Disappearing Words, Part II: What exactly are we worried about?

Be sure to read Part I first!

Let’s tackle the first question first: What, exactly, are we worried about?

I can sum it up in five words: the rise of digital culture.

(It always helps to define our terms: A digital culture is one in which the primary means of communication has shifted from the physical–meaning printed books and, to some extent, face to face communication–to the electronic.)

Critics of digital culture see all sorts of negative implications in this shift, for the future of human interaction as well as for the health of our brains. I’m not going to tackle the future of human interaction in this particular essay (although I’ll deal with it in a later one). Instead, I want to focus in on this shift from the printed to the electronic word. Why are so many people worried about the possible disappearance of the printed word?

Or, to put it another way: What do we think is going to happen, should the book become obsolete?

This is harder to pinpoint than you might think. Extensive trolling among all of the books I’m mentioned and quite a few more, not to mention blogs, print articles, online articles, and a poll of my university colleagues produces the following laundry list.

Should the printed word disappear, replaced by electronic transmission of our thoughts and ideas:

We will not be able to concentrate for long periods of time because our attention spans will adapt to screen-sized bits of information.

We will not be able to think logically and sequentially because we’ll be so accustomed to processing multiple bits of information simultaneously in all directions.

We will be unable to think deeply because we’ll be so swamped by the sheer amount of information poured down on us; we’ll have to think in a shallow but broad manner just to stay afloat in it.

The flood of images, as opposed to words, will make our minds passive receptors rather than energetic producers of information and creativity.

We will no longer be able to discuss ideas in a linear and logical fashion.

We will be ruled by emotion and sensation rather than by reason and intellect.

We will find stimulation only in entertainment and in pleasure, rather than in the exchange of thoughts.

Rational discourse will disappear.

Now, if you do history–and particularly if you do world history, which is what I’ve been doing for the past six years–you’ve seen lists like this before, predicting the end of everything that is good about civilization, and blaming the approaching disaster on everything from sunspots to the Persians.

On the other hand, let’s not dismiss this as simply one more prediction of disaster. Because on close examination of these fears, it becomes clear that this isn’t just a laundry list. Taken together, these point to a real phenomenon: The culture that’s emerging isn’t simply digital. It is a right-brain culture. In other words, it’s not just the printed word that’s in danger of being supplanted, but an entire way of thinking.

This endangered way of thinking is summed up by a recent book by Daniel Pink called A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. Pink points out that (as you probably know) the left hemisphere of the brain tends to process information in a way that is “sequential, literal, functional, textual, and analytical,” while the right hemisphere tends to work in way that is “simultaneous, metaphorical, aesthetic, contextual, and synthetic.”

Our list of worries reveals that we are worried about losing logical, sequential, linear, rational thought; we are worried about it being supplanted by simultaneous, nonconsecutive, intuitive ways of thinking.

We are worried about the left brain of the West shriveling up while the right brain expands.

This, of course, is a metaphor. As Pink also points out, we use both sides of our brain, often simultaneously–which is how the brain was designed to work. We use both sides of our brain to read; we use both sides of our brain to watch TV or surf Websites. But when we read, particularly when we read print which is organized in book form, the left hemisphere is dominant; when we watch TV or surf, the right side is dominant.

A culture seems to be emerging in which the right brain, rather than the left, is in charge.

Is this a bad thing? Well, plenty of cultural critics think so. Their worries can be boiled down into two broad concerns, which might be paraphrased like this:

1. If the right brain takes over, we’ll lose everything that’s been developed over the past five hundred years.

As a western society, we tend to have a deep suspicion of the right brain and a deep love and respect for logic and sequential thinking.

We fear the devaluation of linear argument because we are afraid it will bring an end to cultural institutions that we treasure; libraries and university classrooms, as Maggie Jackson suggests in Distracted; democracy itself (and, by extension, capitalism) as Neil Postman suggests in Amusing Ourselves to Death.

We fear that without the left brain in charge, our very idea of what it means to be human will be lost. We will no longer have an independent sense of self, because we will become “ungrounded and fragmented,” as Doug Groothius puts it.

We fear that if reason and logic are devalued, we will be too stupified by the pleasure of right-brain existence to stir ourselves to social action, to empathy, to compassion.

The source of this worry is simple: Much of what we hold as valuable about western society–the democratic process, our sense of individual self, the ways in which we pursue science, our conception of ourselves as nations, our mode of education–could not have developed without the existence of the printed word.

The constant consumption of the printed word produced in us a certain kind of thinking. Neil Postman calls the mind which has been trained in this way of thinking the “typographic mind.” It is a a mind which can concentrate for long periods, and can sort through and analyze ideas which are expressed in complex sentences. The typographic mind was developed through constant reading. The typographic mind is rational, analytical, critical. “It is no accident,” Postman writes, “that the Age of Reason was coexistent with the growth of a print culture.”

So if the printed word and print culture goes away, what happens to rationality, analysis, critical thinking?

They fade. We will essentially leave the age of reason. And the institutions developed by the typographic mind during the Age of Reason may well crumble.

This why the projected “world without print,” the possible future without books, is so often referred to as a “coming dark age” or “second dark age.” The world before printing was in a “dark age”; without print, we’ll return to that world and to that mind.

That dire prediction has been made by any number of cultural critics, both with and without faith commitments; you don’t have to belong to a “people of the book” to worry about what will happen when the right brain takes over.

But there’s a second reason why Christians, particularly Protestant Christians, perhaps, particularly, North American Protestant Christians worry.

2. Our faith is anchored in the written word, so…

In my last post, I quoted author Shane Hipps, who wrote, “Protestant Christianity is a by-product of…the printed Bible….How disconcerting to have a faith yoked so closely to a medium that is now in the dusk of its life.” Not long afterwards, he adds:

“The Bible is an extraordinarily demanding library of books….The books were born in civilizations and cultures alien to us, and the assumptions and attitudes of the original authors often escape us entirely. In many cases, excavating meaning requires the fortitude, patience, and discipline of an archaeological dig. In other words, bulging left-brain muscles are an essential tool for understanding the Bible.”

That is a perfect encapsulation of the argument that so many Christian critics of contemporary culture take. The argument sounds like this:

Our faith is grounded in the written word of God.

We are losing the ability to comprehend the written word as well as we used to.

If we cannot comprehend the written word, we will not be able to comprehend God’s word.

Our faith will have no grounding.

Therefore, we must protect the book and resist the rise of digital culture. To do so is to protect the truth of Christianity itself. As Doug Groothius puts it: “When, in any culture, written language is marginalized…biblical truth begins to lose its vibrancy. Christians must restore the primacy and power of the Word as an antidote to truth decay…”

In my next post but one, I’ll address that first worry–the one about losing five hundred years of western civilization and entering into a new dark age. But before I do, I want to examine this second worry, which is peculiar to so many contemporary Christians: that if the printed book loses its priority in our culture, the word of God will lose its power; that if people stop reading, truth will decay.

That worry is based on two underlying assumptions.

The first assumption: Marshall McLuhan was right. “The medium is the message,” and therefore if the medium changes, from print to digital, the message will be distorted and irretrievably lost. God chose writing as the medium for his message; therefore, that medium cannot change, and we must protect it.

The second assumption: that words are intrinsically superior to images; that God chose writing over images to give truth to his people because while words are capable of carrying truth, visual stimulation is seductive and ultimately deceptive.

Both of those assumptions are wrong.

Read Part III now.

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5 Responses to Disappearing Words, Part II: What exactly are we worried about?

  1. WildIris says:

    I read what you wrote. My attention stayed on task long enough to get to the last sentence, I think. I wondered as I read if this sentence could be proven, ” But when we read, particularly when we read print which is organized in book form, the left hemisphere is dominant; when we watch TV or surf, the right side is dominant.” Are there studies that validate your argument that the right brain is dominant?

    Part of me thinks the internet is a vacuous wasteland of opinionated nabobs, but does this spell the demise of the printed word? Perhaps. YouTube is very popular. It seems people would rather watch an explanation or a how-to tutorial than read.

    Take a look at the last remaining newspapers and magazines that once boasted dense pages of print several decades ago. Time Magazine is now reduced to sound bite sized articles and The New Yorker has thinned with age but it still publishes articles of length. Yet, I see kids with books in hand reading. Young adult fiction is booming even if they are reading Twilight, at least kids are reading.

    I do think the digital age does a good job of pruning ones ability to concentrate, and it seem obsessively addictive, plus it robs one of the capacity to reflect. There is simply too much noise to think.

    Did you read the follow up article a year later to the Nicolas Carr’s Atlantic article” Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
    “Get Smarter” http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/07/get-smarter/7548/

    I’m not sure about the Christian concerns, but it seems people survived a long time communing with God before the printed word had an influence in their daily lives. Why would the loss of the printed word change this relationship? The power is in the relationship not the printed word.

  2. Sarah P. says:

    I’m looking forward to Part III! As a student of art history, I am under the impression that throughout history, the church has concluded that words ARE superior to images (maybe not the Eastern Orthodox church?)—I’m eager to hear your thoughts on this!

  3. Claire says:

    Maybe the decentralization of the Bible from its near idol status is a good thing? I find it interesting that so many young families we know have left Evangelical churches (especially non denom.) for some of the more mainline churches-Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Episcopal. They all want something more. They all want liturgy and tradition in addition to the Bible. I think that particularly the Evangelical non-denominational churches in North America are in trouble because they have worked so hard to strip everything away except the Bible.
    As far as the right-brain goes, maybe also here, there will be a correcting of an imbalance. The left-brained way of thinking has ruled the world for too long now. No I don’t think a full shift into right-brained thinking would be good, but maybe a shift into a more balanced “whole-brained” way of thinking would be good.
    Yes, the Bible is hard to understand. I would not be surprised if they that understand it will become an even more specialized bunch. But the fact that my husband can go online and look at digital copies of the actual Dead Sea Scrolls and then have access to word by word translations is pretty freaking cool!
    I guess I am more of an optimist!

  4. cathmom says:

    WildIris said: I’m not sure about the Christian concerns, but it seems people survived a long time communing with God before the printed word had an influence in their daily lives. Why would the loss of the printed word change this relationship? The power is in the relationship not the printed word.

    My response: Yes, but before the printed word, they were Catholic and, the argument goes, depended on priests to interpret the Scriptures for them. American fundamentalists believe that everyone should read the Bible themselves and interpret it themselves, which is why there are so many different Protestant churches and home-churches when a family can’t find a church that believes the way they do. So what Susan is talking about is a threat to American-style Protestant Christianity, not the Christian faith as a whole, IMO.

  5. Brian Wasko says:

    I am unable to understand all these words. Could you just do a video or an info-graphic, please?

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