What is the main point of Sven Birkerts' essay "Into the Electronic Millenium"? http://bostonreview.net/BR16.5/birkerts.html

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his essay titled “Into the Electronic Millenium,” Sven Birkerts suggests that humanity is presently at a turning point in which the culture of the printed word, especially printed literature, is coming to an end and is being replaced by a culture emphasizing the digital presentation of information. As Birkerts himself puts it,

This is a shift happening throughout our culture, away from the patterns and habits of the printed page, and toward a terra nova [that is, a new world] governed almost entirely by electronic communications.

Birkerts worries that the transition from print and books to data and computers will lead to various unfortunate consequences, including the following:

  • Because we now have electronic access to so many different and far-flung places at once than we used to have, no place will now seem really special or unique. A kind of sameness will descend on our experience of the world:

Every place once unique–itself–is strangely shot through with radiations from every other place.

  • Fewer and fewer people now read newspapers and other forms of printed communications. Instead they rely on electronic media as sources of information. This change is unfortunate, because print forces us to think and to be actively engaged, whereas when we receive information through digital means (such as television), we tend to be mere passive receptors. When we read a newspaper or book, we are in control of the pace at which we read and of our progression through the material; when we passively watch television, the machine determines, in every way, our experience.  We thus lose individuality. As Birkerts puts it,

With visual media, impression and image take precedence over logic and concept.

  • Visual media focus on the experience of the present moment, and thus a sense of history and of the past is lost. One symptom of this loss of historical consciousness may be the rise of so-called “postmodernism,” in which distinctions between specific historical periods are lost.
  • Birkerts worries that the subtleties and complexities of communication and of language fostered by a print culture will be lost and will be replaced by language that is simpler, plainer, more streamlined, and less interesting.
  • He also worries that curricula will be simplified or dumbed-down because students will no longer have much practical training in reading, in complex reasoning, and in the appreciation of the nuances and subtleties of language.
  • Because we will be so much involved in the present, in the now, our conceptions of the past are likely to become more superficial, less complex, more cartoonish.
  • The new media may discourage people from thinking for themselves.  This change may therefore result in a loss of individuality and privacy. Society may run the risk of becoming a huge collective, rooted less and less in complex thought by distinct individuals and rooted more and more in mass trends in which people respond to collective stimuli rather than doing the hard work of reading and of really thinking for themselves.
teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Birkert's main point in this 1991 essay is that we are at a moment of profound and fundamental social change because of the media revolution. By this, he means that television (or televised images) and computer technology are poised to overtake the printed word as the main means of communication and knowledge transmission. He likens this period to two other pivotal periods in history: when Greek culture moved from primarily oral to primarily written transmission of knowledge, and when the printing press made it possible to widely disseminate information through multiple copies of the same text. In both cases, technological change changed society.

Birkert posits three fundamental changes to come. First, he fears what he calls "language erosion." He believes the dominance of the new media will simplify, shorten, and dull down the complexity and nuance of written speech. Fewer people will be able to deal with difficult texts and intellectual complexity.

Second, Birkert fears loss of historical perspective through the flattening of reality to an ever-present now. For instance, he writes:

We cannot see the role that television has assumed in our lives because there is no independent ledge where we might secure our footing. The medium has absorbed and eradicated the idea of a pre-television past; in place of what used to be, we get an ever-new and ever-renewable present.

Third, he worries that the private self will be subsumed into a collectivist culture, and we will lose the ability to maintain a distinct public and private self.

This essay was written more than twenty-five years ago, so we now have had a little more than a generation to measure Birkert's assertions. At the time he was writing, there was no World Wide Web as we understand it today, and the world was at the beginning of the personal computer revolution, with print media still highly dominant. Twenty-five years later, people may sense that the computer revolution, in particular, is changing social formations. It is up to readers to decide for themselves if the changes have fallen out as Birkert predicted.