Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 1, Number 8 / December 1, 1994 / Page 5

This Familiar Strangeness: A Look into the Future of Electronic Publishing

by Wendy Pepping (

Recently I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Jean-Claude Guedon, Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Montreal. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Department of Language, Literature, & Communication sponsored Guedon, as part of their Research Networking Series. The founder of one of the first on-line scholarly journals, Surfaces, Guedon captivated his audience with his sense of humor and presented interesting ways to think about the future of electronic text. Guedon's provocative presentation was entitled "Forms of Electronic Publishing: Eco-Museum? Encyclopedia? Seminar?"

When looking towards the future of electronic text, Guedon does not believe in a deterministic approach. Instead, he says, "I think what we should do to try to peer into the future is say 'Where do we want to go? How do we chart our course there, knowing what we know?'"

Guedon sets up what he terms as "two symmetrical pitfalls" that we should avoid when we consider electronic publishing. At one extreme, he asserts, it is naive to think that publishing texts electronically will merely "offer good solutions to present problems without changing anything essential." At the other extreme he says that to claim electronic publishing is "so radically different from all we have known as to be unrecognizable" is also a mistake. Instead, Guedon offers the following question for us to ponder:

"While taking into account the elements of continuity and change that are always present in history, how can we go beyond the simple listing of contrary characteristics and apprehend the unicity of the familiar strangeness that electronic publishing is becoming?"
In other words, Guedon continues, "how can we hold together the elements of continuity and change in such a way that they emerge into something both new and yet recognizable to our eyes?"

Because history teaches us that "people are quite skillful at inventing unexpected ways to take advantage of new technology," Guedon asserts that we should be "on the lookout for new uses [of the technology] that may be emerging right now."

In the past, Guedon seems to imply, people may not have been as well equipped to make decisions or even predictions about new technologies:

"No one at the time of Gutenberg could have imagined that introducing movable type and the printing press would lead to its being used to industrialize the process of communication, thus laying the foundation for a major shift in the organization of knowledge."
Yet those of us involved in electronic publishing have the opportunity to look ahead, in light of past technologies. To begin to do so, Guedon asks us to think about which uses of the technology are "more desirable."

For starters, Guedon cites the superiority of electronic text as "easier to produce," less expensive, and having the ability to be distributed "almost instantaneously." Add to these traits, Guedon says, the ability to incorporate graphics, sound, animation and search-able indexes, and you have extraordinary capabilities to share information with others.

Skeptics, Guedon points out, say that the "quality" of the printed word is unbeatable. Guedon himself admits that for "deep reading," he still prefers to hold the book in his hands. And regarding to the value of on-line research, Guedon recognizes the common concerns of scholars: "They worry for example about the integrity, durability of electronic text, about access and usability, about legitimacy, about copyright and authors, and last but not least about the economics of the new medium."

While these concerns are quite valid, Guedon says, he is the first to admit one of the great drawbacks of print journals: "Presently, the greatest paradox of printed scholarly journals is that they act more like archival and legitimizing tools than as communication tools." In contrast, Guedon points out, electronic journals and magazines are "often credited with the ability to re-establish the communication purposes of scholarly publications, without losing their archival or legitimizing roles."

Yet even more than this may be envisioned for this medium, Guedon declares. Among his own visions? Guedon presents three metaphors we might use as ways to think about publishing on-line: The seminar, the encyclopedia, and the eco-museum.

The Seminar and Encyclopedia

In the seminar, Guedon explains, the "invisible college" becomes quite visible. One consequence of electronic scholarly publishing is that it "fluidizes" the text, allowing the reactions of peers to play a more significant role than in print journals. In contrast to the "internal discussion of the invisible college," which Guedon finds "an exhaustive process," the on-line seminar can "rejuvenate" discussion.

Guedon asserts that seminars are creating an "encyclopedia" on the nets. He put it this way, with much enthusiasm: "So in fact the whole series of seminars . . . will start functioning like, as I say, a whole huge worldwide global constantly going on encyclopedia!" Guedon recognizes that at first, this idea may not seem all that exciting, as we tend to think of encyclopedias as "stale" and merely "popularized" records of knowledge. Yet he insists that this on-line "encyclopedia" is as "cutting edge" as our traditional print encyclopedias seemed to those in the eighteenth century.

In addition to the "unfolding" of the virtual encyclopedia, there is another consequence of the on-line seminar that Guedon states in metaphorical terms--the eco-museum.

The Eco-Museum

Eco-museums, Guedon explains, stem from a movement in museum studies originating in Sweden. The creation of this type of museum "attempts to demonstrate how an abandoned village of the past . . . functioned." The idea is to reconstruct and revive an old village to bring it to life again. One purpose of the eco-museum is to allow present-day perspectives that would otherwise be impossible.

Guedon likens the eco-museum to electronic text in that hypertext links allow us to enrich our understanding of small sections of text in the context of the whole. This act in itself, he asserts, is positively interdisciplinary in nature, allowing the reader a broader perspective on the text.

Perhaps people at the time of Gutenberg tried to imagine the ramifications of the introduction of moveable type. Those of us involved in electronic publishing may feel somewhat like they did -- we are only beginning to guess at what the future holds in terms of communication, research, and the ways in which we organize knowledge.

Guedon contends he is not a seer. At one point in his presentation he joked, "I don't want to act like a prophet . . . I forgot my long white beard!" True, he cannot predict the future -- but he poses questions about the exciting implications of electronic publishing that leave us much to contemplate. ¤

Wendy Pepping, a member of CMC Magazine's Production and Copy Team, is a PhD student in Communication at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

Copyright © 1994 by Wendy Pepping. All Rights Reserved.

This Issue / Index / CMC Studies Center