Technology had a significant impact on various aspects of our daily lives. The primary text is an article by Sven Birkerts, which was written in 1994 to discuss contemporary technological developments, particularly the transfer of information into electronic form. The article conveys the author’s concerns with regard to technology; it is evident from the piece that Birkerts is upset about the increasing popularity of electronic forms of information.
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The article provides valuable insight into the ways that technological progress has shaped the world in which we live today, but there are some gaps in the ideas presented by Birkerts. Hence, exploring the content of the article and comparing it to other works on the topic would help to evaluate the subject comprehensively while introducing multiple perspectives.
The main idea presented in the text is that the advancement of technology entails a significant cultural change that will have substantial negative consequences. For Birkerts, the most important outcome is the shift from print books to electronic forms of information sharing. Based on the text, it seems that print books have significant personal value to the author. On the first page, Birkerts explains that he felt the cultural shift approach while working as a co-manager in a rare book shop (54).
The author remembers a time when computers were starting to become popular, and many people sought to sell their libraries in order to get electronic. The author claims, “the selling off of books was sometimes done for financial reasons, but the need to burn bridges was usually there as well” (Birkerts 55). From the author’s perspective, the shift towards electronic communication signified a significant decrease in the value of printed books.
The article expresses Birkerts’ bitterness towards this trend, and it is not surprising that for him, the development of electronic means of information sharing is a primarily negative change. Many people, especially those who are invested in literature and other forms of art, value print books more than their electronic counterparts. To this day, people enjoy the feel of a printed book, the smell of it bringing positive images to their minds. Rare, antique books are even more valuable due to their history.
They are unique because they were read by people of various generations. There is also another way in which printed books connect us to history. Since the development of written language, people have shared stories through written text. The means by which stories and works of literature were shared developed gradually. First, the paper was invented and popularised, allowing people to write larger volumes of text. Later, printing technologies developed, allowing people to put ink on pages using machines. Although these developments affected the production of written text, they did not change the medium as a whole. In fact, they made books available for the broad population, thus supporting the development of literature as a whole.
In this context, the shift towards electronic communication is not merely a change of technology, but a change in medium. Electronic books are different not only in terms of how they are produced but also in the ways that people read them. Since almost everyone owns a smartphone now, electronic books are usually read on the go, during lunch, or even while watching TV. This alters the ‘ritual’ of reading, turning it from a personal and somewhat sacred experience into an activity that is secondary to other commitments.
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In the article, the author pays particular attention to discussing how the metaphysical arrangement of printed books impacts the way we receive information. For example, Birkerts notes that the books are arranged in a linear, layered manner, which is “in accord with our traditional sense of history” (58). Books are meant to be read from cover to cover, thus sharing the entirety of information embedded in them with the reader.
In electronic publications, people can perform a search to find a particular quote or concept that they are interested in, disregarding the rest of the book or merely skimming through it. Electronic sources of information other than books are usually simplified to ensure ease of reading. For instance, many online articles use bullet points, e-mails tend to be short and to the point, and reports present information using graphs, charts, and images. Birkerts comments on this development, noting that “impression and image take precedence over logic and concept, and detail and linear sequentiality are sacrificed” (58). Indeed, obtaining information from electronic sources has become much easier.
The consequences of the cultural shift discussed by the author are drastic. Birkerts asserts that the modes of communication we use impact our way of living, and thus the change in the mechanism of information sharing will undoubtedly affect other aspects of people’s lives (56-57). First of all, the author claims that the rise of electronic means of communication will be associated with the gradual erosion of language and arts. According to Birkerts, “language will grow increasingly impoverished”, primarily because efficiency and ease of information sharing are preferred over the form (62). Arts and literature, in particular, are bound to meet the same fate, as fewer people will become interested in their complexity and deep, metaphorical meaning (Birkerts 59).
Secondly, the author also fears that the shift will affect personal identity by deteriorating the private self. Birkerts notes that the interconnectedness developed through electronic communication will result in “social collectivization that will over time all but vanquish the ideal of the isolated individual” (63). Both processes are apparent in contemporary society, as we communicate with more people than ever before using simple, effective means of information sharing.
Lastly, an essential consequence of the shift discussed in the article is the deterioration of education in its traditional meaning. Birkerts shows that the fast-paced environment had already impacted the way we read and learned texts in the 1990s: “A poem by Milton, a play by Shakespeare – one can hardly find the text among the explanatory notes nowadays” (62). Furthermore, the development of the Internet also means the growing number of free, accessible sources of information that are presented. Students no longer have to read Shakespeare’s plays or Milton’s poems at all to pass their exams – instead, they can read Sparknotes or brief summaries. For Birkerts, this is a significant adverse change since it affects young people’s ability to appreciate the form of the written text and grasp the author’s intended meaning.
Overall, the text provides a detailed, logical description of the negative effects that the shift towards electronic communication entails for our society. Still, what the author does not explore is the reason why this shift is occurring at all. The aforementioned examples of technological development, including paper production and printing, brought about positive change, making information available to more people. In a similar manner, the shift towards electronic communication would have never occurred if it did not benefit the overall development of society.
By focusing on the deterioration of the print, Brickerts does not consider the positive aspects of the change. This is a significant gap and, to evaluate the issue thoroughly, it is essential to examine the positive effects of technological development on the same aspects of life mentioned by Brickerts, including education, language, and the arts.
The secondary resources considered in the paper focus primarily on the benefits of technology for education, language, and the arts. The information shared in these articles allows filling the gaps evident in Brickert’s article and showing whether or not the influence of electronic communication is as drastic as portrayed in the primary text. The exploration of the materials will shed light on the topic and offer a way of explaining what ‘the electronic millennium’ means for us in greater depth.
The first article is an opinion piece from The New York Times, which considers the effect of technological development on storytelling. Written by a book author, the essay examines the consequences of the change in the format discussed in the primary source. Harrow explains that technological changes, despite resulting in the deterioration of printed literature, could have a significant positive effect on storytelling because they enable people to experience narratives instead of reading them. The shift in the format, according to the author, would not curb people’s thirst for knowledge and entertainment, and thus new technology would leverage storytelling rather than killing it.
Harrow writes, “Stories are shape-shifters, infinite and immortal: they’ve been painted on the walls of Chauvet Cave and pressed into clay tablets; sung by griots in the streets of Old Mali and cut into the Peruvian desert; danced and drummed and whispered, spun like spider-silk across the Atlantic and painted on the undersides of overpasses”. This claim can be extended to other forms of art since the need for creative expression is in our nature. People have created sculptures and pictures since prehistoric times; with the development of technology, arts will evolve further instead of becoming irrelevant.
Birkerts’ claims regarding language erosion are, perhaps, some of the most concerning aspects of the article. Various experts in linguistics have considered the possibility of language deterioration due to the emergence of electronic communication formats. In his article, Paul Parry examines the effects of technology on the English language as a whole, offering some insights with respect to potential future developments. The author confirms that the introduction of electronic means of communication had an effect on the English language and its use. However, according to Parry, the result was not language erosion, but language enrichment.
The author shows that the lack of eloquent expressions in text messages and e-mails is mainly due to the new, specific conventions related to these communication channels. Parry mentions that the traditional English language remained intact; it is still used in contemporary literature and informal writing. Language remained the primary means of expression for most people, and thus poetry and literature continue to thrive despite the emergence of social media and smartphones. By continuing to express themselves through language, people will most likely prevent the erosion of language and preserve the linguistic tradition with minimal changes.
With regard to education, the technological shift brought about at the end of the 19th century also had significant positive effects on people from all over the globe. An article by McCoy focuses on the positive impact of technology on education, thus filling the gaps apparent in Birkerts’ article and offering a more well-rounded perspective on the changes. The authors note that the development of the Internet and electronic communication provided opportunities for global learning, allowing people from different parts of the world to exchange knowledge, experience, and information (McCoy).
This offered universal access to knowledge, thus enabling people to solve problems and learn collaboratively and in a diverse socio-cultural context. Additionally, technological development gave rise to new educational formats, including webinars, games, and simulators (McCoy). While the simplification of the learning process is something that Birkerts appears to oppose, it made learning more efficient and continuous. For example, adults who work full-time can still learn new information through webinars. People from other countries can complete courses in Ivy League universities, famous for their competent and engaging teaching. Hence, free, technology had a positive influence on economic, social, and cultural development through increased access to knowledge and education.
On the whole, the information gathered from all four sources allowed exploring the topic of technological progress and its influences in great depth. The article by Birkerts is an excellent source despite the identified gaps in it. The source’s value, however, lies not in the explanation of possible adverse effects of technology, but in the discussion of its impact on our lives as a whole. Birkerts is correct in his account of the cultural shift caused by technology.
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This shift is evident 25 years after the publication of the article in all aspects of our lives. Our daily communication is more efficient, we learn more in a shorter amount of time, and we get information from more sources than ever before. Nevertheless, as shown by the secondary sources, these changes have more positive value than risks. Harrow, Parry, and McCoy explore the beneficial influence of technology on literature, arts, language, and education.
From these articles, it is evident that technology does not seek to replace what we have now; instead, it aims to provide new opportunities that can change our lives for the better. Comparing and contrasting the information from different resources was essential for understanding the value of each article while also investigating the topic from multiple perspectives.
Birkerts, Sven. “Into the Electronic Millennium.” The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, edited by Sven Birkerts, Faber & Faber, 1994, pp. 54-64.
Harrow, Alix E. “It’s 2039, and Your Beloved Books Are Dead.” The New York Times. 2019. Web.
McCoy, William. “Five Positive Effects of Technology on Education.” Chron Small Business. 2019. Web.
Parry, Paul. “The Impact of Technology on the English Language.” English Language Expert. 2010. Web.