Books Without Batteries:The Negative Impacts of Technology

Why e-readers are bad for our forests, and our brains (a provocative little essay by Bill Henderson)
Books Without Batteries:The Negative Impacts of Technology

It's all true. It's also almost entirely irrelevant. Every new technology has negative impacts, beginning (if we restrict ourselves to literary matters) with the invention of writing and reading. People stopped having to learn the great poems by memory, and the very practice of writing (and of reading) rewired our brains, creating many more connections between the right and left hemispheres, with — among other effects — the loss of the voice of the gods.

At least, if you accept Julian Jaynes' argument, which I still find powerfully plausible: The ancients, according to Jaynes, including the Greeks before Homer, Moses, and all peoples before literacy would hear the voices in their right brain hemisphere as though they were coming from somewhere else. And since the voice telling him or her what to do was the remembered voice of the tribal leader or patriarch or sachem, its timbre carried great authority. And since the source was invisible, it could only be the voice of God. Some god or other, anyway. The loss of that direct communication with the gods was seen as an enormous tragedy in the societies that had only recently been corrupted by literacy.

That wasn't all. We went along for millennia with some people with re-wired, literate brains and most without, some people hearing spooks and others unable to except under extraordinary pressure (fasting, self-flagellation, opium-smoking, or some other practice to shut off those right brain-left brain communications). But then Gutenberg and his colleagues and successors made literacy available to almost everybody, with another unintended negative consequence: Widespread use of the written word now created new "imagined communities" of people who could read the same language! Thus people who had hitherto been unacquainted with one another and had nothing in common but the ability to read the same language began thinking of themselves as a "nation" and felt themselves apart from those who spoke and read some other language. And we all know what followed: the Napoleonic wars, world wars I and II, the partition of India, etc. etc. We're still paying the price for that kind of literacy.

And now e-readers, again rewiring our brains and pulping our environment. And like those technological revolutions of the past, they are unstoppable; we're just going to have to deal with them. And maybe there can be some positive effects, too, if we just know how to look for them. After all, there are still people who argue that literacy was a good idea. And that printing on paper had advantages over clay tablets. I'm not so sure — a lot of us still miss hearing those voices of the gods.

Click here for more Jaynes and his book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It's worth reading.

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