Word Wars


Back in 1985, the communications theorist Neil Postman announced that intellectual life was coming to an end. George Orwell's dystopian vision was wrong, Postman argued in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, but Aldous Huxley's was 20/20: "What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one." Why so? Because, as Postman interpreted Huxley, people will come to "adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think."

Well, we're nearly 15 years into Postman's brave new world, and there are more techno-distractions around than ever. Yet according to The New York Times, people are reading more than they did when Postman wrote.

Why was Postman's own vision so myopic? Because he committed the original sin of the Western intelligentsia: He condemned technology as a threat to culture.

In fact, technology is a conduit for culture, because it is a tool for expression and self-definition. Older forms of expression are not displaced by new ones; they are redefined and usually amplified by them. Nothing so clearly illustrates that essential fact as do the recent, computer-driven advances in the dissemination of the written word: "publishing," a term whose meaning is taking on new dimensions of simultaneity and community.

These developments appear to have impressed Postman and his many fellow pessimists. Their once-lively "end of literacy" debate is now a dead letter, as it were. That debate climaxed five years ago, when critic Sven Birkerts bid a sad farewell to the book in his popular Gutenberg Elegies. Yet just as he was burying print (and with it humanism and individualism), book superstores were sweeping the country, and Internet access to every book on Earth was beginning. The new target of professional dyspeptics has become the consolidation of the book industry, a concern that actually presupposes the vitality of literacy and the importance of publishing.

Large publishers have indeed been consolidating, but that is because technology and changes in retailing have been a boon to small houses at the expense of the old dinosaurs. As Nick Gillespie points out (see chart 4), the selection of books available to readers is vastly greater than it has ever been, and it continues to grow.

The course of publishing may have taken Postman, Birkerts, and other pessimists by surprise, but their own views would have shocked self-appointed cultural stewards of the past. From the rise of the popular book in the late 18th century until the advent of TV, the concern of the intelligentsia was not that too few people were reading too few books. It was that too many people had learned how to read, books had become too affordable, and a mass reading public with bad taste was destroying the quality of cultural life.

English professor Patrick Brantlinger has just published The Reading Lesson, a valuable study of 19th-century elitist attitudes toward the "threat" posed by mass literacy. As Brantlinger reminds us, the reading of popular Victorian novels was viewed as "vampiric" and "addictive." Too much reading was an impediment to living; books and the fantasies they inspired ill-prepared their readers for real life. Some utopians posited happy, "unbooked" futures where people wouldn't waste their time reading at all.

The most extreme such statement in this century was made by the German Marxist critic Walter Benjamin, who complained in 1936 that mechanical reproduction robbed a work of its singular, quasi-religious "aura" and removed art from tradition. In fact, mechanical reproduction–including publishing's many incarnations–has created whole new "traditions" for art to occupy.

Publishing is technology. It was technology when a scribe pressed cuneiform wedges into prepared clay, and it was perceived (by Plato) as a threat even in antiquity. Indeed, it is a threat, though not to society, creativity, or the individual. It's a threat to the closed class of cultural stewards, who correctly perceive that every publishing advance undermines their power.

"In Usenet," cyberculture writer Howard Rheingold has written, "every member of the audience is also potentially a publisher." Publishing now implies a many-to-many relationship: many reader/publishers addressing many other reader/publishers. For philosopher Manuel De Landa, such technology is serving humanism, because it is obviously a catalyst for community.

Yet last December, a linguistics professor named John L. Locke issued an apocalyptic warning. In his book, Awash in All These Words, Locke claimed that e-mail is making us inarticulate, and worse. "Our social voices are slipping away," he lamented, "leaving people in social isolation." Bad news indeed: The world is ending. Again.

Charles Paul Freund ( is a REASON senior editor.