I have been reading Wendell Berry on my digital reader. I feel guilty about it. Berry, a beautiful writer whose prose reads like poetry, composes all his books in longhand. His wife types the manuscript on an old Royal typewriter. He will not purchase a computer. “Much is made of the ease of correction in computer work, owing to the insubstantiality of the light images on the screen; one presses a button and the old version disappears, to be replaced by the new” Berry writes. “But because of the substantiality of paper and the consequent difficulty involved, one does not handwrite or typewrite a new page every time a correction is made.”
Berry prefers the handwritten or typewritten manuscript and compares it to a palimpsest, a document that bears the marks of its own history. “A computer destroys the sense of historical succession, just as do other forms of mechanization.” I don’t know how Berry would feel about my reading his words on a mechanical device, but I can guess. Then again, I suppose he had to give permission to have his words distributed in electronic format.
Still, Berry’s reticence to use the computer is a stubborn reminder that technology is a double edged sword. New technologies do more than change the way we work. They change the way we think. According to Neil Postman, new technologies “alter those deeply embedded habits of thought which give to a culture its sense of what the world is like–a sense of what is the natural order of things, of what is reasonable, of what is necessary, of what is real.” This is because technology is value laden. Embedded in every tool, Postman notes, “is a cultural bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attribute more loudly than another.”
The technologies associated with email and the internet have done more than change the way we communicate, they have changed our idea of what constitutes communication and community. Immediacy is valued over contemplation. Wide dispersion is more important than personal contact. This technology has spawned new vocabularies and social customs. Some extremists even argue that it will eventually produce an entirely new humanity.
My field of higher education, specifically theological education and ministry training, is hardly immune from this. With the exponential growth of online courses and the rise of for-profit schools like Phoenix University and DeVry, there is already great pressure to invest our energy and money in the development of technological rather than human resources. It is hard to see how this can be avoided. It is only a matter of time before schools like Phoenix decide to offer theological education. And there is far more to this shift than simply the manner in which content is delivered. Their approach reflects a fundamental change in educational ethos. The magister has become a marketer. The pupil has become a customer. You can teach a pupil but not a customer. Everyone knows that the customer is always right.
Of course, it could be argued that this change is a good thing. Shouldn’t schools be more sensitive to the needs of their constituents? After all, higher education is still greatly influenced by the medieval culture from which it sprang. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt it to lose some of its feudal trappings. Change can be good. So can technology. Even Wendell Berry acknowledges this. “It would be uncharitable and foolish of me to suggest that nothing good will ever be written on a computer” he admits “Some of my best friends have computers. I have only said that a computer cannot help you to write better and I stand by that.”
I tend to agree with him. But I use a computer to write anyway. I’ve begun writing a blog, a medium of communication in which I suspect there is more pressure to post frequently than to reflect carefully. And I am reading Wendell Berry on my digital reader. I feel guilty. I think I will put Berry aside for a while and turn to Eugene Peterson. He always makes me feel better. I’ve been listening to his latest book on my iPod.