The Communication Spectrum

With the recent breaking news on the discovery of King Richard III's skeletal remains found beneath an English car park, it's interesting to consider the man's contributions to the world of information. While vilified throughout history and in literature, KR III relaxed restrictions on Gutenberg's printing press in the 1480s. He allowed for the distribution of texts. In short, he was a champion of democratizing the written word.

How important was the printing press? One of the profound ideas that Walter Ong posits is that:

  • More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness. (78)
Because writing is a complex technology, its impacts on cognitive theory have been immense. In essence, writing allowed scholars and thinkers and people of all sorts to "get out of their own heads." De-cluttering the human consciousness (and think of how hard it must have been for primarily oral cultures to memorize and perform such complex narratives as the Iliad and the Odyssey) allowed for a record to be created. This freed the mind up to move to new ventures--creating advancement and progress in the cultivation of information.

When we think about scholars like Ong (who had a charming appreciation for the authenticity and lyrical nature of primary orality), we often consider how communication has changed and shifted through the decades. Ong's assertions in Orality and Literacy seem to herald a rejuvenation of secondary orality--an idea that the digital present will return us to the fluid and dynamic communication culture that shifted when print technology enclosed the written word and held it captive on the page.

Richard Lanham has posited similar thoughts. Once an alphabet becomes transparent (as it is beginning to become to my three-year-old daughter, which is really a sight to see), then the essence of the words themselves prevail. That is to say, once we start to look past the singularity of the letters themselves, the "treeness" of the word "tree" steps to the forefront of our cognitive mind. When that process has been achieved, Lanham believes, the next logical step will be to rethink how we create meaning from this evolving communication landscape. That step takes the form of collaboration, remix, reinterpretation, and "play," for lack of a better term.

In The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts advances the notion that moving beyond a meaningful print  culture will have profound impacts on our society, cognitive ability, and appreciation for history. His theories are among the most interesting and important I've found in my education in texts and technology. Honestly, kids still require an approach to linear, close analysis that is being circumvented in our present digital avalanche. There is no reason we can't teach these literacies side by side.

And finally, as I was reading Jay David Bolter's Writing Space last evening (very intelligent, engaging text, by the way), it occurred to me that a sincere irony in our present circumstance is that print texts still represent our most "fail-safe" approach to archiving. Network failure, cyber security, and that vaunted notion of "data heaven" represent very real threats to the digitized word. Thankfully, print culture will always maintain an important presence in the informational marketplace... 

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