On “the Mediated Realm”

I’ve said some of this before (or at least tangents to it) but I thought Sven Birkerts says it better. So I’m posting this short excerpt (on a blog, of course, with no small irony) from his collection of essays lamenting what he sees to be the dying experience of reading for pleasure and for deep interaction with the ideas of printed text, The Gutenberg Elegies: the Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (New York: Faber & Faber, 2006 [1994]). The link is also with no small irony, to Amazon.com. At least there’s no e-book though!

Anyway, here’s what he has to say about the electronic age and its characteristic mediation of reality:

“The culture-wide adoption of the home computer and the laptop intensified the process [of creating “an ever-thickening scrim between the self and what I think of as the primary world”], enlarging and complicating the mediated realm to the point where a huge part of our population now spends much of the day in front of an illuminated screen, occupied with images and floating bits of text, with people less and less able (or willing) to function at work or at home without their screens. But—and this is important—computers have not made their inroad in a vacuum. The transformation is a total phenomenon. This same time period has seen the extraordinary explosion of cellular telephoning (portable communication) and iPods (portable entertainment), not to mention sleek little devices like the Blackberry (portable wireless computing) and all manner of portable watching screens, telephone cameras, and so on. More and more of us have interposed an active and responsive mesh between the formerly isolated private self and the world. The implications of this are staggering.

“We are very quickly acquiescing ourselves into a reality unlike anything we’ve known before. We are replacing the so-called real with the virtual, substituting the image for the thing, moving about ever more in the zone of simulations. So often we contact not the real thing, but the likeness, the picture, the imitation. And we seem to like it this way.” (“Afterword to the 2006 Edition,” p. 236)

There’s more, of course.  But that kind of says a lot.

I can’t say that I agree with all of hte points and arguments he makes in his book; for example, he seems to wax nostalgic at times for some idealized form of pure reading, one which I might suspect only an extremely conscientious or well-trained reader would recognize.  However, the fact that he is raising these reservations and reflections makes his concerns worth our time.  His project is the opposite, it seems, of Wired magazine and other champions of an optimistic technological future, asking not that we stop progress, but that we think a little more about what we’re doing, not to mention what we’re buying (into).  I think we could always use more of that.

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1 comment so far

  1. madno on

    Good Article
    Keep up the good work
    really impressed


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