I recently experienced the most dreadful feeling of helplessness and fear imaginable in what undergraduate essayists call “our modern world of high technology.”

I suffered massive computer breakdown.

The failure of a single computer is bad enough, especially at a point in the semester when book orders and course syllabi are due and students are sending panicky e-mails about their diminishing chances of pulling a passing grade. My personal disaster, though, was not confined to a single machine but encompassed both my university office machine (hard-drive crash), and my two-year-old “state-of-the-art” personal computer (glitches) as well. The three-year-old “antique” on which my wife and daughter work—my last line of defense—also failed, the result of a “hardware incompatibility” error that cropped up for no apparent reason.

In about as much time as it takes to tell it, I went from having three functioning computers to haing none. Suddenly, I was in a state of professional paralysis, lexicographic limbo, unable to complete work that was due or to locate information that would allow me to do preliminary preparation by hand. I couldn’t even send e-mail to explain why I was delayed.

I spent nearly three days in the company of technicians or on the phone with technical-support personnel and more than $400 for repairs, upgrades, and advice. I also endured hours of sleepless worry over what might have been lost. Ultimately, I was relieved to have a repaired computer in my school office and an upgraded personal machine for my work at home, and my family was also happily back to the keyboard on their upgraded machine.

My level of confidence in technology, though, had sunk, and I began to consider the deeper implications of the role computers have come to play in our lives—both as facilitators of our work and containers of our professional achievement.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, I, like many professional scholars and writers, came reluctantly to the school of high technology; but once there, I have made an attentive pupil. I initially resisted the whole idea of computer-assisted work. After all, I had written three books, several hundred articles, and volumes of correspondence on nothing more sophisticated than an old IBM Keytronic typewriter. One book was put through three drafts on a 1936 Model Royal. What need had I for such marvelous gizmos as floppy disks and word processors? I was a word processor, educated and trained to the purpose.

But my resistance eventually broke down. My argument about having a “tactile relationship” with my typewriter was so viciously scoffed at that I soon found myself nodding in bewilderment as Those in the Know impatiently explained the differences between bytes and bits, RAM and ROM, and argued the quality of one brand of machine or program over another. At present, I find myself the owner or caretaker of four machines (including a laptop) that require more maintenance and attention than my much older automobile—or, for that matter, than anything else of mine, including my dog and children.

My situation is hardly unique. Memos announcing everything from mandatory faculty meetings to major campus events are disseminated by e-mail and electronic bulletin boards; major committee meetings are sometimes conducted in “chat rooms”; and in some places, I understand, candidates for academic positions are invited to “online visits” rather than transported across country for face-to-face interviews.

Student papers, including drafts of theses and dissertations, are submitted via email, and the notion of submitting hard copy of an article or essay to a journal is rapidly becoming passé. In the past six months, I have submitted and had published no fewer than half a dozen articles and review s that I never saw in print until they came back to me in the form of contributor’s copies.

So far, major publishing houses have held the line against purely electronic submissions, but even this trend is changing. Online publishing of significant works is rapidly on its wav. As soon as copyright and restriction problems can be worked out—assuming that they can be worked out—e-texts will be as familiar to us as any bookshelf. It’s quite possible that, within the next decade, the notion of actually seeing thoughts, ideas, or scholarship printed on paper and bound in a book or journal could be as arcane as television antennas or full-service gas stations.

Not everyne thinks this is a step forward. Michael Gorman, dean of library services at California State University, wrote a piece in 1994 (originally published in Library Journal and then Chronicles) in which he argues that the ultimate impact of this mad rush toward the “Electronic Library” has been poorly considered. He suggests that scholars have become “unwitting dupes” of “techno-vandals” who would push us into total electronic reliance. His concern is that the library and reading skills of an entire generation may be so utterly replaced by the virtual skills required to operate a computer that they may not be recoverable.

My week of electronic disasters gave me pause to consider all of this in a brighter and more natural light than that provided by my high-tech monitors. I, too, began to wonder if we are not courting the enormous risk of losing everything we know, everything we have done or accomplished—not merely as a generation or as a society, but as a civilization.

I’m not talking so much about a general “glitch” based on widespread program errors that can be corrected, or about viruses, or about the planned obsolescence of both machines and programs that renders “cutting edge” technology comparatively useless in a matter of months. And while I agree with Dr. Gorman that there are aesthetic and philosophical reasons for not replacing books and periodicals with digitized versions, I’m not addressing that question, either. What concerns me is our utter reliance on—and faith in—a system of data storage, production, retrieval, and restoration that depends upon one of the most vulnerable and depletable commodities in our “modern world of technology”: electricity.

We are completely surrounded by electrified gadgetry, and we have become dependent upon it. From the air that circulates inside our hermetically scaled offices and windowless classrooms to the keeping of time and records, we rely on electricity to perform our work and to give our professional lives some semblance of order.

But what happens if we lose power not temporarily, not just for a few days or weeks, but permanently? What happens then to our “store of knowledge”?

Everything human beings know, have learned, discovered, speculated about, hoped for, and feared reposes in printed matter. For more than a full millennium, these materials have been methodically collected, copied, then printed and reprinted and archived in hundreds of thousands of libraries, both public and private, around the world. If the technological revolution is carried out to its ultimate end and these libraries fall behind in their archival diligence—indeed, if they are phased out of existence—what happens if someday there is no electricity?

Many universities, including my own, have suspended some of their libraries’ “hard coy” subscriptions to scholarly journals in favor of the much less expensive method of acquiring them via an electronic service provider. Where I work, only a few publications are presently involved, but it’s possible that, within a few years, all academic periodicals may be transformed from hard copy to electronic form. As old, archived issues are electronically scanned, library stacks of periodicals might be eliminated as well.

If this spreads to book publication—and indications are that it will, rapidly—the library as we know it may become a thing of the past, going the way of livery stables and railroad depots—maintained as curiosities, perhaps, but not as viable institutions in a community’s (or a college’s) makeup. Already, this trend is in motion. Most of my students go to the library only after exhausting all efforts to find the data they need on the internet, and many tell me that they have managed four years of college without ever darkening the library’s doors. Most major reference books are available on CDROM, and updates can be downloaded in minutes. Even those who need an actual library book can first locate it in the online catalogue, then scan and upload salient chapters or passages for use on a home or office computer.

I recently observed a high-school age student completing “research” for a paper during a two-hour layover at LAX, merely by plugging her laptop into a modem kiosk and hooking herself up to a library. She told me she would read the material she was downloading during her upcoming flight, then draft her paper and ship it to her teacher during another layover in St. Louis.

Methods of purchasing books have also changed dramatically over the past couple of years. With die advent of Amazon.com, bookstores are rapidly becoming anachronistic. Why, then, should libraries survive? They don’t even offer croissants to their patrons.

It is entirely possible that everything mankind is, knows, or can become could wind up being stored on media that requires a functional wall socket merely to be read. But if all library materials are rendered electronically and our entire power supply—as a nation, as a continent, as a world—suddenly is lost, what then?

Surely this is the stuff of science fiction. Or is it? During military operations in the Balkans, NATO warplanes regularly bombed utility plants, attempting to destroy Serbia’s means of producing and distributing electricity. Similar targets were attacked during the Gulf War; not only were Iraqi power plants destroyed, but oil wells—the means for creating the power—were attacked. Given the ability of today’s military to attack interior locations, a general disruption—if not entire loss—of a nation’s electrical power because of an act of war (or even of terrorism) is entirely conceivable.

A national crisis could also result in the suspension or long-term loss of electrical power. Electricity, after all, is a public utility and, as such, is subject to diversion at the pleasure of the government should some national or regional emergency arise. If meeting the needs created by some huge catastrophe demanded more electrical current for defense, or saving lives, or political integrity, then civilian needs would be suspended—maybe ended.

Moreover, our fossil-fuel resources are, as we are constantly reminded, finite. We can generate electricity by other means—nuclear power, for one—but again, such means are dependent on a fragile scheme of technology whose maintenance is itself largely dependent on electrical power. Nuclear-power plants are also targeted during military attacks, and they cannot be easily relocated and rebuilt. It might not be possible to do so at all unless the engineers and scientists have ready access to the data required to construct and operate such a plant.

Underlying the decision to place more and more of the world’s written knowledge into electronic form is a complacent assumption that someone, somewhere is maintaining “hard copy” for “posterity.” But for decades, community and academic libraries have seen steady reductions in budgets and declining space, personnel, and resources necessary to maintain and enlarge their holdings. What happens when even the contents of their oldest stacks are committed to “virtual” memory and the physical copies of books, periodicals, and documents are allowed to deteriorate—or are discarded?

And before pointing to the Library of Congress or a similar centralized repository as a “hard copy” archive, remember that, in the event of a nuclear attack, such institutions are generally located right at ground zero. Should a large-scale war of any kind occur, major national libraries in the world’s capitals would be among the first buildings to be destroyed and the last to be defended. Moreover, neither cities nor libraries are immune from the ravages of fires, earthquakes, or weather-related disasters such as hurricanes or tornados.

I am not anticipating a nuclear war or even a natural disaster of such proportions. But should we come to the point where we rely on only a handful of locations—or even a single location—as our sole “hard copy” archive, we might be courting a catastrophe of monumental proportions. When the Library of Alexandria burned, the world lost as much as 90 percent of its store of learning.

The significant point here is that electronic documents do not exist—at least not in any reliable form that we can count on to be accessible for centuries to come. Even placing data on compact discs or recording tape is not a fail-safe plan for preservation, for such media still requires electricity and compatible hardware technology to be read. Where would we be if everything we published or recorded between, say, IQGS and 1980 had been placed exclusively on eight track tape—the “cutting edge” of its time?

My first word-processing program was highly touted as one of the most efficient for use in academic work, and I embraced it fully. As a result, I now have 150 five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disks (once “state of the art”), jammed with more than 500 documents, including five complete books and dozens of unpublished manuscripts. And I cannot read, retrieve, or print out any of it with my present system. No one can. The manufacturer of the program went out of business eight years ago. My only copy of the program deteriorated with use, developing an “unrecoverable fault” that will not allow me to access any of my documents, and no other program can “translate” them without the application.

Because I was cautious, I maintained hard copies of anything I deemed important. But there is still a great deal of work that is lost forever and which cannot be retrieved except through my imperfect human memory.

I wonder if the electronic media being used to store and even to publish the world’s knowledge, philosophy, speculation, and thought might also be “outdated” one of these days; if the greatest works of all time might, at some point, be available only on a stack of media that is no more useful than one of my old floppy disks. Who is responsible for ensuring this will not happen? Who is monitoring the process? Those who push technology forward, developing new software and hardware almost daily?

My point is to call for caution in this rapid leap toward technological transfer of the written word to electronic media. I recommend that we—as academics, as writers, as educated people—demand that some physical artifact be kept safe and accessible, no matter how convenient or economically expedient it may be to rely completely on electronic devices.

In the meantime, I’m going to scroll up, re-read and proof this document, run my spellchecker, my grammar-checker, and prepare it for submission. But I shall also print a copy for my files. I never know when this system is going to crash again.