The Future of the Book
An earlier, online version of this chapter can be found at:
Geoffrey Nunberg, ed.
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).
"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).
Return to Front Node /
Book Table of Contents