THE TRAGEDY OF THE BOOKS: Horizontal Knowledge Transmission and the Digital Literacy Transformation of Human Cultural Systems


My life has been defined by books, and now as I approach my senior years I find books no longer serving the main purpose or values (of print-literacy, knowledge storage and transmission) that they did sixty years ago. Well can I call myself a bibliophile ever since I was a young child. A trip to the local public library to browse the shelves and borrow some interesting titles was the major event of my week, far more fulfilling than an evening spent watching a black and white television set.

There will still always continue to be books printed and published for special purposes, fulfilling niche markets or even regular best-seller bandwagons, but the book as a primary agency of literacy and knowledge transmission has fallen by the wayside as a niche publishing industry, displaced and supplanted more and more by the lucrative, boundless market of the personal computing system connected to the Internet.

Volunteering a decade ago at the friends of the library, in the back sorting room bringing in all the donations, my main job was to haul out several times each evening in a couple of shopping carts all the books selected for culling out in the public dumpster at the rear of the county library.

Old encyclopedias now may become collector’s items, but few people if any are still using them consistently as a source of valid or reliable information on some esoteric topic, while any information they may need is but a click or two away on the worldwide web. My old dictionaries now serve the main purpose of being bookends on bookshelves rather than as a first reference at my writer’s desk.

Book publishing itself has undergone a critical transformation in which anyone can now print a book out or even have a computer-based “chat robot” create a book that can be printed “shake and bake” on demand, with next to no formal copy-editing or proofing, and readily put on a global book market within a matter of minutes or hours rather than an old-fashioned of days, months or years for snail mail based services to catch up with dynamic book markets.

I have been a cultural anthropologist who has focused on the esoteric field of the so-called “anthropology of knowledge,” and so in witnessing the tragedy of the books it seems appropriate that I should seek to more objectively understand the anthropological background to this global transformation of human systems.

Through all of human prehistory and throughout much of early human protohistory, the main mechanism of cultural transmission, upon which all human systems originally (and aboriginally) have depended for their successful survival, adaptation, reproduction, and integration, has been the oral-based vertical “folk” transmission that occurred inter-generationally from parent to child. In such a world, parents held absolute authority. Such a form of oral transmission is called vertical, being passed “down” from one parent to one child, or one to a few, through the generations.

Human history has largely been the written, recorded history of writing systems, from early pictographic and logo-graphic systems, through the invention of syllabaries, and then alphabets. Transmission and cultural transformation which depended primarily on vertical inter-generational transmission, could then become increasingly diagonalized from one to many, or a few to a great many.

This process increased in diagonalization of the exchange process with increasing rates of cultural transmission and change that became ten or a hundred times more rapid than was possible with oral based systems.

With the advent of computer-based literacy, with the rise of systems of information and knowledge communication and transmission that is increasingly horizontalized (one to all and all to one instantaneously), rates of transformational change have increased exponentially and is now rapidly approaching a global singularity of relatively infinite information instantaneous processed and transmitted and stored, within a single generation.

Oral vertical transmission systems still happen throughout the world, but they have become radically modified in their functional purposes and style within an historical era dominated by print literacy and printed records and literature, just as now print literacy remains embedded in all societies the world over, just only now encompassed and engulf within the “anthropo-cybersphere” of digital, wireless information communication and storage, albeit rapidly undergoing radical transformation from the former function of books to inform and record—functions now mainly served and taken over by interconnected computing systems the world over.

I remain wedded to my conventional, increasingly old-fashioned and anachronistic, if now quite obsolete, books. I love my books with interesting covers and titles without regret. As a digital migrant I remain a stranger in a strange new world. No one today refers on a regular basis to a hard-copy encyclopedia, even if some may still collect sets of encyclopedias. It has been a long time since I’ve looked a word up in a conventional bound hard-printed dictionary rather than on the worldwide web, and now my set of dictionaries primarily serve as oversized book-ends on my shelves.

My wife chides me that when I pass she will give Viking send-off on a raft with my body burning on top of all my piled up books. I have been a writer for most of my adult life—a fairly lonely life, but now I have accumulated a large number of mostly digitized manuscripts that I don’t know what to do with.

Since getting into new forms of “on-demand” self-publishing with a global marketplace, I’ve come to the realization that I am casting published texts and titles into a bottom-less digital black-hole. They will be most probably self-published, the majority of my lonely literary oeuvre, but will mostly remain unread and even unrecognized as such in a digitally transformed world. (And I would rather they be cast into such an all consuming digital blackhole than be burnt or thrown out as a part of my estate and my wake.)

Facing in a personal way of my own life-time bibliography and biography the global tragedy of the books, I will in my passing remain content and satisfied that I’ve been a lover of books that will sooner or later become burnt or recycled, knowing full well that I was part of a book-based world never to happen again.