In a World of Moving Images, Does the Book Have a Future?

June 26, 1994|By RICHARD O'MARA

Does the book have a future? Can the word, in some form or other, hold its own against the growing influence in our culture of the moving image?

Thirty years ago these questions would have seemed preposterous. Twenty years ago they were being raised here and there as television's challenge to the book started to become evident.

They still are being raised, prompted by surveys that reveal a steady decline in the readership of newspapers among people of every age, but mainly the young, and high levels of adult illiteracy in the United States.

The surveys on literacy continue, for the most part, unpromising. But reports about the demise of the book are probably greatly exaggerated.

Actually, the prospect of a virtually bookless world was advanced a long time ago. "Books will soon be obsolete in the schools," said Thomas Edison in 1913. "Scholars will soon be instructed through the eye. It is possible to touch every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture."

Will that day ever come? Will the revolution that many believe began in the 19th century with Mr. Edison's inventions and followed by other electronic devices -- the radio, television and more recently the computer -- eventually realize itself?

Mitchell Stephens, a professor of journalism at New York University, calls this "the fourth communications revolution." Earlier ones were the development of language hundreds of thousands of years ago, the creation of an alphabet about 5,000 years ago and the invention of the printing press in the 15th century.

"I don't see why the printed word should be perceived as the be-all and end-all of education," said Mr. Stephens. "We can do better."

Mr. Stephens expects this revolution, which he admits is as slow in coming as it is ineluctable, to bring "a new kind of knowledge, new ways of thinking."

Edwin Gold, of the School of Communications Design at the University of Baltimore, thinks Edison might not have been entirely wrong in his prediction, only early.

Mr. Gold would substitute TV -- already more ubiquitous in our society than the telephone -- as the more likely instrument of Edison's prophecy. As TV screens grow sharper and large enough to encompass an entire wall in the average home, as the number of channels approaches 500 and the whole thing becomes interactive, all this will lay increasing claim to time once devoted to reading, and deaden the inclination to read.

Professors Gold and Stephens, and oth- ers, even detect the initial phrases of a new language in the terse storytelling capacities of modern TV commercials and in the visual acrobatics of MTV. It resides in the fast cuts, near subliminal images, all the frenetic motion projected on the consciousness by artful video editing.

Therese Mageau, editor of Electronic Learning, a magazine which reports on the growing use of electronic technology in classrooms, said:

"In the past in American schools, the most efficient way to deliver [information] was in the mass production of textbooks. That was the important technology of the time. Now there are other technologies available, and we encourage schools to use them."

These devices include computers with new learning software, videos, audio cassettes, modems, long distance learning by satellite and other means.

"We tend to believe that new technology will change life as we know it," she said.

These three people -- all devotees of what is known as electronic culture -- have two things in common.

First, they all anticipate an immense transformation in the way Americans live and learn, flowing from rapid improvements in communications technology. Their notions about the future are unclear, but they are certain this transformation is coming.

Second, despite their ineffable expectations about "new ways of thinking" or a "new literacy," they all also believe the book, or at least the written language, will not be erased by electronic culture, though probably it will diminish.

Even those with more extreme views on the matter, such as Lewis J. Perelman, the author of "School's Out: Hyperlearning, the New Technology, and the End of Education," a book which argues that America's schools should be abolished as useless remnants of another century -- grudgingly agrees.

Mr. Perelman said: "Books are an obsolescent technology. . . . The alphabet is quasi-obsolescent. . . . Writing skill is much less necessary than it was in the 19th century."

But he also said: "Text won't disappear. It has some nice $H qualities. It is efficient for certain things."

For those few who expect image media to eventually annihilate print, Dr. Gold cautions against following a trend line too doggedly. "Remember the idea of the paperless office?" he asked. "That's what the shift to computers was to bring about. Well, we got more paper as a result of the computer [the printer] and Xerox than ever before."

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