22 December 2009

Sven Birkerts doesn't own a cell phone.

Here's an interesting recent interview with the Sven Birkerts, notorious defender of the book-as-the-primary-carrier-of-high-culture and author of The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. While he's still "deeply invested in the idea that books represent something else besides the transmission of knowledge," he (reluctantly, sadly) admits to owning a few electronic gadgets. (But not a cell phone -- no, never a cell phone.)
Q: You wrote a book called “The Gutenberg Elegies” about digital culture and concluded it with a call to refuse it. I imagine you’re not in favor of digital culture.

The book was written right when the first great wave of electronic technology was rolling in. People on many fronts were very quickly turning against stodgy old print. I had an investment in print culture as a teacher, writer and bookseller. I began to wonder what we were so happily abandoning and jumping on board with. The resulting series of meditations raised a lot of questions and ended on a very skeptical note.

Some years later, the publisher wanted to do a new edition. Ten years had passed. In traditional time, 10 years is nothing. In terms of what we’re going through culturally, it’s an enormous time period.

Things had also changed for me. Since I had argued against the “salvation” offered by all that is digital, I had been identified as a Luddite. Many people imagined me living in a cabin with no electricity, making my own ink. But I live in the contemporary world, including as a writer. In order to carry on with my writing life, I had to make concessions. This book was written originally on a Selectric typewriter. When I wrote the introduction to the revised edition it was on a laptop.
He makes a few good points, although it continues to come as no surprise that someone who doesn't engage with new technologies fails to fully grasp the subtleties inherent in their various literacies and practices. Birkerts is still towing the old line about groupthink, majoritarianism and the decline of "deeper art" into "entertainment art", apparently missing the many niche forms of creativity that have flourished and indeed been sustained and revitalized online. (Would I know of any the experimental artists and poets I've come to love without UbuWeb?) In any case, the interview is an interesting place to revisit these old debates.

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