Alas, my “Pre-Post-Future Phallomimetic Standard of Credibility” doesn’t seem to be catching on. Witness the continued resistance of Douglas Rushkoff, author of Life, Inc. to it here.* Seems he recently gave a talk called “Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for the Digital Age” for the SXSW lecture series, which means that people
continue to pay him to still think it’s worth their time to gather round and listen to him† provide wisdom such as this (a direct quote):
[These] are the stages that our civilization has moved through in successive stages of media. We went from people who just lived in a world that had rules that we don’t even know what they are. Maybe it’s going to rain, maybe it’s not. Maybe if I sacrifice my kid to Moloch I’ll get some plants this year, maybe I won’t–people just randomly trying to find some predictability. Then we get texts. We get the 22-letter alphabet. So now instead of relying on priests to read everything for us and hieroglyphs now we can make our own words. Then we get the printing press which in theory lets us instead of depending on a few scribes now anyone can write. And then we get the computer which of course means now anyone can program reality.
And then a little bit later, he sums up with this provocative question.
Text gave us Judaism. The printing press gave us Protestantism. What does this one [programming? computers?] give us?
Presumably, this is the sort of work for which he won the first Neil Postman award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity.‡
So according to this award-winning writer, public intellectual, and frequent NPR contributor, the main virtues of the alphabet were that it finally allowed us to read for ourselves instead of having the priests read everything to us and that it allowed us to make our own words.*** Then came the printing press which freed us from the tyranny of that secretive cabal of scribes**** who kept people from writing for themselves. The final development, that computers were invented and now let us program reality, is surely a mistake of the moment–he was speaking off the cuff, without notes, it seems–but since the non-mistaken parts of his speech are so nonsensical, I can’t really speculate as to what he meant to say there. (But computers are awesome, I think we can all agree there.)
There’s so much crazy here that I don’t really know where to begin. Perhaps I’ll just point out that Judaism had been around for a long time before the Hebrew alphabet and that most of the intellectual heavy lifting in the Protestant Reformation was done years earlier by the humanists, many of whom were scribes by trade and lived well before the printing press*****–but that’s all minor quibbling.
But still, I do wonder why it is that scribes have such a terrible reputation these days. Rushkoff is not the only person who uses references to medieval scribes to indicate the terrible state of human affairs pre-printing press or the only person to treat the printing press like a divine miracle that elevated mankind in one brilliant flash.
The printing press didn’t come into being ex nihilo. Gutenberg was an entrepreneur (one who needed to make a quick buck to pay back some investors whose money he’d managed to lose in an ill-advised saints relic scam). He invented the printing press (or, possibly, stole the idea from someone else) in order to satisfy the already-existing demand for books, a demand that had until that point been met by the work of scribes. Without legions of scribes toiling diligently to produce books for people to read, there would’ve been no market for Gutenberg’s great invention. Why would anyone be interested in a device to make texts cheaper and quicker if they weren’t already interested in texts to begin with?
We should be celebrating those anonymous scribes. It was because of their work, not in spite of it, that the modern world was made.
† My mistake corrected 4/1/10. SXSW paid Rushkoff no money for his talk.[RETURN]
‡ Do I toss in this reference to Rushkoff’s award because I’m jealous? Hell yes. When people refer to my blog, they say things like, “You know, that place run by that crank who stares at monkeys’ asses all day.” I desperately want them to be forced to say, “You know, that award-winning web magazine run by that well-known public intellectual who stares at monkeys’ asses all day.”[RETURN]”
*Why do I link BoingBoing so often? Am I hoping to start a whispering campaign to get myself a week of guest editorship over there? Surely not!** Still, I was pretty pleased to see that when Xeni Jardin finally got around to posting a link to the Wansink Last Supper study, the first three comments by the BoingBoingkateers were direct references to my little takedown piece.
**But wait–maybe this is a rhetorical use of false modesty!
***I’ll bet the first new word invented was “alphabetastic,” coined in that first moment of euphoria when the masses realized their newfound freedom.
****Most people don’t realize it, but S.C.R.I.B.E. is actually an acronym for Society of Cruel Religious Ingrates Bent on Evildoing.
*****Indeed, it was probably because the humanists were so intimately familiar with scribal activity that they put such an emphasis on direct interaction with holy texts and were so concerned by the problem of having Official Interpretations handed down to them by corrupt hierarchies. If anything, they wanted more people to be scribes.