The Potential Homeostasis of Kindle Kulture
This morning I read Sven Birkets thought-provoking short essay in the online version of the Atlantic. (cited from if:book) This is another of the woe-unto-us, the digital technology of the future will destroy history and the humanities, genre of essays. Quoting,
Literature—our great archive of human expression—is deeply contextual and historicized. We all know this—we learned it in school. This essential view of literature and the humanities has been—and continues to be—reinforced by our libraries and bookstores, by the obvious physical adjacency of certain texts, the fact of which telegraphs the cumulative time-bound nature of the enterprise. … As Marshall McLuhan argued decades ago, technology changes reflexes, replacing them with new ones. Our rapidly evolving digital interface is affecting us on many levels, not least those relating to text and information.
He proceeds to worry how this new technology will damage the awareness of the context and history of information, and that in the future knowledge cloud of facts divorced from their origin and history. While I agree with his concern, I’m not sure that we have sufficient evidence that it is as inevitable as good journalism requires writers to suggest.
In Orality and Literacy, Walter J. Ong describes this sort of ahistorical perspective as homeostasis, and cites significant evidence that this sort of ahistorical homeostasis is a characteristic of primary oral cultures.
That is to say, oral societies lie very much in a present which keeps itself in equilibrium or homeostasis by sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance. (Ong, New Accents Series, 2002, p. 46)
So the real concern with the Kindle and such digital technology, as illuminated by McLuhan and Ong, is that we will return to an oral-experiential culture, rather than the visual-printing culture; and that this new oral-experiential culture will destroy the cherished products of our young visual-printing culture. That is, history will die because we only need to know how to get to McDonalds, or the basic biography of some poet from wikipedia.
This concern about the rewinding of culture because of digital technologies seems to pervade popular media. It was even the central theme of the recent movie Idiocracy. However, I think there is a flaw in this concern. This flaw was identified by Ong, who was careful to distinguish primary oral cultures, from secondary oral cultures. The difference is that none in a primary oral culture is aware of literacy, while a secondary oral culture is predominantly oral but is aware of literacy. In the primary oral culture, we see the homeostasis of forgetting, but in secondary oral cultures we see a movement towards literacy. It seems to me that this movement can be largely attributed to the power associated with knowledge and literacy.
Knowing the political structures of history enables the bourgeois to stay in power through the awareness of programs, strategies, and technologies of power. The proletariat, on the other hand, do not possess awareness to these programs, strategies, and technologies and thus remain vulnerable to them, and thus excluded from the power structure. Literacy, in Ong’s sense, enables the proletariat to develop an understanding of the larger processes in which they are participating. When the processes are the method for maintaining control, those in power would see no need to translate to the oral-experiential mode, since it would be to their disadvantage. Thus, access to literature is a tool of class struggle and equality. For this reason alone, I don’t think that the concerns about losing literacy, libraries, or book culture, are well founded; there are too many who can use literacy to gain power for us to lose it entirely.
What is really interesting to me is that the popular media keeps portraying the shift to orality as likely, or inevitable. I wonder if these portrayals are a part of a program of power. Convincing other people that literacy is unimportant seems like an excellent way of reducing the number of literate people, and thus making them vulnerable to the programs taken from literate society.