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Author: David J. Staley
Title: James J. O'Donnell's Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
April 1999

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Source: James J. O'Donnell's Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace
David J. Staley

vol. 2, no. 1, April 1999
Article Type: Book Review
PDF: Download full PDF [11kb ]

Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace

David J. Staley

Few recent works on the effects of the computer have been as sober and as historically nuanced as this one. Many books compare the computer revolution to the emergence of print, and seek patterns and precedents to help guide our path into cyberspace. O'Donnell makes an interesting historiographic move by focusing instead on the shift from papyrus to the manuscript in late antiquity, between 300 and 600 A.D. He argues that what many contemporary observers see as novel and revolutionary change brought on by computers is in fact a return to practices that began with the manuscript. For example, O'Donnell notes that "hyperlinked" reading paths date to the medieval practice of indexing canon tables in order to follow nonlinear paths through the Gospels. Manuscripts allowed for easier non-linear reading than papyrus scrolls; computers only make this ancient practice even easier. Further, collaborative scholarship was quite common by the late Middle Ages. The virtual library, where one can access the totality of human knowledge, reflects a dream of scholars dating to antiquity. "User-made anthologies" were the norm before the single-author mass produced book; in fact, "the relative stasis of the printed book that we are familiar with is an anomaly in the history of the written word." (78) The implication here, never fully stated by O'Donnell but evident throughout this work, is that the postmodern digital future may appear more like the premodern medieval past.

In considering the future of the university, the professorate and teaching, O'Donnell similarly looks upon the medieval past for guidance. He seeks inspiration in the traditional liberal arts, in "the mastery of language and number." (146) Professors must employ computer technology to continue traditional practices, to allow students to "rehearse behaviors" for the real world and to "prepare students for a wiser, more cultured life beyond the university."(186) Guiding students through these skills, rather than accessing information, is the true goal of education; the presence of the computer can only further these goals, not erase them.

There is much that is familiar here: writing contributed to the loss of oral memory; Socrates was oral, while Plato was written. By his own admission, O'Donnell's style is "associative and informal;"(x) thus, it is not always clear how his interesting excursions into medieval history relate to the computer. Whether O'Donnell intends for this style to reflect nonlinearity in printed form is not clear. At times, O'Donnell sounds like an academic administrator convincing us of the need for electronic tools (he is Vice Provost for Information Systems and Computing at the University of Pennsylvania) and many of his recommendations for technology policy seem directed at well-funded larger universities, not small colleges or community colleges. Aside from these, O'Donnell's observations are thoughtful and clear-headed, a welcomed relief from technophilic hyperbole.

David J. Staley
Heidelberg College