Avatars of the Word
From Papyrus to Cyberspace
Copyright © 2000-2006 Isabel Pedersen
James O’Donnell organizes his work, Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace into nine chapters. He includes what he calls hyperlinks through which he reflects on a particular topic even though it may be somewhat out of context from the chapters.
As a classicist, O’Donnell’s perspective always moves backwards in time towards his area of expertise and forwards to the future of the word. In fact, he states that his purpose is to look to the past in order to better understand the future. Sometimes this approach can provide a very stilted view of the future; What if nothing of the future lies in the past? However, O’Donnell’s commentary is revealing, especially when he writes optimistically.
The first chapter bemoans the movement away from dialectic when dialogue becomes written instead of spoken. He puts forth 4 exemplary figures, Socrates, Jesus, Buddha and Confucius, who share the trait that they did not engage in written media in order to spread their beliefs. They spoke and others wrote down their words. They engaged in the “dialogic pursuit of truth” as an ideal. As he moves into the second chapter, he constructs the internet as a flux of voices operating dialogically again, rather than monologically. The word is no longer the word, because one cannot pin it down. There is no fixity.
He comments extensively on the notion of the library and the intricate ways in which the construction of libraries (literal and metaphoric) inform our culture’s understanding of information. He argues that embodiments of hypertext existed in written media as soon as the movement from scrolls to codex (books) takes place.
He contributes much of the text to on-line learning inside the academy as well as outside. He comments how online learning will break down academe, as we know it. He suggests, for example that academic journals may no longer publish sets of articles. In fact, the idea of academics being judged by publishing records may have to change as well. To paraphrase, he suggests a good housekeeping seal model whereby worthy scholarship receives a stamp of approval by recognized institutions.
Overall, this work reveals some very interesting perspectives about cyberspace.