People of the screen

“When technology shifts, it bends the culture,” observes Wired writer Kevin Kelly in a long, thinky piece in the New York Times Magazine’s Idea Lab section. Journalism was one of the results when orality, with its “reverence for the past, the ambiguous, the ornate and the subjective” gave way to printing technology some 500 years ago, he says, and adds:

“The distribution-and-display device that we call printing instilled in society a reverence for precision (of black ink on white paper), an appreciation for linear logic (in a sentence), a passion for objectivity (of printed fact) and an allegiance to authority (via authors), whose truth was as fixed and final as a book….”

Now we’re in the midst of another shift, toward a new kind of literacy, says Kelly:

“We are becoming people of the screen. The fluid and fleeting symbols on a screen pull us away from the classical notions of monumental authors and authority. On the screen, the subjective again trumps the objective. The past is a rush of data streams cut and rearranged into a new mashup, while truth is something you assemble yourself on your own screen as you jump from link to link. We are now in the middle of a second Gutenberg shift — from book fluency to screen fluency, from literacy to visuality.

Kelly’s essay is not directly concerned with the implication of the new literacy on journalism; he does not directly discuss the impact of the new technologies and mass-participation in media on authority and objectivity — and he does not explore whether such new media lends itself mostly to post-modern relativism. Those are questions for journalists, I’d say — journalists who care about having jobs in the future.