A Wider World of Discourse

O’Donnell presents a cogent argument that all new frontiers (geographic, intellectual and technological) expose us to new dangers and new opportunities. However after the pioneers have passed on and the next generation adopts the frontier as home, the dangers dissipate as the technology evolves and we make an implicit bargain with society wherein we accept the new technology at a cost. His argument is enriched with a reflective historical perspective wherein he discusses the role of the printed word in aiding the survival and expansion of (what started out as) the cult of Christianity. He makes brilliant observations regarding the supposed wider world of discourse (as introduced by the written word, the printed word and the internet) and how this seemingly democratizing influence also creates polarization, extremism and exclusion. Thus, from a socio-political perspective, new technologies create new communities that dominate the discourse and others that are marginalized.

His example regarding the changing face of education in light of new text technologies is also insightful. He mentions that students no longer need to memorize the fifty state capitals because they can easily look it up. Thus, learning how to learn has now taken precedence over memorizing. He implicitly presents this as an evolution.
The most interesting segments of the discussion deal with O’Donnell and Engell’s evaluation of the intellectual and academic integrity of material published online. On this topic, O’Donnell’s opinions and foresight that the mechanisms for evaluating content based on its intellectual/academic merit will evolve over time as the wider world of discourse evolves. Engell, however, seems reluctant to accept any content published online as having any intellectual/academic merit and also presents the argument of the content being ephemereal (who knows if the website will be there when you read the article?) as an argument against citing and publishing online. This difference of opinion (and the reference to the “new” audio format – mp3) dates the discussion. However, it also provides great historical insight into how online references came to be accepted in academic and intellectual work.
If the online world is a new frontier (in 1999) that presents a wider world of discourse as the biggest advantage and all advances come with both gains and losses, I wonder what O’Donell would consider the loss? Is it the isolation and extremism he refers to in his example regarding the student writing an essay on King Lear? Is that the implicit bargain we have made? In which case, his foresight would, once again, be on the mark.
References

Engell J. & O’Donnell J. (1999). From Papyrus to Cyberspace. [Audio File]. Cambridge Forums.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: the surrender of culture to technology: Knopf.

Willinsky, J. (2006). The access principle: The case for open access to research and scholarship. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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