In the shift from oral to written traditions in the evolution of cultures, there is inevitably a trade-off of resonance for reach. Is there a digital bottom line?
Dear countrymen, Whate’er is left to us of ancient heritage; Of manners, speech, of humours, polity;
The limited horizon of our stage; Old love, hope, fear: All this I fain would fix upon the page;
That so the coming age, Lost in the empire’s mass, Yet haply longing for their fathers, here
May see, as in a glass What they held dear; May say, “Twas thus and thus They lived”,
And as the time-flood onward rolls, Secure an anchor for their Keltic souls.
These lines, a bequest from the 19th-century Victorian schoolmaster and ‘national poet’ of the Isle of Man, TE Brown, have not aged well in at least two important ways: first, the assumption that there could be an Empire on which the sun never sets; and then the presumption that within its borders the important conversations are those that happen between fathers and sons.
However, and to the extent that the art of conversation lies in tolerating the occasional awkward moment in silence while awaiting a more inspiring reflection, there may be richer ground in contemplating a champion of Celtic culture advocating for fixing truths upon a page. After so many millennia of oral transmissions by firelight or across the strain of the oars, along comes a poet looking for a printing press!
At Brown’s time of writing, the printers of Fleet Street had been at work for over three centuries, during which time English had evolved from being a minor European language into being pre-eminent across the world. And its speakers who in an earlier day might have cited the authority of what they once heard from a grandparent, had largely been replaced by the readers and writers who once “read it in a book”.
As those “timefloods onward rolled”, so evolved the eternal struggle in human communications between resonance and reach. Memories of grandparents exert considerable visceral power within a potentially vast emotional hinterland. There may ever be only four of them, but each is a gatekeeper upon a landscape of forever, and a militant totem against any evolution of the Empire of the Eternal Me.
Of course, grandparents die and oral traditions are at the mercy of natural calamities, plague, and war. As the printing presses take over, loss of resonance is balanced in significant part by greater reach and, critically, by the evolving of a language that fixes over greater stretches of time the transmission of context and treasure. Writers, editors, and publishers assume the role of watered-down grandparents: curators and custodians of the mirrors and anchors on which successive generations rely.
The sheer overwhelm of technological noise of the last few decades has made it harder to retain a sense of continuity of custodianship: of facts, of truth, and of our children’s souls. As they hunch beneath the duvet with their devices and relentless scuttling amidst their digital landscapes, can they still find the time and space to craft a sense of their huge and enduring significance while being but “a pulse in the Eternal Mind, no less”?