After a lecture series, I had a “drink” online with my students where I asked them about their use of digital media. To my surprise, some of them said they don’t use it anymore. Some students intentionally do not have a smartphone. One of the students said she had stopped posting on online platforms. In good faith, she once shared a message about what seemed to her to be a good thing. The fact that she was later accused of everything in the reactions made her unsure if she could say anything good at all.
It makes one wonder if “digital natives” are turning away from these means of communication. Of course, all kinds of dark sides of digital media have already appeared in recent years, from filter bubbles to manipulation and addiction. But the specific topic of our conversation was what happens to the word in our time.
During college we had the article Human Garden Rules By Peter Sloterdijk, the text of a number of sentences about genetic engineering caused tremendous controversy when it appeared.
However, the gist of the text is the significance of the book and how it made us more human. Humanism, he says, is even “connections that build friends through the medium of writing”. In book form, the word creates friendships across time and space. Books are letters from distant friends.
According to Sloterdijk, in Roman times the book was standing opposite the amphitheater. While the book tamed man, making man more civilized and more humane, the runway deprived man of battle scenes and unbridled scenes. The Inner Man of the Book vs. the Wild Man in the Runway.
The books we read in schools and universities contribute to the formation of the inner man. Even in the digital classroom, reading pulls my students and I away from the everyday world. The book creates an inner world in which we can enter into a conversation with the author of the text through attention and empathy. This is an inner world of dialogue, a place of doubt, search and play with ideas that we do not allow in the everyday world. The premise of the good reader is that he does not have a monopoly on the truth yet.
What is happening now to the word and the inner man on digital media?
At first glance, there seems to be more room for it. After all, don’t we read each other’s messages all the time so we can’t make more distant friends?
But it is not that simple. Where book directs us inward, digital media directs us outward. While the cover of the book marks the beginning and end of the journey, the texts over the Internet overlap.
Waiting for a response to a message allows for an immediate response. This is not just a quickening of the pace. Something in the nature of the word also changes in this way. The inner world of a book comes under pressure when the distance between writers and readers shrinks. Without an interior space, the internal dialogue gives way to an unlimited flow of all kinds of distant sounds.
Media philosopher Marshall McLuhan once argued that electronic media takes us back to the rumors, gossip, and uproar that prevailed in the former village community. This is the meaning of the famous term “global village”. Much less fun than is often suggested.
So, if digital media isn’t the successor to the book, is it likely to be the successor to the runway? Instead of slowing us down and making us more human, could they actually make us more brutal? Doesn’t it sound more like shouting in the yard than exchanging messages?
Suspicion and empathy give way to difficult opinions and the narrow line between good and evil. Expression is everywhere, but there is no room for forming an opinion.
We are not online readers, but spectators. In the digital runway, people don’t express their opinions, they cry.
So this is no longer a world of the word, but a world of the eye. The eye is outwardly looking for an uproar and scandal. Communication changes from correspondence to showing yourself.
Perhaps this thinking about digital media is too radical. But this is the space in the book that invites us to play with the minds of others. I hope the space will be preserved for my students.
Aaron Sheikh He is a philosopher belonging to WRR and VU. Maxim February is absent this week.
A version of this article also appeared in the NRC newspaper on the morning of August 10, 2021
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