In The Case for Books you wrote that ‘the explosion of electronic modes of communication is as revolutionary as the invention of printing with moveable type’. How do you feel this revolution is changing the way knowledge or information is spread?
Well, first I should say that the word ‘revolution’ is used very loosely, in general, so I said that after some hesitation. I mean, I’ve read about revolutions in menswear and revolutions in football styles of defence and so on. So, I don’t want to weaken the term. And, it’s a term that can be used in lots of different ways. But let’s say that the assertion is that the means of communication are changing as rapidly, as dramatically, today as they did in Gutenberg’s day. And, in fact, we’ve learned a lot about Gutenberg’s day: the change, perhaps, was not quite as rapid as people had thought when they refer to it as a revolution. We know, for example, that manuscript publishing continued for three centuries after Gutenberg, and really flourished. So, that’s by way of preface to what I was saying. But your question is how does this change, whether revolutionary or not, affect the way communication penetrates into society.
Well, you know, you have to just sit on a bus, or in a subway if you’re in New York, or London, or Paris and watch people with their smartphones or their various handheld devices. The phrase is sometimes used: ‘people are always “on”’. That is, they are always online, they’re always communicating. There has, I think, been a restriction of a kind of blank space in life: a time when people, so to speak, did nothing. Of course, they were never doing nothing. But it meant that there was a time in which they weren’t consciously communicating, but letting the world go by. Now, there’s a lot to be said for letting the world go by. You could sit and observe things, and maybe be exposed to surprises. But now I think there is this sense of constantly exchanging messages. Doing it all the time. That’s different, I think, qualitatively, from anything that ever existed before, even though people were exchanging gossip at the village pump. So, I think it is a very profound change in the way we live our lives, and it’s made communication and information more central than they ever were. (more…)