Originally appeared in The Boston Book Review: 9/2/94
Q&A: Sven Birkerts, Texts and Time
The ultimate point of the ever-expanding electronic web is to bridge once and for all the individual solitude that has heretofore always set the terms of existence.
Sven Birkerts, The Guttenberg Elegies: The Fate Of Reading In An Electronic Age (1994)
HB: Let me start with Socrates, in the Phaedrus, complaining about the newfound reliance on the written word, as opposed to speech, as an instrument of instruction. Socrates worries that the increase in literacy is going to result in a net decrease in true intelligence. “As for wisdom,” he says, “pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality; they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.”
Some 2,500 years separate you and Socrates. He laments the beginning of text-based culture, you its possible demise. Yet sometimes you seem to share a language of opposition to impending change.
SB: The electronic media can be conceptualized — and has been by Richard Lanham in The Electronic Word, for example — as a kind of swerve back to a tradition of rhetoric. That’s not how I think about it.
HB: You’re not so concerned with everything that was lost in the departure from the oral tradition. You’re much more impressed with what was gained.
SB: I am aware, as well, of the loss. It’s just that I see the trade-off as worthwhile, not to mention inevitable. Now, inevitability strikes again. We’re looking once more at fundamental transformations, and a different set of losses and gains. Nevertheless, I can’t simply go with the argument. I can’t conclude that because electronic is inevitable electronic is good.
It’s a matter of different ways of knowing and inhabiting the world. For a very long time the guiding ambition was toward a certain kind of wisdom rooted not just in language but in written language. Of course, we will never leave language behind. But if we orient ourselves less in terms of the written word, the printed book, and move to a set of supposed equivalencies — the visual image, the electronic screen, the complex and simultaneous transmission of denser webs of data — I think we lose our hold on that tradition. What’s at risk, ultimately, is the individual compact with wisdom.