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Books in The Age of Digital Media

Plato believed that writing, as a form of communication technology, might pave the way to death since it is artificial, and hence inhuman. The role of books, as the old champion of literacy, has changed in the era of what communication theorists call ‘secondary orality’. The implication of the infamous phrase ‘books are the window to the world’ in the era of the new technologies has also been reinterpreted. Furthermore, the internet, as the form of modern communication technology, apparently shares the same faith.

It is often asserted that the flourishing of digital media in recent decades and multiplication of new media platforms, made possible the by invention of the internet, has transformed the way we perceive the world and ourselves. With only one click away, anyone with internet connection these days can easily access virtually unlimited information at their disposal. Even though this new form is cheaper and faster, the internet leads to the death of the age-old methods of distribution. The book, the champion of the print culture, is becoming obsolete in the reign of digital media. The metaphor ‘books are the windows to the world’ is becoming increasingly inappropriate in the age where we can open a window(s) to explore the World Wide Web.

Despite its powerful potential in disseminating information and enhancing human communication as never before, the new media is more often than not condemned as mind-weakening and even moral-corrupting. This seems to echo the Socratic paradox about the vice and virtue of literacy. Socrates used the Greek word pharmakon or drug as the metaphor for writing to convey that it could be a cure and a poison (Furedi). On one hand, he believed that writing could serve as a medium of enlightenment and communication. On the other hand, the spread of literacy would encourage subjective interpretation, thus enabling the masses to explore and question the prevailing authority and, in turn, challenge the established order. To put it more simply, in the cultural and political context of Socrates’ Athens, there are too much information for the vast majority of the public, the uneducated.

Once words put into writing and roam everywhere, they are prone to misinterpretation and unfair judgment since a piece of writing cannot defend itself or as Ong (2001) put it, “…the reduction of dynamic sound to quiescent space, the separation of the word from the living present, where alone spoken words can exist” (80). Unlike oral discourse that involves direct human participation, reading creates spatial and temporal distance between the speaker and the listener, thus separating the knower and the known, and “…in a way denature even the human” (42). Indulging oneself in private reading therefore estranges the readers from the real world and actual human experience.

Socrates’s concern seems relevant to the contemporary issues surrounding the new media technology. Computers were credited with the power to create artificial world called the cyberspace. Unlike private reading, computer allows for more interactivity instead of being estranged and remote, thus eliminating distance between the users.  However, both print-mediated and computer-mediated communications pose more questions than answers. Internet addiction is a problem these days as book addiction was back then.