From the March/April, 2010 issue of Touchstone

Media Wineskins by S. M. Hutchens

Media Wineskins

S. M. Hutchens on the Electronic Book & Its Kin

I am used to paper books, and prefer them to words on a screen for reasons that can be guessed—and will not be rehearsed in this essay composed with the aid of a word processor. The library world in which I work has been a good place to observe debates between the partisans of paper and electronic imaging, the strongest suit of the former probably being that the book in codex form—sheets bound together at one side—is in some sense, real but difficult to define, more natural or humane than screen projections.

The other side answers that whatever one might say for the old technology, there’s no way to stop the new, which is replete with desirable qualities of its own, qualities which, once introduced, become necessary for competence in the modern world. They are typically convinced that all non-imaginary problems in these areas can be advanced over, and to the point where reality meets the dreams of technological optimism, I think they’re probably right.

During the last several generations the computer has undergone metamorphosis from a tool for calculation, as its name implies, to a large family of micro-circuited devices that by their increasing ability to answer to the desires of the mind have gained the ambiguous standing of brain-analogues, other-minds-at-one’s-disposal, in certain functionalities extraordinarily powerful, despite absence of actual intelligence. While the computer’s lack of personality disqualifies it from analysis under the terms of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, its partial correspondence, evident in the many usurpations of intelligence and personality of which it has been accused, is more than evident.

The threat to essential humanity of manufactured intelligence has been under consideration since artificial men as superior inferiors were first dreamed of. Asimov’s robots have their precursor in the Golem as a pre-man, formed and controllable by a master’s wisdom, but supremely dangerous to fools.

The Question of Susceptibility

It is within consideration of electronic imaging media as a whole, I believe, that discussion of any of its representatives must be placed to make sense. I have heard arguments against such devices lodged in forms that sound suspiciously like those put forward by partisans of the King James Bible or the Latin Mass or the 1928 Prayer Book, where authenticity for the older version is claimed on absolute (i.e., doctrinal) grounds when there is rather strong evidence—at least from my perspective—that mere discomfort with a new medium is the real problem. As the Lord observed, the critics of new wine invariably say, “the old is good.” Whatever manifest inferiorities the new device may have to the old are taken as evidence of an absolute flaw; the superiorities of the screen are wholly insufficient to redeem it from the birth-sin of paperlessness.

Electronic imaging, however, is no more guiltily disincarnate than its printed predecessor. There must be a physical medium in or upon which the images appear, which, to be useful (and salable), must coincide with the functionalities of the human body and mind. One may argue that a paper book is in certain ways superior to an electronic one, but cannot reasonably raise the level of the objection from practical to absolute, for all conventional media have their benefits and drawbacks. The ancient papyrophile might have mocked the crude and inconvenient clay tablet, but suppose the library at Alexandria, destroyed by fire, had been filled with tablets rather than scrolls? Will the Ray Bradburys of the future write of Newtons 451: The Force at Which Magnetic Storage Media Polarizes and Becomes Irrecoverable?

It seems to me the only cogent arguments against our age’s new media can be made by evaluating them not only within the context of the larger world of image-making of which they are a part, but also with a critical eye toward the human tendency to become morbidly preoccupied with any symbolic construct, whether delivered by bard, book, or byte. (The theological reflection these considerations evoke is that of image versus idol.) Just as no man is defiled by what goes into him, but by what results from the ingression by combining with what is already inside, there is no power in the medium until it is allowed attachment to the susceptibilities of the person engaging it.

The answer to susceptibility would seem to be the use of disciplines, some more general, adopted by the community, and some more particular, suited to individuals. One thinks first here of protecting the tender and absorptive minds of children.

Isaac Asimov, who for much of his career as a science fiction writer meditated on the possible results of using powerful electronic servants—even controlling for benignity by hard-wiring it into his robots—seemed to conclude that while their use could dehumanize, and, were it not for the concurrent advance of science, in which he was a true believer, make the race too effete to survive, also appeared to think their temperate employment was perhaps possible and salutary. (While his materialism made him question any categorical difference between natural and artificial intelligence, he retained a touching affinity for the human.)

Strong & Ready Minds

One can advance reasonable arguments in general terms, speaking of common human weaknesses, against the adverse effects of excessive reliance upon, and possible absorption into, the artificial world of any and all media, including an electronic media of particularly penetrating force, as encouraging of mental and physical lassitude, utopian thinking, and stupor.

But in the end, this would only be analogous to pointing out that comic books do little to promote literacy or develop the mind—and Lemuel, they are no more for princes than cellular phones used as Borg circuitry, websites set up for digital vaporing, computer gaming, or for that matter, addiction to medieval romances.

I suggest, as I did some time ago in a discussion of television use, that our thinking on these matters should not be based on the question of what we can get away with without turning our brains to mush or stone, but the positive, more limited and practical one of how to maintain ourselves with strong and ready minds closely attuned to reality and ultimate ends. This applies to everyone created in the image and likeness of God, but to Christians especially, who claim to have a vision of his Image ever before their minds.

S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor and the book review editor of Touchstone.

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