Thursday, September 26, 2013

Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age / Sven Birkerts -- Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994

In 1994, the Internet was mainly a text-based medium.  "GUIs" or graphic user interfaces were relatively uncommon.  The first major web browser "Mosaic Netscape 0.9" was not released until October of that year.  Still, the prospect of the ubiquitous use of the Internet to browse linked documents was being discussed with great excitement, at least within academic circles.  Luddites were hard to find.  For that reason alone, Sven Birkerts's The Gutenberg Elegies now appears to be a remarkably prescient warning of the downside of our new device-obsessed society.   At the same time, many of his observations seem quaint.  Birkerts got the main picture right, but he can hardly be faulted for mistaking the details or not seeing just how far down the road to digital hypnosis we would traveled.

The first half of the book tells the back story.  Birkerts, in an early chapter, recounts how he became attracted to books and writing, including his attempts to become a novelist and how he ultimately discovered his aptitude for writing essays.  In any case, we learn early on that Beikerts is devoted to print books, reading, and writing.  He goes on to describe the phenomenology of deep reading or reading in which we become thoroughly immersed in the text.  He provides an account of how reading can be instrumental in "self-formation," how reading and interpreting texts is related to our life activities apart from reading, and how the activities of reading and writing are not so very different.

In the second part of the book, Birkerts explores the coming new world of digital reading and as you might guess, he greets it with apprehension.  Birkerts fears that the beneficial habits and frame of mind created by deep reading will be undermined by the new electronic media.  He predicts the erosion of language.  He writes that "the complex discourse patterns of the nineteenth century" are becoming "flattened by the requirements of communication over distances.  That tendency runs riot as the layers of mediation thicken.  Simple linguistic prefab is now the norm, while ambiguity, paradox, irony, subtlety, and wit are fast disappearing....Verbal intelligence, which has long been viewed as suspect as the act of reading, will come to seem positively conspiratorial.  The greater part of any articulate person's energy will be deployed in dumbing-down her discourse."  It's hard to deny that his prediction has come to pass.  The 140 character twitter message has joined the 30 second sound byte to dominate much of our communication.  Worse yet, the cell phone text has returned us to the age of brief telegraphic wire messages, except everyone is able to send these messages hundreds of time a day. 

Birkerts fears that with the loss of physical books will undermine our sense of the past.  No longer will the past be represented to us in surviving artifacts, but it will be stored in databases "flattening" our historical perspective.  The extent to which university students are turning their backs on physical books is, indeed, striking.  Their work relies very significantly on texts that can be viewed online.  This is, perhaps, a product of the ready availability of electronic journal literature.  Not long ago, libraries had access only to a limited number of journals and student research relied significantly on books.  Now, back issues of journals are sold to libraries in extremely cost effective packages.  Money is made mostly on expensive access to recent issues.  This is a boon to humanities research, but Birkerts's point that our historical perspective is flattened seems credible, particularly when one views a pdf of an 80 year old journal article in contrast to an original paper version of it. 

Perhaps Birkerts's most worrying prediction is of "the waning of the private self."  He detects "a process of social collectivization that will over time all but vanquish the ideal of the isolated individual."  He writes, "for some decades now we have been edging away from the perception of private life as something opaque, closed off to the world; we increasingly accept the transparency of a life lived within a set of systems, electronic or otherwise....One day we will conduct our public and private lives within networks so dense, among so many channels of instantaneous information, that it will make almost no sense to speak of the differentiations of subjective individualism."  I'm not entirely convinced that we are losing the notion of subjective individualism.  Much of our social networks are designed to create at least an image of ourselves as individuals, but at the same time we are becoming conduits for memes that waft through the electronic social space; and if Birkerts's concern about "the waining of the private self" was really a concern about the waning of privacy itself, he could not have been more prescient.

The more quaint aspects of Birkerts's work appear in this latter half, where he describes Perseus 1.0 as the "hot new thing in the classics world." Perseus 1.0 was an early an interactive multimedia database for the Classics.  The "Perseus Project" is still going, but it has been overtaken by so many new and more sophisticated databases.  Still, Birkerts's "curmudgeonly" remarks about the use of such tools in education, particularly humanities education remain worth considering and continue to be discussed among teachers and researchers.  Birkerts also has chapters on hyperlinks and audio books.  The observations about how hyperlinks change the character of writing and reading are worthwhile; however, his prediction that audio books would supplant print books is obviously mistaken.

The third part of The Gutenberg Elegies laments the demise of literature and the educated reader.  My knowledge of literature is far too shallow to comment on his points, though they seem a tad overstated.  Regarding the disappearance of the educated reader, I suspect he has a point.  In decades past, reading had far less competition.  Now, finding an avid reader is rather difficult.  This is surely a function of the time we spend looking at text messages, screen-shots, and Youtube video clips, not to mention downloadable movies, audio files, and much more.  The ubiquity of cell phones means that people seldom find themselves separated from people with whom they would like to converse and so carrying around a pocket sized paperback to fill the odd empty 20 minutes isn't something we do.

All in all, The Gutenberg Elegies is becoming (or has become) a classic, early work in the expanding debate over the social and personal consequences of our new digital culture.  Any one interested in this debate would do well to read it.

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