From Papyrus to cyberspace (1999) plunges into an interesting discussion between James O’Donnell and James Engell about the evolution of text technologies and their influence on reading, writing, knowledge and communication. Quickly made clear, is the idea that technology extends a social contract that may be considered “both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that” (Postman, 1998, p.5) with regards to loss and gain. I am in agreement with their observation, that our willingness to use technology in society, constitutes an acceptance of this bargain (incidentally, often before the losses and gains are made readily apparent). Primary to this concern is that balance is needed to determine what level of “carnage we accept as for the price of the benefits we receive” (O’Donnel, 1999, 7:40). This is because extremes emerge like that of the self-proclaimed Luddite or the Technophile, in people’s haste to adopt (or motivation to resist) technology (Postman, p.5). New laws, conduct, rules, and norms must also emerge to govern new issues of society, culture, and safety that are created.
The benefits of digital technologies for writing expressed are that we are able to live in a much wider world of discourse in terms of access, dissemination, and public contribution/knowledge sharing–which is a large part of digital writing’s promise (O’Donnel, 1999). Not mentioned outright, was the underlying idea that access and connection may also bring wider exposure to global culture and have the democratizing effect of “increas[ing] citizens’ abilities to tap into information on their rights and entitlements” giving them a better hand shaping the future (Willinsky, 2002). These benefits are great, however the potential costs associated are also great. Communities broaden but become less intimate; and technology integration, transference, maintenance, and storage costs rise and become increasingly difficult to plan. Technology also shifts the balances of power, changing the structures of religion, governments, institutions, societies, pervading and dominating even our language (Postman, p.8).
While O’Donnell and Engell emphasize in their discussion neither loss nor gain, they do stress the idea that in a digital culture, identity must be established without being “hypnotized by threats, promises or technology in general” (O’Donnel, 1999). They also illustrate a number ways that the upsets created new technologies share commonalities between the upsets created by old technologies. Printed books and the codex for example, were once used primarily in service of scholars for academic pursuits and unavailable to persons of lower stations or class. While the print press was responsible for breaking up the “traditional knowledge monopoly” (Postman, p.9) it also ended up becoming the primary source of knowledge for use in scholarly practice in public institutions, which are enabling more scholarly access then ever before, particularly with the shift to digital texts. Evident from reading between the lines, is that the consideration of losses and gains may be essential also for educators and designers to consider. An animated and interesting conversation, it is perhaps the velocity of digital text’s evolution that for me has become most fascinating and perplexing.
Engell J. & O’Donnell J. (1999). From Papyrus to Cyberspace. [Audio File]. Cambridge Forums.
Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.
Willinsky, J. (2002). Democracy and education: The missing link may be ours. Harvard Educational Review , 72 (3), 367-392.