Sven Birkerts, Reading, and the Digital Age

I was recently introduced to Sven Birkerts through Al Mohler’s Thinking in Public podcast, and found his insights to be helpful and fascinating. Then I ran across his article “The Room and the Elephant” in the LA Review of Books. Birkerts’ contention in this piece is that in the digital world, information is becoming a collective enterprise, an instance of the “hive mind“, and if you are taking votes as to whether or not this is good, put him down as skeptical. Having just ironically linked to Wikipedia, I would add that Birkerts is using the online encyclopedia as his prime example, responding to an article expounding on “Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert“. Here is Birkerts, approaching his key insight:

It may seem odd that I’ve spent so much time summarizing and quoting from a web-posted pro-Wikipedia polemic, but this piece struck me, got down under my skin more irritatingly than most, and I needed to understand why. I think I do now. Here, in one place, I find not only a number of the issues I have been worrying for some time, but also, as I’ve suggested, some of the attitudes and assumptions that inform the situation, compose the climate in which the transformations are taking place. This “climate” has been the hardest thing to isolate for reflection, for it is a totality, an environment, a cultural Zeitgeist. I have tagged it for myself with a re-phrasing of the outworn idiom. “What if the elephant in the room,” I ask, “is the room itself?”

Food for thought. In related news, check out his seminal work The Gutenberg Elegies.

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