The Future of the Book
Geoffrey Nunberg, ed.

An earlier, online version of this chapter can be found at:

The Pragmatics of the New:
Trithemius, McLuhan, Cassiodorus
James J. O'Donnell

On Technological Determinism

"The late antique Latin experience in the making and shaping of power and community through the written word had a technological basis in the adoption of the codex form of the book, but the real change was cultural and social. So too, at other moments of transformation, the impulse, often very powerful, can be technological, but what saves the process from determinism is that thousands of small and particular choices are made by individuals and institutions to channel that force to shape society and its institutions" (39-40).

On McLuhan

"In short, I am saying two things about McLuhan: his work is of great value, but does not have the value it seems to have. It is instructive, stimulating and maddening--and perhaps most effective when most maddening. But its prophecies do not lend themselves to guide practical applications. If judged as myths, they are high-quality myths; if judged as history or sociology, they fail.
So if we find ourselves in a whirlwind of conflicting ideas and new technologies, what then is a better way to proceed? Clinging cautiously to older social instituations is bad for those institutions themselves; bellowing prophecies into the whirlwind persuades few and leads to no concrete advances. Both roles have their important functions and will find practitioners, but we may be forgiven for pressing on to seek out a via media" (49).

On the Role of Librarians

"The librarians of the world have, moreover, already led the way, for academics at least, into the new information environment, not least because they are caught between rising demand from their customers (faculty and students) and rising supply and prices from their suppliers, and so have already been making reality-based decisions about ownership versus access, print versus electronics, and so on. In short, they are just now our leading pragmatists. Can we imagine a time in our universities when the librarians are the well-paid principals and the teachers their mere acolytes in a distribution chain? I do not think we can or should rule out that possibility for a moment" (53).

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