When Sven Birkerts’s The Gutenberg Elegies was published in 1994, the Internet was an infant. The primary purpose of a cell phone was to make phone calls. Texting was barely a thing. It wasn’t until three years later that you could order a DVD in the mail through Netflix. Youtube was a decade away. iDevices didn’t exist yet, nor did e-readers. Amazon had just been founded and wouldn’t release their popular Kindle device until 2007, a year after Birkerts released an updated 2006 edition of The Gutenberg Elegies. The point is that our world has recently been flooded with new technologies all designed to make our lives simpler, more fun, more efficient. Birkerts is afraid that books and literary culture as he knew it as a young man will disappear, occluded by electronic noise of the modern world.
In The Gutenberg Elegies, Birkerts expresses concern that the onslaught of electronic technologies will convert humanity into a species of automatons and that we will “lose the ability to confer meaning on the human experience”. My initial reaction was to dismiss this concern, to think that humanity will be just fine. But I look around and see an increasing number of faces buried in glowing screens. I was at a baseball game a few weeks ago and hundreds of people around me spent the game staring at their iPad or cell phone screens, browsing the Internet or texting people. Only when those of us actually watching the game cheered or booed would their heads snap up and they’d look around frantically asking those of us around them what had happened. The next time you go to a restaurant, take a look around at how many people have their smartphones in their hands, not talking to each other. Birkerts may be on to something, though I do not want to admit it. Maybe it is not too late.
Most of the notes I took while reading this book are counter-arguments to the points of view Birkerts shares. As I read those notes now though, having had a couple of weeks to mull them over and observe the world around me with Birkerts’s perspective, I find myself agreeing more often. There are bright spots though. Thanks to the Internet, we now have the ability to connect with like-minded individuals from around the world whereas in the pre-Internet age, one would need to meet up with book club members at the local library to discuss a book. I think we should still do that because nothing beats a face-to-face conversation, but outlets like goodreads.com and the book blogosphere (into which I hope bookthump.com will be accepted soon) offer thriving communities full of intelligent people yearning to have thoughtful discussions and debates.
Sven Birkerts displayed an eerie prescience in 1994 about the effect modern technology has had on literary culture. Many readers are converting to e-readers and downloading their reading material. Brick-and-mortar stores are closing by the hundreds, unable to compete with the wholesale prices offered online. Personally, I love the physicality of a book, particularly a nice hardback. I even named this website after the sound a thick hardcover makes when you snap it shut. I enjoy collecting books, browsing bookshops. I enjoy the experience of holding a book in my lap and reading. In this, Birkerts and I agree. I am not sure I am ready to believe mankind is losing its humanity as a result of technology, but the more I read Internet forum comments (pick any news outlet and prepare to recoil at the magnitude of vitriol and hatred expressed by commenters hiding behind anonymity), the more I wonder if we may realize his prescience about our loss of humanity in another decade. It may already be happening, but we are too busy with our noses glued to tiny glowing screens to notice… or care. Oh, and Birkerts is on Twitter so his journey toward the Dark Side is complete.