Think Like an Egyptian

Thoth, god of writingThe writing flashing on the digital wall has been evident for several years now, telling us that books are disappearing. That statement is a bit overdramatized. I’m using “book” as a synonym for “codex”, a particular physical form of a book. The codex, invented sometime around the year 300, has separate pages bound together in a cover, replacing the book as a rolled-up scroll.

In fact, the codex form of the book will never entirely disappear, but such books will become things most people never have any intereaction with, like spinning wheels or slide rules. Really beautiful, well-made codex books will become items for collectors. Everyone else will access books, and information in general, in some digital form.

Mostly, this is a very good thing. Information should not exist to justifiy the existence of pieces of paper bound together. The codex is a form of technology that has been amazingly successful and long lasting. In our modern world, however, with cheap printing, most codex books are nothing more than containers for the information inside. When you get a book with paper covers that curl up, with bad print quality, cheap paper that turns brittle—or with out-of-date information—the codex is not even a very good container.

Digital formats now also imply the ability to connect one form of information with another, so that a book on something like the Kindle may also come with a dictionary, a historical background, an encyclopedia, a set of paintings, the ability to listen to all of the music of the Beatles and Beethoven, and a connection to the internet if that’s not enough.

For most of the ways we use books, our descendants will think how quaint we were, carrying around heavy stacks of paper and mourning the loss when it became so much easier. And frankly, most codex books now are not even all that nice; they’re just containers.

Interesting points arise, however, when we consider how the technology to record information affects the way our minds process information. The symbols of Egyptian hieroglyphics mostly represented physical objects in the world, but they also represented sounds and could be combined to make words, just like English letters. For those few people who could read and write hieroglyphics, there must have been occasions when they encountered real objects that, by association with hieroglyphic symbols, “spelled out” other ideas.

Even when reading with an alphabet, the technology would have affected ways of thinking. A person using a long rolled-up papyrus scroll might have relied on memory more than a modern reader. What was it Aristotle said in the first chapter? Well, that was 15 feet back down the roll, and it was too much trouble to unroll it and look. Because of the physical inconvenience, a scroll reader was more likely to simply deal with whatever was in front of him.

The dramatic invention of cutting the pages apart and sewing them along one edge, creating the modern form of the book, made it easy to flip back to chapter one and see just what Aristotle had said. Easy movement in the book made the reader’s interaction with information very different. Eventually it became possible to invent a table of contents and an index and a list of notes, things that could not be imagined with a scroll. It also became easy to stop reading and move around in the book.

There was a definite benefit from the change…yet, was there even a slight loss when the reader no longer felt compelled to stay in one place in the text, to ponder it more deeply without the distraction of flipping to another page?

The current change into digital forms also allows us to do things that were inconceivable before, like adding a global search function, or choosing the type of supplemental information we need to help up to understand better (rather than having the author choose for us by deciding that we need a map or sidebar here, but not there).

Aside from the unhappiness of people like myself who love books in their current form, is there an actual loss in how we use information? This is a much-debated question these days (among bookish eggheads, I mean), and one suggested answer is yes. If we can quickly jump to a thousand other possibilities, we may not spend the time with a text for an author to make a complex argument. This is a view that believes digital technology can harm intellectual and social discourse, making us less willing or able to concentrate on extended texts that discuss complicated and difficult topics.

Or maybe there will be no overall intellectual loss, even if the way we use information does change. With every change in the technology of recording information, there has been an increase in literacy. I would go so far as to make a direct connection between changes in technology and increases in knowledge and personal freedom, such as breaking the chokehold of the Catholic church, or churches in general, or helping to rid the world of the cancer of nobility and kings. As a current example, the slow first steps now happening with the Arab Spring are closely connected with the availability of digital technology to spread information. What decent person has not looked at Egypt and felt their heart sing?

No church, no king, no imam, no dictator—these are good things. And jumping over to Wikipedia when I read is a good thing.

But I do still love to sit outside with a glass of wine and a book made of paper. I can’t help it. I won’t even try to help it. I’m old-fashioned that way.

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