Scriptura Continua

Posted: February 8, 2011 in Consciousness, Culture, Education, History, Literacy, Nomenclature, Science
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I’m reading The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, which describes how technologies we use affect brain/mind function. He surveys several inventions (the clock, the map, the printed book) that had significant effects on how we think. The history behind the book (pre-Gutenberg) surprised me. As Carr reports, the transition from cuneiform and other logographic forms to the phonetic alphabet and then to fluent, silent reading as we now do was protracted. He notes that prior to the Middle Ages, phonetic presentation of text was variable and had no spaces or punctuation. It was called scriptura continua, and the act of reading was an intensive cognitive process akin to deciphering the text, which was accordingly always done aloud, typically one reader to a plurality of listeners.

Reading aloud accounts for the presence of carrels and cloisters in ancient churches and libraries to accommodate the privacy needs of readers/listeners. In contrast, modern libraries have reading rooms — large open spaces filled with tables and chairs (see here and here) — precisely because silent reading requires no such privacy. Silent, personal reading was therefore a shift away from oral cultures that still used text as a tool within the wider context of orality. Later, the printing press and the economic effects of publishing gradually transformed oral culture to print culture by inaugurating the trend of private, personal knowledge newly and widely available to everyone.

Somewhat later in his book, Carr circles around to say that modern media, especially hypermedia, have returned us to the era of scriptura continua — not because everything is necessarily experienced aloud but because the variety of parallel channels and distractions returns media consumption to a deciphering process that blocks full comprehension. We’re often unaware of this fact, since most cognitive activity is subconscious, but the increased cognitive load may account for excitement we feel by being overstimulated. The irony is that learning occurs best when the mind is in a paradoxical state of relaxed concentration, which is what we experience during deep reading.

Many of us over the age of 30 or so, who remember a time before the Internet and its bounty, intuit that some part of our mental faculties has been lost. Regrettably, those below age 30 typically cannot know the loss of something they never developed. The world changes, of course, and we change with it; so in a sense, transitioning from one style of consciousness to another is inevitable. It’s happened numerous times before. If the failure of the electrical grid and the disappearance of all our pseudo-connectedness is as inevitable as doomers believe, I wonder what will happen when people are returned to the mental state where today’s constant stream of mostly irrelevant inputs is gone. Will they have the capacity for any depth of thought?

  1. halsmith says:

    Good thinking! Most technical types were put off by this book, but you got the point.

    I think the impact of high-tech has been much more serious than just our inability to concentrate. The book Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age says much the same thing.

    • Brutus says:

      I agree the impact is more serious than attention span or concentration level. But that’s outside the scope of the blog post above. I’m not given to prophesying, but if I allow myself a moment of recklessness, a new dark age (among other things) makes sense to me. The phrase isn’t merely metaphorical, either. Our minds will be shuttered and dim, unable to even conceive of things now considered well within the reach of everyone. Just maybe it will be wholesome by diminishing most of man’s destructive power, but more likely we’ll see the return of slavery and servitude, which have a very long history.

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