It is generally agreed that modernity, at least understood as another artificial division of a historical continuum in the European West, had as one of its defining features the introduction of the moveable-type printing press, the Gutenberg Press. Some scholars have gone as far as considering that the introduction of silent reading, together with the freedom of choice in the texts and the outstanding multiplication of copies, changed forever the way human beings interpreted and processed information and ideas. In McLuhan’s terminology, it created a new “galaxy”.
The world is undergoing today a similar revolution as the one that made medieval people turn from parchment to paper, and also around the same key points: individuality, availability and freedom of choice. If back in the Middle Ages books were read out loud for the community – whether this was a monastic assembly, a court gathering or a public festivity – and transmission of knowledge was based on listening and remembering, silent reading permitted focusing on seeing and interpreting, or paused pondering, and it opened the doors to secular education. Nowadays, anybody with access to the Internet can learn from cooking to Babylonian history without necessarily having to interact with other fellow human beings. The innumerable pages, videos and tutorials can teach everything one might ever want to know in this life, sadly sometimes even how to destroy your fellow human beings. Knowledge is not in a physical support called book any more, exactly as it stopped being encapsulated in parchment codices before that.
True, it can be argued that the massive introduction of books as a means for transmitting knowledge implied necessarily a separation between the literate and the non-literate members of society, which sadly condemned the latter to social and economic struggle. Internet, truly, has erased that barrier, but created a maybe more perverse one based on accessibility to resources and control of digital platforms, apart from the fact that one needs certain degree of computer literacy to use comfortably new technologies, which also ends up a creating a barrier between the younger generations and the older ones, for the simple reason that they use different systems of de-codifying the world.
Younger generations have grown used to icons and images, rather than words, to such immediacy in the transmission of knowledge and affections as was unknown before, at least since Gutenberg created his press. Any of our students can have immediate access to many more data than we, their teachers, can possibly accumulate in our heads, they can watch presentations and classes from our colleagues around the world, from the most prestigious schools, that could leave us slightly depressed by comparison, they can cross check what you are saying in class in real time, and, usually at the same time, are sending whatsapps and emoticons in which they are telling someone whom they love or hate, why they feel embarrassed, tired, or fed up. Everything in a split second without having the time to process what they are receiving and what they are sending, all in the raw. Right here, right now.
Now, the big question is, to my understanding, what can we possibly teach this generation, and those to come, and how? We cannot teach them data, because they have them, we cannot describe them objects or places, because they can see them or have actually been there, and I suspect insisting on them reading paper books for a very long time is going to feel like making people read Shakespeare in parchment. Repeating to ourselves that these people don’t know how to think but we have to teach them how to, by hook or by crook, is not going to take us much further either. We have to be intelligent enough, after all, we are the teachers, to disentangle the message from the physical support, the word from the paper and, if it is true that another mental framework, another galaxy, is in the making, to be able, as people in the Renaissance did by changing the parchment for the paper, to change the paper for the image and keep safe the best of our Humanist patrimony when we jump into hyperspace.