catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 3 :: 2011.02.11 — 2011.02.24


Page turning and the illusion of permanence

I am not a doyenne of the digital age!  Far from it, not necessarily by age, but — I believe — by wisdom. Just the thought of the word digital conjures up horrifying images in my mind.  Mastery of complex mathematics has never been my favorite scholarly pursuit, and well, when I think of how else folks over fifty are likely to employ the word digital, my haunches tighten and I begin to feel violated.

Perhaps that feeling of violation represents the root of my resentment toward digital technology. I am quite guilty of referring to dealing with electronic gizmos as being a proverbial pain in the arse! All jokes aside (for now), there is something amiss, awry, awkward and unappealing about reading something on the equivalent of a television screen — whether that is a large desktop computer or a tiny hand-held Kindle® player. It’s difficult to wrap your arms around those hard boxy things to embrace them!

But a book — ahhhhh!  A book, or a scroll: that is something you can love! You can touch it, feel it, embrace it — and your repeated embraces will leave marks on it, just as that good book will leave marks on your heart and your life. A really good book is supposed to be profound — a vehicle for change, a force for the greater good, a boon to mankind. But an electronic text reader? Come again. 

It’s hard for me to imagine that something that looks so much like a toy is worthy enough to carry a weighty message capable of changing the world. It’s hard for me to place my fragile human trust in some object that is utterly dependent upon a marginally predictable yet very erratic power source: electricity. Digital books (and most electronic media) are like phantoms to me. They exist, on some plane (some place called the Ethernet, perhaps similar to the limbo of lost souls — just out there somewhere) and do represent some kind of reality (at least to some people).  But they lack material substance. They lack stability. They are capable of creating a hideous hide-n-seek with precious data, that is here one moment and gone the next. And submerging data doesn’t require any grand feats of prestidigitation, either. Some of those gizmos out there are so multi-function maniacal that all it takes is one simple mis-stroke on the keyboard and “Poof!” — no more info, and no immediate proof it was ever even there! That’s a violation of personal trust — trust in product quality and trust in how we human beings believe the world works, or at least how it ought to work.

In the book of Ecclesiastes (note: it was the “book of,” not the “e-book of”), Solomon pointed out (and we know that he is reputed to have been the wisest human beings ever to have lived on this Earth) that eternity is written on men’s hearts (3:11). We are hard-wired (pardon the metaphor, here) to yearn for the immovable, unchangeable and the permanence that is an essence of God Himself. So what does it mean if we are so easily satisfied with an object that by design represents change almost to the point of being unreliable? What does this say about the goings-on in the eternity written on our hearts?

Not much probably, but it may be worth pondering for a bit. Where would we be today if the good news recorded in the four gospels hadn’t been inscribed on tangible things like parchment and papyrus? Where and how will it be for our great-great-great-grandchildren and on down the line if all we have to offer are electronic substitutes for ink on paper? Is an electronic portal suitable for legacy building? What value is there in bequeathing an electronic gizmo, when the laws of technology dictate that in less than just a few years (far less than in a human life time), the technology it functions on will be obsolete? That doesn’t happen with a book. Books become treasures of family legacy. One of the most prized possessions in our home is the circa-1700’s German language Misalette once owned by my husband’s many-times-great-grandfather. And although not nearly as old, there is also the family Bible, with the decorative artwork plate in front that carries the diary of our family milestones — births, baptisms, marriages, deaths.  There is something awe-inspiring, wonderful, about being able to physically touch the same pages of a book that someone else, someone very dear and special, used to touch and to know that, barring the typical results of aging (loose bindings, falling pages), the text read by that other person 300 years earlier is exactly the same.  It feels like a spiritual connection is being made, a building of community across the generations and centuries. I don’t feel that when I am reading something online or via an electronic text reader. Rather, I feel like an outsider, looking in.

Think about the name we give to the hardware item upon which the words are electronically displayed: “screen.” What is a screen, really? It’s a device that keeps some things in, and other things out. It’s a control mechanism. And when you are dealing with digital information, the locus of control is external. There is usually someone else who has greater understanding of the technology and the power to force change who is ultimately in control of your experience. And, all too often, those with the power and the control routinely institute changes without prior notification, and in such as way as to increase our discomfort. These nameless, faceless entities can wreak havoc with how we perceive the orderly nature of the universe. Now you see it, now you don’t. Did they do it? How can you tell? Nameless. Faceless. Traceless. No paper trail.

And, because there’s no paper, personally, I think there’s less virtue and less value. How often do we hear about the cost savings afforded by electronic media in disseminating messages? When something costs a lot, we tend to regard it as being more precious. Ancient manuscripts were written on the skins of animals and pulp from plants. Preparation of documents was arduously labor intensive. Living things were sacrificed to provide the medium for messages. There is something at least a wee bit sacred about that.

Educator, philosopher and scholar Herbert Marshall McLuhan, is renowned for coining the phrase, “The medium is the message” (as well as for predicting the advent of the World Wide Web decades before its invention). When the medium is intangible, the message is murky. In his book, The Gutenburg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, McLuhan warns:

If a new technology extends one or more of our senses outside us into the social world, then new ratios among all of our senses will occur in that particular culture. It is comparable to what happens when a new note is added to a melody. And when the sense ratios alter in any culture then what had appeared lucid before may suddenly become opaque, and what had been vague or opaque will become translucent.

Because there are no tangible, certain and well-defined roadmaps on the electronic super highway, it’s easy to lose our way.  For example, electronic devices these days seem to encourage self-absorption. For those of you out there who are educators: how many times have you witnessed your students, sitting side-by-side, text each other before class, when raising their heads to exchange glances and say “hello” would be the polite thing to do? The World Wide Web has created communities, but virtual ones that lack cardinal virtues, where people remain cocooned and deluded into thinking that they are in control of things.

Heck! Most of us are all deluded into thinking we are in control of things. Even the solid, reliable, old-fashioned, hard-cover book with pages you can flip upholds the illusion of permanence. Perhaps it may outlast us — survive the centuries, like the old Misalette. But, it too is subject to the broken nature afflicting all of mankind. Death and decay are requisite components of the world. The last enemy to be vanquished is death. No repository of human communication or wisdom is ever permanent. Only the living Word of God will not pass away, no matter the medium we choose to share it in.

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