A Non-Linear Coincidence

For my Science and Technology in Western Culture class, I’m reading Society and Technological Change by Rudi Volti. One of the assignments for the current module was to read Volti’s chapter on the development of printing technologies. Volti has a short discussion in this chapter on the psychological effects of printing; that is, on psychological changes that might have occurred as print technology improved and publishing began to flourish.

Volti briefly writes about Marshall McLuhan, and about some of McLuhan’s ideas on the fundamental social changes that occurred in conjunction with the expansion of print publishing and other media. Says Volti:

Some fascinating possibilities … have been suggested by Marshall McLuhan, for whom media such as print and television had consequences that far outweigh the overt messages they carry. Printed books fundamentally changed civilization not because of the information they transmitted; the greatest consequence of printing lay in the different modes of thought and perception that it fostered. In McLuhan’s analysis, each medium engenders a distinctive way of looking at the world; as his famous aphorism has it, “the medium is the message.” The reading of the printed word makes readers think in sequence, just as a sentence is sequentially read from left to right. – pg. 190

I’ve never read McLuhan, so I don’t really know how well this represents his views. But this is perhaps what Tim Lacy is asking about, in his post What is Linear Thinking? from earlier this week. It would seem reasonable that McLuhan – or at least Volti in his interpretation of McLuhan – is highlighting a significant change in the technology of thought that came about in conjunction with the increased availability of the printed word. While I think there’s much to be said for this dramatic change in thought processes, I’m not convinced that linear thinking of this type adequately encompasses what happens in our minds when we read.

Obviously, we tend to read sequentially, at least in the sense that we typically read both books and other materials from beginning to end, and, further, we expect some logical relationship between the ideas presented at the beginning and those presented at the end. So the activity of reading does strike me as a linear process. However, reading and learning from what we read are two different things entirely. For sure, I can read something from the first page to the last page, absorbing what I read in the sequential order the author provides – but that isn’t necessarily how I learn from it. If the reading offers me anything at all, then the linear process combines with a variety of other mental process where I make associations, form concepts, increase prior knowledge, absorb and relate details to others I’m already aware of, and (hopefully!) emerge from the reading with either a more solid understanding of something I already know or at least a beginning understanding of something entirely new. Reading – at least reading to learn – is a much more iterative and hierarchical process than it is a sequential process. If this might be described as “non-linear thinking” (and I suppose it might), I would think that non-linear thinking is not the same as illogical thinking – since illogical thinking suggests an inability to build on prior knowledge when attempting to learn something new (or to think about anything else, for that matter).

Continuing the quotation above, Volti goes on to say:

Reading also produces an egocentric view of the world, for the reader’s involvement with the printed word is solitary and private. – pg. 190

This was actually the part that made me suspicious of the “linear thinking” statements about reading. While it is undoubtedly true that reading is a solitary and private activity, I don’t think that adequately describes the personal, cultural, or social significance of reading (or of writing, for that matter). As Benedict Anderson describes so well in Imagined Communities (I swear, I’ll be referring to that book for the rest of my life), one of the true revolutions that occurred through the explosion of printing was a new awareness among human beings of the simultaneous existence of other human beings. At minimum, my reading of a book implies an awareness of one other person – the book’s author – and in all likelihood embraces some sense that other people have read – have experienced – the book in ways similar to mine. If I spun that theory out to one other logical conclusion, I might even say that the reason so many people write, and so many more want to write, is that the sense of existing in a world simultaneously with other people has become an endemic part of the way modern men and women perceive (the significance of?) their existence.

On “Fear: A Cultural History”

Last night, I started reading Fear: A Cultural History by Joanna Bourke. I’ve had my eye on the book for a few weeks now, and finally picked it up at Borders yesterday. It’s the type of book I like, because I enjoy writing that confidently integrates history with cultural studies. It also has some relevance to my History of Science and Technology in Western Culture class, as it discusses fears of science, technology, medical advancements, and military machinery. I’m only on page 50, and have already come across some fascinating ideas.

Bourke devotes the first section of the book to describing the fear of death and how it affected individual lives in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She illustrates how fear of death was intertwined with a fear of being prematurely buried – that is, buried alive. At the same time, she explains how closely fear of death was related to fearing poverty; and she notes how social welfare targeted at reducing poverty didn’t eradicate the fear, but only diluted its effects and changed in focus:

Rather than trembling about the effects of absolute privation, people shuddered to think about the consequences of relative impoverishment, such as being rehoused in a rougher area or forced to sell prized possessions. The providers of public assistance were determined to retain (indeed, even boost) this element of fear. After all, they reasoned, public assistance should not be made too easy in case people jettisoned all economic anxieties, thus damaging the economy. As a consequence, moral panics arose around unscrupulous individuals and groups who did not feel sufficiently apprehensive of the stigma attached to the receipt of poor relief. – pg. 27

Describing the use of fear as a public policy tool, and explaining how its boundaries were altered to reflect public reaction to policy or manipulate society, strikes me as a fairly unique perspective. I’m curious about the extent to which Bourke keeps these themes out in front, as she continues the discussion of the cultural parameters of fear.