Writing in today’s WSJ, Peggy Noonan says: “This year I am seeing something, especially among the young of politics and journalism. They have received most of what they know about political history through screens They’re college graduates…they’re bright and ambitious, but they have seen the movie and not read the book….They learned through sensation, not through books, which demand something deeper from your brain. Reading forces you to imagine, question, ponder, reflect…Watching a movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis shows you a drama. Reading about it shows you a dilemma.”
The article reminded me of Neal Stephenson’s book and of this post, which I originally ran in late 2007.
My post today is inspired by In the Beginning was the Command Line, by Neal Stephenson, a strange little book that will probably be found in the “computers” section of your local bookstore. While the book does deal with human interfaces to computer systems, its deeper subject is the impact of media and metaphors on thought processes and on work.
Stephenson contrasts the explicit word-based interface with the graphical or sensorial interface. The first (which I’ll call the textual interface) can be found in a basic UNIX system or in an old-style PC DOS system or timesharing terminal. The second (the sensorial interface) can be found in Windows and Mac systems and in their respective application programs.
As a very different example of a sensorial interface, Stephenson uses something he saw at Disney World–a hypothetical stone-by-stone reconstruction of a ruin in the jungles of India. It is supposed to have been built by a local rajah in the sixteenth century, but since fallen into disrepair.
The place looks more like what I have just described than any actual building you might find in India. All the stones in the broken walls are weathered as if monsoon rains had been trickling down them for centuries, the paint on the gorgeous murals is flaked and faded just so, and Bengal tigers loll among stumps of broken columns. Where modern repairs have been made to the ancient structure, they’ve been done, not as Disney’s engineers would do them, but as thrifty Indian janitors would–with hunks of bamboo and rust-spotted hunks of rebar.
In one place, you walk along a stone wall and view some panels of art that tell a story.
…a broad jagged crack runs across a panel or two, but the story is still readable: first, primordial chaos leads to a flourishing of many animal species. Next, we see the Tree of Life surrounded by diverse animals…an obvious allusion (or, in showbiz lingo, a tie-in) to the gigantic Tree of Life that dominates the center of Disney’s Animal Kingdom…But it’s rendered in historically correct style and could probably fool anyone who didn’t have a PhD in Indian art history.
The next panel shows a mustachioed H. sapiens chopping down the Tree of Life with a scimitar, and the animals fleeing every which way. The one after that shows the misguided human getting walloped by a tidal wave, part of a latter-day Deluge presumably brought on by his stupidity.
The final panel, then, portrays the Sapling of Life beginning to grow back, but now man has ditched the edged weapon and joined the other animals in standing around to adore and praise it.
Clearly, this exhibit communicates a specific worldview, and it strongly implies that this worldview is consistent with traditional Indian religion and culture. Most viewers will assume the connection without doing further research as to its correctness or lack thereof.
I’d observe that as a general matter, the sensorial interface is less open to challenge than the textual interface. It doesn’t argue–doesn’t present you with a chain of facts and logic that let you sit back and say, “Hey, wait a minute–I’m not so sure about that.” It just sucks you into its own point of view.
The very astute blogger Erin O’Connor has written frequently about the “Tunnels of Oppression” that have become common on college campuses. (Here, for example, also here.) It strikes me that these vehicles of “education” and/or indoctrination are sensory interfaces, in exactly the same sense that the Disney exhibit in Stephenson’s book is a sensory interface.
But in a society in which sensory interfaces threaten to become overwhelming, shouldn’t one of the primary responsibilities of the university be the preservation of the text-based interface and the propagation of the ability to deal with this modality? Don’t “Tunnels of Oppression,” by their very nature, tend to undercut this mission?
The digital nature of the written word confers on it exceptional stability, which is why it is the vehicle of choice for extremely important concept like the Ten Commandment, the Koran, and the Bill of Rights. But the messages conveyed by modern audiovisual media cannot be pegged to any fixed, written set of precepts in that way and consequently they are free to wander all over the place and possibly dump loads of crap into people’s minds.
Stephenson points out that the people who create the sensory interfaces, and the people who absorb information and worldviews from them, tend to be different groups. Those who designed the Disney exhibit probably got much of their information from books and magazines. Similarly, those who design a computer system with a graphical user interface are probably doing so largely using programming languages which are themselves highly textual. Following the terminology invented by H G Wells, he refers to these two groups as the Morlocks and the Eloi:
In The Time Machine, the Eloi were an effete upper class, supported by lots of subterranean Morlocks who kept the technological wheels turning. But in our world it’s the other way round. The Morlocks are in the minority, and they are running the show, because they understand how everything works. The much more numerous Eloi learn everything they know from being steeped from birth in electronic media directed and controlled by book-reading Morlocks…those Morlocks will go to India and tediously explore a hundred ruins, then come home and build sanitary bug-free versions, highlight films, as it were. This costs a lot, bcause Morlocks insist on good coffee and first-class airline tickets, but that’s no problem, because Eloi like to be dazzled and will gladly pay for it all.
Why are explicit word-based interfaces tending to be replaced by sensorial ones? Stephenson suggests that part of it is the world’s growing complexity. We can’t handle all of the details; hence, “We have no choice but to trust some nameless artist at Disney or programmer at Apple or Microsoft to make a few choices for us, close off some options, and give us a conveniently packaged executive summary.” Also:
But more importantly, it comes out of the fact that during this century, intellectualism failed, and everyone knows it. In places like Russia and Germany, the common people agreed to loosen their grip on traditional folkways, mores, and religion, and let the intellectuals run with the ball, and they screwed everything up and turned the century into an abattoir. Those wordy intellectuals used to be merely tedious; now they seem kind of dangerous as well.
Stephenson suggests that the dominance of the sensory interface, in such forms as the Disney exhibit, is not necessarily a bad thing: “It is simply the case that we are way too busy, nowadays, to comprehend everything in detail. And it’s better to comprehend it dimly, through an interface, than not at all.”
I don’t think, though, that the sensorial interface provides insulation against people like those who “turned the century into an abattoir”…indeed, it increases vulnerability to such people, since it allows them to present their appeals in ways not directly subject to logical refutation. I also think the Eloi-Morlock distinction may show some changes over time. The first generation of “Tunnel of Oppression” designers may be highly literate and text-oriented, basing their ideas on the reading of people like Foucault–but ten years later, the Tunnels of Oppression may well be designed by people whose own ideas were formed by earlier Tunnels of Oppression, films, and other sensorial interfaces.
While the educational profession has tended too often to surrender to the sensorial interface, the emergence of blogging–essentially a text-based medium–has created a trend in the opposite direction. But the number of blog-writers and blog-readers remains small as a proportion of the population, and the failures of K-12 education have arguably created a large segment of people who will never be able to deal easily and naturally with text.
The impact of media on thought processes was, of course, addressed by Marshall McLuhan in works such as The Gutenberg Galaxy, The Mechanical Bride, and Understanding Media. Although McLuhan tends to overstate his points, I do think his work is worthy of another look in the context of another media revolution.
Stephenson’s book is highly recommended: you can read it in a few hours and will think about it for a long time.