Making sense of a permanent revolution

Language may in some respects be a prison-house, as Nietzsche's famous metaphor holds, but it is a means of liberation as well. The evolution of written language--and of its accompanying technologies--has gone hand-in-hand with progress on countless fronts: the spread of education, the codification of law, the advance of democracy, the development of economies worldwide, the synergies made possible when researchers can share knowledge and build productive professional communities. Yet while writing and printing have arguably made progress possible, progress can render written language practically unrecognizable. Today, only the bravest or rashest of commentators dares predict whether the proliferation of Web pages, e-mail, online books, and countless other new modes of communication will catalyze a new intellectual and cultural renaissance--or, by saturating our lives with verbal noise, accelerate a decline in most of the values that make civilization livable.

Tom Goldstein, newly appointed dean of Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, introduces this special issue of 21stC with a meditation on his profession's history of organizing and conveying information in ever-newer ways. He stresses the need to maintain the veracity, independence, and critical thinking that citizens count on in the fourth estate, while making the most of the democratizing possibilities that new media present. The crucial questions about the extension of newspapers into electronic formats, argues media analyst Maury Breecher, are no longer whether it will happen or why, but how soon, how intelligently, and to whose ultimate benefit.

Hypertext, by adding an interactive dimension to writing, alters the linear patterns of thinking that have been our heritage since Gutenberg; some find this openness exhilarating, while for others the most most notable quality of hypertext is hype. In an excerpt from his book Interface Culture, Feed editor (and Columbia doctoral candidate) Steven Johnson places this new form in a historical context--part of a tradition of inventions, both in prose and in hardware, meant to clarify the connections in any network of ideas. Ursula Heise, a scholar of contemporary literary forms, appraises both the possibilities and the drawbacks of hypertext as a literary instrument, suggesting that its current applications may only hint at its capabilities. Mary Summerfield of Columbia's Online Books Project describes how electronic-text initiatives are redefining the experiences of reading and research, discovering and meeting the real-world needs of readers. However, as libraries race to accommodate the electronic future--argues Thomas Tanselle, the dean of American textual scholars--the unique qualities of the bound book are sometimes puzzlingly sacrificed; Prof. Tanselle makes a strong case for maintaining the irreplaceable treasure of printed resources, not resisting the online future but enriching it. Similar risks of information loss may confront the future's researchers as they look back on our era, in which materials of historical interest assume forms that may prove ephemeral; online journalist G. Beato poses some essential questions about whether today's events will be as available to tomorrow's scholars as yesterday's are to today's. Classicist Roger Bagnall, on the other hand, profiling the Advanced Papyrological Information System, offers good news about how today's technology advances our understanding of yesterday.

Visual media, it is sometimes asserted, organize thought in ways that are fundamentally antagonistic to the logic of written language--but, as film theorist David Sterritt argues, images and words share a history of subtler relations. The tension between written language and new media raises particular concern among educators; science writer Joan Lippert examines some controversies surrounding the incursion of "post-print" culture into the world of the young. And, in this issue's Publisher's Corner editorial, Columbia Journalism Review's Mike Hoyt spotlights a burgeoning (and, to some, disturbing) tendency in his own profession: the media's increasingly reflexive attention to themselves, which may jeopardize their traditional value as transmitters and interpreters of the external world. -- The Editors