from U.S. News and World Report,
22 March 1999, pp. 58-9

The life of the mind goes digital

All shuffle there; all cough in ink," W. B. Yeats once observed of scholars at their trade. Today, the poet might say, they cough in Email. More and more of those engaged in the life of the mind, artists as well as intellectuals, find E-mail almost unavoidable both as a means of communication and, increasingly, as a subject of study.

But because they are contentious souls, few of them agree about what the E-mail examined life means, or even whether it's a good thing. Take the simple fact that 70 to 80 percent of American university faculty now use electronic messages to communicate with students and colleagues. To many, that's only a boon, encouraging greater intellectual exchange and pedagogical irmovations (such as student-constructed Web sites instead of papers). To others, even to some of its partisans, Email can be a disembodied horror, threatening not just privacy and intellectual community but literacy itself.

Few scholars have taken a longer view of the mixed blessings of electronic scholarship than classics professor James J. O'Donnell of the University of Pennsylvania. His generally optimistic perspective, set forth in his 1998 book Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace, is echoed in his work as the university's vice provost for information systems and computing. That might sound as though a bookbound humanist has usurped the technogeek's chair, but O'Donnell says his classical training provides valuable insight into controversies surrounding new forms of communication. "After all, Plato mistrusted the written word," he says. "You have to accept that technological advances present risks and opportu nities and try to make the most of the latter."

An early convert to the computer, O'Donnell helped launch one of the first online humamities journals in 1990. Four years later he added an electronic listserv to his course on St. Augustine, enabling students as far away as Hong Kong to audit. Now he comes up with new ways to use computers to enhance academic and community life.

But isn't something lost when, as many students report, even roommates communicate via E-mail? Possibly, says Gillian Weiss, a graduate history student at Stanford. She counts it a loss that "the library and the department of flee are now less social spaces." Yet that doesn't outweigh the benefits of access to history-oriented listservs, or to professors she wouldn't approach "if I had to do it in person."

"What the Internet is doing is providing something like the coffeehouses of Vienna," says poet and University of Texas professor of humanities Frederick Turner. He uses the computer to chat regularly with about 30 scholars around the world who share his eclectic interests. But the electronic salon has its drawbacks. "The sheer volume is overwhelming," he says. "And you can't leave the coffeehouse and go home to private reflection."

That raises the question of what all those words buzzing back and forth are really doing to the life of the mind. "I don't want to sound like a Luddite," says critic and biographer James Atlas, But it's a fact that E-mail is going to change the way the writing life is recorded." Atlas believes that in the future writers maybecome more careful about keeping their letter-displacing E-correspondence. Moreover, he has grave doubts about the quality of reflection that goes into E-mail: "When you sit down to write a letter, you are making a more serious commitment."

All is not gloom and doom on this point, however. Reynolds Price, the novelist and Duke University professor of English, differs with those who claim that E-mail's immediacy is destroying the art of prose. "It's not as though it fell from some great recent height," says Price, who applauds the fact that young people are writing more these days, "even if many don't seem to realize it."

Questions about the literary worth of Email may quickly be eclipsed by ones about how to store it. Consider just one object of historical concern: the U.S. government, which sends and receives millions of messages a day. Tom Blanton, executive director of the National Security Archive, helped to prevent every White House since Ronald Reagan's from destroying its E-mail. Thanks to Blanton and other activists, the National Archives will issue guidelines for E-mail preservation to all federal agencies at the end of this month. Of course, with the gigaheaps of data quickly mounting, scholars may find that too much documentation can be as maddening as too little.

-Jay Tolson