I have no idea where or even whether Professor McLuhan really said this. About twenty years ago someone at a party told me in a casual and desultory conversation that this is what McLuhan said, but the conversation, even though it was with a fellow academic, was not provided with footnotes.
The phenomenon of electronic mail, now universally called either e-mail or email (not to be confused with the French word for enamel), fits that observation very well (even if the observation was never in fact made).
When e-mail first came into our lives, most of us were not quite sure whether to regard it as like a written form of informal telephone conversation, or like a telegraph message, or like a formal letter, or like a note passed surreptitiously to another student in a dismally tedious high school class on deponent verbs in Latin. Some of us agonized over, or at least gave some casual thought to, such issues as whether an e-mail letter should begin with “Dear John” or “Hey there, Johnny boy” or just plain “John:” or perhaps nothing at all. Should sentences have verbs? Should one say “Your petunia has died” or save precious space (which, for reasons unknown to me e-mail aficionados call bandwidth) by writing the more laconic “Petunia dead”? The telegraphic mentality predominated for a while, as one found messages filled with such expressions as FWIW, IMHO and ROTFL in place of grotesquely comprehensible phrases such as “for what it's worth,” “in my humble opinion” and “rolling on the floor laughing.” As people have experimented with various approaches to e-mail, it has gradually evolved into a medium of its own, with its own stylistic conventions and vaguely defined collective expectations.
The uncertainties about how to approach e-mail in general were carried over into a particular application of electronic communications that became increasingly popular in the late 1980s and early '90s, namely, the electronic forum. An electronic forum is typically a means of distributing messages to a set of subscribers. On most forums (or “fora” for those of you who managed to survive your high school Latin class) a message that is mailed to the address of the forum is then sent out automatically to every subscriber. On some forums, each message is first approved by a moderator before being distributed to everyone else. Although an electronic forum is different in important ways from an electronic chat room and from a news group, people are not always clear how expectations differ in these different media about what sorts of verbal behavior are appropriate. This issue will be discussed forthwith.
“Forthwith” is a good example of a word that is almost never used in electronic discussions. E-mail pretends to be a populist form of communication and as such tends to eschew apparently pedantic diction.
Two other electronic media commonly used for discussions are chat rooms or chat groups and news groups. A chat room allows people to log on (sign in) and carry on rambling and often inane conversations interactively in real time with other people who have too much time on their hands.
The expression “real time” will be confusing to Buddhist readers, all of whom know that no time is real. I have no idea what “real time” means, but I gather from experience that it is a word that should be slipped into discussions now and then if one wishes to appear au courant.
Typically a chatter submits one or two sentences at a time to be viewed by all other participants in the chat room, and any one or more of those other participants may respond with a snappy (or wilted) one-liner. Often people who log in (sign on) to chat rooms feel a need to conceal their normal social identity from others, especially from their boss, who is paying for the real time that the employee is abusing by chatting instead of doing real work. It is not uncommon, therefore, for a chat room user to log in under a nom de clavier and to affect an on-line persona. The chat room is a favorite venue for people who like to play role-playing games. A fascinating book by Patricia M. Wallace, called The Psychology of the Internet, offers interesting insights into how some people use chat rooms to express parts of their psyches that they dare not express in ordinary social encounters.
A news group is somewhat like an electronic bulletin board in that anyone may post a message to the news group. When a reader connects to a news group, he sees a list of the titles of all messages that have been posted there and their authors. He may then choose to read one or more messages, and he may choose to post a response. A message along with all the responses that come to it, and all responses to those responses, makes up what is called a thread. Because hundreds or thousands of people may consult a news group every day, threads tend to grow quickly and to go off onto all manner of tangents that spawn yet other tangents. The anfractuous result is often like the cacophonous conversation at a banquet to which many dysfunctional, loquacious and highly opinionated people have been invited.
“Anfractuous” is another word that almost never appears in electronic messages.
There are several news groups dedicated to the topic of Buddhism. Others may disagree with my assessment, but I have found the quality of discussion on electronic Buddhist news groups to be generally appalling. Unfortunately, some of the verbal behavior typical of news groups, and even of chat rooms, sometimes carries over into the more sedate medium of the electronic forum.
The first electronic forum that I ever learned about was called Forum on Indian and Buddhist Studies, but many referred to it simply as buddhist. That forum was originally established in the 1980s in Japan by a small group of Japanese scholars who were collaborating on a study of the Lotus Sūtra. Eventually the forum was opened up to include other scholars around the world. In the early days of that forum, nearly all subscribers had either academic addresses or addresses associated with governmental institutions and were in one way or another connected to the academic world. Most subscribers were specialists in Buddhist studies, but many were specialists in some other field who had a personal interest in or curiosity about Buddhism. Not long after the buddhist forum was opened up to a larger public, most of the Japanese scholars who had founded it unsubscribed. The Forum on Indian and Buddhist Studies became, in effect, a forum on which Westerners, the vast majority of whom were Americans, discussed their own experiences with and interests in Buddhism. In 1993, the address of the forum was moved from Tokyo University to McGill University, where it continued to be a discussion forum for anyone interested in any aspect of Buddhism. Although subscription was in principle open to anyone, the number of subscribers never reached much more than around 250 people at any one time. It is impossible to determine how many people subscribed for some time during its entire history of twelve or more years. The Forum on Indian and Buddhist Studies was finally closed in the autumn of 2001, and all subscribers at that time were invited to subscribe to another discussion forum that had grown out of it, a forum called buddha-l.
In September 1991, at which time buddhist was still hosted by Tokyo University but by which time most of the subscribers were working in North America, communications across the Pacific Ocean became sporadic for some time, and some people began to wonder whether the Forum on Indian and Buddhist Studies had ceased to exist. Several of us who had been active on that forum began to communicate privately with one another about the possibilities of starting a new kind of electronic forum for Buddhist studies. A number of us felt that a forum for those involved in, or at least interested in, the academic study of Buddhism would fill a need. In the interest of keeping some of the usual Internet wildness under control, we also felt it would be good to have a moderated forum, one in which messages would be previewed by a moderator before being sent out to other subscribers. James Cocks, a senior consultant in research and instruction in the computer facility at University of Louisville and a subscriber to buddhist, generously offered both storage space at University of Louisville and much-needed technical expertise. After a couple of months of discussion, he and I announced the birth a of new electronic forum, buddha-l. At the time when the forum was being set up, the technical guidelines in place at Louisville required that every electronic forum be given a name of no more than eight characters, the last two of which were to be -l. The three most obvious names that suggested themselves were buddha-l, dharma-l and sangha-l. Somehow the first of these three was chosen. At first the formal name of the forum was simply the Buddhism Discussion Group, but the formal name was soon changed to Buddhist Academic Discussion Forum. The first announcement of the birth of the new forum was posted on the old buddhist list. The announcement said, in part:
NEW DISCUSSION GROUP FOR SCHOLARS OF BUDDHISMAn electronic discussion group called BUDDHA-L has recently been formed towards the end of providing a means for those interested in Buddhist Studies to exchange information and views. It is hoped that the group will function as an open forum for scholarly discussion of topics relating to the history, literature and languages, fine arts, philosophy, and institutions of all forms of Buddhism. It may also serve as a forum for discussion of issues connected to the teaching of Buddhist studies at the university level, and as a place for posting notices of employment opportunities.
The primary purpose of this list is to provide a forum for serious academic discussion. It is open to all persons inside and outside the academic context who wish to engage in substantial discussion of topics relating to Buddhism and Buddhist studies. BUDDHA-L is not to be used for proselytizing for or against Buddhism in general, any particular form of Buddhism, or any other religion or philosophy, nor is it to be used as a forum for making unsubstantiable confessions of personal conviction.
The discussion on the list is to be moderated, not in order to suppress or censor controversies on any topic, but rather to limit irrelevant discussions and idle chatter, and to redirect or return messages sent to the list by accident. Content or style will never be altered by the moderator, whose only responsibility will be to forward all appropriate postings to the list.
From the outset, the hopemy hopewas that buddhist would continue to be a free-wheeling discussion group among people interested primarily in the practice of Buddhism, while buddha-l would be a place for more restrained and narrowly focused exchanges among academic scholars and between scholars of Buddhism and Buddhists interested in what scholars had to say.
At the time when buddha-l was founded, there were not many academic discussion forums around to serve as a model. It was, therefore, not entirely clear to many subscribers, least of all to myself, whether an electronic forum was meant to have the formal tone of an academic journal, the less formal tone of something like a campus newspaper, or the informal tone of tea time in the faculty lounge. People experimented all along the spectrum. Some sent in contributions that were like short articles or scholarly translations, complete with references and annotations. Some sent in essays. Some sent squibs. Some engaged in banter and repartee. Reading all the articles on buddha-l on a typical day might therefore be like the electronic equivalent of reading an academic article, then hearing a sermon, then reading a light-hearted essay and then overhearing a couple of colleagues exchanging gossip over drinks at the faculty club.
Whatever the range of topics and literary styles on buddha-l, I kept having a persistent fantasy that this forum should have discussion somewhat different from those on buddhist. There is no doubt that the principal reason for the constant confusion concerning the purposes of the two discussion groups was that I myself routinely crossed the boundaries and discussed scholarly matters on buddhist and discussed issues of practice on buddha-l. Moreover, my penchant for clowning and baiting subscribers on both lists made the tone on both lists similarand as irritating to many subscribers as it was stimulating to a few others, whether they saw themselves as Buddhist practitioners or academics in Buddhist studies. In other words, it was I more than anyone else who consistently prevented buddha-l from being a sober and refined Buddhist Academic Discussion Forum while preventing buddhist from being a forum exclusively for practicing Buddhists to discuss their Buddhist practices. Both forums either sufferedor, in the perceptions of others, benefitedfrom my own failure to be clear when I was playing tough-minded scholar and when I was playing tender-hearted Buddhist, cynical-minded satirist or crafty-minded Coyote. On a typical day I was all the above, sometimes even in a single message. And that set the tone for some other contributers, while prompting still others to unsubscribe and seek out greener electronic pastures.
In early communications about the new Buddhist Academic Discussion Forum, I predicted to Jim Cocks that subscriptions to the academic forum would probably level off at around thirty to forty subscribers. In fact, it soon reached a level of several hundred, and the number of subscribers consistently stayed around the 850 figure until 2005. It has never been an exclusively academic forum. In fact, the lack of substantial difference between buddha-l and buddhist, aside from the fact that one forum was moderated and the other was not, led me to combine the two lists into the one moderated forum in autumn 2001. The decision to do so was prompted in part by the establishment by Prof. Charles Muller of yet another academic discussion group for Buddhist Studies called Buddhist Scholars Information Network (h-buddhism). That forum has come to serve one of the most important functions originally planned for buddha-l, namely, the dissemination of information about publications, research projects and academic employment opportunities. What has remained for buddha-l is to be a discussion forum for people interested in a wide range of issues connected in one way or another with Buddhism.
In 2005 the University of Louisville made the decision not to support any e-mail discussion groups not connected with academic courses being taught at the university, so buddha-l found itself in need of a new server. In March of 2005, long-time subscriber Jim Peavler made arrangements to migrate buddha-l to its present site at Southwest Cyberport (SCWP) in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Buddha-l serves as an illustration of the Buddhist concept of causal continuity (saṃtāna). Founded as buddhist in Tohoku, Japan, it now exists as buddha-l in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Probably not a single subscriber to the original buddhist is still on buddha-l, and yet the day-to-day continuity remains unbroken.