Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Writing as Technology

We are accustomed to think of books, and print in general, as old and familiar things. To us, books are the "real" which may or may not be supplanted by the "virtual" -- Kindles, Nooks, and Google e-books. This makes it a bit difficult for us to recover the sense that the book, like the scroll before it, and the clay tablet before that, is a technical development, one which initially seemed strange to a world which had not known any means of preserving words and keeping them "stored" for another day. There's a video, which I like to call "Book 1.0" on YouTube that illustrates this perfectly. The book is no more a "natural" object than is a smartphone or an automobile; it has simply been around so long that we have gotten used to it, and now begin to fear that we may "miss" it.

Walter J. Ong, the brilliant Jesuit scholar and pupil of Marshall McLuhan, was one of the first scholars to realize and emphasize the technological status of writing. For Ong, writing not only changes our practical lives, it actually restructures our consciousness. This happens in a number of ways; our tendency to think of knowledge as persistent, as capable of being stored elsewhere -- and with it our sense that we ourselves don't have to precisely remember anything -- is one key effect. Beyond this, though, our whole sense that by naming, cataloging, and finding form in things that we are in fact re-figuring the world; that our mental abstractions seem to have shape and permanence; that there can even be a thing such as "capitalism," "Marxism," or "psychology" are also after-effects of writing and print. Print, by making massive amounts of text cheap to make, distribute, and preserve, accelerated these changes; with the dawn of the internet, this process has taken another enormous leap. The disappearance of objects -- the book, the music CD, the videocassette or DVD -- and their replacement by the mere making available of media streamed from somewhere else, is one notable result of this accelerating process.

At the same time, Ong emphasized the complexity and sophistication of the non-literate mind (he disliked the term "pre-literate" at it presumes a progression toward writing as inevitable). The ancient Irish bards had to memorize hundreds of lengthy poems; in the 1920's in Yugoslavia, Ong's mentor Walter Lord found pairs of men who could, by singing interlocked lines back and forth between each other, reproduce an epic poem of tens of thousands of lines. Such poems are as ancient as speech itself, and a few -- the Elder Edda, Beowulf, the Kalevala, and Homer's Iliad and Odyssey -- survived into the manuscript era, the print era, and are now downloadable as e-books. And yet, in this disposable era, when computers and cellphones complete the circuit from shiny new tech devices to e-rubbish in a landfill in a few short years, the old belief -- that writing something down preserves it -- may yet be reversed.

Some say that E-books aren't proper books at all. Some point to events such as Amazon's silent deletion of copies of George Orwell's Animal Farm from Kindle readers as a cautionary tale. The Pew Charitable Trust recently completed a survey of e-books and readers, and some of its findings are quite unexpected.

So where do we go from here? Will e-readers be the death of the book? Will a dusty old paperback become a sort of weird antique, joining 78 rpm records, 16 mm film, and Betamax cassettes in the dead media junkpile? Or will we always, whatever else we have with them, have books?


  1. Books seem to hold an unexplainable physical connection to the meaning of the words, thoughts and images on the pages. While this may continue to change with the increasing availability and advantages of e-books, people continue to have an obvious and measurable attachment to books in our time.

    Bookstores are dynamic centers of human discourse, fueled by coffee and informal or formal discussion groups. That's not by chance, but by the direct influence of words printed on pages, creating an atmosphere that welcomes human interaction.

    When someone has an important life experience, the first thing they often plan to do, or actually do, is "write a book about it."
    Obviously, people post millions of experiences immediately on the web, but in the long-term, there continues to be a tendency to preserve important life events or knowledge in a book.

    There's the physical element of the book cover that can be an enchanting invitation. Electronic art is as creative and interesting, but it is not held in the hand and experienced in the same way a book cover entices.

    This physical connection, on one level, relates to Walter Ong's ideas on the intrinsic power of oral communication. In pre-literate cultures, ideas are communicated directly in a holistic way, not separated into being and thought. A book, as technology requiring ink, pen and printing press, does indeed create a separation. But the contents of a book generally become part of the reader's thoughts, emotions and physical actions, even if that action is thinking. And while thinking, in terms of words, language and analysis, changes the very nature of society, knowledge and human development, the act of integrating the thoughts back into the mind and body are in some way, a return to instinctive human means of expression.

    People rush to have an author sign a book, then that book becomes more valuable to them. Why? The answer to that question is part of the undefinable value of a book - the value of ink on paper.

    What Ong calls 'high' languages are often called 'sacred' languages, including Sanskrit for Hinduism, Classical Arabic for Islam, Classical Hebrew for Judaism, Latin for the Roman Catholic Church, and Classical Chinese. Some suggest the act of writing these languages by hand is a sacred act, opening doors to spiritual enlightenment. The hand-to-paper experience is not the same as on a computer, and so the idea of 'sacred' or 'lasting' is to be considered when
    considering the wisdom passed down in books.

    As cultures around the world engage in the rapid evolution of the electronic transmission of information, we are observers and participants. Meanwhile, some of us are still going to the library, keeping bookshelves filled at home, and settling in on the sofa with a cup of tea and a good book.

  2. This alludes to what you see in today's classrooms as well. Myself, I use an iPad, to which has access to books, internet, etc. Also, the written word is more or less now the "typed," word in that laptops have replaced notebooks in schools. I do believe people will still use books however. Though the technology changes constantly, like many other media, I can't see it going obsolete.

  3. I may be a bit archaic in my thinking, but for myself I look for that tangible need of value. I paid for it, I censor it, I can reference it at any time. Prehaps even as simple as that instant gradification you might not always get, say your PC crashes or you loose power. Although they can take up space I don't believe we'll ever really see the obsoletion of the book.

    I'm all for embracing new technology as it changes and grows, however I'm also hesitant to servers (such as the icloud, nook, etc...) that host your information. Yes the book you bought is there and you can access it at any time, but what's saying that thechnology won't develop into something bigger. Causing that "book" or "story" to no longer exist at all. Or another great example of that it the recent censorship of online information.

  4. First of all, loved the video!! Never thought about books in the context of new technology.

    In my opinion, books will not become obsolete. People continue to give them as gifts, cook with them, read them to their children, and make them in a variety of forms. So many people are into scrapbooking and craft projects, that even though it is a different form of a book, it will help keep the use of book alive. Additionally, in the arts books are still valued. Many artists continue to study the art of bookmaking as well as continue to create handmade books.

    For some topics and ideas it seems to me that people will always prefer a paper copy.

  5. People find books ethereal. They collect them on shelves in their homes like trophies to their intellect. Although the e-book convenience is clear, I don't believe it will lead to the extinction of the books. No doubt academicians and avid readers will turn to e-books in ever-increasing amounts, but I don't believe the average person will stray from paper.

    As a photographer, I find it fascinating that people will run into burning buildings risking their lives in order to save photo albums. And I think many people feel the same way about their books. I have never hear of someone risking their life to save a Kindle.

  6. Books are simple, like newspapers and magazines, you pick them up and the words are right there in your hands, no gadget or electricity required. The only "reader" needed is you. While Kindles, Nooks, iPads and the like, are the latest fads being used to read, books have remained a constant in our lifetimes. I think it is the storage methods that have yet to be perfected, since most of us can recall a storage device, that has already became obsolete. When we purchase a "digital" copy of something it is less permanent because it will likely have to updated into a newer format at some point to remain useful. Until this is solved, I expect books are here to stay.