Bill Gates and Ted Kaczynski aside, the truth is that most people have mixed feelings about the Information Revolution. James J. O'Donnell, a classics professor and vice provost for information systems and computing at the University of Pennsylvania, frankly admits his own ambivalence. He resists tidy resolutions and offers instead an evenhanded inquiry into the concerns of "people who read books and use computers and wonder what the two have to do with each other." Much of what makes this book useful as a guide to the future is the way in which O'Donnell challenges us to reconsider the past. Previous "new" media arrivals have tended to supplement rather than supplant their predecessors. The tendency has been to consider the march of progress (from papyrus roll to codex manuscript to printed book) as serial relay from one technology to the next, an oversimplification that equates the rise of the Internet with the fall of the book. In reality, each time a new medium appears there follows a period of coexistence in which a culture's overall dialogue is broadened.
O'Donnell suggests today's new media are on the verge of offering their own benefits. Particularly for humanists, the author envisions the Web's hypermedia doing a better job than books at revealing complex truths. He proposes a new mode of scholarship in which the single-author, linear-narrative monograph becomes part of a larger discourse, where primary and secondary sources exist side by side, as do authors and commentators. It's something akin to the Request for Comment dialogues that first saw life on the Arpanet. "Instead of publication that says 'This is how it is,' we have a form of public performance; of scholarship that asks 'What if it were this way?' Publication of this sort becomes a form of continuing seminar, and the performance is interactive, dialogic, and self-correcting."
One might pause before granting such performance rights to any community less disciplined than, say, classicists, but as the Web matures it clearly is becoming a staging ground for process, for thought never fixed. All of which might sound like a modern incarnation of ancient Greece and its dialogue culture. O'Donnell likes to see it that way and offers his own, personal bridge between then and now: "I study the past," he says, "but I plan to live in the future."
- Peter Meyers
Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace by James J. O'Donnell: $24.95. Harvard University Press: +1 (617) 495 2600, www.hup.harvard.edu.