The Digital Clock Will Not Turn Back

''Of the making of books, there is no end" goes a moth-eaten quotation. But maybe there is after all. At least that's the war cry of the latter-day Luddites. Books will disappear, they warn, as we are dumbed down by the electronic culture of video and computers.

In this column, by the way, Luddite is not a term of dismissal. When they tore up the factories, Ned Ludd's legions were making a perfectly human and reasonable response to an utterly inhuman situation—reasonable, but doomed. The Luddites of today would rage through the windowless post-industrial workplace smashing computer screens. They would except that, nearly two centuries after the first industrial revolution, they know they are doomed. The digital clock will not turn back.

Lately I spend a portion of my life in the company of people aged 18 to 20. They don't read very much. Many of them, even in college, don't read at all. Every once in a while, one of them (always a guy) will rear up his head and proclaim, "Print is Dead." Ironically, this always is offered by one of the clever young people who actually does read, and who derived the notion that print is dead from reading it in a book.

Our culture is changing fundamentally. The Western world is moving from a cultural universe dominated by the printed page to one dominated by screens. This is a fact. The implications of that fact are explored at great and fascinating length in (what else?) a book titled The Gutenberg Elegies by (what else?) a literary critic named Sven Birkerts. Birkerts' thesis is that the book per se will be around for decades to come, if only because scrolling up and down a computer screen is a very inefficient and uncomfortable way to consume lengthy texts.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1997
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