Disappearing Words, Part I: The Bad News

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?

Read Part II now

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18 Responses to Disappearing Words, Part I: The Bad News

  1. Christa Gainor says:

    In the beginning was the Word. It was not written down. It created a world that grows and changes. And it was good.

  2. Kelly says:

    I’m not worried, but I see the trajectory we are on. I may not like it, but I alone cannot stop the train. Like someone trained in the art of Aikido, in which one uses the force of his attacker to both defend himself and protect the attacker from injury, we must learn to parry and turn and overcome the trend by using the trend itself. We can rest assured that God is not dead, and He is not bound by paper and ink. We can rest assured that wisdom and knowledge are not dead. They are found hidden in pockets of a minority of people. Foolishness has been prevalent since the dawn of humanity, and wisdom is not found in great quantities…it is something that is found only when sought diligently. The death of paper and ink does little to change this. We must simply refine our search for wisdom and knowledge.

  3. Rachel says:

    What should we do? I’d start with claiming Psalms 12:6-7. The words of God are preserved whether stone or paper, or in digital form. :-)

  4. ChristineMM says:

    Hi Susan, I don’t believe the book is dying. Instead the always non-book readers are still not reading, instead they are content to hear the info watered down and second hand and they like to just trust that what they are told is accurate.

    Also the non-curious continue to not seek deeper answers or more information as they don’t care, they are not curious to understand more than the snippets they hear from the media or even from a relative or friend or what they see on a Facebook status post.

    Meanwhile the book readers WILL and DO continue to read books. And the book buyers continue to buy books (some may be a digital reader version but the ink on paper bound book is not dead yet).

    Those of us who like to communicate with others such as by talking to our friends about an idea or an issue we read about will continue to be met with resistance. We know what friends don’t give a hoot and which will at least entertain us with a discussion (even though I’d like them to go read the book I’m telling them about they usually will not).

    Those of us who like to talk or share and who like to connect with like minds are sometimes using our personal blogs or leaving blog comments elsewhere (on sites of like minded people usually) or they are doing Facebook status posts and links to articles or books that discuss the topic and they may be tweeting on Twitter about it or post emails to a YahooGroup. We who like to discuss and share what moves us are just now also using digital media to do so, where pre-computers we were forced to limit our dialogue to those in our family or our small circle of friends or co-workers. Or, having met resistance after having tried to talk with those we know IRL we just kept quiet and let the ideas swirl in our heads.

    You said:
    “Now we are facing a new great shift in media–from a print culture to a digital culture. This too will change us.

    And 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.”

    My response is I don’t think much has changed except we may now all indulge ourselves in doing things like watching a video clip on YouTube of something someone told us the President said but we didn’t believe could be true, or we may watch some silly amateur video clip on YouTube or we may laugh at silly websites such as those that impose improper grammar sentences onto photographs of cats or a site that shows crazy clothing worn by patrons of a certain store.

    I don’t think much has changed, sorry.

    When we hear statistics of the number of adults who do not read books after high school graduation or the low numbers of adults who don’t read nonfiction or anything more substantial than a pulp fiction beach read chick lit or spy novel, does this not show that we have always had non-book readers and that we still do have a number of book readers?

    The readers are still reading. The thinkers are still thinking. But the ones who like to discuss have new digital roads to travel down, that’s all.

    • Susan says:

      Christine, good thoughts. I should point out that when I say, “That is a very very bad thing indeed,” I’m quoting the naysayers as a rhetorical device. I won’t come to a conclusion MYSELF until later in the series.

      • Susan says:

        In fact, after I replied to your comment I went back and inserted a clarification in the text. This was originally delivered as a speech, and it was simpler to differentiate my conclusions from the conclusions of others when I was speaking. See, the medium changed the message. :-)

  5. Juanita says:

    On the subject of books by Christian authors about the use of technology, my husband says that Tim Challies’ latest book, The Next Story, is a very good look at technology and how Christians should interact with it. I know that’s not precisely the point of your article but thought I would mention it. The ironic thing about Challies’ book is that my husband read it on his Kindle.

  6. Heather says:

    We have a bunch of people at church who follow the sermon with Bibles are on their phones. I wonder how that plays into this argument.

  7. Amira says:

    I think Christine’s last paragraph sums things up nicely. My family hasn’t become “a violent, distracted, ignorant people, easily manipulated, drowning in trivialities and susceptible to totalitarianism” because we rely almost completely on ebooks. Instead, ebooks and other digital media has greatly increased our access to books and to ways to discuss what we think about those books and other things we care about.

    I’m even willing to say that ebooks in particular instead have the potential to make the world less violent, more focused, and much less susceptible to totalitarianism because I hope that digital books will be able to do what paper books haven’t been able to do yet- get into the hands of ordinary people all over the world. People who can read freely think freely.

  8. Sherri says:

    Interesting discussion. Any medium can be used to good or bad ends. Responsibility for management of the medium lies with the reader, listener or viewer. If it wasn’t for the Internet, I don’t know when, or if, I would have stumbled across a series called The Story of the World and purchased it for my kids. This one purchase, and the many other SWB books purchased after, have drastically changed the approach to eductation and learning in our home — for the better!

  9. Tucker says:

    Susan, you point out:

    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.

    I wonder, has this not been an issue for millennia? I do worry sometimes that things are getting worse now, but I wonder if this is truly the case. First I think that being violent, distracted, ignorant…etc., is a fact of our human tendencies as they are affected by our sinful natures. We have always been such and I doubt reading has done much to change that, at least in terms of broader humanity. Second, the fear that people would be that way is normal, but can also be judgmental, that is, the “educated” have always feared the “uneducated” masses; those who “get it” fear all the rest who don’t. And third, when we speak of books, what books? Most of the time, and ever since Gutenberg’s press, the books that matter have never been read much by the wider public. On the other hand, I am awash, swamped really, in great books, most of which are beyond my capacity to fully comprehend. This is, I believe, a significant problem with the “former” publishing situation that has been with us for a long time and is being exacerbated with outlets like Amazon.com: Too many great books demanding my attention and too little time to both read them, and to decide which ones I should commit my life to. Of course, what the publishing industry pays its bills with are the revenues largely from mass market publications that are as much a distraction and trivial as most things–so a strong or declining book industry may make no essential difference.

    The Bible may be a different case. Does modern media and digital publishing, including Kindles and audio books, etc., diminish the content? Is the Bible being trivialized today because of our modern technologies? Maybe. But can one argue, on the other hand, that Gutenberg’s press produced a similar situation when, prior to relatively inexpensive books being made available for everyone, the Bible was largely heard read aloud by someone else, that the original gospel stories were aurally transmitted, that most of the New Testament books were originally hand written, and hand copied, letters? I wonder if the printing press, that we all cherish so much, actually produced a loss of some significance as well as new burdens.

    I believe your post is on target, and it raises a lot of questions. I look forward to your continued thoughts on the matter.

  10. jbo5112 says:

    Without the digital revolution, I’m left knowing only what media companies want me to hear. Now, I have access to countless primary sources. I can do a little PhD level research with a few simple searches. Experts are now only as good as the truth of their word instead of the prestige of their their tiles, and anyone who knows truth can speak out amid ignorant masses to enlighten the public. What is more, anyone who feels lied to, about the Bible or otherwise, can generally root out the truth with little research skill and time. Look at Wikipedia’s list of common misconceptions to get an idea of the depth of our ignorance that went largely unrectified by books.

    A final thought, we wouldn’t be having this conversation of sorts if it weren’t for the Internet, and you wouldn’t have this platform for your ideas.

  11. Cindy says:

    Such a timely post, Susan!

    Apologies for not having yet read many of the articles you linked to, but I am reading “Amusing Ourselves to Death” right now. I’ve had a Kindle for over three years and it increased my reading dramatically because it reduced the cost of reading dramatically. Recently, Borders Books (the only new book store on Kauai) closed shop and left town, leaving our little island with one used book store. I assume part of the blame since pre-Kindle, I spent most of my disposable income there. I took advantage of the closing sale to gather as many picture and graph intensive books as I could. As a prospective teacher, I wanted to have many of the books you recommend in “The Well-Trained Mind” and those recommended in the Core Knowledge sequence on my Kindle. Yesterday, with your book in hand, I spent less than $50.00 at Amazon.com and acquired practically every classic book or story you recommend (and more) through the grammar and logic stages of instruction. In my home, they would take up an enormous amount of space and purchasing from the mainland or taking on an airline flight, they cost even more. The quest to achieve the classical education I never received is well underway. I fervently hope we teach our children how to acquire the best of the classics for free using our digital age tools, so that reading and the classics will long endure. Actually, the classical books are the MOST affordable today, providing an excellent argument for decreasing the cost of literature in school.

  12. Cindy says:

    One other contribution before I go off to organize the content on my now overflowing Kindle, I thought you might enjoy this old video of the very first Help Desk call from YouTube:

  13. CaptiousNut says:

    Hah! Books have never been more alive than they are today.

    Didn’t one of those Greeks (Plato, Socrates, Aristotle?) decry the written word? Didn’t one of them or their ilk complain that given paper or whatever people wouldn’t have to remember anything anymore, and that widespread writing/reading would spell death for all-important oral tradition?

  14. Richard Neville says:

    Why has the intelligent collaborative (forums & wikis) and research tools (wiki, dictionarys & books, like the bible) of the online world been conviently forgotten? Why have the intellectually vacant printed media (Romance novels, Fan & pornography magazines) been so quickly forgotten in these arguments? Presumidly so people can make money peddling alarmist works. Christianity is about a relationship with God, worshipping a printed book smells of idolatry…

  15. Leah Hotchkiss says:

    I don’t necessarily have a problem with the technology. It is good for the day to day educational helps, connections to other people and communities, etc.
    That being said, I am also reminded of my grandmother who, after growing up in the depression, always kept a wad of cash in her purse/home. It was her back-up in case things went bad again. We too, should rememeber that internet/flickering images are transient, and that we may be cut off from them, and we should have a back-up.
    A good book is worth owning and having in your hand. So, we do online reading, but when a good book or article comes along I buy the print version, or print it off, in order to save it and pass it on. Then my children and grandchildren will know what was valuable to our family, what we saw as necessary to their future.
    I have had hours of enjoyment looking through the books passed to my husband and myself. Our family Bible, while rarelly opened (it is too brittle), is a prescious look into our past. Over one hundred years of our history are written in the first few pages, and it is a reminder that past generations sought to live for Christ. When all other material goods were lost to the ravages of history, their focus on Christ has remained as a teaching tool for myself and now my children.
    My grandchildren will never be able to follow my web-searches, reading habits, or online discussion. So while the internet/technology is valuable for the here and now, it is worthless to the coming generations. (They will have their own technology to use for the day to day learning.) Just something to keep in mind.

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