Near the conclusion of his 1991 essay “Into the Electronic Millennium,” Sven Birkerts makes a number of predictions. Some of these, one might argue, have already been realized. Among the predictions Birkerts makes are these:
- “The complexity and distinctiveness of verbal and written communication, which are deeply bound to traditions of print literacy, will gradually be replaced by a more telegraphic sort of ‘plainspeak.’” Certainly this prediction seems to have come true, particularly thanks to the arrival of such technological innovations as Twitter and texting. People often write these days without using entire words; symbols and/or abbreviations are often substituted for fully developed sentences.
- “Curricula will be streamlined and simplified, and difficult texts will be pruned and glossed.” It seems possible to at least argue that this change has also occurred. Some reports claim that curricula have indeed been “dumbed-down.” Whether or not this is actually true deserves to be investigated. In the field of Shakespeare studies, there are increasing numbers of “no-fear Shakespeare” projects, in which the original text is often placed side-by-side with modernized “translations.” This kind of change is also increasingly true, for instance, of the study of Middle English writings, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Canterbury Tales, although it is surely possible to exaggerate such changes. It would be interesting to know how often Moby-Dick is taught these days as part of high school curricula; it seems a safe assumption that it is taught less often now than in was forty or fifty years ago, but this is only an assumption.
- “Whatever exchange of ideas there may have been in our society will wither away, except of course among the echelons of the professional academic.” It seems possible to argue that precisely the opposite has happened – that more and more people now have free and very easy access to the world of ideas through the Internet than was the case in the past. Again, however, this is merely an assumption that needs to be researched and tested. (Almost any kind of research and testing, however, seems easier today than it would have been forty or fifty years ago, thanks to the instant access to enormous amounts of information that the Internet provides.)
- “The more we grow rooted in the consciousness of the now, the more will it seem utterly extraordinary that things were every any different.” Here again there seems reason for skepticism about Birkerts’ prediction. One might argue that thanks to the Internet, the past (like everything else) is instantly more accessible than it ever was in the age of printed books. In fact, thanks to technology such as Google Books, most of the books of the past are increasingly available to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Birkerts may have been too pessimistic in making this prediction, as perhaps also in making some others.