A few weeks ago I did a couple of posts arguing with Neil Postman's views on the superiority of a writing based culture to a graphic based culture (here and here). One of the things I mentioned is that we are in the middle of a shift from a culture dominated by writing to a graphic dominated culture. Postman and others lament this and there is indeed much to lament. But, I did suggest in one of those posts that a little perspective is in order. With the advent of the printing press, the world changed from oral to written, and I suggested that there were probably some cultural "losses" in that transition.
Fortunately, I have come across some better minds than mine that have addressed these issues. I just heard about Marshall McLuhan's book, "The Gutenberg Galaxy," which deals with that transition, and his own thoughts on the modern transition to an electronic culture. Needless to say this has gone straight to the top of my Amazon Wish List, and I found the Amazon reviews to be educational in and of themselves.
While you are waiting for the book to arrive, there are some good articles and posts that jump from a discussion of McLuhan's book to the larger issue of oral vs. written culture. In an article called The Hidden Center of the "Gutenberg Galaxy" McLuhan and the Gutenberg Galaxy, Steve Mizrach offers some good background. Plato is one who had many reservations about writing:
Most people are not aware, however, what writing had undone. Plato talks about how many rhetoricians used a technique known as the Art of Memory for facilitating their recall - a technique which seems to have involved projecting concepts or ideas into internally visualized architectural spaces, there to be later recalled. He laments how writing has made the once noble Art of Memory largely a forgotten art. Many cultures utilized an entirely oral tradition for maintaining their cultural sagas and mythos - the Druids had to study twenty years of wholly oral instruction. Even today, there are bards which remember and sing national epics and tales which are thousands of lines long. Plato may not have been the first one to notice that writing may have destroyed man's own prodigious mnemonic talents.
While acknowledging that people of the book have surpassed people of the icon, Mizrach points out the priority and superiority of the spoken word:
Nonetheless, for the various monotheistic religions, it is clear that the Logos or uttered word is prior to and superior to the written or recorded revelations of the Divine.
That last sentence is a good one for debate. My guess is that many will be uncomfortable with this. But, those who are in the Westminster tradition ought to remember the priority the Westminster divines gave to the preached word. Question 89 of the Shorter Catechism is:
How is the Word made effectual to salvation?
The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation
The point is that just as we gained as well as lost with the transition from oral to written, so we may gain some important things with in the transition from a predominantly written culture to an electronic/iconic culture. Mizrach again:
The spoken word is intimate, tied to the very breath and health of the speaker. The written word makes possible the autonomous survival of knowledge - with an oral tradition, it disappears when the oralists have all been killed; but, as people have noted for a long time, writing is impersonal, does not carry emotional intonations as well as speech, and lacks the identifying characteristics (pitch, tone, timbre, rate, etc.) that links speech to a speaker. Certainly, writing displays styles - some people insist they can recognize any particular writer's writing - but it is also not as idiosyncratic as speech. Even on the phone, we immediately know the voices of our loved ones. They are distinctive and unique. Most civilizations recognized that writing had been introduced as a divine gift, perhaps by a group of hieratic initiates - but, like Thamus, they knew that it had costs as well as benefits.
In closing, consider these words from The Electronic Labyrinth for some summary thoughts:
First published in 1962, Marshall McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy studies the emergence of what its author calls Gutenberg Man, the subject produced by the change of consciousness wrought by the advent of the printed book. A propos of his axiom, "The medium is the message," McLuhan argues that technologies are not simply inventions which people employ but are the means by which people are re-invented. The invention of movable type was the decisive moment in the change from a culture in which all the senses partook of a common interplay to a tyranny of the visual. Movable type, with its ability to reproduce texts accurately and swiftly, extended the drive toward homogeneity and repeatability already in evidence in the emergence of perspectival art and the exigencies of the single "point of view". He writes:
the world of visual perspective is one of unified and homogeneous space. Such a world is alien to the resonating diversity of spoken words. So language was the last art to accept the visual logic of Gutenberg technology, and the first to rebound in the electric age. (136)
For McLuhan, the standardized letter forms of movable type reduced spoken language and even the vagaries of hand-written communication to deviations from an original type. This not only resulted in the commodification of literature but the simultaneous emergence of the "author" and the "public." "Manuscript technology," he writes, "did not have the intensity or power of extension to create publics on a national scale. What we call 'nations' did not and could not precede the advent of Gutenberg technology any more than they can survive the advent of electric circuitry with its power of totally involving all people in other people" (ix).
For McLuhan the coming of the electronic age will precipitate a return to the tribalism and pleasure in diversity that collapsed in the age of movable type.