Books and longreading: a farewell to Prometheus

Book reading as fire usage: What is more important, the result or the process?

Long reading was previously considered a way of transferring knowledge. But nowadays linear reading is becoming much shorter. The culture of information consumption is changing, along with the format of knowledge accumulation, transfer and perception. At the emotional level this is seen as cultural degradation.

But do we really need long texts for storing and transferring knowledge? Maybe it is nothing more than an old habit?

In his book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, Marshall McLuhan analyses a quotation from Geoffrey Chaucer according to which the status of a student in the 14th Century was gauged by the number of books he has… written. In fact, the “books” the medieval students “wrote” were notes of what their professors said. The more summaries a student made, the more highly educated he was considered. Real books were very expensive, and so the cheapest way to have a book in the prepress era was to write down what wise men said or copy wise thoughts from other [written] books. Books were the product and the certificate of one’s diligence. Universitystudentsstilltake notes during lectures.

When the first books were printed, professors denounced their appearance as the degradation of education. McLuhan mentioned that professors were horrified: Imagine that students no longer need to take down notes because they can buy a book instead! They denounced this as the desecration of knowledge. It was impossible to imagine that one could acquire knowledge without spending long hours writing down every word the professors said, but simply by buying a book. Nowadays it’s like downloading a research paper from Google instead of going to a library for reference material.

In fact, you can get as much knowledge by reading a printed book as by writing down what your professor says, but quicker and in a different way.

This could be a side effect of the progress of civilization: You get the same result in a simpler way. The best example is fire and the way we use it. It is said that the use of fire is what distinguishes men from animals. Mowgli from The Jungle Book may be weaker than some animals, but he is stronger than all of them because he can handle fire. The fire which Prometheus gave to the people contrary to the gods’ will allowed the human race to rise above all others on Earth.

Today we hardly ever use open fire in our life. We don’t use open fire to warm ourselves or to cook food. Ancient men would be outraged to see that we get fire by clicking a lighter. They believed that this sacred procedure should be preceded by two days of ritual dancing and the whispering of incantation to a heap of twigs. Omitting this process was simply not the done thing, but now it is, this disregard for open fire does not cause a culture shock because its gradual withdrawal from our life took a long time. Thousands of years passed from the time when lives depended on fire to the era when people see open fire several times a year and hardly ever use it.

So culture could be said to represent the long hours of a solemn ritual involving twigs and sparks. Culture grows out of the trouble we take to acquire a desired technology. Culture is the gap between a need and its satisfaction. Technology is narrowing this gap, and in the process it affects culture, or at least culture as it was understood in the past, culture that was associated with long rituals. That’s what causes the feeling that we have lost the fundamental essentials.

But what if long reading is like making fire: no longer necessary? What if we can get a comparable result quicker, which is very important, considering the uppermost importance of time?

New forms of packaging knowledge were created by multimedia and journalism, the first profession to face the digital challenge. Moreover, social media now offer super-fast and super-simple ways of information acquisition and transfer which the long text cannot rival. The long text and thick books are still seen as attributes of the intellect and knowledge. But statistically, the new synthetic format, which can be described as fast’n’fun because it does not have a permanent carrier, is rapidly winning the battle with the long text for people’s time and attention.

In the past, the long text had the monopoly on conveying a meaning primarily for technical reasons. When information is transmitted through physical media such as paper, it is easier to systematize and store in the form of books (scrolls are a different matter; the use of scrolls or books for transferring information predetermined the path of civilization’s development).

The print-era man can easily visualize an average book, a “thin” book (an entertainment book or magazine) and a “thick” book (which is usually an intellectual book the meaning of which is difficult to understand). “Thick” volumes were the most valuable kind of books. This content hierarchy showed that valuable content was inaccessible for ordinary people (“thick” books were expensive and difficult to read). In other words, the value of the long text supported the monopoly of palaces and temples. Monopoly on the long text equaled monopoly on power.

These technical parameters gave rise to the idea that the long text/book is a sacred object. At the everyday level, this implied that thick books contained important information. This can explain the awe for the long texts. Because of the books’ format, education was a long and difficult process, and so the long text also symbolized the diligence of those who manage to read books through to the end. Diligence and the ability to focus one’s attention on any particular subject for a long time are important characteristics of the value hierarchy of the hard-copy era.

But technology has moved forward. Everything has become fast’n’fun, but the sanctity of the long text continues to govern our behavior and opinions.

The focus on the long text of the print era is waning. The multimedia are reviving the audiovisual perception of life that was prevalent in the prepress era, though at a higher level of development. Audiovisual information and even long stories are now easier to store and propagate, something which the prepress people could not do and which we learned to do thanks to the invention of paper and books.

The transition period will not be easy. There will be an inevitable loss of knowledge due to the change of formats and carriers. Not everything that could be put in the long copy can be transformed into the fast’n’fun format. Will anyone even try? The new language of culture is being used to produce a new meaning rather than to convey the past knowledge. Long reads will become like Latin, the dead language of classical knowledge.

People will find it difficult to accept this change, because for the past 5,000 years the humankind used the long text as the main carrier of knowledge. But progress logically moves towards simplification. Evolution is not a mountain you climb, but a vortex that sucks you in. You can and must resist this. I would even say that it is the duty of all people of the long-copy era. But any efforts to do so will be in vain. Books will survive as part of the vintage fashion and an element of elite consumption. But they will lose – they are already losing – their role as the main carrier of knowledge.

In a more distant future, the gadgetization of the human body will lead to the creation of a third signal system, the elements of which we can see in the growing interactivity in infographics, visual semantic objects, augmented reality, and the like. And then it will not be the word that will be the semantic carrier (actually, the word is a rather awkward intermediary between the mind and the meaning), but the directly induced emotion or sensory perception of the semantic object. Our future is being created in the experiments with induced perception at 4D and 5D cinemas, not to mention cognitive interfaces.

Is there a place for books in this future? Now Prometheus has given people a device connected to the web.

Andrey Miroshnichenko

Author of Human as media. The emancipation of authorship – available on Amazon

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Categories: Decline of newspapers, Future of journalism, Media ecology

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