How will things on campus change with the arrival there of the digital word? Describing at least some of the more obvious effects of electronic text upon the university turns out to be fairly easy since they are already upon us. Most scholarly books, student editions, textbooks, college catalogues — in fact, virtually all the newly produced reading materials one encounters in the modern university — have been computer typeset. This fact reminds us that at present most applications of electronic textuality still lead to printed books and articles. Not only computer typesetting and desk-top publishing but also text-analysis, full-text searching, and similar computer applications work with texts originally created for print translated into electronic form.

Nonetheless, fully electronic text — text intended to be read on a computer — increasingly shapes the modern college and university. I do not mean the near-universal use of computing to handle institutional purchasing, payrolls, student records, and the like but on-line library catalogs, information available on campus-wide networks, and the use, thus far largely for courses in the physical and social sciences, of statistical software. At my own institution, Brown University, as at so many others, students and faculty commonly use the university library's electronic — or so-called on-line — catalog at terminals distributed throughout various library buildings. This catalog is also accessible from BRUNET, the campus-wide network. Faculty and students who connect to the institution's computing services by telephone line can also obtain these services off-campus. In addition, readers consult the MLA Bibliography and Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROMs at workstations in the library, and in the near-future these resources will be available to readers with access to BRUNET.

These examples of the electronification of our colleges and universities suggest that they are well on the way to becoming cyborg institutions, mixtures of electronic and other media. There is more. Students at my and many other institutions employ simple, easy-to-use so-called point-and-click Macintosh interfaces to obtain the college course catalogue, university rules and regulations, national news, weather, and the like. Since the digital word so easily crosses the physical boundaries that define the spatial form of buildings, departments, and entire institutions, its readers discover they expend little more time or effort to connect to sources of information located at other institutions, including on-line catalogs at other universities, computer conferences, and sources of electronic texts, than it does to use those at Brown. Indeed, I have a colleague who, given the inadequacy of Brown's library in his field, regularly crosses the continent electronically and consults the on-line catalogs of California institutions.

Restricting ourselves just to computing resources within the electronic bounds of the campus, we can observe other signs of the times. Students can read through bodies of electronically linked documents-- what are, in essence, combinations of miniature electronic libraries and collaborative work environments — on subjects ranging from the nuclear weapons and disarmament treaties, the history of religion, nineteenth-century public health, postcolonial literature, literary and cultural theory, Pre-Raphaelite painting, and experiments in electronic fiction and poetry. Many of these hypertext documents (or webs) are unique to Brown, but other materials, such as the justly famous Perseus Project, are now found at hundreds of institutions.

Using Perseus, the Harvard-developed corpus of texts and images concerning ancient Greek literature, art, and thought, the student who possesses only the most rudimentary knowledge of classical Greek, or, for that matter, even none at all, can read in ways that until now were possible only to the trained classicist. For example, coming upon the image of the hunt or the net in a play by Aeschylus, a student can open up the text in the original language, use a dictionary to discover the Greek words or phrases used, and then follow them through out a particular play or author, using electronic links to move back and forth between the original Greek and the English translation. At the same time, Perseus, which comprises not only Greek and English texts but also a large database of maps, images, and reference works, permits the student and scholar to carry out many different kinds of work.

If such electronic materials are already available, how, then, will the future electronic university differ? First of all, such electronic resources will both become far more common and increasingly move from being used most commonly on a single stand-alone workstation to being used on or across networks that knit together sources of information widely separated geographically. The most obvious and most exciting example of such geographically dispersed or wide-area-network hypertext is the Internet's World Wide Web using the Mosaic interface, which currently runs on machines with the Macintosh, Unix, or Windows operating systems. Working on a computer connected to the Internet, one enters the World Wide Web simply by starting up Mosaic, after which one uses menus and search tools to read on one's own monitor materials that may in fact be in fact stored on other continents. The first time I encountered World Wide Web, a friend showed me materials about my own university's physics department, and using a computer mouse, I opened a series of documents, including bibliographies and the actual works cited; only when my friend pointed out the fact did I realize that part of the "document" I read resided in Providence, Rhode Island, but others, which I experienced as being "in the same place," had in fact come from Switzerland and New Mexico. icons2/next, using Mosaic's search feature, I inquired where on the Internet materials were available on Charles Dickens. Within a minute, the search mechanism produced a list of sites, several of which offered the full text of some of the novelist's works. Within several minutes, I had transferred the text of one of Dickens's stories from Australia to Providence.

If this report of a first encounter with World Wide Web sounds like something out of a science-fiction novel (or an ATT commercial), consider that sites on the World Wide Web, which already exist from Antarctica and Papua New Guinea to Finland and France, spring up every day, and undergraduates in many institutions have begun to create and maintain them. While many of our institutions debate the value of wiring their campus with computer networks, or providing access to the Internet for faculty in the humanities, an entire gigantic information infrastructure has taken form and is being used by hundreds of thousands of readers daily.

As such changes might suggest, far more student work will see submission in electronic, rather than paper-based, formats, and one result of this change might be that different criteria for judging student exercises will emerge. Access to the Internet will continue to permit those with specific educational and scholarly interests, such as Anglo-Saxon literature, textual editing, poststructuralism, and Vietnam-era literature (to list the subjects of several active, ongoing computer conference or discussion groups), to communicate with others outside their own institutions. Such computer-mediated communication suggests that increasingly those outside a particular educational institution, or outside any institution whatever, can share some of the resources now found largely within individual universities or professional organizations,

All the cultural effects of electronic textuality, including those that have most impact upon future conceptions of higher education, derive from the fact that the digital word takes the form of an electronic code and not a physical mark on a physical surface. Whereas all previous forms of writing have been founded on the ways marks are made on paper or on some other visible, physical surface, the electronic text, image, or number are codes and not things and, moreover, not only exist on a far different scale from words but also cannot be read without the intervention of a machine. From the digital form in which digital text exists come three crucial qualities, each of which has potentially far-reaching cultural effects. First, because text and images in digital form are essentially codes rather than physically fixed marks, they can be easily manipulated, duplicated, shared, and transported. As anyone who has used even the most primitive word processor knows, the digital word therefore possesses a characteristic near-instant fluidity and manipulability. This capacity for easily reconfiguring a piece of writing — quickly making corrections and editorial changes — has enabled computer-based writing to displace the typewriter in fairly short order in many parts of the business and academic worlds.

Second, electronic digital coding produces what we may term addressability that in turn produces the open text. In so-called analogue media in electronic form, such as video, the user or researcher wishing to locate a particular bit of information, be it sound, image, or text, must move through the film, tape, or document in linear order at a significant expenditure of time and energy. In contrast, someone wishing to locate the same information stored in digital form can locate it near-instantly because computers provide each bit of information with an easily locatable code or "address." This feature of the digital world, as we shall see shortly, produces hypertext, a new form of textuality emphasizing reader control and great educational potential.


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Last modified 18 October 2005