Tuesday, August 23, 2016

An In-Depth Defense of Shallowness

One of my best critics (besides myself) has noted that I tend to write in a breezy style which is a euphemism for superficial which, in turn is a kinder word than shallow. I prefer to think of it as aiming for breadth over depth or horizontal rather than vertical.

The history of Western Civilization has been marked by pre-literate times followed by a literate world ushered in by print technology and finally the post-literate global society of today. The ratio of our sensibilities changed accordingly, particularly the auditory and visual. 

Before the advent of the printing press word was spread by wandering minstrels, troubadours who were about as reliable as Fox News...or hardly at all. Dissemination of news was oral. War sometimes went on for weeks after a peace treaty was signed. July’s baby might not be known in the next village till October. The written word was confined to the Church or the literate few.

When Guttenberg’s printing press arrived on the scene along with it came the Protestant Reformation, the rise of imperial nations, perspective in painting and gradually popular literacy. The impact of this new technology was so pervasive over the course of centuries it became the very air we breathed. Unnoted were the ways it altered our sensibilities.

Certain behaviors which accompanied the oral tradition fell away. Among these were memorization and a fuller engagement of all the senses. The aural alertness of early hunters, for example, also called upon the olfactory and tactile senses. Painting in the pre-literate era was largely flat surface without a vanishing point. With the notion of the single point–of-view came perspective which was a result of an extension of the visual. As one sense is dominant all the others become rearranged.

Print media calls for a linear sequential mode of thinking. There is a stress on chronology. A one-at-a-time-ness replaced the simultaneity in acoustic space. We, of a certain age, have been witness to this far-reaching shift from a literate to post-literate world. The changes are no less epochal than the passage from pre-literate to literate.

David Hockney recognized this when he observed that, Surface is an illusion but so is depth. What we call depth, in the Western World, is generally linked with psychological probing or an historical tracing of antecedents. The current generation born into the mobile internet of digital technology discounts those references. They see a screen in totality, with a visual field rather than the plodding of sequential print. 
Attention spans have shrunk along with the accelerated change they take for granted. Try emailing your granddaughter; only clipped messaging or tweets get a reply.

I am not suggesting this is either good or bad. It simply is. Technology isn’t something to be resisted. We can hide at our own risk or enter the new world sufficiently to get through the day. Most challenges to our sensibility occur at a level below consciousness anyway.

In the post-modern era experts are dismissed as authoritative voices with a particular bias. Instead we have pattern recognition which takes a bit from multiple sources to suggest a gestalt.  Rather than provide a fixed resolution the new zeitgeist seeks trends and a broader dimension through connectivity. In Marshall McLuhan’s terms we have a cooler media which replaces an all-knowing voice with multiplicity of options and the greater involvement of a questioning mind.

The breezy approach catches the shifting wind. The Greeks called the God of winds, Aeolus. It was his mischief that battered and buffeted Ulysses around the islands for ten years before letting him return home. The straight-ahead vertical path to Destination Truth has given way to the zig-zag journey called life itself.

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