3.1147 e-texts (164)

Willard McCarty (MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca)
Thu, 8 Mar 90 21:15:00 EST

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 3, No. 1147. Thursday, 8 Mar 1990.

(1) Date: Wed, 7 Mar 90 20:10:19 EST (20 lines)
From: Asher B Samuels <abs@cunixb.cc.columbia.edu>
Subject: e-texts just can't replace the old thing

(2) Date: Wed, 07 Mar 90 15:34 CST (55 lines)
Subject: shock of the e-text

(3) Date: 8 March 1990 (39 lines)
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: change, but still a mixed bag

(4) Date: Thu, 8 Mar 90 19:00 EST (20 lines)

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Wed, 7 Mar 90 20:10:19 EST
From: Asher B Samuels <abs@cunixb.cc.columbia.edu>
Subject: e-texts just can't replace the old thing

As both a Computer Science major at Columbia University and a Talmud
major at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, I am stuck between
both positions on this issue. While the computer is useful for many
tasks, such as preparing a concordance, comparing two difering versions
of a text, etc., There are some things it just can't do. The most
important of these, at least in Talmud, is a sense of revrence. You
just can't really get a sense of a CD-ROM disk as holy. I guess in
English Lit. a similar problem would occur, in that a manuscript just
isn't the same when its an image on a screen.

As a side note, I guess this is why, in an era of Stereo VCRs, etc.
people still go to the movies.

Asher Samuels
(2) --------------------------------------------------------------62----
Date: Wed, 07 Mar 90 15:34 CST
Subject: shock of the e-text

The problematic "newness" of the electronic medium,
mentioned by Willard McCarty, raises an issue that deserves
discussion. Computation has long surrounded itself with utopian
rhetoric, from the early days of the graphics-based revolution in
California to recent claims that Western consciousness itself has
undergone a digitized transformation. I'm sympathetic to such
claims, but also unsettled by them. Has the millennium arrived
or is it yet-to-be? Can we all expect redemption or just those
who use particular operating systems? If libraries really will
become museums, should they immediately suspend acquisitions and
invest the money in powerful workstations?

Back in the Renaissance, writers singled out three
technological innovations as especially noteworthy: printing,
the compass, and gunpowder. Now, computers cover all three
categories, with significant humanistic, scientific, and military
applications. Anyone who offers me evidence from the last two
domains employs the argumentum ad ignorantiam. But when I'm told
about the profound influence computers have on the way readers
conceptualize meaning--comparable to cuneiform writing or
the codex book--I think about reading and writing as historical

E-texts are different from printed texts, the argument runs,
because they are interactive, unstable, iconographic, dynamic,
and inherently democratic. We can, however, locate most of these
attributes at earlier stages in the history of textual
production. Reading is _normally_ a dynamic process, and bound
books escape rigid linearity in the hands (literally) of an
experienced reader. Similarly, why not consider electronic
"publication" as a return to the conditions of manuscript
circulation, and e-lists as a type of coterie readership? Thus,
the electronic medium revives a traditional form of going public
without going into print--one in which, incidentally, textual
corruption (call it radical instability or "code cracking" if you
prefer) inevitably ensued.

This is all very sketchy, but brevity is supposed to
be the essence of our medium. I want only to suggest that we
scrutinize claims of amazing novelty and not caricature the
book as monolithic and authoritarian. To paraphrase another
prophetic McLuhanism: the Law of Implementation is that the
newest awareness must be processed by established procedures.
The present may indeed mark a transitional stage in the history
of literacy, with vestigial elements of the book facilitating
new modes of cognition. But maybe we're headed back to the

Alvin Snider
U of Iowa

(3) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: 8 March 1990
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: change, but still a mixed bag

In response to Alvin Snider's interesting note. I wonder if all
revolutions cause the doors of heaven to open, if only a crack and for a
moment until human nature takes over. Apocalyptic statements, such as
about libraries of printed books, indicate something important is
happening. I would hope that such statements are neither believed nor
ignored but used to discover what we can while we can. The social
science I've been reading tends to point out, for example, that the
semiotic poverty of e-mail has both good and bad effects. In the absence
of "social context cues" and across geographical distances ordinary
politics cannot reach, we are liberated to be more our intellectual
selves and less creatures locked into inhibiting hierarchies and
parochial work-groups. The "progress" of technology may soon expand the
range of cues available, and as a result we may be allowed less freedom.
Meanwhile, what is happening in the new medium shows us several very
important things, about communication itself, about scholarly
communities, and about ourselves.

In the interests of brevity, which Snider rightly points to, let me give
a single example. Several Humanists over the last three years (almost)
have remarked that our seminar offers a kind of collegiality that seems
to have all but disappeared from university life. Those who are intent
on production of academic goods may wish to dismiss this collegiality as
a nice but distracting luxury. It seems to me, however, that at the very
least our collective labour to maintain it -- how many hours per week do
you spend? -- says something highly significant about the kind of
academic world we really desire. A powerful revolution could be fired by
that desire.

Perhaps we should think in terms, historically as well as figuratively,
of a renaissance of humanism rather than an apocalypse. Or perhaps these
are the same thing.

Yours, Willard McCarty

(4) --------------------------------------------------------------26----
Date: Thu, 8 Mar 90 19:00 EST

Date: 8 March 90
From: Terry Bynum (BYNUM@CTSTATEU)
Subject: 3.1143 etexts not the same

Willard McCarty, in his message "etexts not the same," asks about works
discussing cultural assimilation of new technology. There is a very
good discussion of the "revolutionary" nature of computer technology in
James H. Moor's "What Is Computer Ethics?" in METAPHILOSOPHY, vol. 16,
no. 4, October 1985. Among other things, Moor offers a possible--perhaps
likely?--scenario for the assimilation of computer technology into our
society. He argues that computing will not simply make us more efficient
at doing what we already do in education, at work, in business, and so
on. Rather, he says, it is likely to alter significantly WHAT we do, and
even how we CONCEIVE of what we do. For example, he argues that computing
is likely to alter the meanings of words like "teach," "learn," "work"
and "money."