Call for Commentary:

From: Stevan Harnad <harnad_at_COGPRINTS.SOTON.AC.UK>
Date: Fri, 19 Oct 2001 04:09:20 +0100

Here's my reply to Roger Chartier's Paper: "Readers and Readings in the
Electronic Age"

Others are invited to reply too.

               Back to the Oral Tradition

                    Stevan Harnad

It seems to me that Roger Chartier does not
reach back far enough in his search for the precursors and constituents
of the online age. In many ways, it is restoring the mode and even the
tempo of the interaction of human minds to those of the oral tradition.
Oral/aural interactions occur at around the speed of thought, to which
the brain is optimally adapted [1], at least in its real-time, online
functions. Reading, and especially writing, were always solo, off-line
functions, in the Codex as well as the Gutenberg age. The speed of
interaction was reduced orders of magnitude by the sluggish turnaround
time of handwriting and even print, although their scale and scope, and
of course their all-important permanence and accuracy, were
incomparably enhanced by the new scripted tradition.

But now, in the PostGutenberg Galaxy of online skywriting/reading, the
dialogic cycles of interaction among human minds have at last been
returned to something much closer to the speed of thought, yet
retaining and even hyperextending the power and advantages of the
lapidary medium (verba volant, scripta manent). [2,3]

Chartier writes:

> the 'book' [can be contrasted with] the free and spontaneous electronic
> communication which allows everyone to circulate their thoughts and
> works on the Web. This division... could help [explain] the major
> differences between, on the one hand, spontaneous texts released onto
> the web, and on the other, vetted, edited writings.

That dynamic communication (but not its global scale) is a throwback to
the oral tradition. The static digital book, whether on-paper or
on-line, drastically constrained the freedom and spontaneity. But the
possibility of skywriting -- appending graffiti to everything that
appears in the digital skies -- can breathe interactive life into the
dead pages of books, opening on-line dialogues with the written word
even after the author is deceased. [4,5]

None of this has anything to do with the orthogonal dimensions of
published/unpublished or vetted/unvetted, which are, and always have
been, merely quality-control tags sign-posting the corpus, whether
on-paper or on-line. [6]

> Another element [that] could... turn the world of digital
> technology on its head [is] the possibility of detaching
> the transmission of electronic text from the computer...
> through the creation of electronic ink and 'paper'.

"Virtual books" -- digital peripherals that simulate as much as we want
to retain of the look and feel of books -- are not advances but
throw-backs. It is not at all clear how many of those familiar features
of books are really optimal and how many are merely habitual. But there
is no doubt that what is really revolutionary about e-texts is their
navigability [7] and interactivity [4,5] and not their papyromimetic

> Electronic texts could thus be emancipated from the constraints
> inherent to the screens we are familiar with. This would break the bond
> (a source of profit for some) between the trade of electronic machines
> and on-line publishing.

Until and unless book authors elect to give away their texts [8] as
the authors or refereed research do [9] (and I doubt they ever will: why
should they?), the similarities between on-paper and on-line books will
far out-weigh their differences (insofar as trade matters are

> the electronic revolution, which at first seems universal,
> can also deepen, rather than reduce inequalities. A new 'illiteracy'
> could emerge, no longer defined by the inability to read and write, but
> by the impossibility of gaining access to the new forms of transmission
> of writing -- which, to say the least, do not come free.

I think this often repeated worry is too pessimistic. The main use of
online networks by the public will be for advertising and sales. That
guarantees that every effort will be made to maximize access for all.
The give-away literature will simply be the flea that rides for free on
the tail of this vast commercial dog.

> An electronic correspondence between authors and readers - now transformed
> into co-authors of a book kept open through their comments and
> interventions - allows for an author-reader relationship, close in kind
> to that to which some ancient authors aspired but hard to achieve with
> the printed book. A more immediate, more dialogic relationship between
> the work and the reading of the work...

True -- except that most of what self-appointed commentators have to say
will hardly be worth hearing, any more than it was in the oral medium.
Quality-control sign-posting (by qualified experts, where necessary)
will continue to be our guide, as it was in the Gutenberg age. [6] Most
of the virtual chatosphere will be a global graffiti board for trivial
pursuit, the Gaussian distribution of human verbiage being what it is.

> when reading on screen, the contemporary reader returns somewhat to the
> posture of the reader of Antiquity. The difference is that he reads a
> scroll which generally runs vertically and which is endowed with the
> characteristics inherent to the form of the book since the first
> centuries of the Christian era: pagination, index, tables, etc. The
> combination of these two systems which governed previous writing media
> (the volumen, then the codex) results in an entirely original relation
> to texts.

I cannot follow any of this. The modern cybernaut surfs the web much the
way he surfs the TV (and the two will no doubt converge). This in turn
approximates how he navigates the real sensorimotor world. But for those
interested in the scholarly/scientific flea, the classical indices of
quality (qualified expert judgment) will still be the filter and guide.

> The electronic conversion of all texts whose existence does not
> originate with computers must in no way entail the downgrading,
> neglect, or, worse, destruction of the manuscripts or printed matter
> which bore them in the first place.... If the works that they have
> transmitted cease to be communicated, or even preserved in anything
> other than electronic form, the risk is great that the past's textual
> cultures, embodied as they are within the objects - the books - which
> have transmitted them, will no longer be intelligible to us.

I could not follow this either. It sounds like a version of the
frequently voiced (but groundless) worry that the digital texts may
become unreadable some day. The simple answer is that it depends on our
commitment to preserving them -- exactly as it does with the "analog"
texts (which are likewise digital, by the way, but in a dedicated
peripheral device: print-on-paper). 100% certainty of survival is not
possible in any medium, but we can certainly match the probability of
print-on-paper, or surpass it, if we wish.

> the reader-navigator of digital technology is at a high risk of getting
> lost in textual archipelagos without beacon or harbor. The library can
> be both of these.

The library is not the beacon, the quality-tagging is, as it always
was. [6]

> Another role for the libraries of tomorrow could be that of
> reconstituting the sociability around the book, which has been lost.
> The long history of reading teaches us that, over the centuries,
> reading became a silent and solitary practice, and broke itself further
> and further away from the shared conviviality of writing which once
> helped unite families, friendships, scholarly societies or militant
> groups.

The conviviality that skyreading/writing will restore is not merely
the sluggish, formal, off-line one of letter-writing, but the on-line
one of near-real-time oral interaction. [3]

> In the United States, the essential factor [in the "reading crisis"] is
> the drastic reduction in the acquisition of monographs by university
> libraries whose budgets are eaten up by subscriptions to periodicals...
> Hence the [reluctance] of university publishers to publish works that
> are considered too specialised: doctoral theses, monographic studies,
> scholarly works, and so on.

Now here there is room for some further revolution -- but only for the
scholarly/scientific flea. [9,10] Stay tuned. [11]

[1] Harnad, S., Steklis, H. D. & Lancaster, J. B. (eds.) (1976) Origins and
Evolution of Language and Speech. Annals of the New York Academy of
Sciences 280.

[2] Harnad, S. (1990) Scholarly Skywriting and the Prepublication Continuum
of Scientific Inquiry. Psychological Science 1: 342 - 343 (reprinted in
Current Contents 45: 9-13, November 11 1991).

[3] Harnad, S. (1991) Post-Gutenberg Galaxy: The Fourth Revolution in the
Means of Production of Knowledge. Public-Access Computer Systems Review
2 (1): 39 - 53 (also reprinted in PACS Annual Review Volume 2 1992; and
in R. D. Mason (ed.) Computer Conferencing: The Last Word. Beach Holme
Publishers, 1992; and in: M. Strangelove & D. Kovacs: Directory of
Electronic Journals, Newsletters, and Academic Discussion Lists (A.
Okerson, ed), 2nd edition. Washington, DC, Association of Research
Libraries, Office of Scientific & Academic Publishing, 1992); and in
Hungarian translation in REPLIKA 1994; and in Japanese in Research and
Development of Scholarly Information Dissemination Systems 1994-1995.

[4] Harnad, S. (1995) Interactive Cognition: Exploring the Potential of
Electronic Quote/Commenting. In: B. Gorayska & J.L. Mey (Eds.) Cognitive
Technology: In Search of a Humane Interface. Elsevier. Pp. 397-414.

[5] Light, P., Light, V., Nesbitt, E. & Harnad, S. (2000) Up for Debate: CMC
as a support for course related discussion in a campus university
setting. In R. Joiner (Ed) Rethinking Collaborative Learning. London:
Routledge (in press).

[6] Harnad, S. (1998/2000) The invisible hand of peer review. Nature
[online] (5 Nov. 1998)

[7] Harnad, S. & Carr, L. (2000) Integrating, Navigating and Analyzing
Eprint Archives Through Open Citation Linking (the OpCit Project).
Current Science 79(5): 629-638.

[8] Harnad, S., Varian, H. & Parks, R. (2000) Academic publishing in the
online era: What Will Be For-Fee And What Will Be For-Free? Culture
Machine 2 (Online Journal)

[9] Harnad, S. (2001) The Self-Archiving Initiative. Nature 410: 1024-1025

[10] Harnad, S. (1995) A Subversive Proposal. In: Ann Okerson & James
O'Donnell (Eds.) Scholarly Journals at the Crossroads; A Subversive
Proposal for Electronic Publishing. Washington, DC., Association of
Research Libraries, June 1995.

[11] Skyreading/Writing in the PostGutenberg Galaxy. Text-e.
November 14-30.

[11] Harnad, S. (2002) Skyreading and Skywriting for Researchers: A
PostGutenberg Anomaly and How to Resolve it. Virtual Symposium.
November 14-30 2001. "Screens and Networks: Towards a Relationship With
the Written Word?" Bibliotheque Centre Pompidou. 2001 - March 2002.
Received on Fri Oct 19 2001 - 04:39:13 BST

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