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Summary: Sven Birkerts’ “Into the Electronic Millennium”

Published almost 20 years ago, Sven Birkerts’ text on new media formats seems very dated. In an almost Luddite lament over the changes and consequences new technology (TV, fax machines and computers) will bring to society, Birkerts’ work truly functions as an “elegy”. For Birkerts, the change which new media formats will bring is the slow death of the printed word, and the consequences, he argues, will be dire. Just as oral culture was replaced by the written word, Birkerts argues, and as Gutenberg’s “movable type” revolutionized writing technology, the societal effects of the transition into electronic media will be overwhelming. His text functions not only as an elegy, but also a medium for convincing potential skeptics that this change is in fact a reality. The already visible “morbid symptoms” include:

1) Language erosion – This is a consequence of the decline of the American educational system, which partly owes its demise to the inclusion of new media formats such as “commercially sponsored education packages” into the curriculum (124). According to Birkerts, this will cause “the complexity and distinctiveness of spoken and written expression, which are deeply bound to traditions of print literacy” to be “gradually be replaced by a more telegraphic sort of “plainspeak” (128).

2) Flattening of historical perspectives – Our sense of the past, Birkerts claims, “is in some essential way represented by the book and the physical accumulation of books in library spaces” (129). Since electronic communications “involve us in network processes” thereby planting us “in a perpetual present”, our perception of history, Birkerts argues, will lose depth and dimensionality (129).

3) The waning of the private self – According to Birkerts, participation in electronic media and especially the increased “availability” the on-line “circuit” demands will eventually “vanquish the ideal of the isolated individual” (130). Even more so, he argues that we have entered “a process of social collectivization” or “social totalism”. In effect, his theory is not far from suggesting society is headed for “computer communism”.

Although the first two of Birkerts’ predicted consequences are highly problematic, and some might argue, disproven, the loss of privacy continues to be a much discussed issue. Birkerts raises a few valid concerns; however, the main flaw of this text is the refusal to consider the benefits of new media formats and to critically examine the ways in which “the change” could be positive.

Works Cited

Birkerts, Sven. “Into the Electronic Millennium”. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. New York: Ballantine. 1994. Print.

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