Harnad, S. (1991) Post-Gutenberg Galaxy: The Fourth Revolution in the Means of Production of Knowledge. Public-Access Computer Systems Review 2 (1): 39 - 53 (also reprinted in PACS Annual Review Volume 2 1992; and in R. D. Mason (ed.) Computer Conferencing: The Last Word. Beach Holme Publishers, 1992; and in: M. Strangelove & D. Kovacs: Directory of Electronic Journals, Newsletters, and Academic Discussion Lists (A. Okerson, ed), 2nd edition. Washington, DC, Association of Research Libraries, Office of Scientific & Academic Publishing, 1992); and in Hungarian translation in REPLIKA 1994; and in Japanese in "Research and Development of Scholarly Information Dissemination Systems 1994-1995.


Stevan Harnad
Cognitive Science Laboratory
Princeton University
Princeton NJ 08544


Laboratoire Cognition et Mouvement
Universite d'Aix Marseille II
13388 Marseille cedex 13, France



There have been three revolutions in the history of human thought and we are on the threshold of a fourth. The first took place hundreds of thousands of years ago when language first emerged in hominid evolution and the members of our species became inclined -- in response to some adaptive pressures whose nature is still just the subject of vague conjecture (Harnad et al. 1976) -- to trade amongst themselves in propositions that had truth value. There is no question but that this change was revolutionary, because we thereby became the first -- and so far the only -- species able and willing to describe and explain the world we live in. It remains a mystery -- to me at any rate -- why our anthropoid cousins, the apes, who certainly seem smart enough, do not share this inclination of ours. At any rate, this divergence between our two respective species was a milestone in human communication and cognition, making it possible for culture to develop and be passed on by oral tradition.

That momentous adaptation seems to have had a neurological basis. Injuries to certain areas of the left side of the brain -- Wernicke's area and Broca's area, to be exact -- result in language-specific deficits in speaking and understanding (Harnad et al 1977; Ojemann 1983). So whatever the evolutionary changes underlying language were, they were imprinted as permanent modifications of our neural hardware.

The second cognitive revolution was the advent of writing, tens of thousands of years ago. Spoken language had already allowed the oral codification of thought; written language now made it possible to preserve the code independent of any speaker/hearer. It became, if you like, an implementation-independent code. No one knows for sure whether there was any corresponding change in our cerebral hardware. There is nominally a region in the left frontal lobe -- Exner's area -- that is dubbed the "writing center," and there are certainly specific neurological problems associated with "dyslexia" or reading disorder. But all of this neurology is complicated and ill-understood, and no "pure" alexia (inability to read), without any other associated visual or motor problems, has been found. So it is more likely, I think, that writing and reading were cognitive and motor skills that we acquired without any organic evolutionary change in our brains -- that they were merely learned adaptations of the same hardware we had all along.

To continue this broad-stroke history: No precise starting point can be assigned to either science or literature. The former began with the first true proposition about the world and the latter either with the first such true proposition that was also formulated elegantly, or perhaps with the first untrue proposition. In either case, the oral tradition was already equipped to produce both science and literature, although perhaps science, being a little too constrained by the limits of memory and accuracy in the word-of-mouth medium, was the greater beneficiary of the advent of writing, with the incomparably greater reliability and systematicity it conferred in preserving the words, and hence the thoughts, of others.

But there were constraints on writing too. For whereas spoken language conformed well to both the transmitting and receiving powers of human thinkers -- and this is perhaps a reflection of its specific dedicated neurology -- writing was somewhat out of synch with thought. It was slow. And worse than that, it had much more limited scope, for whereas a spoken proposition could be heard by several people, even by multitudes, a written one could only be read by one at a time. This could be done serially by limitless numbers of readers, to be sure, and this was the real strength of writing, but it was purchased at the price of becoming a much less INTERACTIVE medium of communication than speech. The form and style of written discourse accordingly adapted to this lapidary new medium -- again, not neurologically, but consciously and by convention -- constraining the writer to be more precise in some respects, but also allowing him more freedom to redraft and reformulate his text in composing it. In becoming less interactive, writing also became less spontaneous than speech, more deliberate, more systematic; one might also say it became less social and more solipsistic, although of course its ultimate social reach became much larger, limited only by the slow pace of copyists in providing the text to disseminate.

The third revolution took place in our own millenium: With the invention of moveable type and the printing press, the laborious hand-copying of texts became obsolete and both the tempo and the scope of the written word increased enormously. Texts could now be distributed so much more quickly and widely that again the style of communication underwent qualitative changes. If the transition from the oral tradition to the written word made communication more reflective and solitary than direct speech, print restored an interactive element, at least among scholars: and if the scholarly "periodical" was not born with the advent of printing, it certainly came into its own. Scholarship could now be the collective, cumulative and interactive enterprise it had always been destined to be. Evolution had given us the cognitive wherewithal and technology had given us the vehicle.

Of course, there had already been a prominent exception to the impersonal trend set in motion by writing, namely, private letters. These had made it possible for people to communicate even when they were separated by great distances, although again the pace of the communication was much slower and less interactive than live conversation, and it continued to be so, even after the advent of print.

Many minor and major technological changes followed, but none, I think, qualify as revolutionary: The means of transportation improved, so the written word could be circulated more quickly and more widely. The typewriter (and eventually the word processor) made it much easier to generate and modify one's texts. Photocopying made it possible to duplicate, and desktop publishing to print, even texts that weren't worth duplicating and printing. And the telephone all but did in the art of letter writing altogether, probably because it restored the natural tempo of spoken communication to which the brain is constitutionally adapted. Of course, phoning had the disadvantage of not leaving a permanent record, but for that there were tape recorders, etc. etc.

The reason I single out as revolutionary only speech, writing and print in this panorama of media transformations that shaped how we communicate is that I think only those three had a QUALITATIVE effect on how we think. In a nutshell, speech made it possible to make propositions, hand-writing made it possible to preserve them speaker-independently, and print made it possible to preserve them hand-writer-independently. All three had a dramatic effect on HOW we thought as well as on how we expressed our thoughts, so arguably they had an equally dramatic effect on WHAT we thought. The rest of the technological developments were only quantitative refinements of the media created by speech, writing and print. The purist might, with some justification, even hold that print was just a quantitative refinement of writing, but let's argue about that another time; the historic evidence for the impact of print is considerable (McLuhan 1962).

The two factors mediating the qualitative effects were speed and scale. Speech slowed thought down, but to a rate for which the brain evolved specific organic adaptations. Our average speaking rate is a biological parameter; it is a natural tempo. Hand-writing slowed it down still further, but here the adaptations were strategic and stylistic rather than neurological; in writing, the brain was underutilized. Evidence for this comes from the fact that when the typewriter and the word processor allowed the pace of writing to pick up again, we were quite ready to return to a tempo closer to our natural one for speech. On the other hand, the constraints of the written medium are substantive, and they affect both form and content, as anyone who has tried to use raw transcripts of spontaneous speech can attest: What is acceptable and understandable in spoken form is unlikely to be acceptable and understandable in written form, and vice versa.

In a sense there are only three communication media as far as our brains are concerned: The nonverbal medium in which we push, pull, mime and gesticulate (Greenfield 1991), and two verbal media -- the natural one, consisting of oral speech (and perhaps sign language), and the unnatural one, consisting of written speech. Two features conspire to make writing unnatural; one is the constraint it puts on the speed with which it allows thoughts to be expressed (and hence also on the speed with which they can be formulated), and the other is the constraint it puts on the INTERACTIVENESS of speaking thinkers -- and hence again on the tempo of their interdigitating thoughts, both collaborative and competitive. Oral speech not only matches the natural speed of thought more closely, it also conforms to the natural tempo of interpersonal discourse. In comparison, written dialogue has always been hopelessly slow: the difference between "real-time" dialogue and off-line correspondence. -- hopeless, that is, until the fourth cognitive revolution, which is just about to take place with the advent of "electronic skywriting":


I must now turn from impressionistic history to personal anecdote. My own skyward odyssey in the newest communication medium, the airwaves of electronic telecommunication networks, had its roots in a long-standing penchant for scholarly letter-writing (to the point of once having been cited in print as "personal communication, pp. 14 - 20"). These days few share my epistolary bent, which is dismissed as a doomed anachronism. Scholars don't have the time. Inquiry is racing forward much too rapidly for such genteel dawdling -- forward toward, among other things, due credit in print for one's every minute effort. So I too had to resign myself to the slower turnaround but surer rewards of conventional scholarly publication. In fact, a decade and a half ago I founded a scholarly journal in the conventional print medium -- though BEHAVIORAL & BRAIN SCIENCES (BBS) is hardly a conventional journal. Modelled on CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY (CA, which was founded by the anthropologist Sol Tax, who in turn modelled it on the extreme participatory democratic practices of the native North American nations he studied), BBS's unique feature is "creative disagreement" (Harnad 1979). Specializing in important and influential ideas and findings in the biobehavioral sciences, BBS, after a round of particularly rigorous peer review (involving five to eight referees representing the multiple areas that candidate manuscripts must impinge upon), offers to the authors of accepted papers the service of "open peer commentary." Their manuscript is circulated to specialists across disciplines and around the world, inviting each to submit 1000-word commentaries that discuss, criticise, amplify and supplement the work reported in the target article, which is then copublished with the commentaries (often twenty or more) and the author's formal response to them (Harnad 1982).

BBS's open peer commentary service has evidently been found valuable by the world biobehavioral science community, because already in its fourth year its "impact factor" (citation ratio) had become one of the highest in its field (Harnad 1984a,b; Drake 1986). But we are not here to discuss BBS because it, like other print journals, is still prisoner to the temporal, geographic and (shall we call them) "internoetic" constraints of the conventional paper publication medium. In that medium, new ideas and findings are written up and then submitted for peer review (Harnad 1985, 1986). The refereeing may take anywhere from three weeks to three months. Then the author revises in response to the peer evaluation, and when his article is finally accepted, it again takes from three to nine months or more before the published version appears (perhaps earlier, when circulated informally in preprint form). That's not the end of the wait, however, but only the beginning, for now the author must wait until his peers actually read and respond in some way to his work -- incorporating it into their theories, doing further experiments, or otherwise exploring the ramifications of his contribution. That's why creative scholars publish, after all: not to put another line on their CVs but to collaborate with their peers in expanding our collective body of knowledge.

It usually takes several years, however, before the literature responds to an author's contribution, if it responds at all, and by that time the author, more likely than not, is thinking about something else. So a potentially vital spiral of peer interactions, had it taken place in "real" cognitive time, never materializes, and countless ideas are instead doomed to remain stillborn. The culprit is again the factor of tempo: the fact that the written medium is hopelessly out of synch with the human thinking mechanism and the organic potential it would have for rapid interaction if only there were a medium that could support the requisite rounds of feedback, IN TEMPO GIUSTO!

Hopeless, as noted earlier, until the forthcoming fourth cognitive revolution makes it possible to restore scholarly communication to a tempo much closer to the brain's natural potential while still retaining the rigor, discipline and permanence of the refereed written medium: Here I will try to illustrate this prophetic vision with an account of my own first (unrefereed) glimpse of the Platonic world of scholarly skywriting:


Most of the world's universities and research institutions are linked together by various international electronic networks such as Bitnet and Internet (called, collectively, "the Net"). Electronic mail ("email") can be sent via the Net, usually within minutes, to London, Budapest, Tel Aviv, Tokyo. But the feature that has the most remarkable potential is MULTIPLE RECIPROCAL EMAIL: Electronic discussion groups in which every message is immediately disseminated to all members.

These groups first formed themselves anarchically, on various networks, the biggest of them called Usenet, and were devoted partly to technical discussion about computers and information, the technologies that had built the net, and otherwise to "flaming": free-for-all back-and-forth messages by anyone, on any topic under the sun. Next, discussion groups devoted to specific topics (computers, politics, language, culture, sex) began to form, and these in turn split into "unmoderated" and "moderated" groups. Anyone with an email address whose institution was connected to Usenet could post to an unmoderated group and the message would automatically be sent to everyone who was "subscribed" to the group.

It was because most of the unmoderated groups were quite chaotic that the moderated groups were formed. In these, all submissions had to be channeled through a "moderator," but this was usually someone with no special qualifications or expertise, so the quality of the information on the moderated groups was still very uneven, and, with a few exceptions (principally technical discussions about computing itself), the groups were mostly havens for underinformed students and dilettantes rather than respectable scholarly forums for learned specialists in the subject matter under discussion, a subject matter that by now ranged across the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences.

This was the status quo on the Net -- a communication medium with revolutionary intellectual potential being used mostly as a global graffiti board for trivial pursuit (except in the field of computing itself) -- when I first sampled the skyways several years ago in a large (unmoderated) Usenet group called "comp.ai" (devoted to the topic of artificial intelligence, a subfield of my own specialty, cognitive science). I had heard that there was a lot of ongoing discussion on comp.ai about something that had appeared in BBS -- Searle's (1980) "Chinese Room Argument." The content of that discussion is not relevant here. Suffice it to say that about a profound and complex topic a great deal of nonsense was being posted on comp.ai by people who knew very little (mostly students and computer programmers). This initial demography, and the unscholarly level of discussion that prevailed because of it, was and still is one of the principal obstacles to the net's realizing its real potential. For what true scholar would condescend to join these dilettantes in serious scholarly discussion, and in such an anarchic medium!

Well, draw your own conclusions, but that did not stop me. Whether it was my partiality for letter-writing or for creative disagreement, I decided to test out the airways, but consciously applying self-imposed constraints, since the medium would not provide them for me. My postings to comp.ai would, I vowed, be conscientiously thought out and carefully written, as if they were for a serious refereed journal, with a sophisticated scholarly readership -- for posterity, in fact. Hardest of all, I would treat the contributions of my interlocutors as if they had been serious and scholarly ones too, and when these were uninformed or in error, I would endeavor to correct them in a dignified and respectful way that would be informative and instructive to all, solemnly trying to counter the Nth instance of the same egregious mistake with an Nth new aspect or dimension of the problem under discussion, always with the objective of advancing the ideas for all skygazers. Indeed, critical to my efforts at sobriety and self-discipline was maintaining for myself a conscious fantasy that, silent among the thousands of eyes trained skyward, were my peers, and not just the rookies I was jousting with.

But lest it be thought that this was all just some sort of altruistic exhibition, let me hasten to report that I found myself by far the greatest beneficiary of this exercise. For the remarkable fact is that even under these primitive demographic conditions my own ideas profited enormously from the skywriting interactions. The problem under discussion (and it only became evident to me during the discussion just WHAT that problem was) I dubbed, in the course of the skywriting, "the symbol grounding problem," and it has since generated not only a series of (alas, conventional, ground-based) papers (Harnad 1990a, 1991, 1992c), but also a cottage industry in the form of a theme for workshops and symposia (e.g. Harnad et al. 1991), and soon, no doubt, dissertations. All this as a consequence of aerobatics with mere rookies . "So what would it have been like," I then quite naturally asked myself, "if the best minds in the field were on the net, skywriting away with the rest of us?"


When I founded BBS fifteen years ago, I had been inspired by the striking potential of "open peer commentary" as revealed through an article by Gordon Hewes (1973) in Sol Tax's commentary journal, CA. That article was about the origin of language, a topic that had been under an informal moratorium (as breeding only idle conjectures) imposed by the Societe Linguistique de Paris in 1866. Reading Hewes and his animated commentators across disciplines prompted me to (1) co-organize an international conference under the auspices of the New York Academy of Sciences (Harnad et al 1976, a conference that effectively put an end to the century-long moratorium on the topic and went on to spawn an uninhibited series of language-origins conferences, e.g., Raffler-Engel et al. 1991). In addition, as already noted, I founded BBS, convinced that Sol Tax's "CA Comment" principle could be generalized beyond its discipline of origin. A decade and half later, my own rewarding experience with electronic skywriting has convinced me that this newest medium's unique potential to support and sustain open peer commentary must now be made generally available too, so I founded PSYCOLOQUY, a BBS of the air, unfettered by the temporal and spatial constraints of the earthbound print medium (Garfield 1991, Katz 1991, Wilson 1991).

I will now describe the PSYCOLOQUY project here in some detail as it is intended to serve as a model for future electronic journals. Originally initiated in 1985 by Bob Morecock of Houston University as an electronic Bulletin Board called the "Bitnet Psychology Newsletter," PSYCOLOQUY was transformed in 1989 into a refereed electronic journal (ISSN Number 1055-0143) and is now sponsored on an experimental basis by the Science Directorate of the American Psychological Association. I am Co-Editor for scientific contributions, and the Co-Editor for clinical, applied and professional contributions is Perry London, Dean of the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology at Rutgers University. One of PSYCOLOQUY's principal scholarly objectives is to implement peer review on the Net in psychology and its related fields (cognitive science, neuroscience, behavioral biology, linguistics, philosophy). All contributions are refereed by a member of PSYCOLOQUY's Editorial Board (currently 70 members and growing), but the idea is not just to implement a conventional journal in electronic form. PSYCOLOQUY is explicitly devoted to scholarly skywriting, the radically new form of communication made possible by the Net, in which authors post to PSYCOLOQUY a brief account of current ideas and findings on which they wish to elicit feedback from fellow-specialists as well as experts from related disciplines the world over.

The refereeing of each original posting and each item of peer feedback on it is to be done very quickly, sometimes within a few hours of receipt, so as to maintain the momentum and interactiveness of this unique medium, just as if each contribution were being written in the sky, for all peers to see and append to. Skywriting promises to restore the speed of scholarly communication to a rate much closer to the speed of thought, while adding to it a global scope and an interactive dimension that are without precedent in human communication, all conducted through the discipline of the written medium, monitored by peer review, and permanently archived for future reference. Scholarly Skywriting in PSYCOLOQUY is intended especially for that prepublication "pilot" stage of scientific inquiry in which peer communication and feedback are still critically shaping the final intellectual outcome (Mahoney 1985). That formative stage is where the Net's speed, scope and interactiveness offer the possibility of a phase transition in the evolution of knowledge, one in which we break free from the earthbound inertia that has encumbered human inquiry until now, soaring at last to the skyborn speeds to which our minds were organically destined (Harnad 1990b).

PSYCOLOQUY appears in two forms. Its Usenet version, called "sci.psychology.digest", is "gatewayed" to the Net from Princeton University. Its Bitnet version, formerly stored at Tulane University and archived at the University of Houston, is now at Princeton too. The Bitnet version currently has around 3000 individual subscribers and redistribution lists. The Usenet version (which is transmitted to sites rather than individuals, and hence is not directly monitored for number of subscribers) may well be reaching an order of magnitude more readers (over 20,000, according to Usenet's monthly "arbitron" readership surveys).

PSYCOLOQUY is fully international, with subscribers in the Americas, Europe, Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, the Middle and Far East, and growing parts of the third world (where electronic journals promise to be a godsend for the libraries and scholars who have hitherto been information deprived because of currency restrictions and budget limitations). Subscription to PSYCOLOQUY is free: To subscribe, anyone with a login on any of the networks can send the following one line email message to listserv@pucc.bitnet: "sub psyc Firstname Lastname" (omitting quotes and substituting your own first and last name); the message must originate from the email address at which you wish to receive PSYCOLOQUY. Subsequent postings are sent to psyc@pucc.bitnet or to psyc@phoenix.princeton.edu

PSYCOLOQUY currently appears about once a month, but we are prepared to publish it much more frequently as the submission rate and demand increase. Back issues of PSYCOLOQUY are archived at Princeton and can be retrieved from any Internet email address directly by a simple procedure called "anonymous ftp." Princeton also has a service called "bitftp" that allows issues to be retrieved indirectly from Bitnet by email (other services exist, for example, for JANET subscribers in the United Kingdom). Soon, with the help of an experimental searchable data-base provided by Bellcore and some collaborative efforts with the American Mathematical Society, it should be possible not only to retrieve items but to do interactive full-text searches of the PSYCOLOQUY archive in informal English from both Bitnet and Internet.


This fourth revolution has not yet taken place. Some of the impediments have already been noted: The current demography of the Net and the stereotype it has created of the medium as not suitable for serious scholarly communication, the ingrained habits of a scholarly community adapted to the paper medium for centuries, the foot-dragging of the paper publishing industry, with all its interests vested in the ground-based technology, and many prima facie doubts and objections (about quality, academic credit, security, etc.), all of which are easily and decisively answerable (see, for example, Harnad 1990b, 1992b), even though they keep getting raised again and again (an attempt to lay to rest these prima facie objections is in preparation, Harnad [in prep.] ).

It is a foregone conclusion that the revolution will come; my selfish concern is with getting it underway while I am still compos mentis and in a position to partake of its intellectual benefits! Allies in hastening its coming will be (1) research libraries, whose budgets are overburdened with the expenses associated with the print medium, (2) learned societies, whose primary motivation is to get refereed scholarly information disseminated to the peer community as quickly and fully as possible, and (3) the scholarly community itself, who will surely realize that it is they, not the publishers who merely give it the imprimatur, who are the controllers of the quality of the scholarly literature through peer review -- not to mention that they are also the creators of the literature itself. (A strategic pro-revolutionary alliance among libraries, learned societies and universities may be in order. One hopes that governments, too, will be far-seeing enough to realize that the benefits of subsidizing the intellectual highways for all scholars and scientists will far outweigh the costs.)

But the most important factor in hastening the onset of the fourth cognitive revolution will surely be the unique capabilities of the medium itself. Electronic journals should not and will not be mere clones of paper journals, ghosts in another medium. What we need, and what PSYCOLOQUY will endeavor to help provide, are some convincing demonstrations of the unique power of scholarly skywriting (see Hayes et al. 1992 for a sample of skywriting reproduced in print). I am convinced that once scholars have tasted it, they will become addicted for life, as I did. And once word gets out that there are some remarkable things happening in this medium, things that cannot be duplicated by any other means, these conditions will represent for the scholarly community an "offer they cannot refuse." We are then poised for a lightning-fast phase transition, again a unique feature of the scale and scope of this medium, one that will forever leave the land-based technology far behind, as scholarship is at last launched into the post-Gutenberg galaxy.


This paper was originally published in the Public-Access Computer Systems Review, an electronic journal on Bitnet's Listserv (pacs-l@uhupvm1.bitnet).


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