(A lecture presented at The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, November 12, 1996)
According to Plato (in Phaedrus) when Hermes, the alleged inventor of writing, presented his invention to the Pharaoh Thamus, he praised his new technique that was supposed to allow human beings to remember what they would otherwise forget. But the Pharaoh was not so satisfied. “My skillful Theut, he said, memory is a great gift that ought to be kept alive by training it continuously. With your invention people will not be obliged any longer to train memory. They will remember things not because of an internal effort, but by mere virtue of an external device.” We can understand the preoccupation of the Pharaoh. Writing, as any other new technological device, would have made torpid the human power which it substituted and reinforced – just as cars made us less able to walk. Writing was dangerous because it decreased the powers of mind by offering human beings a petrified soul, a caricature of mind, a mineral memory.
Plato’s text is ironical, naturally. Plato was writing his argument against writing. But he was pretending that his discourse was told by Socrates, who did not write (since he did not publish, he perished in the course of his academic fight.)
Nowadays, nobody shares these preoccupations, for two very simple reasons. First of all, we know that books are not ways of making somebody else think in our place; on the contrary they are machines that provoke further thoughts. Only after the invention of writing was it possible to write such a masterpiece on spontaneous memory as Proust’s La Recherche du Temps Perdu.
Secondly, if once upon a time people needed to train their memory in order to remember things, after the invention of writing they had also to train their memory in order to remember books. Books challenge and improve memory; they do not narcotize it. However, the Pharaoh was instantiating an eternal fear: the fear that a new technological achievement could abolish or destroy something that we consider precious, fruitful, something that represents for us a value in itself, and a deeply spiritual one. It was as if the Pharaoh pointed first to the written surface and then to an ideal image of human memory, saying: “This will kill that.” More than one thousand years later Victor Hugo in his Notre Dame de Paris, shows us a priest, Claude Frollo, pointing his finger first to a book, then to the towers and to the images of his beloved cathedral, and saying “ceci tuera cela”, this will kill that. (The book will kill the cathedral, alphabet will kill images). The story of Notre Dame de Paris takes place in the XVth century, a little later than the invention of printing. Before that, manuscripts were reserved to a restricted elite of literate persons, but the only means to teach the masses about the stories of the Bible, the life of Christ and of the Saints, the moral principles, even the deeds of the national history or the most elementary notions of geography and natural sciences (the nature of unknown peoples and the virtues of herbs or stones), was provided by the images of the cathedral. A medieval cathedral was a sort of permanent and unchangeable TV program that was supposed to tell people everything indispensable for their everyday lives as well as for their eternal salvation. The book would have distracted people from their most important values, encouraging unnecessary information, free interpretation of the Scriptures, insane curiosity.
During the sixties, Marshall McLuhan wrote his The Gutenberg Galaxy, where he announced that the linear way of thinking instaured by the invention of the press, was on the verge of being substituted by a more global way of perceiving and understanding through the TV images or other kinds of electronic devices. If not Mc Luhan, certainly many of his readers pointed their finger first to a Manhattan Discotheque and then to a printed book by saying “this will kill that.”
The media needed a certain time to accept the idea that our civilization was on the verge of becoming an image oriented one – which would have involved a decline of literacy. Nowadays this is a common shibboleth for every weekly magazine. What is curious is that the media started to celebrate the decline of literacy and the overwhelming power of images just at the moment in which, in the world scene, appeared the Computer.
Certainly a computer is an instrument by means of which one can produce and edit images, certainly instructions are provided by means of icons; but it is equally certain that the computer has become, first of all, an alphabetic instrument. On its screen there run words, lines, and in order to use a computer you must be able to write and to read. The new computer generation is trained to read at an incredible speed. An old-fashioned university professor is today incapable of reading a computer screen at the same speed as a teen-ager. These same teen-agers, if by chance they want to program their own home computer, must know, or learn, logical procedures and algorithms, and must type words and numbers on a keyboard, at a great speed.
In this sense one can say that the computer made us to return to a Gutenberg Galaxy. People who spend their night implementing an unending Internet conversation are principally dealing with words. If the TV screen can be considered a sort of ideal window through which one watches the whole world under the form of images, the computer screen is an ideal book on which one reads about the world in form of words and pages. The classical computer provided a linear sort of written communication. The screen was displaying written lines. It was like a fast-reading book. But now there are hypertexts. In a book one had to read from left to right (or right to left, or up to down, according to different cultures) in a linear way. One could obviously skip through the pages, one – once arrived at page 300 – could go back to check or re-read something at page 10 – but this implied a labor, I mean, a physical labor. On the contrary a hypertext is a multidimensional network in which every point or node can be potentially connected with any other node. Thus we have arrived at the final chapter of our this-will-kill-that story. It is more and more stated that in the near future hypertextual Cd-roms will replace books.
With a hypertextual diskette books are supposed to become obsolete. If you even consider that a hypertext is usually also multimedial, the complete hypertextual diskette will in the next future replace not only books but also videocassettes and many other supports. Now we must ask ourselves if such a perspective is a realistic one or is mere science-fiction – as well as if the distinction we have just outlined between visual and alphabetic communication, books and hypertexts is really that simple. Let me list a series of problems and possible perspectives for our future. Even after the invention of printing books have never been the only instrument for acquiring information. There were paintings, popular printed images, oral teaching, and so on. One can say that books were in any case the most important instrument for transmitting scientifical information, including news about historical events. In this sense they were the paramount instrument used in schools.
With the diffusion of the various mass media, from cinema to television, something has changed. Years ago the only way to learn a foreign language (outside of traveling abroad) was to study a language from a book. Now our kids frequently know other languages by listening to records, by watching movies in the original edition, by deciphering the instructions printed on a beverage can. The same happens with geographical information. In my childhood I got the best of my information about exotic countries not from textbooks but by reading adventure novels (Jules Verne, for instance). My kids very early knew more than me on the same subjects from watching TV and movies. One could learn very well the story of the Roman Empire through movies, provided that movies were historically correct. The fault of Hollywood is not to have opposed its movies to the books of Tacitus or of Gibbon, but rather to have imposed a pulp– and romance-like version on both Tacitus and Gibbon. A good educational tv program (not to speak of a CD-ROM) can explain genetics better than a book. Today the concept of literacy comprises many media. An enlightened policy of literacy must take into account the possibilities of all of these media. Educational preoccupation must be extended to the whole of media. Responsibilities and tasks must be carefully balanced. If for learning languages, tapes are better than books, take care of cassettes. If a presentation of Chopin, with commentary on compact disks, helps people to understand Chopin, don’t worry if people do not buy five volumes of the history of music. Even if it were true that today visual communication overwhelms written communication, the problem is not to oppose written to visual communication. The problem is how to improve both. In the Middle Ages visual communication was, for the masses, more important than writing. But Chartres Cathedral was not culturally inferior to the Imago Mundi of Honorius of Autun. Cathedrals were the TV of those times, and the difference from our TV was that the directors of the medieval TV –read: good books– had a lot of imagination, and worked for the public profit (or, at least, for what they believed to be public profit). The real problems lay elsewhere. Visual communication has to be balanced with the verbal one, and mainly with the written one for a precise reason. Once, a semiotician, Sol Worth, wrote a paper, “Images cannot say Ain’t”. I can verbally say “Unicorns do not exist” but if I show the image of a unicorn the unicorn is there. Moreover, is the unicorn I see a unicorn or the unicorn, that is, does it stand for a given unicorn or for the unicorns in general? This problem is not as immaterial as it can seem, and many many pages have been written by logicians and semioticians on the difference between such expressions as a child, the child, this child, all children, childhood as a general idea. Such distinctions are not so easy to display through images. Nelson Goodman in his Languages of Art wondered if a picture representing a woman is the representation of Women in general, the portrait of a given woman, the example of the general characteristics of a woman, the equivalent of the statement there is a woman looking at me. One can say that in a poster or on an illustrated book, the caption or other forms of written material can help to understand what the image means. But I want to remind you about a rhetorical device called example, on which Aristotle spent some interesting pages. In order to convince somebody about a given matter, the most convincing is a proof by induction. In induction I provide many cases and then I infer that probably they instantiate a general law. Suppose I want to demonstrate that dogs are friendly and love their masters: I provided many cases in which a dog has proved to be friendly and helpful and I suggest that there must be a general law by which every animal belonging to the species of dogs is friendly. Suppose now I want to persuade you that dogs are dangerous. I can do this by providing you with an example: “Once, a dog killed its master…” As you easily understand, a single case does not prove anything, but if the example is shocking I can surreptitiously suggest that dogs can even be unfriendly, and once you are convinced that it can be so, I can unduly extrapolate a law from a single case and conclude: “this means that dogs cannot be trusted.” With the rhetorical use of the example I shift from a dog to all dogs. If you have a critical mind you can realize that I have manipulated a verbal expression (a dog was bad) so to transform it into another one (all dogs are bad) which does not mean the same thing. But if the example is a visual rather than a verbal one, the critical reaction is made more difficult. If I show you the poignant image of a given dog biting its master it is very difficult to discriminate between a particular and a general statement. It is easy to take that dog as the representative of its species. Images have, so to speak, a sort of Platonic power: they transform individuals into general ideas. Thus by a purely visual communication and education it is easier to implement persuasive strategies that reduce our critical power. If I read on a newspaper that a given man said “we want mister X as president” I am aware that I was given the opinion of a given man. But if I watch on the TV screen a man saying enthusiastically “we want mister X as president” it is easier to take the will of that individual as the example of the general will.