Papyrus to Cyberspace & Perplexity

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.

9 replies
  1. C
    C says:

    This is a great post Bobbi. I like the way you explicitly bring several of the readings to bear in your analysis of the one. There is no doubt that we were all influenced by the other readings, but you were able to articulate the connections so well.

    With respect to your comment: “This is because extremes emerge … in people’s haste to adopt… technology. New laws, conduct, rules, and norms must also emerge to govern new issues of society, culture, and safety that are created.” I have heard many people express concern that technological change is outpacing society’s ability to make sense – let alone regulate – the consequences. I’m getting a sense though that this may have always been the case and is not a unique feature of digital technologies. The pace is picking up though, to the extent that we actually experience several generations of technological change in a single lifetime and so become personally aware (usually after the fact) of the social, political and economic changes they bring about.


    • Bobbi
      Bobbi says:

      Thanks for commenting C. I also share the concern that you mention regarding technology outpacing our ability to regulate social issues that emerge. I don’t think this is necessarily the fault of technology per se, but rather that the change needed in our governing and regulating bodies always occurs at a pace that doesn’t match current needs (reactive vs responsive).

      Certainly as O’Donell and Engell point out, the problems created by technology are not unique to this period. I can’t help but wonder though, will there be an ever-widening gap between risky and safe innovation? Will our governing bodies themselves be forced to evolve to be more responsive? Somehow I can’t picture this. The sense of urgency brought about by rapidly developing digital technologies is troubling.

  2. B
    B says:

    I find it quite interesting that, as you point out, the printing press was responsible for breaking up the knowledge monopoly that was largely the purview – in the Western world – of clerics and the extremely wealthy and educated. The same rhetoric has been used to describe the impact of the Internet, particularly in regards to the ways in which blogging, music/file sharing and access to information have had in terms of leveling the playing field once dominated by publishing houses, record companies, etc.

    As someone who finds it interesting to seek patterns in history, I’m curious to know how much hand-wringing and apocalyptic debate occurred amongst the elite stakeholders of Western knowledge and power at the prospect of losing that control and authority. I imagine quite a bit, especially considering how important the possession of knowledge was in terms of maintaining the existing power structure and the social status quo – I also imagine that a lot of parallels could be drawn between concerns over the dissemination of ideas through printed matter then and the concerns surrounding the use and impact of the Internet to this day.
    – B.

    • Bobbi
      Bobbi says:

      Thanks for commenting. After reading the Postman text, the lack of concern by O’Donnel and Engel in their Cambridge talk became much clearer. I am sure there are always those who are empowered by the older technologies of an era passing that will be “wringing their hands” as you say. There certainly are a large number of historical examples of power shifts occurring as a result of rapid technological development. The Cambridge talk was more neutral with regards to the judgement of this, and I’d hazard to say that they possess a balanced viewpoint (that they claim is essential in relation to dealing with technology). Perhaps then, those that wring their hands in response to these shifts, or that lose their power are those that invest too deeply in one technology (toted as the technology of the now) which quickly becomes the technology of the then. When any one technology is seen as a cure-all, it can come at the cost of failure to attend to other important facets for consideration.


  3. T
    T says:

    Hi Bobbi,
    Excellent analysis of the readings. I found a couple of things from Willinsky troubling because they were true and I, so far, have been oblivious to their detrimental effect in the “democratization of education”. First, he mentions that just because scholarly articles are shared in the public sphere, it does not mean that the general public has the intellectual ability, academic background and specialized knowledge to use the knowledge and contribute to it meaningfully in a public forum. It is a bitter pill to swallow, but the printing press and the internet as media of delivery alone will never succeed in attaining egalitarian goals. The general public needs a better understanding of the frameworks in order to add value to the discourse.

    Second, he quotes legal scholar Cass Sunstein who states that the Internet has succeeded in creating gated information communities wherein consumers filter out the information that they don’t want. This is woefully true of my consumption of information on the Internet and I think this pattern is followed by most information consumers. Sunstein argues that this practice allows me to see exactly what I want to see instead of exposing me to new material that I would not have planned to see. Opening up access is only the first step in democratizing scholarly research and education.

    My two cents,
    T. :)

    • Bobbi
      Bobbi says:

      Hi T, I agree this is a fraught topic. If “embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another” (Postman, p. 13), then yes perhaps these silos or knowledge monopolies will always exist in one form or another. It is perhaps utopian to think that they won’t? The idea of there being no movement, forward motion, or give, also seems impossible as technology marches us seemingly ever-forward in the name of progress. Like you, I don’t claim to agree with everything that Willinsky spoke of, as he takes quite a hopeful stance (as opposed to Postman’s pessimistic one).

      As the first in my immediate family to pursue post-secondary, I acknowledge that those who are not academics may not be able make use of academic articles and that it may be elitist to think they can; but, isn’t it also elitist to assume they can’t? I used to sift through writings way beyond my scope before choosing my educational path, and it helped a great deal but perhaps I’m an oddball? Anyway, I find it quite helpful to read the wide range of views presented, they help me to understand the sheer complexity and uncertainty of these topics.

      Thanks for expanding the conversation : )

      • T
        T says:

        You are an oddball and that’s what makes your opinions so much more informed and interesting. I’m glad you quoted Postman. I found his stance to be a lot more analytically rigorous and was more inclined to agree with his arguments than with Willinsky’s idealistic arguments. The readings for this week are so rich and nuanced that I spent every available minute of the week reading all the required and recommended material. I can tell from your posts that you did the same. :)

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