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Tuesday, January 03, 2017

The Contempt for New Media

"[On printing] A surprising number of writers in the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and even nineteenth centuries thought this new invention, despite all it did for their writings, was a setback for humankind. In other words, there was something about print too in its early centuries that prompted the eminent “to strike many illiberal attitudes.” They came down, it might be said, not on Thoth’s side but on King Thamus’s.

In the history of communication that side has usually been crowded. The point is that television is far from the only young form of communication to have inspired dismay. Indeed, it is in good company.

The hostility that greeted new approaches to painting has been often noted, with impressionism the classic but far from only example. However, bursts of hostility have also been aimed at what seem today to have been more clearly useful and less overtly rebellious new arrivals: paper, for example. When Europeans finally encountered this improved writing surface, many responded by disparaging it as fake and fragile. In 1231 the Holy Roman emperor, Frederick II, prohibited the recording of public acts on paper rather than reliable old parchment.

An even harsher and longer-lived hostility greeted Arabic numerals when they began to replace the traditional Roman numerals in Europe at about the same time. In some places our positional ten- digit system for writing numbers was banned. Its crime, in part, was introducing an alien and disturbing concept: the zero.

Indeed, most of the inventions, techniques or art forms we now hold dear were once dismissed as useless or even evil. Opera? In eighteenth-century England many intellectuals reviled it as a senseless, mind-numbing spectacle of sight and sound—“chromatic tortures.” The theater? For the young Ralph Waldo Emerson it was “the sewer in which the rebellious vices exhaust themselves.” Henry David Thoreau was one of the more vehement and consistent critics of the new. In 1854 he famously dismissed the telegraph lines that were just beginning to traverse the country by suggesting that “Maine and Texas. . . have nothing important to communicate.” Thoreau professed having no use for any such “pretty toys”: “Improved means to an unimproved end,” he harrumphed.

In 1877 the New York Times fulminated against the “atrocious nature” of Alexander Graham Bell’s improved version of the telegraph: the telephone. Invasion of privacy was the charge. Twenty years later, the indictment stood: “We shall soon be nothing but transparent heaps of jelly to each other,” one writer predicted. Another early complaint against the telephone was that it deprives us of the opportunity “to cut a man off by a look or a gesture.”

In 1893 the Notion lamented the increasing use of photographs, or “cuts,” in newspapers: “The ‘cuts’ will in their turn have to be supplemented by something more infantile still. The reader will demand and have to get a rattle or a colored India-rubber balloon, or a bright ball of worsted, or a jack-in-the-box, with each year’s subscription.”

A new medium’s strength, particularly its ability to divert the masses, is routinely turned against it. Radio, Will Irwin stated in 1936, has access to “the magic inherent in the human voice.” But this led him to conclude that it “has means of appealing to the lower newe centers and of creating emotions which the bearer mistakes for thoughts.”

We rarely trust the imposition of a new magic on our lives, and we rarely fail to work up nostalgia for the older magic it replaces. Over time, in other words, one person’s new “toy” becomes another’s tried and true method. At the beginning of this century, pencils with erasers were attacked and occasionally even excluded from classrooms based on the following logic: “It might almost be laid down as a general law, that the easier errors may be corrected, the more errors will be made.” Yet by 1938 the New York Times was honoring the pencil with an editorial, which noted that “living must have been more laborious before the pencil age.” What had changed?

The pencil itself was now threatened: “The universal typewriter,” this editorial lamented, “may swallow all.” Thoreau, the great scourge of technological improvements, maintained a soft spot for at least one technology, one his father crafted, one he himself tried to improve: an early incarnation of the pencil.

It is clear where our soft spot lies in the age of the image: Even the least faithful lover of words these days can romanticize print. Most of us are rarely as satisfied with ourselves as when we crack a book. Television programs have ended with plugs for related novels or histories. Oprah Winfrey attempts to transform installments of her weepy TV talk show into a reading group. We try everything from bribes to punishments to induce our children to read half a chapter between Friends and bed. “If I came upon Junior engrossed in the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom,” PJ. O’Rourke has written, “my reaction would probably be, ‘He’s reading!’” According to the Gallup Poll, 61 percent of us proclaim reading “more rewarding” than watching television; 73 percent lament that we spend too little time reading books; and 92 percent of us attest that reading is a “good use” of our time.

While he was working for President Reagan, the late Lee Atwater, according to a New York Times story, assigned an aide to read and summarize books for him. Atwater would then brag that he read three books a week. Who today brags, legitimately or not, of having watched television?

But reading and writing—as Plato’s tale demonstrates—once took their share of abuse. Plato’s soft spot instead is for “discourse which is inscribed with genuine knowledge in the soul of the learner.” Discourse—spoken language—still seemed more attractive to Thomas Aquinas more than sixteen hundred years later: “It was fitting that Christ did not commit His doctrine to writing,” he concluded, “for the more excellent the teacher, the more excellent should be his manner of teaching.”

When printing began to replace handwritten manuscripts in the fifteenth century, producing books the slow, old-fashioned way occasionally took on that familiar, romantic glow. “Printed books will never be the equivalent of handwritten codices,” asserted the abbot and bibliographer Trithemius of Sponheim in 1492. He gave a “simple reason”: Scribes displayed “more diligence and industry” than printers.

The Florentine book merchant Vespasiano da Bisticci’s paean to the duke of Urbino’s library, written late in the fifteenth century, noted that “all the books are superlatively good, and written with the pen, and had there been one printed volume it would have been ashamed in such company.” (Vespasiano was not an unbiased source, as he sold only handwritten manuscripts. However, most of those who publish criticism of television today are likewise vulnerable to charges of conflict of interest.)

A few decades after the printing press arrived in Venice there was a call for it to be banished. And the press was severely restricted in most of the countries of the world at one time or another over the following five centuries. The object, we now conclude, was to limit the flow of ideas. But at the time many of those who did the restricting saw themselves as grappling with a dangerous and destabilizing new machine.

On Europe’s southern flanks, Moslem societies had been using paper and block printing much earlier than their Christian neighbors, but they resisted the letter press. “According to their view,” a traveler reported after a visit to Istanbul in 1560, “the scriptures, their holy letters, once printed would cease to be scriptures.” A press with Arabic type was not established in Istanbul until the eighteenth century, and even then it was not allowed to print the Koran or other religious books.

In 1671 Virginia’s longtime governor, Sir William Berkeley, thanked God for the absence of printing presses in his colony. Men of letters at the time were hardly petitioning God for their spread. In 1680 the philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz suggested that a “fall back into barbarism” might result from “that horrible mass of books which keeps on growing.”

And then there is the case of Alexander Pope. Pope was the sort of cultured, clever intellectual who today would be expected to have little patience for television, except for the occasional PBS show. But Pope came of age in the early eighteenth century; the medium he had little patience for was print.

In 1728 Pope published a satirical epic, the Dunciad, in which he took swipes at many of the published writers of his time, whom he dismissed as “dunces.” (The term, deriving from the name of the medieval scholastic philosopher John Duns Scotus, originally meant “hair splitter” or “pedant” more than “dullard.”) Riots broke out as Pope’s poem was sold: “A Crowd of Authors besieg’d the shop,” a contemporary reported; “Entreaties, Advices, threats of Law, and Battery, nay Cries of Treason were all employ’d, to hinder the coming out of the Dunciad. " The battles over this poem gained a name: the “War of the Dunces.”

In the preface to a later edition of his epic, Pope (referring to himself in the third person) explained “the occasion and the cause which moved our poet to this particular work”:

He lived in those days, when (after Providence had permitted the invention of Printing as a scourge for the sins of the learned) Paper also became so cheap, and printers so numerous, that a deluge of Authors covered the land: Whereby not only the peace of the honest unwriting subject was daily molested, but unmerciful demands were made of his applause, yea of his money, by such as would neither earn the one, nor deserve the other.

Pope’s sortie against the products of the press was, typically, mounted in defense of the products of an older medium. Along with many of his fellow Augustans, he was outraged by those of his contemporaries who failed to realize they were unworthy of sharing bookshelves with such classical writers as Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Virgil, Horace and Cicero. These works from the great age a millennium and a half or more before Gutenberg were, as one of Pope’s fellow supporters of the “Ancients” protested, being “dispossessed of their Place and Room” by the deluge of awful printed works by “Moderns.”

Understanding why Pope was so desperate to repulse this particular threat is no easy task for us more than two and a half centuries later. Although some of the works his contemporaries published were indeed mediocre or worse, they were books. Nevertheless, Pope and the other Augustans saw great danger in them. “It is a melancholy thing,” Joseph Addison wrote in the Spectator in 1714, “to consider that the Art of Printing, which might be the greatest Blessing to Mankind, should prove detrimental to us, and that it should be made use of to scatter Prejudice and Ignorance through a People.”

Before their descendants lined up against television, many generations of intellectuals joined this crusade against the press and its degradations. For example, as Leo Tolstoy was letting loose his philosophy on page 1441 of War and Peace, he maintained that the “most powerful of ignorance’s weapons” is “the dissemination of printed matter.”

Even in those days before the “couch potato,” print’s eminent critics did not lack a name for the new medium’s victims: “Instead of Man Thinking, we have,” Emerson muttered, “the bookworm"—“meek young men [who] grow up in libraries.” Emerson feared that “original talent” was being “oppressed under the load of books.” The young Abraham Lincoln’s neighbors reportedly thought he was lazy because he spent so many hours buried in his books. When Lincoln arrived in Congress his fellow congressmen, by one account, dismissed him as a “bookworm.” (Ah, to be labeled a bookworm today!)

As many of the perpetrators of contemporary television have demonstrated, those who work in an upstart medium are perfectly capable of expressing antipathy toward that medium. Plato’s Phaedrus was written; Pope's Dunciad was printed; and Cervantes, the first great practitioner of what for us is among the most sublime of forms, was also the first great satiric critic of that form. The cause of Don Quixote’s having “lost his wits” was his having “passed the nights in reading from sunset to sunrise.” Cervantes describes his hero’s reading matter as “books of knight-errantry”—in other words, chivalric fiction, early precursors of the novel.

Novels have a secure place on the long list of amusements to which right-thinking folk have considered it unwise to have too much exposure. They offended by focusing on the particular, when the classical ideal had been to aim for the general and universal; they offended by inventing mundane plots and circumstances, instead of borrowing tested, distinguished plots and circumstances. In 1778 the Reverend Vicessimus Knox, master of Tonbridge School in England, concluded: “lf it be true, that the present age is more corrupt than the preceding, the great multiplication of Novels has probably contributed to its degeneracy.... The reserved graces of the chaste matron Truth pass unobserved amidst the gaudy and painted decorations of fiction.”

This last charge, beneath the flowery imagery, is similar to Neil Postman’s major objection to television. The fact is that few of the criticisms directed against television are original. Is the “boob tube” overrun with “junk,” with “pablum”? In the 1790s a book reviewer characterized contemporary fiction as “a horrible mass of hurtful insignificance.” Has television, as occasional Democrats and many Republicans charge, contributed to a kind of moral decay? That was a widespread complaint against printed fiction in eighteenth-century England: “‘Tis NOVEL most beguiles the Female Heart,” George Colman declared in the prologue to his play Polly Honeycombe in 1760. “Miss reads—She melts—She sighs—Love steals upon her- And then—Alas, poor Girl!—good night, poor Honour!”

Has television turned politics into show business? In the late eighteenth century, when newspaper reporters in England first began covering Parliament, one of its members fumed that politicians were being treated like “actors.” Has television chopped information into segments that are too short to allow “education or entertainment” to be “absorbed”? That was the accusation one newspaper leveled against “the present style in radio programs” in 1925, though the segments in question then were considerably longer: five minutes. Indeed, a similar critique of “the constant diffusion of statements in snippets” was made against newspapers in 1889—the age of the telegraph.

What about teIevision’s role in the reported explosion of youth violence in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s? In 1948, when commercial television was just leaving the womb in the United States, a study in Collier's magazine warned that “juvenile crime is on the increase in almost every locality in this country” and pinned the blame squarely on the comic book. Its effect, the study concluded, “is definitely and completely harmful.”

My personal grievances against television turn out to be equally unoriginal. I find it, to begin with, devilishly addictive. When not doing research on television, I turn one on less often than the average American. In part this is because when I do turn on a television set, I have a great deal of difficulty turning it off: If I decide to take a peek at the evening news, for instance, too often I’ll end up, six hours later, watching Late Night with Conan O’Brien. But didn’t Don Quixote have a similar, though somewhat larger, problem with "books of knight-errantry”? They would keep him in their grip until dawn.

At the end of such long evenings with the tube I often find myself —and this is my major complaint—feeling empty and dull. Television seems to deplete, rather than replenish, my store of creative energy. But a similar charge was leveled against newspapers more than one hundred years ago: “The mental powers grow stagnant,” complained an 1886 edition of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. I do sometimes wonder if, after a few of these sessions, my brain hasn’t tumed into “a pulpy, spongy mass”—exactly the result that magazine attributed to reading newspapers.

Even the language in which such attacks are phrased is sometimes the same. In nineteenth-centuty America, a critic stated that cheap novels, “offering neither savor nor nutriment,” are “the chewing gum of literature.”"

--- The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word / Mitchell Stephens
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