Historical Perspectives on the Book and Information Technology
by Gregory Crane

Classicists have an unusual perspective on many of the arguments about the history of the book. Many critics who lament the passing of the literate world into which they were born often frame their concerns in such narrow historical terms that they can unintentionally trivialize the changes that fear are overwhelming us. Clifford Stoll's Silicon Snake Oil [1] fiercely critiques the virtual existence offered by the brave new electronic world, but almost all of these criticisms were leveled at book culture as well. Sven Birkert's Gutenberg Elegies [2] has established itself as a focal point for resistance, but, telling as many of his points may be and sympathetic as I find many of his intellectual values, his work seems to delight in its limitations.

The intellectual world upon which he draws scarcely extends beyond the lifetime of a single human being. The earliest book that he cites in this collection of essays was published in 1929 -- not a single publication was old enough to have forced its way into the public domain. The Gutenberg Elegies laments the putative end of an intellectual world that is anchored in the past two generations -- precisely that period in which in which film, radio and television have savaged eroded the culture of the book and in which book culture has attracted many who enjoy the position of marginalized intellectuals surrounded by the barbarian hordes of "mall culture."

Those who have most closely studied both new technology and the broader history of intellectual life seem, for the most part, less fretful about the future. Richard Lanham rightly traces modern debates about the role of technology back to the arguments of rhetoric vs. truth that centered around Isocrates and Plato in the fourth century BCE. George Landow and Janet Murray, trained as experts in Victorian literature and immersed in the textuality of the nineteenth century, have emerged among the most sympathetic and serious analysts of hypertext. Jerome McGann, an eminent textual critic and thus expert in the most genuinely (and constructively) conservative practice of the humanities, has found in the new medium both a way to publish the works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti more effectively than he could in print and a challenge to the ways in which we conceive of textuality itself. Jerome McGann's colleague at the University of Virginia, John Unsworth, the founding editor of PostModern Culture, is, as director of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, actively supporting a range of humanistic research projects that range from the classical antiquity to modern culture.

As a specialist in classical Greek literature and especially as a classicist at a university largely dominated by engineers, MD-Phds, social scientists and "humanists" deeply suspicious of the label "humanism" and of all traditional culture, I understand the position of marginalized intellectual all too well, but I am, in many ways, more interested in the general public than I am in my professional colleagues. Those of us who have been so fortunate as to win permanent jobs depend for our continued existence upon a consensus among non-professionals that what we do matters. The National Endowment for the Humanities almost vanished, in large measure because many American citizens believed, and not wholly without reason, that humanists had little interest in, and even disdain for, those outside of the academy. Decimated, the NEH survived, but its troubles suggested that we in the humanities must reestablish the relationship between our work and society at large. Whatever the fate of the NEH and whether or not we depend upon NEH's support for our research, the NEH drew fire that was aimed squarely at all of us in the humanities. Electronic media -- whether self-standing artifacts like CD-ROMs and Digital Video Disks or distributed hypertexts like the World Wide Web -- constitute a new vernacular, much as Italian or Chaucer's English. It is our responsibility, as humanists, not only to master this vernacular but to foster its development. The greatest challenge that we face over the coming years is the need to adapt ourselves to the new media and the new media to those intellectual and cultural values that we cherish.

Classicists as a group certainly have their share of techno-angst and the achievements of our discipline in adapting digital tools to our use have not assuaged the fears that many of our colleagues still share. Nevertheless, those trained in classics who have thought seriously about the technology often seem much less anxious than many of their post-modern colleagues: a generation ago, the classicist Eric Havelock earned a prominent position beside Marshall McCluhan and Walter Ong as a pioneer in the study of media and culture. More recently, Jay Bolter and James O'Donnell have emerged among the most creative analysts of the changes around us. Richard Lanham's insights derive much of their strength from his sense of history and from this recognition that debates about electronic media now raging continue discussions underway since the continuous European tradition of literate culture took shape in the fifth-century BCE.

The enthusiasm with which many classicists have embraced the new technology has several causes. First, the book-- the physical object with two covers and rectangular pages bound together -- has been grossly misrepresented. The codex is a relatively late product and our earliest references to the codex appear in the poems of Martial during the late first century CE, after the Greeks and the Romans had built up more than eight hundred years of an intensely felt textual culture. The great library of Alexandria, when in the first century BCE it caught fire for the first time, was therefore stuffed full of scrolls and not books.

Vergil, writing in the first century BCE, was one of the most influential intellectual figures and successful poets who ever lived. He produced poems that played to a passionate immersion in and commitment to literary texts. But Vergil lived in a world of scrolls -- he probably never saw a book in his entire life. I have yet to see any cogent argument that the arrival of the codex improved the quality of literature or made possible more keenly felt literary sensibilities than those that we can, by dint of much hard work and skill, recover from the work of Vergil or the Hellenistic Greek poets who preceded him. I have no desire to play off Vergil against Dante, or Homer against Shakespeare or to argue that the cultures of the codex or that of print are inferior to that which was in place when the codex first began to appear. But I see no basis at all for an argument that book culture per se allowed human beings to reach higher levels of literary creativity or to participate in a richer intellectual world than the written culture that preceded it.

Second, it is not at all clear that the effects of the codex upon reading were, on the balance, at all good for that intense linear reading which we celebrate as the starting point of literary experience. The comparison between printed book and later twentieth century computer screen has not carried us very far. The real comparison should be between the codex and the scroll.
It would be interesting to perform experiments comparing the experience of readers working through a continuous text, from beginning to end, in a codex and in a continuous scroll. It would not be easy to design a convincing experiment that probed these differences if all of the participants in this experiment had grown up in book cultures: we would have to compare the impressions of those who grew up handling scrolls to those whose parents had, as impressionable children, had listened to their own parents read codices to them in bed. I suspect that a published essay called "The Aristotle Elegies," lamenting the fall of that scroll culture which the great Athenian intellectual had helped to define, would have found a sympathetic audience in the second century CE.

First, the codex was successful not for literary but for utilitarian reasons. First, the book, with its flat pages laid on top of one another, takes up less space than a scroll: codices take up less "shelf-space." Second, because codices readily support writing on both sides, they could store roughly twice as much information per square inch. Despite the wastage that comes from having bottom and top margins and empty space near the binding, codices are essentially a double-density storage medium -- a savings especially significant before the development of inexpensive paper. Third, even in manuscript form and before the settled conventions of running headers, standard page numbers, tables of contents, indices and other aids solidified in the age of print, books are far better suited to random access than scrolls. It is hard to imagine that you could ever unroll a lengthy scroll as quickly as you can flip the pages of the codex.

It was the codex that encouraged a culture of rapid, silent reading. Readers of a scroll expected to read slowly. Words were run together and paragraphs were not marked -- storage media was expensive but processing time was less of a concern because readers expected to spend a more time working their way through the document: silent (and thus rapid) reading was a relatively late development. Readers who sounded out the words before them experienced the text both visually and aurally -- thus drawing upon more than one sense at a time and anticipating a learning practice that cognitive scientists encourage. Full-blown book culture -- which married the codex to mechanical reproduction -- produced a world of vast documents, quickly written and even more quickly consumed. Concentrated, self-consciously literary novelists such as Proust, James and, of course, Joyce, wrote against this tendency, saturating the ultimate codex genre, the novel, with that density of meaning and of reference which we can find already in Vergil (and, indeed, in the haunting prose of Thucydides). The great novelists were thus renewing, in a different medium and genre, that literary intensity which writing allows us to trace thousands of years further back. They were trying to charge the non-linear and rapidly-read codex with the literary texture that emerged with the texture of the linear and slowly-read scroll.

The preeminent literary genre of the book may well be the novel, but the preeminent genre of the book is the utilitarian reference tool -- the accountant's ledger, the maintenance manual, and, above all, the bulging filing cabinet (itself nothing less than a mass of fluid codices). To sacralize the book as an object in the defense of a literary or cultural ideal is thus a losing cause for two reasons. First, the book itself is part of the problem, for if we accept the book in place of the scroll, then we have reinforced that utilitarian logic that leads to the electronic hypertext is an entirely logical and defensible continuation.

Second, if we, as defenders of books and book culture, do not take into consideration the culture that precedes the book, we open ourselves to severe criticisms on both scientific and traditional grounds. Not only is our argument profoundly flawed but, if our understanding of history and literature is so shallow that we are oblivious to almost a millenium of Greco-Roman literary achievement, then how can we expect anyone else to respect the past? We certainly cannot all spend years studying Greek and Latin, but, if we entirely ignore Greco-Roman antiquity, we weaken the cause of all cultural memory and of that culture to which the scroll, the codex and the printed books have all contributed.

Media constrain the intellectual paths that we can and do pursue, but human creativity can sooner or later exploit the potential of any medium flexible enough to permeate a society. Different forms of media are relatively neutral: the printed book gave us not only the novel and the massive reading audience but tabloids that cynically play to the seamiest instincts that North American mass culture can tolerate -- and academic publications just as cynically aimed at reviewers and at the tenure/promotion/better jobs etc. that these reviewers will confer. To attribute such phenomena to a relentless technological determinism is a self-defeating strategy, because it can justify the role of querulously superior bystander.

But if media are relatively neutral with respect to one another and susceptible to development in various ways, media themselves are not neutral. Once we transfer our ideas from the wetware between our ears and inscribe them in some artificial medium, whether a Sumerian clay tablet or an expert system for analyzing Greek morphology, storing our ideas over time and transmitting them to people whom we have never physically seen, we have entered a new world. The most cogent issues that we face today were already striking sparks classical Greece -- long before computers, printing presses or the codex. On the one hand, classical literary texts exhibit a technological boosterism comparable with which the capital hungry modern entrepreneur should sympathize. The lyric poet Pindar, a professional well paid for his skills and for the celebrity that he could confer, begins one poem by thumbing his nose at the sculptors with whom he competed for contracts to perpetuate the memory of the rich and successful: I am not a sculptor, to make statues that stand motionless on the same pedestal. Sweet song, go on every merchant-ship and rowboat that leaves Aegina, and announce that Lampon's powerful son Pytheas [5] won the victory garland for the pancratium at the Nemean games, a boy whose cheeks do not yet show the tender season that is mother to the dark blossom. (Pind. Nem. 5.1-6 (tr. Svarlien))

The famous athlete may erect a statue commemorating his deeds at Delphi and Olympia -- these sites were, by the end of antiquity, crammed with statues and functioned very much like modern sports halls of fame -- but statutes, however imposing, can only be in one place at one time. When Pindar composed a poem, the text generally consisted of a few hundred words that could be readily copied and that could spread on every ship, great and small, throughout a Greek speaking world that extended from Spain to Russia. Neither Pindar nor his patrons had ever heard of copyright -- nor is it likely that they would have found much to commend this modern concept. Poet and patron alike depended for their success on the furious, uncontrolled circulation of the written text. The poet accumulated wealth by receiving generous gifts in exchange for each poem, and the cumulative fame of prior work lead to the next job -- in this regard, the poet earned money much more like a modern architect than author. The patron paid the poet because he wanted his name to be known as broadly as possible in space and as deeply as possible in time to come -- in the case of Lampon, surely one of the more successful investments in history, since we still possess the poem above, recalling Lampon and his son Pytheas each time that we read it.

The tragic drama Prometheus Bound is even more audacious. Zeus has punished Prometheus for giving mortals the gift of fire. At the center of this play stands a speech in which Prometheus recounts the many benefits that he had conferred on mortals: "But I do not speak of this; for my tale would tell you nothing except what you know. Still, listen to the miseries that beset mankind -- how they were witless before and I made them have sense and endowed them with reason. [445] I will not speak to upbraid mankind but to set forth the friendly purpose that inspired my blessing."

"First of all, though they had eyes to see, they saw to no avail; they had ears, but they did not understand; but, just as shapes in dreams, throughout their length of days, [450] without purpose they wrought all things in confusion. They had neither knowledge of houses built of bricks and turned to face the sun nor yet of work in wood; but dwelt beneath the ground like swarming ants, in sunless caves. They had no sign either of winter [455] or of flowery spring or of fruitful summer, on which they could depend but managed everything without judgment, until I taught them to discern the risings of the stars and their settings, which are difficult to distinguish."

"Yes, and numbers, too, chiefest of sciences, [460] I invented for them, and the combining of letters, creative mother of the Muses' arts, with which to hold all things in memory." (Aesch. PB 447-461)

Ostentatiously turning its back on earlier visions of a glorious heroic age (such as we see in Hesiod and Homer), this fifth-century Prometheus envisions a near Hobbesian early man whose life is nasty, brutish and short: before Prometheus, men had been helpless, utterly at the mercy of their environment. The speech goes on at some length cataloguing the various technical skills for which Prometheus was responsible, including (in the passage quoted above) architecture, an astronomically based calendar, and (in subsequent sections) domestication of animals, sea-faring, medicine, and metallurgy. At the core of Prometheus' gifts stand numbers, mathematics and writing -- the mother of the Muses' arts, which holds all things in memory.

Fifth-century Greeks were acutely sensitive to the impact that an artificial storage system had exerted upon their culture. Their society remained, for the most part, oral:[3] contracts were pronounced before witnesses rather than signed and writing occupied a position closer to computer programming (i.e., a technical skill, fully mastered by a relative few) than modern writing (i.e., a fundamental skill which society expects, at least, all its members to acquire). Greeks did not have to be literature themselves to recognize that writing was something new and different.

Certainly, the power of (then) modern information technology provoked, in classical Athens, anxiety as well as triumphalist visions. Euripides' Phaedra committed suicide but left behind a letter falsely accusing Hippolytus, her step-son, had sexually assaulted her (Eur. Hipp. 885-886): Theseus, Phaedra's husband, takes the message at face value. Hippolytus, confronted by a written message but, unable to interrogate the writer (Eur. Hipp. 1021ff.), is unable to defend himself. His father, to the dismay of the chorus, puts more credence in the uninterrogated writing of Phaedra than in a solemn oath sworn by Hippolytus (Eur. Hipp. 1036-1037), thus dramatizing the dangers of transferring authority from speech and to contemporary information technology -- we might compare the modern image of an innocent trapped by misinformation that had "gotten into the computer." Writing both subverted and conferred authority: written law was, at least in the letter, fixed and, in theory, could be reviewed by all. Writing thus reduced the leeway of judges and of those who were expert in traditional wisdom. At the same time, writing allowed new laws to take on an instant authority that only usage over time could confer in a traditional society. Someone embroiled in a court case could appeal to the fact that a law was still agraphos, unwritten, to defend himself (e.g., Andoc. 1.85-86), but Athenians, who, like contemporary Americans, were remarkable for their reliance upon new media, were also deeply skeptical of these technologies. The Thucydidean Perikles, in his idealizing description of Athenian society, boasts that his fellow-citizens pay particular attention to those laws which are unwritten (agraphos: Thuc. 2.37.3). Elsewhere we hear that Perikles was especially scrupulous to respect these unwritten laws which constituted the traditional culture and morality of Greek culture (Lys. 6.10).

Sophocles' Antigone, of course, turns upon the ambiguities of written law and on the overzealous legislation of an (initially at least) progressive leader. Creon begins by following the most enlightened and indeed radical strand of Greek political thought when he asserts that he will subordinate his own personal interests and affections to those of the city-state (Soph. Ant. 163-210), but he ultimately wilts before Antigone and her stubborn defense of "unwritten laws" (Soph. Ant. 450ff.).[4] The play critiques modern ideas (esp. those of Protagoras) and the modern technology of writing at once.

Thucydides, the Athenian writer who did much to invent not only history but also the academic monograph, offers perhaps the most sustained and interesting example of that excitement which some Greeks felt for the new technology of his time. Herodotus published what may have been the first "book-length" prose work in the continuous tradition of Western tradition,[5] but Thucydides played D. W. Griffith to Herodotus' Edison, for, just as Griffith is credited with inventing film as a medium in its own right and not an imitation of stage, Thucydides produced a prose work that was conceived as a written document rather than a script for, or transcript of, performance. Thus, after a description of his methodology and of the pains that he took in collecting his data, Thucydides contrasts his work with that of his predecessors: "The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time. (Thuc. 1.22.4)

Thucydides did not write for performance -- perhaps to underscore this point, he wrote many passages that are so complex and impenetrable in language that ancient speakers of Greek (like Dionysius of Halikarnassos) could scarcely understand them. Thucydides wrote prose that needs to be studied and that no general audience could ever grasp from a single, oral performance. He defied the glibness of style and the laxness of method that he attributed to those who had gone before him, creating a refined prose work designed to withstand generations of close study. And in this he was spectacularly successful. Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War remains a staple not only in ancient history, but in political philosophy and international relations as well. Robert Strassler's 1996 Landmark edition of Thucydides,[6] undertaken as a labor of love by an investment banker, became an unexpected hit, striking a chord of interest that no one -- least of all Strassler -- had anticipated.

But if Thucydides affected an austerely intellectual rigor and refused to appeal to the popular culture of his time, he nevertheless saw in his written work the source for an emotional engagement that would exceed in intensity and outlast cheap sensationalism. The Funeral Oration which Thucydides attributes to Perikles presents an idealized vision of Athens. Perikles does not claim that Athenian temporal power would be permanent -- he does not even anticipate a thousand year Reich. He does, however, boast that Athens' reputation would never die. At the climax of his oration, delivered in honor of those who had died fighting Sparta and its allies (and the direct cultural ancestor of the Gettysburg Address[7]), Perikles articulates his vision of Athenian greatness: [2] For this offering of their lives made in common by them all they each of them individually received that renown which never grows old, and for a sepulchre, not so much that in which their bones have been deposited, but that noblest of shrines wherein their glory is laid up to be eternally remembered upon every occasion on which deed or story shall fall for its commemoration. [3] For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb; and in lands far from their own, where the column with its epitaph declares it, there is enshrined in every breast a record unwritten with no tablet to preserve it, except that of the heart. (Thuc. 2.43)
The above passage is remarkable for its apparent dismissal of writing. Athenian glory only has real existence insofar as it penetrates individual hearts and as real human beings emotionally embrace the memory of Athens. Written documents themselves are nothing. Human recognition -- and especially a recognition that includes heart as well as head -- is the only true form of glory.

Nevertheless, there is no contradiction between the austerity of Thucydides' own rejection of sensationalism and the vision laid out by the Thucydidean Perikles. Athens' glory will endure over time and it will fire the minds of those who come after, but largely because Thucydides has composed, in cool written form, his best exposition of what really happened. The written history, subject to scrutiny and criticism for all time, would be the seed from which profound emotion would grow. And, indeed, this is precisely what has happened, for it is through Thucydides that we still must largely view the Athens of empire and democracy.

In Thucydides' view, the austerity of his work was not so much a rejection of passion and emotion as it was a tactical retreat from sensationalism and a foundation for emotions that would be deeper and more firmly rooted. Thucydides, for all the dour realism that his writing affects, pursues an optimistic intellectual goal that is progressive in the truest sense of the word.

But if the methodology that Thucyides espouses in the opening of his history, the vision of Athens that his Perikles unfolds after one year of war, and even Athenian material power point towards a progressive vision of history, events themselves follow a more ambiguous course. Athens, the sea-power and financial center, falls to the supposedly obsolescent Sparta and its allies. A terrible plague claims Perikles among its victims, and venal leaders who cannot maintain Athenian greatness arise. The historian himself makes it clear that he can describe, but not assuage, such problems as plague (2.48.3) and the collapse into barbarium (3.82.2).
Above all, the austere utilitarianism with which the (otherwise unknown) Diodotus prevents Athens from committing genocide at Mitylene degenerates into the brutal reasoning and pitiless slaughter on the island of Melos. Neither writing nor money -- two fundamental indices of fifth-century modernism and keys to Athenian culture -- could prevent a perceived social collapse as war dragged on for almost thirty years.

Thucydides lived through a period of bitter disillusion that the British elites after the "Great War" or their American counterparts after Vietnam would quickly reckon. Plato spent his life trying to resolve the problems that Thucydides articulates in his history, above all the notion that "might makes right" and the justice is an ideological illusion. His greatest work, the Republic, takes its departure from the crass power politics and brutal realism that we find in Thucydides' Melian dialogue and establishes for justice a value that transcends any utilitarian measures. Born into the highest reaches of Athenian society, Plato grew up as the values which had defined his class weakened and an international, in many ways attractive, society, centuries old, seemed to be dissolving around him. The central problem for Plato was the same as that which ultimately confronted Thucydides: the technology and social "progress" of the fifth century failed to sustain itself. But where Thucydides was a grown man before war tore his world apart, Plato was born into a world of slaughter, plague and anxiety. He never experienced a "Periklean age," where Athens, however anxious about the future, dominated the Greek world. He grew up among the intellectual wreckage of a "lost generation." Plato, in other words, confronted a world readily comparable to that of the late twentieth century industrialized democracies.

Plato also exhibits a much more nuanced view of contemporary information technology than his older contemporary. Just as Plato, in the opening of the Republic recapitulates ideas about power politics that we find in Thucydides, he summarizes in the Phaedrus the same optimism that we can trace in the Prometheus Bound and in Thucydides. Plato's Socrates recounts the story of Theuth, an Egyptian Prometheus, who invented numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters (Plat. Phaedr. 274d):
The story goes that Thamus said many things to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts, which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to the letters, "This invention, O king," said Theuth, "will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is a drug (pharmakon) of memory and wisdom that I have discovered." (Plat. Pheadr. 274e)

This, of course, is essentially the same argument that we encountered in the Prometheus Bound. Writing constitutes artificial memory and extends the range of human intelligence. It accompanies the other applied arts and that culture on which upon which these applied arts depend. Thucydides would apply this notion far more subtly, demonstrating in his history concretely how a scientific, written account of events could immortalize the events of his time and extend the subsequent memory of humankind. Plato, however, only introduces the conventional boasts of writing so that the Egyptian king Thamus can critique them:

But Thamus replied, "Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; [275a] and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented a drug (pharmakon) not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem [275b] to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise. (Plat. Phaedr. 274e-275a)

Jacques Derrida made this passage of the Phaedrus famous in literary studies: the ambiguities of the Greek word are very similar to those of Greek pharmakon, and Derrida was able to use the issues involved here to help dramatize the ambiguities of language. This paragraph, for all its apparent simplicity, is extremely dense, alluding backwards to a range of themes from earlier Greek literature, while at the same time anticipating the fundamental objection to modern media. On the one hand, writing externalizes knowledge, giving that knowledge an existence outside the human brain and thus allowing that knowledge to outlive frail biological wetware, but knowledge externalized, available on demand for casual access, never wholly absorbed or internalized in any one mind, becomes information -- a commodity that anyone can acquire -- rather than knowledge, much less wisdom -- the studied and cultivated ability to apply knowledge judiciously. Plato is directly attacking that optimism that we can see in Thucydides, but the attack is tactical rather than strategic. Thucydides envisions a world in which his austere written history will excite human wonder and passion. Plato looks to a world of couch potatoes who cannot remember what passed through their minds a day before and of slick consultants who market a veneer of expertise.

Thucydides and Plato differ in their emphases: Thucydides, for all the overt pessimism that runs through much of his history, in his practices implies an optimism over the value, if not the utility, of written history: whether or not we learn from the past to control the future, we can lose ourselves in the reasoned contemplation of Athens and its struggles. Plato focuses instead upon the effect of writing as artificial memory, as knowledge disembodied from the human brain. If Plato focuses upon the negative consequences of writing and thus pushes in a direction different from that of Thucydides, the contrast emerges precisely because both writers share the same values: each measures the value of writing according to the impact that it has upon the reader.

The shared values of Thucydides and Plato animate the best of the critique aimed against information technology, twenty five hundred years ago and today. But, of course, any argument about technology derives its force from some larger context, in this case the general purpose of education. Two attitudes have contended furiously for as long as we can trace arguments about education. According to one position, conventionally associated with Plato, knowledge has value in and of itself. This argument can take an abstract form in which some transcendent Truth, perhaps scientific, perhaps philosophical, perhaps religious, is the source of all value. Conversely, this argument can be relentlessly practical: education is valuable because it produces useful knowledge, i.e., knowledge that allows us to better master our environment, to preserve or restore our health, to satisfy our physical needs and appetites of all kinds etc. These two variations of this attitude are, of course, generally related -- they struggle ceaselessly, for example, within the US National Science Foundation, as the proponents of basic and applied science compete for resources. Nevertheless, for the pure mathematician and the engineer, information technology -- writing, print, electronic storage -- is essential because it allows us to create shared structures of knowledge far greater than any one brain could encompass.

According to the second attitude, education has value not so much because of the knowledge that it produces as because of the impact that it exerts upon human character. This position, like its counterpart, has both an abstract and an applied wing. All systems for the perfection of human character, whether the Christian quest for salvation, the Confucian drive towards self-improvement or the Buddhist yearning for transcendence, order the disparate impulses and conditions of human life in a grand quest for some transcendent project. In its more applied form, this education leads to a republican rhetorical tradition in which neither abstract truth nor even, contrary to general perception, short term successes are the object.

The republican rhetorical tradition has little to do with bamboozling yokels; it assumes, instead, a contest of words and eloquence among equals, all of whom quickly learn the cheap tricks of argumentation and who, as a group, set de facto standards for discourse. The republican rhetorical tradition, from Perikles and Cicero to Lincoln and Churchill, challenges its practitioners to perfect their command of language and their understanding of the values which their fellows share. Such speakers depend for the success both upon the eloquence of what they say and upon the moral authority which they accumulate over time. At their best, they redefine their societies, winning consent for bold ideas and for shared efforts that renew and invigorate their societies. Promulgating drivel or barbarism may succeed in the short term but ultimately undermines the republican system, leading to chaos or an authoritarian society, both of which squelch the rough give-and-take among political peers.

Of course, there are few who purely embody either position, but Plato is remarkable precisely because he manages at once to champion both education as the source for truth and as the engine for moral perfection. (Post-modern society, conversely, comes to close to rejecting both, insofar as it dismisses notions of transcendent truth and undercuts any notion of moral perfection.) The arguments that swirl about the transformation of the book depend largely upon the dichotomy between these two attitudes. Those who most enthusiastically champion new technology often do so because their eyes have fixed upon the expanded edifice of knowledge that we can construct in this brave new digital world. Whether their visions focus more upon the beauty of a vast new shared society of knowledge or upon the material benefits to society (or themselves) that such new knowledge may bring, for them artificial memory and, ultimately, artificial intelligence are attractive precisely because they separate elements of intellection from the warm tissues of the human body.

We humanists, insofar as we are humanists, belong to the second tradition. Ultimately, the ideas that we pursue do not add to our scientific understanding or produce new mechanisms for the manipulation of the physical world. Insofar as we are humanists, we have forsworn such tangible and practical goals. Our ideas have no value if they do not, as ideas, command attention and interest of other living beings. Insofar as we are humanists, we have also forsworn theology and do not, in our professional capacities, further the awesome religious movements that have proven uniquely capable of moving humanity. Insofar as we are humanists, we dedicate ourselves to the life of the mind, whether Aristotle's' life of contemplation or Cecil's struggles in the forum of our own time. None of these categories is, in practice, absolute. Those of us who study past cultures must also contribute to our knowledge of the subject, while our colleagues in science and engineering believe that character and intellect must develop together. If we in the humanities do not passionately explore our fields, then we are not true humanists but priests of a static dogma. If scientists and engineers do not develop moral or rhetorical skills, they will become corrupt or ineffective. Nevertheless, the federal government does not invest vast sums of money into scientific research to develop character or to foster civic republicanism, and the production of knowledge in the humanities matters only insofar as it affects, directly or indirectly, the undergraduate curriculum or some audience beyond the specialists.

Digital libraries have captured the imagination of researchers in classics, old and young, conservative and radical, for over a generation: after receiving the endorsement of an international body of scholars, the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (TLG) at UC Irvine began in 1972 to build a database of all early Greek literature -- for us, the TLG allows us to explore our core data in ways that had been physically impossible and, insofar as we value the production of knowledge, we have long admired the TLG and its electronically transmogrified books. Nevertheless, the real value of this new technology lies less in how it enhances our research and the sheltered conversation of specialist with specialist as it allows us to redefine the relationship between researchers and the rest of the world. We need to ask two basic questions, one quantitative, the other qualitative: what effect does the new technology have on the raw number of those intellectually engaged with antiquity (or in any area of the humanities) and on the quality of that engagement. If no one were to study some area in the humanities except specialists, then the game is up for that area and its days as identifiable sub-discipline are probably numbered. On the other hand, it is not clear what value we offer if we worry only about engaging non-specialists and reduce ourselves to entertainment: if we subordinate ourselves wholly to popular tastes and do not challenge our audience to rise above the passivity of network television or even mass produced weekly magazines, then we may add to the quantity of content available but we will become just another category of programming. Our goal must be to demonstrate that culture extends beyond the market-driven popular culture of our time and that even the Discovery Channel and Time Magazine constitute can do no more than arouse interest in larger topics that require more extensive thought.

The quantitative argument is easy to address. A reasonably successful academic publication might sell 1,000 copies, most of which will normally sit unused in university libraries or faculty offices. The potential audience on the Internet is at least 10,000,000 machines, four orders of magnitude larger -- since the average sales of academic publications is certainly not rising and the number of people with access to the World Wide Web is certainly not shrinking, this ratio is going to increase during the foreseeable future. But even if only an infinitesimal percentage of machines ever visit any given site, the number can readily dwarf that of print: as of fall 1997, the WWW version of the Perseus digital library on ancient Greco-Roman culture attracts upwards of 7,000 visitors per day. Only half of the identifiable Internet addresses come from higher education (*.edu). A survey of the access logs and of the mail that we receive makes it clear that we are not only reaching conventional academics but grade school children and adult learners resuscitating their knowledge of Greek and Latin. We are reaching office parks, rural homes, schools, and even military installations. We have users not only in Europe and the English speaking world, but in Japan and South America -- where students of Greco-Roman culture had had little contact with experts on North America and Europe. Virtually nothing that we, as academics, publish will find its way into the Walden Books chains or the general school and public library system. Everything that we now publish freely on the Web is immediately available in a substantial percentage of classrooms, public libraries and homes. But, of course, simply making available documents designed for a print medium and written by professors for other professors will not get us very far. Redesigning our publications so that they can reach this wider audience is the major challenge that confronts the next generation of humanists.

But as soon as we focus on adapting ourselves to this new audience so that we can promote the quantitative increases in our audience that all of us in the humanities desperately need, we must decide on what our audience will be and what kind of experience we hope to foster.[8] The greatest danger here is transferring habits of thought and usage that are the products of print technology into an electronic environment with different constraints and possibilities.

Technology, even when revolutionary, generally has an immediate impact upon the tactical decisions that we make (e.g., how to manage a ship powered by coal rather than wind) and it may ultimately have strategic implications (e.g., the need to maintain a world wide network of coaling bases) but it need not affect the overall goals involved (e.g., control of the sea). Writing made possible the historical study of literature, qualitatively changing the way in which we could interact with the distant past. Subsequent advances in information technology such as the codex, printing and electronic systems have revolutionized the way in which we study literatures of the past, but the Alexandrian scholars of the third century BCE, transported to the early twentieth century library of congress or a digital library project would quickly recognize what their later colleagues were doing.

Nevertheless, if the possibilities of a new technology allow us to redefine how we go about pursuing our larger goals and indeed to rethink which ideal goals we can reasonably pursue, then we must look for the constraints of a prior technology that we have internalized into our present work lest we confuse bugs in the system with features. Classicists, for example, rarely write anything for a wide audience: the university presses that have published our major ideas as books and brokered our careers prod us to write for a general audience, but, in classics, this largely means that we translate the Greek and Latin, reduce our footnotes, and explain some of our ideas -- all fairly superficial changes. Of course, we have very little reason to change the way that we write: virtually no one outside the academy will ever see any of our publications and our real audience consists of our colleagues in classics or (if we are very ambitious) one or more adjacent academic specialties (e.g., philosophers who have an interest in Plato). But many of us, enmeshed in the system of publication, tenure, promotion and the parochial recognition of our peers, not only overlook the fact that such isolation renders our field untenable in the long run but even perceive our isolation not as a terrible weakness and danger to our field but as a sign of our intellectual rigor and purity. Throughout academia, the communities that we establish become hostile enclaves, their inhabitants eager to drive out anyone not fluent in the local patois.
The study of classical literature -- and this holds true for classical literatures in China, India, and the Islamic world -- introduces its audience into a complex, interlocking network of documents. First, reading classical literatures--Greco-Roman, Chinese, Islamic--requires mastery of a demanding language no longer in current usage, but this linguistic mastery, challenging as it may be, constitutes only the initiation into a textual world that may be small in size -- all of Greco-Roman literature can be stored in a single large book-case – but that no human being can fully master. Second, classical literatures that have flourished and elicited study over centuries generally rely upon a core of exceptionally successful works that accomplish two radically distinct, and often opposed, goals at once. On the one hand, they can appeal to those with little knowledge of the field -- Homer, Greek Tragedy and Plato, for example, continue to be read in English by audiences with little knowledge of ancient Greek culture; Latin literature may not have quite the same appeal in English translation, but high school students continue to struggle through authors such as Vergil and Cicero.

Students can encounter these works at an early age and enjoy them -- I learned early on in my teaching career from student evaluations, for example, that whatever my audience thought of my lecture style, ideas, exams, grading etc., they almost invariably came to enjoy and admire Greek drama. Nevertheless, these works can be read and reread throughout a lifetime: a reader intellectually engaged in the Iliad or the Republic can take away new insights from each fresh reading from the age of seventeen through advanced age.

Third, classical literatures are cumulative: each time that we devote a major effort to mastering any one author, we enhance our understanding of many other texts as well. This is certainly true about any literature -- the more we know about the cultural and literary context, the more ways in which we can view an individual work. The more we know about Homer, the better we can understand not only Vergil but Plato as well, each of whom wrote in the shadow of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Homeric Epics stand at the beginning of European literature and have no surviving antecedents, but the more we learn about archaic society, the better we can understand these poems as well. Professional classicists can expect to increase their intellectual range, studying new texts for the first time, rereading well known authors with wholly new sets of questions, and tangibly deepening the experience of reading any given text. Some texts, such as the Homeric Epics or Greek Drama, are so rich and complex that sensitive readers can study them from childhood to old age and still continue to learn something with each rereading. Even before vast bodies of information and ideas from archaeology, literary theory, anthropology, sociology, art history, cognitive science, linguistics and other disciplines were available to challenge and transform the way that we study these texts, we had more than enough to support the life of the mind from childhood onwards.

Insofar as we only reach students from the ages of roughly eighteen to twenty-one, we are not living up to our larger mission. We need, of course, to teach students to think and to prepare them for their work in later life, but we must never confuse this aspect of our task with the task as a whole -- our students (and their parents) already worry far too much about where they will be at twenty-five or thirty and not nearly enough about where they will be at forty, sixty or eighty. Ideally, we are providing our students with a foundation of knowledge upon which they can draw throughout their lives. Our students may well have little time in the years after they graduate for much besides establishing their careers and establishing families, but most will, sooner or later, begin to hunger for something beyond their daily lives. The BA in classics may later develop an interest in twentieth century Latin American literature or Japanese Film, but reading Homer should provide that BA with a sense of how to engage artistic creations in a disciplined fashion. Conversely, we need to be able to support an interest in our fields that arises long after college.

Book culture has served professional academics and intellectuals well -- or at least those who have access to major libraries -- but it has had much more limited success in helping a wider audience cultivate sustained interests over a long period of time. Public libraries, book clubs, mall bookstore chains and other outlets can only do so much. It is simply impracticable for most of those outside of a university environment to cultivate sustained areas of interest -- nowhere outside of academia is that depth of print information available that can satisfy or stimulate a voracious interest in most subjects. A curious twelve year old living in an affluent suburb with a model public library can quickly exhaust its traditional printed resources on Human Evolution or Inner Asian History. Her thoughtful fifty-two year old compatriot may simply not have the time in her schedule to visit a library with any regularity. The growth of cable programming on history and science reflects the frustrated hunger for ideas and the limitations of the traditional print library in isolation.

Digital technologies such as CD ROM (which let us disseminate hundreds of interlinked books) and, of course, the Internet (through which we can reach millions of documents) are still in their infancy, but they are already beginning to redefine both what questions we academics can ask and, more importantly, who can ask what. We can, for example, see signs of a revolutionary change in one core area of classics. However well our students may learn classical languages in their student days, they have traditionally had little prospect of retaining these skills later in life, when their careers and family obligations allow them to broaden their interests and when they are often hungry to read works such as the Iliad or the Republic again. When our former students wish to return to Plato or Vergil, their linguistic knowledge has receded and they lack the support system to work their way through the language. Now, however, we provide not only raw access to many Greek and Latin texts on the World Wide Web but, more importantly, links between source texts and reading aids of various kinds, including lexica, grammars, commentaries, and morphological analyses of individual words. In some cases, we make faster and more widely available functions that could be done in a library or if the reader had assembled a bookshelf full of reference works.

In other cases, we allow readers to perform functions or ask questions that have never before been possible. While a great deal remains to be done, we have already been able to transform the way in which those beyond the academy can interact with Greek and Latin literature. Already, we have begun to hear from former classics majors who never expected to read Greek or Latin again and who are now able to consider resuscitating their knowledge. At the same time, we can now begin to tell our students that the work which they do at twenty will serve them again at forty or seventy. By changing the relationship between our core texts and the wider public, we change the value that these texts have for our traditional full-time students.

Millions of people may not develop a passionate interest in Greek and Latin language in the immediate future, but numbers are not the point, since the example of classical languages could be replicated throughout the intellectual world Every discipline in the humanities has functions that books can only imperfectly support. Printed illustrations are very expensive: it is extremely difficult to study art from books because there are never enough pictures or enough details. Nor have the weaknesses of print publication enhanced the value of the original objects -- in developing a visual database of Greek art we grew accustomed to curators fearful that digital images, if too good, could lower interest in the originals. All of our experience to date indicates that the opposite is true: the better the published documentation and the fuller the pictures, the greater the interest in the original. This is the positive side of the "papparazzo principle."

Likewise, virtual reconstructions of vanished spaces, especially when these reconstructions are linked to digital libraries of information about the culture represented.

Our greatest goal as intellectuals is to create a seamless web of knowledge so that the curious may pursue their interests as far their will and ability take them, rather than as far as traditional print publication has allowed. The viewer captivated by Branagh's Hamlet should be able to compare Branagh's Hamlet with that of Olivier and Zefferelli, survey the kinds of questions experts on the play have raised, even compare the First Folio edition with the version of the play as adopted in a given performance. The technical barriers to such a seamless Web of knowledge are relatively modest. Simple access to academic publications now safely ensconced in research libraries will have little affect because these publications were written by specialists and for specialists. We must think long and hard about how we write, cultivating ways to make our ideas more readily accessible to an open-minded and interested public. Some ideas may be too complex, but often jargon and academic short-hand needlessly obscure our main points. Most publications may address minutiae and points of little general applicability, but the core issues that we are exploring and a large body of data should be readily accessible. Such a finely designed Web of knowledge would indeed help both the general public and researchers. As one colleague observed, describing the function of an astrolabe in terms comprehensible to a twelve year old made the description more useful for non-specialist scholars unfamiliar with astrolabers.

As a humanist, I see little to lose from a electronic media. We have, like medieval monks in their monasteries, cultivated and maintained a magnificent culture of learning in our universities, but it is our obligation to seize upon every means at our disposal not only to help our own research but also to reach that wider audience. Artificial dichotomies between paper and electronic media only distract us from the question of who does what. As a classicist, I know full well that print did not create a new kind of textuality that was qualitatively superior to what went before but allowed the experience of textuality to reach more people than scribal culture ever could. We may smile at the "sweatness and light" that Matthew Arnold saw at the core of intellectual life -- we are more apt to challenge conventional pieties and focus upon uncomfortable truths -- and we certainly have a much broader range of interests than those of Arnold's Oxford, but our mission is the same: to reach out and communicate our ideas -- and, equally important, our passionate engagement with those ideas to the widest possible audience. Our work has barely begun: while our large goals -- to increase knowledge and to communicate what we have learned -- may not change, we must, in the years to come, rethink every aspect of our work.


Birkerts, S. (1994). The Gutenberg Elegies. Winchester, MA, Faber and Faber.

Crane, G. (1989). "Creon and the `Ode to Man' in Sophocles' Antigone." HSCP 92: 103-116.

Flory, S. (1980). "Who Read Herodotus' Histories." AJP 101: 12-28.

very nice discussion of the problems that herod had to consider. the audience for such a huge book must have been small, and creating this work in the fifth century was something of a miracle and a selfless turning away from the mass audience. lots of material to work with here in this article.

Stoll, C. (1995). Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway. New York, Doubleday.

Thomas, R. (1989). Oral Tradition and Written Record in Classical Athens. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.