3.1158 electronic texts and discourse (193)

Willard McCarty (MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca)
Fri, 9 Mar 90 23:11:27 EST

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 3, No. 1158. Friday, 9 Mar 1990.

(1) Date: 08 Mar 90 22:17:40 EST (21 lines)
From: James O'Donnell <JODONNEL@PENNSAS>
Subject: newer technology just not as good as older

(2) Date: Fri, 9 Mar 90 00:59:43 EST (60 lines)
From: "Paul N. Banks" <pbanks@cunixa.cc.columbia.edu>
Subject: e-text and libraries

(3) Date: Fri, 09 Mar 90 07:08:55 EST (73 lines)
From: Niko Besnier <UTTANU@YALEVM>
Subject: e-mail discourse

(4) Date: Fri, 9 Mar 90 08:50 EST (9 lines)
Subject: Re: 3.1147 e-texts (164)

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: 08 Mar 90 22:17:40 EST
From: James O'Donnell <JODONNEL@PENNSAS>
Subject: newer technology just not as good as older

From: Jim O'Donnell (Penn, Classics)

Or at least so quoth Plato, *Letters*, 7.344c (trans. L.A. Post):

No serious man will ever think of writing about serious realities
for the general public so as to make them a prey to envy and perplexity.
In a word, it is an inevitable conclusion from this that when anyone
sees anywhere the written work of anyone, whether that of a lawgiver
in his laws or whatever it may be in some other form, the subject
treated cannot have been his most serious concern--that is, if he
is himself a serious man. His most serious interests have their
abode somewhere in the noblest region of the field of his activity.
If, however, he really was seriously concerned with these matters
and put them in writing, `then surely' not the gods, but mortals
`have utterly blasted his wits.'

The bit in quotes is Iliad 7.360 and 12.234.
(2) --------------------------------------------------------------68----
Date: Fri, 9 Mar 90 00:59:43 EST
From: "Paul N. Banks" <pbanks@cunixa.cc.columbia.edu>
Subject: e-text and libraries

I trust that Michael S. Hart was speaking tongue-in-cheek when
he asked why humanists are so little interested in e-texts and e-mail
as we approach the year 2000 when "all paper libraries will be
replaced with electronic ones" [approx. quote].
There are certainly many advantages to e-texts (which I don't
have occasion to use) and e-mail (which I use avidly), and there seems
little doubt that e-publishing and e-texts will grow dramatically in
importance. But _replace_ libraries?
First, I doubt that anyone would seriously suggest that
e-texts should _replace_ all the millions of books in libraries that
are already considered rare (however that slippery word is defined).
Supplement them yes, replace no. Also, all editions in all libraries
are necessarily becoming rarer, and some portion of those will at some
time cross the line to become "Rare Books."
Second, while one might concede that the text (that is, that
which can be copied) is the thing in most cases, descriptive and
physical bibliographers show us that the physical book (which cannot
be copied) is an object of study in itself, and can sometimes be of
crucial importance in establishing the authentic text.
Third, as has been discussed in the past on Humanist, books
consist of more than alphanumeric characters; not only may the size,
style, layout, etc., of the characters be significant to some kinds of
study of the text, but books often have maps, charts, or
illustrations, some of which may be in color. While storage
capacities, resolutions, and other aspects the technology of
reproducing electronically continuous tone and color images improve
and can be expected to continue to improve, storing such information
requires enormous numbers of bits as well as the latest and
highest-tech hardware and software for conversion, manipulation,
storage, and transmission.
In other words, (fourth) while we probably have the technology
to replace all of our paper libraries with electronic ones, _who is
going to pay for the conversion, storage, and maintenance of all this
information_? The world will be a very much poorer place if only the
information from the "wealthier" sectors (science, medicine, law) and
the conspicuous canons and corpora are available in the future.
Fifth, despite the seriousness of the "brittle book problem"
with which I assume Humanists are familiar, books are by and large a
pretty durable medium for storing information. More to the point, they
are human-readable, and do not require for access machines that become
obsolete in ten years, requiring copying to another technology if
someone thinks of it and is willing to pay for it.
E-texts are wonderful, yes; I would love to be able to call up
and search all of the literature of my field of library preservation
on my screen at home. But replace libraries?
(Library preservation is in fact perhaps an instructive
example: it is a small, relatively poor, and somewhat esoteric
endeavor, and I have little hope that I will be able to call up that
literature at home in my lifetime).

Paul N. Banks Conservation Education Programs
Research Scholar School of Library Service
516 Butler Library
212 854-4445 Columbia University
212 865-1304 New York NY 10027
(3) --------------------------------------------------------------81----
Date: Fri, 09 Mar 90 07:08:55 EST
From: Niko Besnier <UTTANU@YALEVM>
Subject: e-mail discourse

I'm delighted that Willard has launched again the topic of e-mail as a
sociolinguistic practice. In the last few years, there's been a flurry of
papers in sociolinguistics on what e-mail discourse looks like: how users
`adapt' to the physical constraints and advantages of the medium and produce
language that has particular characteristics in response to such factors as
the relative `immediacy' that the technology affords.

I've been very disatisfied with a lot of what I've seen on the topic because
(a) it assumes that people are little automata who adapt to new environments
by repsonding to the physical properties of these environments, and (b) it
fails to provide an explanation of the properties of e-mail as a *social
practice*. My view stems from work that some of us are doing in literacy,
which is essentially anti-McLuhanist (as well as anti-Goody, Ong, Gellner,
etc.): members of societies give literacy meaning, rather than literacy
giving meaning to literacy. So that we do not see literacy as some
independend entity to which people and groups adapt and suddenly become
less context-dependent, more reflective, more philosophically-, historically-,
and scientifically-inclined than when they were preliterate. A good case in
point, which Brian Street and I just finished an article on (hence the laptop
trip to England last week!) is to observe societies which have become literate
in the last, say, 100 years. Literacy in many of these societies has
characteristics for both the individual and the group which clearly `fit' with
the dynamics at play in the oral communicative repertoire of the group. So
it's literacy which adapts to society, not the reverse.

What all this means for e-mail is that we need to look at e-mail discourse as
a part of a much larger set of communicative dynamics, with processes of power
and competition for symbolic capital already at play. (According to Bourdieu,
the academic environment, which is a prime consumer of e-mail, is a major
locus of cultural reproduction, with language playing a major role as a
gatekeeping tool.) So that, for example, the amount of shared knowledge that
we'll make explicit or keep implicit (if I may use very vague linguistic terms)
in e-mail is dictated not by the nature of the technology, but by the way in
which e-mail fits into the communicative repertoire of its users on the one
hand, and how it fits in the broader social dynamics of control and power at
play in the environment in which it exists, including such
culturally-constructed categories as gender, presentation of self, etc.

So rather than analyze, to quote Willard's nice metaphor, what makes a text
`adequate to the swiftly moving bitstream of chatter' over e-mail, we need to
recognize that this emerging `adequacy' is a construct, which is in the
process of becoming `normalized' or `naturalized' (recall Schu"tz) as the
`right' way of doing things, the `natural' way of adapting to the electronic
environment. That's what I think Ong, McLuhan, et al., missed about literacy
(they contributed to the glorification of only one of *many* types of
literacy, a Western middle-class-dominated essayist literacy), and what a lot
of sociolinguistic studies of e-mail seem to go right on missing.

To provide a final example of what I think might be a useful way of analysing
e-mail discourse (which I was just writing about in a paper entitled `Language
and affect' for the 1990 volume of the _Annual Review of Anthropology_): one
thing that's particularly interesting about e-mail is that textual
conventions, to a certain extent, are still in the process of emerging,
although I also believe that the groundwork for them has been long
established. One keeps getting e-memos from computer centers and other sources
about `proper e-etiquette': no flaming, keep down the affect, be
`reasonable', etc. At the same time, e-mail allows rather young and
half-socialized individuals to partake in a fairly public forum, andso becomes
a locus of some struggle over rights to the `floor', normativeness, etc. In
that sense e-mail is not fundamentally different from many other arenas of
social life, and what would be interesting to look at is how this struggle
gets articulated textually, both through e-mail itself and in the memos
attempting to regulate `good behavior' (which incidentally is defined in way
that are clearly gendered, class-marked, and certainly culture-bound.)

Niko Besnier
Department of Anthropology
Yale University
(4) --------------------------------------------------------------18----
Date: Fri, 9 Mar 90 08:50 EST
Subject: Re: 3.1147 e-texts (164)

Never send a chainsaw to do an axe's work! Come now, bookholders, is there
really that much difference, once everything's reduced to its truly
homogenious, molecular level?

Schwartz w/Don Juan in Hell