Rushkoff and the Tyranny of the Medieval Scribe

St. John (depicted as a scribe) from Bodleian Library MS Auct. D. 1.17

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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • James Bridle

    Thank you for articulating the misgivings I was having about Rushkoff.

    While I'm not a Medievalist, I do do a lot of stuff about books, and a friend recently asked me if it was Gutenberg or something else which "democratised" books and made that particularly technology (the printed book) take off. And my answer was it was religion – at least, the debates and wars, real and philosophical, over religion – that made the printed book take off: Gutenberg was just in the right place and the right time to serve an extant human and social need. (I was reading Christopher Hill's 'The World Turned Upside Down' at the time, so possibly a fairly Marxist take on it.)

    I think that's a bit like what you're saying. I think.

  • Sigivald

    Sadly, Boing Boing is mostly stupid.

    The comments are almost entirely stupid, even worse.

    (Perhaps the opposite of Slashdot, where the posts are usually stupid, and corrected by the higher-moderated comments.)

    (And I not only remember when, but possess a copy of one of the print issues of bOING bOING, that I purchased at the time of printing.

    It wasn't too much better then, but at least they couldn't link-troll and there were no comments.)

  • Jenn

    I link to Boing-Boing all the time too. Others as well. I've even started linking to yours. Hm, is that why they call it the "web?" Oh, and what "religion" does my computer use open me up to?

  • Got Medieval

    Probably Pastafarianism.

  • Harry Campbell

    I think Umberto Eco would have said that depended whether your computer was a Mac or a PC. Bit dated now but here it is:

  • Douglas

    You've got to learn not to connect the dots with your own assumptions about the "tyranny of medieval scribes."

    I know you have an agenda – and it may be a really great one – but your efforts to use me to promote it just don't work. If you want a free book, I can send you one. Then you'd see how much you actually agree with me.

    But the references to awards I've won – as if it justifies your rage – is just unbecoming an unproductive. Unless you just see me as so low that I'm not worthy of consideration. But then why pay attention at all.

    Finally, SXSW was a free talk. I got there, put myself up, and spoke at my own expense.

  • Got Medieval

    @Douglas: You're right. I did make a bad assumption when I said you'd been paid for the conference. I apologize for that.

    But if we move past my ad hominem to the meat of my claims, I'm still at a loss to understand you. You say I've done you a further disservice by muddying your view with my own poor assumptions. So what are those poor assumptions? And what should I be assuming instead?

    The problem for me remains: for any of your various explanations of the transformative power of new media to work, you seem to need a villain. The priests, scribes, and other pre-printing press text workers provide that.

    But as I said above and the last time I wrote about your views you have to do violence to the past in order to get your villain. You have to collapse the nuance and complexity of the world pre-Gutenberg into an easily-dismissed caricature.

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