9.344 media & messages

Humanist (mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Sat, 2 Dec 1995 00:06:16 -0500 (EST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 9, No. 344.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)

[1] From: Willard McCarty <mccarty@epas.utoronto.ca> (35)
Subject: media & messages

Responding to an earlier note of mine, Todd Blayone, in Humanist 9.339, says,

>...evaluating what a technology does well and poorly
>is a good idea. One must resist the temptation, however, to begin
>with a set of values that are media-specific and to use them as
>general criteria. This approach misleads. An example from my own
>field might be the common-place assertion that the papyrus roll did
>not function well at handling the job of referencing and
>cross-referencing (and therefore, early Christians adopted the codex
>form). This type of analysis mistakes cause and effect. The lack of
>reference systems in the earliest manuscripts indicates that
>referencing and cross-referencing, as a cherished hermeneutical
>activity, was a *product* of a technological shift and not the cause
>of it. (The oral tradition also did a poor job of supporting this

I agree that one is mislead by the assumption that frustrated desire
*necessarily* pushes the invention of a new technology, but I cannot see
that it is simply impossible that this should on occasion be the case. (I
want badly to communicate at great distances, nothing available will do the
job, so I invent a device that will allow me to do so. My invention has
unforseen consequences, people use it in ways I could not have imagined, but
at the time I knew what I was doing and in fact achieved the desired
result.) It also seems reasonable to me that a new activity should on
occasion be the product of an invention but not that this is always so. In
other words, isn't a cause-and-effect model, just like that, a simplistic
way of thinking about a much more complex state of affairs? Or have I

Here, I think, we need an historian of technology to contribute some actual
cases. If memory serves, the telephone is a good example -- Bell was
remarkably prescient about his invention -- and so is radio-telephony.

Humanist, on the other hand, is a case of something originally done for
reasons that have all but disappeared. But that is another story....


Willard McCarty, Centre for Computing in the Humanities
Departments of Classical Studies and Italian Studies (Toronto)
(416) 978-3974 voice (416) 978-6519 fax mccarty@epas.utoronto.ca