Life beyond Two Paradigms: An Immodest Proposal

“The technologies are spoilers.”

“Turning our backs on the full sensory business of living, we have installed another-proxy-world between ourselves and that original place.”–Sven Birkerts

(Prefatory notes: The two paradigms being print/book-based culture, the other e-mediated culture. “Immodest” as in bold.)

Much has been said and written about the decline in influence of reading, the printed word and printed books within the past three to five years in the wake of the swift rise of e-media hand-held devices. Sven Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, a key book on this topic, was written nearly twenty years ago (1994) forecasting much that we currently see unfolding or changed.

For thirty years, I worked for educational publishing–writing and editing textbooks, and after 2007, I noticed that sales of such books were beginning to drop. The old long continuing sales of core books, in particular, was beginning to decline. After the introduction of interactive white boards in the classroom and accompanying e-media devices and after 2010, around the time of the introduction of smartphones, sales slumped even more. Clearly fewer books were being used in the classroom.

“Language is the soul’s ozone layer and we thin it at our peril.”                                        -Sven Birkerts

From a senior-high-English perspective, there has also been a corresponding decrease in the use of nonfictional prose, novels, full-length plays, Shakespeare, and poetry. Students in English are reading shorter and fewer print texts. My conclusion is that there is less exposure to and immersion in the printed word, in books, and, correspondingly, less exposure to thought, ideas, and patterns (themes).

Serious reading is above all an agency of self-making.”                                                   -Sven Birkerts

I would also conclude that many students are much less well-read, and ‘narrower’, more superficial (unable to read more complex syntactical structures, unable to talk in depth about ideas, unable to express themselves except in the most basic, limited prose). Nice kids perhaps, but not especially deep, bright, or articulate except in a narrow, limited, conventional way, much like all the other screen kids raised largely bookless, and not particularly interested in the olde possibilities of word and thought.

I did an earlier blog entry about how the e-mediated world has changed, limited, and impoverished its users, particularly the young. Here is that list again:

Doh! Ain’t no apps for:

-common sense


-sense of humor and wit



-personal depth

-natural capacity to respond to beauty

-creative consciousness

-empathy and sympathy

-civility and courtesy

-gentleness, kindness and caring

-natural innocence, awe, and wonder

-natural curiosity


-institutions that truly serve the public and not merely politicians, parties, or government


-real intimacy, open-heartedness, love, and touch

-live in-person presence

-physical traditional works of art

-nature and pets

-genius and vision


-personal freedom

-true individuality

-unconventional consciousness

-moments of being

-unagenda-ed possibilities

-un-e-mediated spirit and soul experience

-un-e-mediated magic moments

And never will be.

All those many things rapidly vanishing, quickly forgotten, or gone largely missing in our ‘wonderful’ brave new d-world.

“Technology dominates us all, diminishing our freedom.”
-Dorothy McCall, quoted in The Los Angeles Times, 14 March 1974                          

The e- or d-technology looks like fun, you can play with it, and do some amazing simple things with it. But it is no substitute for physical reality and a lot of things that humans once took for granted and could do on their own. Despite its intrusive incursions into our lives, work, and autonomy, e-media technology is frankly a diminished world or limited/limiting paradigm. It cannot do or offer much of what I’ve outlined above–possibilities enjoyedand experienced by the older book-raised, print-based people in our society.

I firmly believe that the way out of this limited/limiting e-obsession, will begin with how today’s and tomorrow’s generations are raised at home and at schools. The e-devices should not be used until a base based on the best of the old book and print culture paradigm has been instilled and encouraged. Rather than parents and elementary teachers/schools selling kids out early to the machines, they should teach children along more ‘olde school’ lines, making the olde paradigm the new/old foundation of the predominant e-mediated world.

All over again, kids need to learn the following:


-how to play on their own, uninterruptedly, without a screen device in the room so they can use their primary imaginations (the same when with other kids)

-to speak their own primary language first, and then assisted with identifying the people, things, and experiences in their world

-they should be encouraged to empathize and appreciate from an early age

-they should learn basic skills like letter and word recognition, and basic counting and simple mathematical operations (i.e.,adding, subtracting) without screen devices

-they should be encouraged to move, not just sit in one place glued to a screen

-they should be encouraged to work out solutions on their own or with limited assistance to their problems to help make them more autonomous

-they should be encouraged to look for, imagine, and think about possibilities in a variety of situations

-they should be taught cause and effect and that there will always be responsibility and consequences

-that nature is rich in beauty and that such things as owning a pet or going for a walk can improve the mind, heart, and soul.

-that they can make something out of nothing through their own primary imaginations

-that politeness and courtesy are rare, desirable civil remnants of any true civilization

-that humor is good for one and others and can be generated by self and circumstance

-that in a world of nonstop violence and abuse–gentleness, kindness and caring are real viable alternatives

-that both freedom and structure/organization are necessary in a variety of contexts

-that the magic moments and moments of being can occur all on their own or via human choices sans any technology

-that the physical, natural, and real are much more interesting, meaningful, and enlightening than any screen device.

Of late, there has been more than an ongoing loss of words, thought, and natural primary childhood. As previous blog entries have shown, I bemoan losses in the arts, large-scale alienation from beauty and thought, and the separation from history and the best of what has been done, thought, and known in Western civilization. It was, of course, a long trip to the more humane late 19th century and then the well-educated ’50s and ’60s in North America. A certain depth, wisdom, creativity, and freedom were all more possible once largely because of reading, thoughtful civil discourse, institutions, and a stable print culture.

As Birkerts points out, we have moved into an unstable, ever-shifting world of pulses, removal of authority, eternal change, and mass e-media consumption. “The centre cannot hold” as Yeats so eloquently forecast. The ‘only way back’ in North America and the West is to recreate and regenerate the base and conditions necessary for the best of the past and best past practices to stabilize the next generations. It is frankly the only alternative to producing the hyper, e-distracted youth we have currently mindlessly turning over to the screens and hand-held devices at an early age. Primary childhood and the olde basic skills need to be instilled, fostered, and actually taught to lead children, schools, and the society away of the abyss of nonstop e-screen slavery and eternal black-hole-latest-model-purchasing lifestyle which has become a substitute for real natural life and autonomous, more humane living.

“The dollar is betting, as it always does, against the soul.”                                                -Sven Birkerts

As always, there are choices to be made and nothing happens without personal will and changes in attitude and values. Otherwise, the brave new e-world many are becoming largely slaves to now ‘wins’. To paraphrase Wordsworth, the e-mediated world is too much with us. I know and believe that human beings are capable of and deserve far more. We are, all of us and each of us, potentially so much greater and more significant than any limited/limiting hand-held device. We have done and can still do great things. There is no percentage in being anything but an optimist about all of this. Getting back our autonomy, freedom, hearts, minds, bodies and souls from the hand-held screens may yet turn out to be some kind of crowning civilized achievement.

“The wheel is come full circle.”                                                                                            -William Shakespeare, King Lear

…………………………………                                                                                    Incidentally, language, reading, and thought are still the key tickets to a well-rounded education.

Rereading my ‘proposal’, I am moved to point out that the first seven or eight years should emphasize individual capability, skills, and possibilities first and foremost. Obviously some exposure to screens is likely, but, as McLuhan pointed out, these extensions are extensions and should be insofar as individual growth, learning, and entertainment are concerned.

I think it would help to view young children as having natural sensibilities, too, that should be encouraged and developed. Above all, confidence in oneself and one’s abilities without simple mindless reliance on e-gadgets.

Above all, the quality of one’s life depends on the quality of one’s sensibility, common sense, humor, empathy, language, and thoughts right from an early age.

No doubt some readers may wonder about the irony of a blogger writing such a proposal. Technology does have its various uses and benefits, of course. I don’t dispute the empowerment of e-tools, but I remain very much a live in-person individual presence quite apart from whatever I write. It is very important to be oneself apart from technology. It is also very important to realize that consciousness is basically an individual, inner affair, quite independent from machines. For me also, there is no substitute for live in-person presence and real, un-e-mediated mutual engagement. I could happily and easily survive without a blog or a smartphone. 

And that, in a way, is really what this piece is all about–the ability to have freedom to develop inner resources to draw on before being too exposed too early to an e-mediated world. Children need to be e-free as long as possible, even into the first two school years. They need to be able to explore their own possibilities naturally and freely. There is so much more to life than just being a smartphone or tablet owner or consumer.

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