Apparently the book is dying. Again.
This should not surprise anyone who’s paid even the slightest bit of attention to…books. In the last ten years, and at an increasing pace, book after book has come out, predicting the death of the printed word and predicting that cultural collapse will follow.
This is, clearly, bad news for those of us who make our living with books.
The bad news follows, for the most part, a trajectory mapped out by Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 book Understanding Media, Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society, published the same year and Neil Postman’s 1985 Amusing Ourselves to Death. The points on the trajectory go something like this:
All content–every message–is not only affected but changed by the way in which it is delivered–by the medium (so that a message delivered in speech is a different message than one delivered in print, and a message delivered in print is different than one delivered electronically.)
The medium has its own agenda, and that agenda comes through, no matter what other message the medium is supposed to be conveying. In other words: the medium is the message, words originally written by Marshall McLuhan and repeated by everyone who’s written about the death of the book in the last ten years.
Media (being messages themselves) change the way we think. As we use new media, our entire thought processes shift. We begin to think differently. When we read books we think one way. When we browse websites or send instant messages, we think another way. Even though we’re still using words, the medium in which those words are transmitted has changed–and therefore, so has the message.
When we begin to think differently, we begin to act differently. Cultural norms shift. Cultural practices shift. The media changes who we are.
The first great shift in media was from an oral culture to a print culture. Print was once the new technology. When we shifted from an oral culture to a print culture, we changed.
In this change, some good things were lost–because every advance in technology brings both benefits and disadvantages. But on the whole, the good outweighed the bad.
Now we are facing a new great shift in media–from a print culture to a digital culture. This too will change us.
And (say the critics) that is a very, very, bad thing indeed, because it will make us a violent, distracted, ignorant people, easily manipulated, drowning in trivialities and susceptible to totalitarianism.
You can actually see this conclusion without even reading the books, should your attention span already have been destroyed. All you have to do is scan the titles. How the News Makes Us Dumb: The Death of Wisdom in an Information Society; Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age; The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young American and Jeopardizes our Future; The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain, that last being a book-length version of an article called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
The alarmist tone of these books is, partly, a rhetorical device. Neil Postman articulates this strategy most clearly: he says that the technophiles, the enthusiasts who see the digital culture as purely good and the technologies that support it as completely benign, are so loudly enthusiastic that those who want to point out the disadvantages–those things which are being lost– “must often raise their voices to a near-hysterical pitch” simply in order to be heard.
This has certainly been achieved; not only by the titles I mention but by others written by Christian thinkers, from a self-consciously Christian perspective, who are attempting to understand how these changes will affect the Christian church. Among them: The Electronic Golden Calf; Truth Decay; The Vanishing Word.
But the tone of pending apocalypse (and I am not kidding when I say “apocalypse”–to just pick one quote out of many that I could offer you, try this one from The Vanishing Word: “We are all in danger of becoming pagans. Not just pagans, but mindless and defenseless pagans who would prefer to have someone tell us how to think and behave”)–the tone of pending apocalypse is not just rhetorical. There is real fear here. And not just from those whose rhetoric the most extreme, but also in the arguments of Christian thinkers who have consciously tried to take a more balanced route; I think of Flickering Pixels, by Shane Hipps, or Quentin Schultze’s Habits of the High-Tech Heart, both of which take the stance, “There are some good things in digital culture, some not-so-good, let’s sort them out.” Even in such approaches there is an unmistakable whiff of apprehension, an undercurrent of: We’re in real trouble here.
And an even stronger whiff of: Christians, and particularly Protestant Christians, are in more trouble than anyone else. As Shane Hipps writes: “Protestant Christianity is a by-product of a single medium–the printed Bible….How disconcerting to have a faith yoked so closely to a medium that is now in the dusk of its life.”
I’m not here actually going to grapple with whether or not the book, in its present form, will become obsolete. For one thing, that involves predicting the future; I am a historian. For another, plenty of trees have already died in that cause. For a third, I’m not sure that, should the book be dying, anything we do will change that–any more than the resistance of the weavers in Jacobean England prevented the arrival of mechanized looms. More on the topic of “what do we do about it” later.
What I want to address now is the point of view expressed in that quote: “How disconcerting to have a faith yoked so closely to a medium that is now in the dusk of its life.”
Christians, particularly Protestant Christians, are Bible-centered. We put our faith in a creed that begins, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
So what does it mean for us that “words” are going through a major shift? What does it mean to us that the written word is going digital? What happens to the word of God if people stop reading books? What does it mean for our faith? How do we react? What do we do?
It is clearly impossible for me to explore every important facet of this issue. But here, I want to try answer three questions about the possible death of the book.
First: What, exactly, are we worried about?
Second: Why are we worried about it?
And then, third:
What should we do?