Is Print Dead?...
As occurs in the case of most modern industrial processes, the industrialization of literacy that is ironically presented in the following cartoon by talented Swiss cartoonist, Patrick Chappatte, corresponds to a process that also inevitably stimulates an overproduction of texts in all genres. For about 20 years I became gradually concerned about this process, as a reader and writer, especially as the techniques of textual digitalization began to predominate in most interfaces.
In this regard, probably Marshall McLuhan´s (1911-1980) ideas on media still stand today as one of the most reliable, yet the common issue I´ve observed when most people aspire to capture McLuhan´s fundamental ideas on media is that a high percentage of readers still consider that “culture” and “technology” are independent domains. So it´s always worth remarking that McLuhan´s concept of “culture” transcends the field of literacy and is much more related to the artistic field in all its diverse expressions, or in other words, McLuhan considers that a culture is defined by the symbols it can create, cultivate; by how chaos is configured into order by means of specific techniques, rituals and disciplines. Based on this framework, today´s overproduction of books –as depicted by Chappatte- and their digitalization are two very meaningful expressions which indicate, regardless of all their contents and genres, that today´s cultural values are industrial and digital, this is, that ultimately today´s cultural values are technological.
According to this framework, the notion of “idea” highly transcends all subjectivism, science, theory, information, opinion, myth or discourse, and is expressed objectively in the powers that operate on the world. In this sense, McLuhan´s notion of “idea” converges with the cosmological conception that is present in many traditional cultures. So based on McLuhan´s radical understanding, both industrialization and cybernetics are the actual ideas of our times, and this is so because practically all socioeconomic and political dynamics are being symbolized by them, this is, mediated by their techniques. So when we purchase a book in a department store, the content of the book is a “bait” that transfers one´s money to the industrial-cybernetic systems of power that govern today´s economy. As a consequence, in these places we are not paying for an idea, but rather paying for an ideology, this is, paying for the processing of human thoughts into the public mind by the techniques present in the publishing industry. Similarly, when we buy highly processed food, we are mostly paying for the costs of its industrial processing and not paying for the nutritional value of the food at its source, which is practically inexistent due to the “stiffening” biochemical effects of both preservatives and cold chain conservation. So it´s no coincidence that Terence McKenna once said that “a culture is what it eats”, and I add to McKenna´s affirmation the following: “tell me what´s your appetites, and I´ll tell you which are your cultural”… Hence, if we truly want to acknowledge someone´s culture it´s always a much better option to dine with that person than to ask what such person reads or writes.
It´s understandable that McLuhan´s fundamental notions might appear too hard to digest for a vast majority, but if one dares to assimilate all their cultural implications, the result is that one eventually communes with Goethe´s advices to young poet Johann Peter Eckermann… Goethe recommended Eckermann to establish direct personal relation with personalities of verified cultural merit in order to effectively assimilate the spirit of their works. This direct contact allowed Eckermann to progressively “read between the lines”, to impede the letter kill the spirit, and to ultimately gain access to the poetic and creative power of the ideas that characterized the spirit of his time.
For Goethe, culture vastly transcends the limits of textual production and remains incarnated in the presence, specific style, personality and values of given individuals who´ve firmly decided to understand their specific lives in relation to the whole. Once these individuals disappear and the line of transmission is severed, then the productions remain as the only memory of the idea, yet constituting a very poor shadow of the spiritual power that created such works in the first place.
So in a very similar line as the oral traditions on alchemy which contributed to Gothic cosmologies, Goethe´s concept of “culture” aspires to symbolize the position of men in the cosmos, to acknowledge the forces that determine human action, and in his studies on natural sciences Goethe always opted for a direct and non-mediated contact with the natural phenomena under study. Yet very contrary to Goethe´s approach, today the worldviews that are presented to our minds are extremely mediated, technologically mediated, and its precisely this mediation what McLuhan suggested that “massages” our thinking processes and reflexes… McLuhan´s suggestion was far from being wild speculation because more and more experimental studies undeniably confirm the “rewiring” of the human´s nervous system –especially in children and teenagers- when exposed to technological interfaces (cell phones, etc.). This powerful “rewiring” of human thought by technology could make some agree with the famous Ghostbusters scientist, Egon, who stated that “Print is Dead”… But how can print be possibly dead if more books are printed today than ever before, and if there are more writers than ever before?... As a technical processing of human thought, print is obviously not dead, yet the capacity of textual production to develop one´s thinking processes has been vastly superseded by a much greater complex of technological mediations (T.V. radio, Internet, virtual reality, messenger texting, smartphone interfaces, etc.) that are prevailing at all levels, powerfully modifying the reflexes of our thought processes, this is, our capacity to reflect.
The implications of this process are very transcendent for every human being, and yet the dynamism of the process has become so frenetic and so accelerated that even sociologists, scientists, philosophers and millions of writers are also surrendering to its enormous power, whether they are aware of it or not. Yet those who eventually discover the power of media in culture and human values might be then determined to follow Goethe´s premises and act just like Luke Skywalker in Star Wars… When critical things ought to be accomplished they´ll turn of the computer interface, and just trust in the extraordinary power of their senses.