As we welcome new members into Phi Kappa Phi and celebrate your commitment to the highest values of scholarship, my primary responsibility, and one I accept with pleasure, is simply to speak a word of congratulations and best wishes. However, since every academic occasion of moment requires an exchange of ideas, I invite you to think with me for a few minutes about the meaning of what we glibly term the computer age.
Our generation has witnessed a remarkable advance in communication technology. I shall not bore you with a recapitulation of the history of this advance. Its implications, however, extend far beyond the realm of technology and challenge cultures and educational systems in ways that are only gradually becoming apparent. Let us consider some of these implications for us as individuals, for our society, for culture, and for education. What does it mean for our society that now hypermedia combines in one source the entire network of existing electronic and print media?
Alan C. Purves recently argued that we should understand the larger technological revolution of which the computer is only a part, albeit the most visible part, as the third major technological transformation in human history.(1) A specialist in literature and education, Purves identified these three technological revolutions as the development of a written language along with the invention of the wheel and raft and the domestication of animals, the development of the printing press along with the steam engine, and the development of electric and electronic systems of information storage and retrieval along with invention of the rocket and jet propulsion engine. In the earliest period, the scribe was the bearer of authority and in presenting and interpreting text became a kind of coauthor with the original author or authors. Indeed, much of the literature of this period such as the Talmud or the Code of Hammurabi is of multiple authorship. In the second period, with books readily available and with the spread of literacy, the text itself became the authority, an icon that could easily become an idol. In the present period, the world of hypertext makes the reader again, like the story teller of antiquity, a coauthor of the text and an active rather than passive figure.
This is an interesting way of stating the case for the meaning of computers and electronic technology in our lives and one that may help in the explanation of the significance of the technology. Potentially at least, the emergence of electronic modes of communication enables the reader to take a more active role in the process of communication. In the world of hypertext and the world wide web, the reader interacts with the text and enters a world without a center. The cyberspace world becomes a world of nodes separated by multidimensional spaces in which the reader finds or, more precisely, creates order.
A central theme in this transformation is decentralization; older centers lose their authority; and communities, both virtual and actual, challenge those centers. Just as the new cities of the United States tend to have no center, to be a complex of nodes on and within a circumferential interstate highway, so centers of learning and communication, libraries and universities most obviously, give way to hypertext in hyperspace. The development of the contemporary city can provide a way of understanding the transformation we are now witnessing in the realm of communication. Pre-modern, pre-industrial cities were generally quite small by modern standards, limited by the speed of transportation from the periphery to the center, by the readily available water and food supply, by the adequacy of waste disposal and the ability to maintain public health, etc.
With the industrial revolution and the steam engine came a greater concentration of energy, ability to transport people and goods over greater distances more efficiently, and the ability to build and sustain water and sewage lines, etc. During the modern period, cities became much larger. No longer simply ecclesiastical or administrative centers, they became centers of commerce and manufacturing. The introduction of the railroad with its terminal in the city greatly increased the size of population that could be drawn into a single center for work and trade. Then came the suburban railway and the streetcar which again expanded the potential size of the city. Yet all of these vehicles traveled on tracks from the periphery to the hub. Business was conducted at the center, manufacturing occurred at the center or near the center, and commerce concentrated there. The great department stores of the turn of the century, Macy's and Wanamaker's and Marshall Field, were built at the center, at the terminus of the transportation routes. This period witnessed not only the growth of cities but also the growth of civic consciousness as patrons lavished their wealth on parks and museums and other institutions designed to enhance the quality of life in the city and the reputation of the city among its peers.
Then the development of the internal combustion engine inaugurated another revolution. The motor car, the truck, and the bus are distinguished from the railroad in that they do not operate on tracks. They move along roads that can be constructed anywhere. The full implications of this new technology became apparent in America only in the post-World War II era as city centers lost much of their importance. Manhattan, because of rather unique circumstances, retains its importance in the life of New York City. Much the same can be said of Chicago's loop. But for cities such as Los Angeles, Dallas, and St. Louis, the city as a hub and spokes has been replaced by the city as a complex of interrelated nodes.(2) Neither commerce nor manufacturing nor any other human endeavor is now limited to the center of these cities. Suburbs are no longer bedroom communities housing those who work and trade in the city. Each suburb has its own commercial life, and much of what was traditionally thought of as the activity of the city is now conducted there. The massive downtown department store has given way to a multitude of suburban shopping malls. Los Angeles, once a provincial Spanish city built around a plaza, is now frequently described as a city without a center. Furthermore, roads link suburbs to one another as well as to the old center. People may and increasingly do live their lives with only infrequent visits to the city center.
In many respects the implications of the electronic transformation of communication parallel those of the transformation of transportation by the internal combustion engine. The modern era, the era of the steam engine, was the era of centralization in communication no less than in transportation. Cities became home not only to banks and department stores and factories but also to universities and libraries. The latter became increasingly important as centers for research and for storage and retrieval of information. Great universities came to have great libraries. Bigger was perceived as better just as bigger was long perceived as better with respect to city size.
Yet today, in an era unimaginatively termed postmodern, just as business can now be conducted on the periphery, far away from the center of the city, so research can be conducted, ideas can be explored, and information can be stored and retrieved far from the center defined as library or university. From their homes, operating with a computer and modem, individuals may access not only the bibliographical catalogues of libraries but the content of major encyclopedias and, increasingly, the content of professional journals and monographs. They can also enter a world of visual images along with the traditional world of text. Decentralization of control of text has enormous implications, both positive and negative.
Hypertext has challenged our usual ways of conceiving of and using writing. As is often the case with challenges, the fact of a visible hypertext-something that looks and works differently from the sort of print we are used to-causes us to reconsider what we had been doing and how we had been thinking in the past. Hypertext is the text that appears on the computer screen. In one sense it appears very much like the traditional printed text with which we are all familiar. Yet it is fundamentally different, and this difference compels us to reconsider how we read, write, and maneuver a text. Theodor H. Nelson defines hypertext as "nonsequential writing-text that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read at an interactive screen. As popularly conceived, this is a series of text chunks connected by links that offer the reader different pathways."(3) Hypertext connects paragraphs, sentences, and digitized graphics; and a hypertext network can expand indefinitely as a printed text cannot.
While in antiquity ideas were transmitted orally and the story teller or the scribe who committed ideas to writing shared authority with the author, frequently unknown, since the advent of printing the author has been the person who first put ideas into visual form and who enjoyed the authority deriving from that activity. Thus with printing the roles of author and scribe merged. However, in the world of hypertext, authority is again shared. Readers may create webs within webs and may themselves become coauthors. Hypertext differs from the printed text in that it is mutable. While post-modernists have challenged the modernist focus on text and insisted that it is impossible to isolate the text from the reader, hypertext actually makes the reader a more active participant in the development of the text, a process that-in the mode of hypertext-is never truly finished. In reading the printed text, one normally proceeds from left to right and top to bottom and from the first page to the last. Reading is sequential and hierarchical. In reading hypertext one sees only a part of the text at any one time, the part on the screen; and the screen does not correspond to a page in a book. The image one sees can be saved or discarded by a keystroke, its font or appearance may be changed, and its content may be rearranged. Thus with respect to hypertext, as opposed to traditional printed text, relationships among the parts are multidirectional and instant, not up-down, across, and sequential.
The implications of this transformation are extensive and complex. We live in a world long dominated by print, and it is incumbent upon us to remember that ideas and information define our society, not the medium through which we gather that content. As Purves observes, "it is the content, not the container, that is most important."(4) Yet this is a hard thing to remember. We have all become familiar with the printed text as something that carries its own authority. Literate communities develop habits of reading and of thinking about what is read as well as a literary canon reflecting what they believe to be important and worthy of reading. These habits of literacy appear to be disrupted by hypertext. The text itself is mutable and therefore is never really complete. The reader does not simply read and respond; the reader coauthors or reauthors the text. Hypertext greatly enhances the reader's ability to engage the text in an active and meaningful fashion. Though the reader is, to a considerable extent, bound by her culture, that person nonetheless comes to have authority with respect to the text. Consequently, the concept of canon is modified as individual readers no longer have the same text to consider and to talk about.
While individual appropriation of a text always varies, in print there are differences among readers with respect to their perception and understanding of a common physical object. In hypertext readers create different orderings of the text; they literally no longer have the same text. As the so-called canon wars in contemporary America make clear, forging reading communities is never easy, even when what is being read is the traditional printed text. The canon as bond of reading community is always fragile, dependent on reading the same texts in the same way. Much of the discussion may focus on the question of inclusion and exclusion from the canon. Yet this problem is further accentuated with the introduction of hypertext. In hypertext readers do not even have the same text to talk about. Consensus and community become indeterminate. Readers become nodes in a great and virtually universal web.
Literary canons exist to limit and authenticate information and are certainly an important element in defining literacy. In hypertext the canon becomes indeterminate if not superfluous. Any reader can create her personal canon, and that canon reflects the individual's values far more than those of the larger community of literacy. As libraries increasingly digitize their holdings, they become invisible and universal sources of information. At the same time the center of learning moves from the library to somewhere in cyberspace though this is not to say that the library becomes less significant in the digitization and storage of materials for retrieval by anyone from anywhere. But for the individual reader, thinker, learner, its physical location becomes incidental.
In addition to providing all but universal access to information, the electronic media introduce other potential advantages. Authoritarianisms of all varieties, not simply the authoritarianism of received literary canons, are challenged and finally undermined by hypertext and electronic communication. Governments and media moguls and publishers seek to contain and limit the transformation. Yet the fax goes everywhere, usually evading the censor. The internet is accessible to every point on the globe which enjoys both electrical and telephone service. The speed of transmission of information militates against every effort at control. The virtual community sharing a common interest can frequently be organized and focused with as much or more discipline than is the case with traditional communities of interest. Thus political, social, and religious canons, no less than literary and artistic canons, can be opened and enlarged and made responsible to the authority of the reader-coauthor.
Consequently participation in cyberspace university may require far more of the would-be student than does the time and space bound university with which we are all familiar. Literacy has a communal aspect, and the text is less an object than a human activity. Every literate community develops its own habits of reading and thinking about that which is read and which is valued as a text. The very fact that these habits appear to be disrupted by hypertext provides both opportunity and challenge. The opportunity arises from the more active participation of the reader in coauthoring the text and the potential opening of the text to coauthoring. The challenge resides in the fact that the reader-learner must have some tools with which to read and coauthor intelligently. This fact is obvious when one thinks about it though it is frequently overlooked by the most enthusiastic advocates of learning through the new technology. Much of what we do in the classroom, the laboratory, and the seminar room is to teach our students through modeling how to read, how to analyze, how to articulate the results of their work. While electronic communication has greatly enlarged the body of information potentially available to a student today, that individual still must learn how to appropriate it, how to analyze it, and how to critique it.
In this regard the lowering of the barriers to promulgation of ideas, barriers raised by editors and publishers, by librarians and library budgets, by the university's organization of disciplines, greatly increases demands placed upon the reader. No longer simply a passive vessel into which the content of the received canon can be poured, the hypertext reader-coauthor must take greater responsibility for learning. The very fact that anyone can put anything on the web means that the web will be a haven not simply for the creative genius or the idiosyncratic poet but also for the individual whose facts are factually wrong or whose ideas are simply not supported by the evidence.
How can the reader-participant learn to make reasonable judgments in such an environment? How can the reader find her way through the plethora of information that resides in cyberspace toward that which will prove helpful to her? It is precisely at this point that the traditional role of the scholar-teacher survives into the new technological age and gains added significance. That role primarily is one of encouraging in self and others the same inquisitive and skeptical habits of mind that we have traditionally required of our students in classroom, library, and laboratory. Thus the value of this remarkable new technology rests, finally, upon our ability and willingness to devote as much attention to the question of how we prepare ourselves and others for responsible engagement with it as we give to the development and use of the technology itself.1. Alan C. Purves, The Web of Text and the Web of God (New York: Guilford Press, 1998), pp. 6-14.
2. See Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans: The Democratic Experience (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), pp. 261 ff. for a discussion of the evolution of Los Angeles.
3. Theodor H. Nelson, Literary Machines (self-published, 1982), quoted in Purves, Web of Text, p. 22.
4. Ibid., p. 61.
copyright by Samuel C. Pearson, 1999