point is that in a virtual space with these kinds of visual clues about an ordinary, non-virtual environment, people have clues for how to behave. It's an example of modeling new behavior on the old behavior, of creating a reassuring environment in which you think you know what's going on in order to do something which looks in one sense familiar, and in another sense is novel and dynamic.

Hackney: But does the nature of the discourse change because it is in this different form?

O'Donnell: It certainly begins to. I've just had a beautiful example of that in another class. I was attending a meeting in Chicago, so I prevailed upon my host to make sure there was a live telephone connection. I had my laptop computer, and at 1:30 on Thursday afternoon, we all--all the people who would normally have met in a real classroom--were sitting at computers, and we logged in. The discussion was lively, and by prearrangement, I made it look as though I had accidentally disconnected about a half an hour into the seminar. A student of mine, a graduate student back at Penn, was lurking and at that moment he logged back in under my name and just said something like, "Oops, sorry, got disconnected. Go on, don't worry about me." He then had instructions. If somebody asked him a question, he would say things like, "Well, that's a very good point. What do you think about that?" and occasionally would say, "Yes, and Erica, you haven't said much lately. What do you think about that?" and would simply be there to facilitate the discussion.

That evening I got on e-mail with the fellow back at Penn and said, "How did it go?" He said, "Well, right after you left, the discussion really took off." And I said, "I'm not sure how I feel about that, but I think that is an instructive piece of information."

I told the students about it the next week, and we had a lively and interesting discussion of the implications of this kind of thing. What struck me as useful was to find out just what it is you need a professor for and what it takes to stimulate discussion in that kind of environment. By and large, it's different people who are differently articulate in both settings. If our job as teachers is to reach as many students as we can and find ways to help them become articulate, if this is a medium in which somebody who's shy face to face can begin to find a voice, then, by golly, that's a benefit and it's something that I think we should take advantage of.

Hackney: One of the things that one sees right away is the advantages and also maybe some of the dangers of this medium, just like fax machines and answering machines: It destroys the need for or obviates the need for simultaneity. You and the others don't need to be in the same place at the same time. But it also, therefore, lengthens the time over which an adequate conversation can take place, since people in the discussion are reacting and responding to each other and they're not together at the same time.

O'Donnell: Let's speak of democratization for a moment. Remember, simultaneity is expensive. Every year, when you set the tuition for the university, that's really a price people pay for simultaneity, for being in the same place at the same time.

Hackney: That's right.

O'Donnell: As we start to look at audiences who are not geographically or economically privileged, or at people who can't get to the place at the right time, if you can bring it to them when and where they are then you are in fact carrying education out to places where it hasn't been able to get to before. There hasn't been a graduate seminar on Boethius in Pocatello, Idaho, in a long time, I'm pretty sure, but we delivered one there. And I think that's a good thing.

When I started the Boethius course, I was thinking of the secondary school Latin teacher in America, a hard-working person who is out there often quite far from serious academic resources, who needs advanced courses in order to get a master's degree or just for salary standards or whatever, who's probably taken all the courses the education department at the local college has to offer. That person can become a better teacher and be invigorated if he or she has access to material that is ordinarily hard to get to.

Hackney: That's right.

O'Donnell: Even in the Philadelphia area, where there are many secondary school Latin teachers, it is very hard for them to get advanced work past a bachelor's degree without taking a semester off to go and enroll full time somewhere. It's shocking. And it plays against our best interest as professors of classics, their best interest as Latin teachers, and the interest of their students.

Hackney: That's a clear gain. I would think the worrywarts--the analogs to the people in the fifteenth century and sixteenth century who feared the heresy being caused by the book--would in the twenty-first century fear that the university itself would be obsolescent. You don't need to be on the campus. You can have a distributed university more efficiently. I think if you pushed that, it makes you think very carefully about what the function of the teacher is, and, indeed, what the function of the university is. I suspect we'll discover that it is not just the interaction between a teacher and a student that characterizes the university, but the existence of a face-to-face community with an ethos that supports learning. That may be hard to re-create in a distributed environment.

O'Donnell: Absolutely. I think that is the value that universities have to rediscover and emphasize in order to convince society of their worth. If universities only exist to download information, we're rapidly getting to a point where you could find cheaper, faster ways to download.

Hackney: Exactly.

O'Donnell: I think, in fact, the larger universities have more of a problem. This may sound paradoxical, but I see it as a piece with this. I'm moving onto campus next year to Van Pelt College House. The master there, Al Filries of the English department, and I want to find out how you can take this dormitory with 160 or so students and half a dozen faculty and turn it into a living/learning community that is more powerful and richer because of its connections to the world outside, but that still places a large value on what you do right there face to face. I've said for some time that, on balance, I'm inclined to bet for the next twenty-five years on the small liberal arts college more than on the great research universities, because those are places where the faculty already has the habituation of functioning as mentors to the universe, helping students find their way in a large, complex world of information. That's, I think, the skill that we have that carries over best. We're rapidly coming into a world in which there will be so much information that all of us will feel swamped by it. The job of education will be to pull you up out of the swamp, stand you up, dust you off, and give you a sense of how you can hold your own in that environment.

Hackney: Yes, and become a critical consumer of knowledge.

O'Donnell: Absolutely. I would say the other anxiety that it's reasonable for universities to have is the undermining of the authorizing feature of university life that comes with degrees and credentials and the professors. We already are a society full of experts, a fair number of whom are mongers of humbug.

We have done, I believe, a poor job of projecting the critical climate of discourse beyond the university campus in the worlds that already exist of radio and television, for example. I was watching a Senate hearing on CNN with militia proponents having their say, and was struck by the insularity of kinds of discourse that are never subjected to searching scrutiny and, for want of a better word, dialogue. We have talk shows, but those talk shows aren't very platonic. Nobody ever confused Oprah Winfrey with Plato.

Hackney: Right.

O'Donnell: Nobody ever should. There is a value that we, as academic communities, have to impart to that kind of discussion. The flood of discourse that will now ensue in five hundred channels of TV, in millions of people on the Internet, is a new challenge. One form that challenge will take is the further establishment of self-appointed experts on one subject or another. The quality of that public discourse is, I think, a matter of serious concern to us all as citizens. I see it as a desperate necessity for the society that we protect ourselves--not so much ourselves, but rather the critical climate of discourse--so that good ideas can come out of lots of people rubbing their ideas up against each other in a disciplined and vigorous way to see what's best, what's too risky, what's most valid.

Hackney: Yet the market in ideas is going to expand dramatically in your scenario.

O'Donnell: Democratization cuts both ways. One effect of democratization is that it interferes with existing lines of authorization, of power. That's unsettling and destabilizing. On balance, I think as a culture we believe that in the long run democratization turns out for the good, but it takes a fair amount of attention and care to make sure that democracy doesn't turn into mob rule.

Hackney: And you see the new media as being neutral in that regard. Or do you?

O'Donnell: From a democratizing point of view, the best thing about them is that they are inherently interactive. Unlike traditional television, you get to talk back to the electronic network and you are stimulated to do so. That is, in principle, empowering, but power can be used for good or for evil.

Hackney: I would think the worry for faculty and intellectuals in general, and maybe other authority figures, is that with democratized access to knowledge, if you think that knowledge is power, all of the mediating structures might no longer exist, so society doesn't need them anymore.

O'Donnell: Or they become in some ways irrelevant. If universities decided that they were in the fifty-minute-hour lecturing business, in the youth camp business, and went on with business as usual, I think it's fairly clear that in a generation or less, they'd become a lot less important to the educational structure in society. I think social structures can find themselves simply swamped and lost if they don't see themselves as part of the wider social change and say, "All right. How do we responsibly use this to achieve the goals that we have?" We can do our traditional job better. The other side of it is that, if we don't take active responsibility, we can find ourselves suddenly obsolescent and irrelevant.

Hackney: So the teacher as monologist, as one might say, is an endangered species. And, indeed, the conception of knowledge or texts having authors may be endangered. Or is that more speculative?

O'Donnell: When we think of the traditional book that a young professor writes in order to get tenure, it's very much an exercise in self-presentation. It's an exercise in taking a complex body of material and adding some distinct line of interpretation to what has gone before. It's the monologist saying, "Here I am. This is me, this is what I have to say, and this is true."

In real life, we all know that truth is not that readily accessible sometimes, and that it often does not lend itself to being reduced to a single formula that all can give their assent to. But there has been relatively little premium placed in our academic system on coming out and saying, "Well, this subject is extremely complicated. Here are nine different ways in which it can possibly be treated, and we should keep all of those in mind, and I don't especially have any one of them to recommend to you, thank you very much." That's not a recipe for success.

I have hopes that this is the point to return to where we started, that we can create not a library that's a collection of independent monologues, but, rather, something that takes the library one stage forward--being a place where dialogue continues to take place, where the discussion is ongoing.

There's a model for this in something called the human genome project, which is this project to map the whole body of the human gene pool. The end product is not a whole series of scholarly journal articles. There may eventually be books that are spun off it, in the interim, it is a large and growing database. There is a central authority which decides whether your contribution measures up, and when it does, it's fitted into the larger whole as a single piece of a coherent and growing body of information. You can use what's in there today, but it also grows and continues to grow and gets better as the project goes forward. And when it's finished, it's a collective product. It's clearly a better thing than would have been the case if there were six thousand different articles in four hundred different journals spread over fifteen years.

Hackney: That's a project that is a marvel of unplanned teamwork. But it has a beginning and an end. There is a map of the genome that one can imagine that people are filling in. If you think of, let us say, doing a commentary on Boethius, there is no logical end to that.

O'Donnell: Nor any reason there should be.

Hackney: So that's likely to be a text that is never fixed.

O'Donnell: That's right. The challenge there is to find ways to manage a dialogue so that the newcomer who wants to read Boethius comes to something that's organized and accessible, and on the other hand, the specialist has a place in which what he or she has to say is received and validated and argued with. I have Web pages on Boethius and Augustine which are meant to be places where you can come and get good quality information and also to be the homes of continuing seminars and discussions.

Hackney: Now, everything we have been talking about so far assumes that the communication is being conducted in print, in language, but clearly, there is sound and visual material as well. Does the revolution change when you start mixing in visual and sound elements to the knowledge?

O'Donnell: It certainly will. I think it's a harder question for our culture as a whole, how we will manage a knowledge base that doesn't consist primarily of the written word, and the written word as an index to everything else.

There are fascinating studies going on of people trying to figure out how to organize image libraries without having to reduce everything you know about the image to words. Traditionally, that's what we have to do.

The most venturesome person I've heard in this regard was Chia-Wei Woo, the rector of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, who ventured to say, "Language itself may turn out five hundred years from now to be a short-lived artifact in the history of human culture." Language is a way of putting surrogates on experience, substitutes for experience. Can we imagine knowledge manipulation that wouldn't need language? Well, I can't, frankly, but I can at least see that as a hypothesis. When does the picture, when does the visual thing itself, begin to be a primary text and begin to be the thing you go to over the written text?

I wonder whether, two hundred years from now, American children going to school won't have a whole different structure of American history divided roughly before and after 1950. John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan will be presidents they know a lot more about than Abraham Lincoln and George Washington because they'll be able to see pictures and hear sounds. And just as there's a line now way back between prehistory and history--where unwriting leaves off and writing takes up--so, too, two hundred, five hundred years from now, the mid-twentieth century could look like another boundary between primitive prehistory and the real history which you can experience and see and feel and taste and touch. That boggles the imagination.

Somewhere there will still be, I think, a primary role for the person who can mediate information to other people. We've lived for a long time in a world in which information is scarce. That time has in many respects ended. We're already, all of us, swamped by too much information about all of the subjects we want to know about. There may very well come a point in which the information itself is not what we place a value on, but, rather, the service of filtering our way through to the information that we actually need. Within the university structure itself, it could very well be the librarians who would win out over the professors because the librarians are the ones who already have been, as a profession, finding, filtering, organizing, structuring, and helping people get at information directly. That may turn out to be the skill that we need the most.

Hackney: I take it that's the direction in which you see the teacher or the idea of the teacher going.

O'Donnell: In the world of information distribution, authors, publishers, librarians, teachers, and readers all have an important part to play in our economy. As I'd say, I would bet on the librarians to be a strong force. I'm afraid I'm not betting on the publishers, and teachers seem to be a wild card somewhere in between. But any one of those forces could turn out to be the one that creates the environment, creates the software, creates whatever it takes to become the indispensable mediator in a new environment. And any one of those elements could turn out to be the one that renders itself completely obsolete and disappears.

Hackney: This goes back to knowing what business you're in. But isn't there an argument for teachers, and maybe others as well, not only being in the business of mediating information, but in adding value to it, that is, shaping and creating new knowledge and tailoring that knowledge to particular uses and to particular people?

O'Donnell: I think that's our strong point. That's what we can do if we are good enough at knowing how to do it. But even if we continue to do that, remember the relative rank and prestige of the participants in the information food chain can also change. Can we imagine an environment in which secondary school teacher prestige goes up or university professor prestige goes down? Can you imagine a time when the tenured university librarians are the powerful people and the professors are seen as the service workers distributing information on a 9-to-5 basis to students who come in and out and ask some questions?

Hackney: That's an anti-university, I would say.

O'Donnell: Well, that would only happen if the professor had lost the sense of how to be the one who provides the real value.

Hackney: Clearly right. I was fascinated with what you have had to say about the virtual library. That dream of instant and universal access for everybody to all knowledge is 1500 years old or thereabouts, as old as the library itself. Is there an analogous dream in the area of teaching? Even if there is an ideal that can never be achieved, is there some notion in the human mind about the perfect university?

O'Donnell: Well, let me go back to Plato, but not just to Plato. Notice in our conventional Western intellectual tradition we've created a category of sages of the old order. When we're being broadly comparative, we think about Socrates and Buddha and Confucius and Jesus as comparable in some respect in their different cultures. We pay respects to the differences, but nevertheless, you recognize that they belong to a set.

What strikes me about all of those is that they are figures whose reputation depends upon the written words to have their teachings disseminated to the world. But all of them, at the same time, are teachers who did not themselves write. They were the last generation of the oral sage, surrounded, usually, by young men whom they shaped and guided by their oral teachings and left behind a movement that replicated itself. Something in there.

I'm not sure that we know exactly what it is we're idolizing in that cultural group; but something of the authentic experience of face-to-face encounter between youth and age, between wisdom and--what's the counter, chutzpah--between tradition and innovation. The American university is a model of that, of course, as every university president knows.

Hackney: That's right, yes.

O'Donnell: When we criticize our existing university structures, it's because they become faceless and routinized and bureaucratized.

Hackney: Exactly.

O'Donnell: But when we do that, I think we are cherishing something about human contact and personal relationship that is finally democratic in one sense and is finally elitist in another, in the sense that there is always in that kind of model a certain competition, a certain jostling for both personal and intellectual position in order to find your place in the world as a person who knows things and has a part to play in wider human life.

The caution I would make is that when I talk about changes that are coming and dramatic transformation of these institutions, some part of you needs to be cautious about what a zealot I sound like. At the same moment some other part of you needs to be cautious about just how conservative I'm being, just how much I'm using deeply implanted ideas to imagine my way twenty-five years down my career track. Don't assume we have solved the problem of imagining what it is we're coming towards. The most we have done is imagine the farmer thinking he can get back and forth to town quickly.

Marshall McLuhan's old point was that when you invent the motion picture, the first thing you think of to do is put on a play and take pictures of people putting on a play. It takes a lot longer before it begins to dawn on you that there are things you can do with motion picture technology that you couldn't do in a single theater with a single batch of sets and actors. You begin to exploit the technology in its own right.

There's a long life of that ahead of us, that at this point we can't possibly imagine. All we can do is try to imagine ourselves forward as vigorously as we can, hang on to what principles we think we hold to, hang onto them fiercely, and think about how these innovations, viewed as tools, can help us forward. Try to create responsible social structures, and then hang on for the ride. It could be bumpy, but we don't have much choice and, all things considered, it could be exciting. It should be exciting.

Hackney: Well, I want to thank you very much for this. It's been fascinating.

James J. O'Donnell is professor of classical studies and director of the Center for the Computer Analysis of Texts at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Cassiodorus and the editor of

Boethius: Consolatio Philosophiae and the three-volume

Augustine: Confessions. O'Donnell is on the Internet at personal.html and