David Gilmour of UFPPC mused this past week about the future of reading in the digital age.[1]  --  Gilmour has a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of Washington, so some reflections on Classics are his point of departure....


By David Gilmour

United for Peace of Pierce County (WA)
May 18, 2009

New windows opened for Classics in the 1960s with studies of orality and literacy -- for example, H. Innis's Empire and Communications (U. Toronto, 2nd rev. ed. 1972) and Eric Havelock's Preface to Plato (Belknap Press, 1982). Just as Socrates feared the loss of power and place through writing, Sven Birkerts came to fear that deep, silent reading was coming to an end. Birkerts is a fine writer about the enjoyment and importance of print reading; he's a good example of the Luddite-type Marshall McLuhan predicted would not take easily to the digital retribalized world. A profound nostalgic, Birkerts was a college literature teacher who found it increasingly more difficult in the 1990s to interest students in Henry James, William Faulkner, or any sophisticated modernist story-telling -- so wordy, sentence-y, and difficult to comprehend. The students complained: "Why should we have to hunt for recondite themes?" Gradually Birkerts sensed he was losing his power to persuade the students; fear of job loss as well as self-loss seemed to be motivational in writing The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber and Faber, 1994), his book about the diminution of imagination through shallow, horizontal digital reading. Maryann Wolf's Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (Harper, 2007) is the neurological counterpart to Birkerts's humanities and print perspective.

McLuhan, though his illustrations became very repetitous in interviews -- he came from the fascistic, brow-beating style of professorship -- did dispense some mind-blowing ideas. Yet, because he belonged to the tail end of the modernist era and was aware of his wizard-persona, he was stuck in the habit of making his explanation as dubious or puzzling as possible. He chose those obscure aphorisms he's known for today to keep himself and his new ideas in the limelight. None of it is so hard to fathom nowadays.

I came to McLuhan through Harold Innis of the University of Toronto. A mentor of McLuhan's, Innis was an early visionary of politics and the power of communications -- somewhat like Lakoff in recent years, but more focused on the changes from orality to literacy in early civilizations. Later, for me, Walter J. Ong -- for example, Orality and Literary: The Technologizing of the Word (Routledge, 1982) -- and Jack Goody -- for example, The Logic of Writing and the Organization of the State (Cambridge UP, 1987 -- became favorite authors prolific in studies of information media and the effects on thought and behavior.

A few years ago, a retired men's book club read, by my choice, Birkerts (for his essays on the virtues of book reading and his critique of the digital machinery) and Homer's Odyssey (because it was an oral verse in early written transcription, late 8th century B.C., a truly transitional work). We old-timers can be effusive and there was some prolix e-mailing back and forth about the post-modern "Two Cultures," the print readers (us old boomers) and the cyberfolk.

I thought we might have wide-ranging discussion from these two works, but I did not expect as much back and forth argument and commentary as resulted. I wish I could have been as provocative with texts in the classroom some decades ago. After that period of exchange, the leader of the group opened a blog for our commentaries and further discussion. As I recall, one person was on my side, in favor of meditative, silent reading and (cautiously) against the finger-click-linking, jump-about, hypertext half-read. Others argued for the efficiency of iPod and iPhone, webcamming, and iChatting. Though much was well-balanced, one or two thought Birkerts was sappy and sentimental, full of silly fears, and not logical-scientific enough.

Mind you, I'm not myself a fanatical Luddite. Computers are good -- necessary now -- for many home uses, for schoolwork and for sophisticated research, possibly the true enhancement of learning and education, if youngsters can learn the limits of habitual use and computer search/choice techniques can be taught. TV was touted to be a wonder for education back when; now take a look at the hundreds of channels. It's mostly entertainment. Should the cultural habits of computer use get entrenched in the entertainment potential of the screen, well, there are reasons to think it might have a detrimental effect. This "Two Cultures" idea must have been a hot topic, for we did have a quite protracted period of, sometimes, heated discussions. But I haven't heard it mentioned for some time.

Up here in Idaho, when our grandkids come, we'll have no TV, no computer hook-up (except in the library where I'm tapping this out), but books and art supplies are plentiful, and a movie can be chosen for viewing. We'd like them to think of the beauty of country life, natural openspace and slowtime when they think of Idaho, rather than a holiday place with all the electronic toy things they are habituated to. Here, in Clear Creek, Idaho, on the East Mountain Reservoir, where the East Mountains and West Mountains border Long Valley, they will have to adjust to their grandfolks' time schedule and mores.

What does the future hold? Before we get brain-wired to the web, I do think we'll have an era of secondary orality -- a aural/oral (visual, webcam) interactive relationship with the screen. This will do away with the need to write, text, or spell out messages. The touchscreen has been around and may continue in a voice-activated form, but we're not far from the re-wired, electrode-implanted brain. McLuhan himself shuddered to think of the Electronic Age he envisioned. In his interviews he often said it was not what he wanted to come to pass. But he felt it was inevitable, given the already transitional age of TV, cybernetics, and other technological breakthroughs that young people eagerly gravitated towards. An experiment with computers in exams might yield surprising results. Among other things, it would partly show the power to devise intricate search strategies.

--David Gilmour is a member of United for Peace of Pierce County (WA) and divides his time between Washington State and Idaho.