Gertrude Himmelfarb is grateful for computers and CD-Roms, but fears the impact of the cyberspace revolution on the life of the mind. This is an edited extractby Gertrude Himmelfarb / December 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
The chronicle of higher education
1st November 1996
On the subject of our latest technological revolution, cyberspace, I am a neo-Luddite. Not a true Luddite; my Luddism is qualified, compromised. I revel in the word-processor; I am grateful for computerised library catalogues; I appreciate the convenience of CD-Roms; and I concede the usefulness of the internet for retrieving information and conducting research. But I am disturbed by some aspects of the new technology-not merely by the much-discussed moral problems raised by cybersex, but also by the new technology’s impact on learning and scholarship.
Revolutions come fast and furious these days. No sooner do we adapt to one than we are confronted with another. For almost 500 years, we lived with the product of the print revolution-the culture of the book. Then, a 100 years ago, we were introduced to the motion picture; a couple of decades later, to radio and then to television. To a true Luddite, those inventions were the beginning of the rot, the decline of western civilisation as we have known it. To a true revolutionary, such as Marshall McLuhan, they were giant steps toward a brave new world liberated from the stultifying rigidities of an obsolete literacy. To the rest of us, they were frivolities, diversions, often meretricious, but not threatening the life of the mind, the culture associated with books.
For all of its ambiguities, printing celebrated the culture of the book-of bad books, to be sure, but also of good books and great books. Movies, radio and television made the first inroads on the book, not only because they distracted us from reading, but also because they began to train our minds to respond to aural and visual sensations of brief duration rather than to the cadences, nuances and lingering echoes of the written word. The movie critic Michael Medved has said that even more detrimental than the content of television is the way that it habituates children to an attention span measured in seconds rather than minutes. Sound bites and visual effects shape the young mind, incapacitating it for the less febrile tempo of the book.
And now we have the internet to stimulate and quicken our senses still more. We channel-surf on television, but that is as naught compared with cyber-surfing. The obvious advantage of the new medium is that it provides access to an infinite quantity of information on an…