Rhizo14 week 4 – Questioning Books and Stupidity

My first thought when I heard Dave’s question, “Is books making us stupid?”, was that that construction (‘singular’ verb with non-pronoun plural subject) is used in Celtic languages like Welsh and Cornish.  In labeling things right or wrong, perspective matters.

Many years ago, when I took Intro to Broadcasting, I remember the professor, whose given names were Herbert Hoover , to give you a sense of his perspective, telling us that broadcast journalists were the beneficiaries of “status conferral function”, the belief among the masses that anyone who managed to get on TV in those days of three networks and PBS, knew what they were talking about.  Dave suggests that books have some of the same presumption of authority as broadcasters did,  Perhaps this is related to the fact that for the first several decades of western printing, the only printed book most people saw was a Bible.  If you wanted to make a conscious/subconscious link between print and authority in the early modern era, you could hardly pick a better title.

Before we’re too harsh on books, we should consider the alternative, oral transmission.  Technological optimists are quick to point out that there is now digitization, but as this graph from Yale’s Paul Conway points out, density of data storage and media lifespan don’t necessarily go together,

Media Density and Lifespan from Conway, Paul “Preservation in the Digital World”

Oral transmission has some notable successes, Beowulf, the Iliad and many other epics, along with huge folk song repertoires, were transmitted orally for centuries before being put into writing.  There are also some notable failures.  Languages like Cornish and Wampanoag are now being reconstructed from text sources because at some point oral transmission failed. We have the Epic of Gilgamesh, not because of thousands of years of oral transmission, but because it was preserved on clay tablets.

Even books that were once authoritative and are no longer so are useful.  My Bib and Methods professor in graduate school pointed out that old books like “out of date” encyclopedias can show us what was considered conventional wisdom in the past, and help us understand how knowledge and beliefs have changed.

Although many have predicted that the Internet will bring the end of the printed book, I wonder if it might help us gain a more balanced view of text.  The Internet age, when anyone can publish anything, is forcing us to be more skeptical of text in general. To the extent that that skepticism and need to verify things ourselves extends to texts printed on paper, we may start to escape the real problem with books, which is that they tend to make us unquestioning. Thus, whether the answer to Dave’s question is yes or no depends on whether you take being unquestioning as prima facie evidence of stupidity, although I imagine that wouldn’t have been nearly as catchy a title.


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