The larger development that Birkerts identifies (in the 2006 updated Introduction) is the merging of digital devices. It’s the collapse of receiving and transmitting functions, from a variety of media, into one device.
The big question, though less grand and encompassing, is the question implicit in the book’s subtitle: What will be the fate of reading? I don’t mean the left-to-right movement of the eyes as we take in information, but the age-old practice of addressing the world by way of this inward faculty of imagination.
From the 1950s to the 1990s the average household saw an explosion of devices for entertainment.
In less than half a century we have moved from a condition of essential isolation into one of intense and almost unbroken mediation.
Those who argue that the very nature of history is change—that change is constant—are missing the point. Our era has seen an escalation of the rate of change so drastic that all possibilities of evolutionary accommodation have been short-circuited…We have created the technology that not only enables us to change our basic nature, but that is making such change all but inevitable.
He strongly feels that in print lies our shared cultural continuity. And that a turn away from print and reading introduces a cultural break or discontinuity. He’s not blaming a single factor here (e.g. it’s not the fault of video games) but is rather pointing to a systemic change. There are gains within this change, but also loses (which he outlines on page 27).
One way of processing information is yielding to another. Bound up with each is a huge array of aptitudes, assumptions, and understandings about the world.
The Owl Has Flown
When you change how we receive information you change how we perceive reality. Our shift to digital encourages, when it comes to information, quantity over quality.
The possibility of maximum focus is undercut by the awareness of the unread texts that await. The result is that we know countless more “bits” of information, both important and trivial, than our ancestors. We know them without a stable sense of context, for where the field is that vast all schemes must be seen as provisional.
We have a strongly horizontal relationship to knowledge that is anti-depth. This leaves us short of wisdom as we only see facts, not through them or between them.
The Woman in the Garden
Indeed, I often find that a novel, even a well-written and compelling novel, can become a blur to me soon after I’ve finished it. I recollect perfectly the feeling of reading it, the mood I occupied, but I am less sure about the narrative details. It is almost as if the book were, as Wittgenstein said of his propositions, a ladder to be climbed and then discarded after it has served its purpose.
Reading is a judgement. It brands as insufficient the understands and priorities that govern ordinary life.
Paging the Self
For while it can be many things, serious reading is above all an agency of self-making. When undertaken freely, the effort of engaging a book shows a desire to actualize and augment certain inner powers. The reader assumes the possibility of deepened self-understanding, and therefore recognizes the self as malleable.
Indeed, more than anything else, reading created in me the awareness that life could be lived and known as a unified whole…Without that faith, that sense of imminent resolution, the events of the day-to-day would be like some vast assortment of colored beads without a string to hold them together.
Into the Electronic Millennium
He identifies a handful of developments in the shift to an electronic world:
- The erosion of language. Our language becomes simplified and dumbed down.
- A flattening of historical perspective. We become more rooted in the Now and the past becomes a set of isolated events more than a continuous narrative.
- A loss of the private self. Our sense of individuality disappears behind the network and community.
A book never looks more alluring, more essential, than when it is about to get packed away in a box.
Prophets and promoters have long promised that technology would set us free, creating vast quantities of leisure time; the fantasy has backfired. Instead we have swelling pockets of empty time; our lifestyles have us in harness, we are unable to move, spiritually gridlocked. So we look to technology to undo what it has wrought.
For change us as they will, our technologies have not yet eradicated that flame of a desire not merely to be in touch, but to be, at least figuratively, embraced, known and valued not abstractly but in presence. We seem to believe that our instruments can get us there, but they can’t. Their great power is all in the service of division and acceleration. They work in—and create— an unreal time that has nothing to do with the deep time we thrive in: the time of history, tradition, ritual, art, and true communion.