Levinson (2005). The First Digital Medium.

Levinson, P. (2005). The First Digital Medium. In The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution (pp. 11–20). London & New York: Routledge.

“The Pharaoh’s hieroglyphic failure and the Hebrews’ alphabetic success in conveying the monotheistic idea is the story of this chapter …” (p 12)

[“Monopolies Of Knowledge, And Their Jealous Guardians” (p 12) …]

“Literacy probably constitutes the most significant monopoly of knowledge in human history. Our public education system is in effect predicated on breaking that monopoly of knowledge, or making sure it does not arise in the first place. Our open democratic society believes, quite rightly, that having access to knowledge of the day — not only via broadcast media available in this century, but to older, printed modes of communication that still provide the most depth of detail and analysis — is a cornerstone of healthy political existence.” (p 12)

“Interestingly, as Jacques Ellul (1962/1965) pointed out, many totalitarian societies share this emphasis on literacy, as a valuable conduit of their propaganda. Hitler and Goebbels, however, apparently thought otherwise, and burned more than 20,000 books one night in Berlin in 1933 (see Manguel, 1996, pp. 279–289). Richard Brodie (1996, p. 169) offers a view of reading that accommodates its facilitation of both open and closed societies, but most of all the uncontrollability of its consequences, observing that ‘journalism is rife with mind viruses that have spread certain biases — certain memes’ (see Dawkins, 1976, for more on ‘memes,’ the cultural equivalent of genes; see also Lynch, 1996). This unpredictability likely makes literacy a more reliable ally of democracy than its adversaries.” (p 13)

“Who, in such a demanding communication environment, could possibly have time and wherewithal to learn how to read and write — to master such a system? Mostly the priests, the guardians of all sacred knowledge.” (p 13)

[“The Alphabet As Scepter” (p 14) …]

“But no doubt the most significant Phoenician contribution was the alphabet —  the phonetic alphabet—which nearly bears its name. That device would go on to revolutionize all subsequent culture via its impact on Greek philosophy, political theory, and science, as we will see below, as well as via its influence on religion. Since the Phoenician inventors of the alphabet likely had no knowledge of Moses and surely none of Plato, the use of the alphabet by Moses to present the Ten Commandments and the Torah — and later by Plato and his successors to present their abstract notions of truth, beauty, and moral excellence — constitutes perhaps the [page break] most explosive unintended consequence of an information technology in (recorded) history.” (p 15-16)

“Phoenicians …. Cyrus Gordon (1971) hypothesizes that the pressure of numerous commercial exchanges with diverse cultures connected by sea and ocean created a need in each Phoenician ship for someone with the capacity to make a quick but accurate record of these transactions.” (p 16)

“… transportability and preservability.” (p 16)

“Whether Moses realized this or not, the phonetic alphabet proved to be a perfect device for the representation of that which was not representable. … The alphabet thus proved to be an ideal recipe for the daily re-creation of monotheism in the minds of individuals, and its dissemination to groups and societies and whole cultures over the centuries.” (p 17)

[“The Information Revolution Becomes Self-Aware” (p 17) …]

“The Greek experience with the alphabet not only differed from the Hebrew in its secular applications: it focused, in the persons of Socrates [page break] and Plato, on the very impact of the alphabet itself.” (p 17-18)

“We stand at such a crossroads of digital and analog/print information technology now, much as Socrates and Plato conversed and wrote at a crucial intersection of oral and written modes.” (p 18)

“… when we consider the insecurity of the written word in an age prior to printing, when each manuscript had to be created by hand, and so was drastically scarcer than anything spoken, the Greeks’ reticence to surrender their oral tradition to the written becomes more comprehensible.” (p 19)

Selected References

  • Brodie, R. (1996) Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme, Seattle, WA: Integral.
  • Dawkins, R. (1976) The Selfish Gene, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Ellul, J. (1962/1965) Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, trans. K.Kellen and J.Lerner, New York: Vintage.
  • Gordon, C. (1971) Before Columbus: Links Between the Old World and Ancient America, New York: Crown.
  • Lynch, A. (1996) Thought Contagion, New York: Basic.
  • Manguel, A. (1996) A History of Reading, New York: Viking.
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