Screens. Mounted on the walls of our living rooms, clutched within our palms, resting on our laps, suspended by cables in airports and restaurants—we are a “screened” society. The glow, the gloss, the glimmering titillation—a screen is an optical vortex. Our attention is ever sucked screen-ward. Converse with someone within visual range of a screen, and the flow of discourse will be kinked and sporadic.
You are screened. I am screened.
Literacy has a new medium. Readers still read text, but the text is now pixelated—text on a screen. Once meticulously scrawled on tablets of stone, words now appear on “tablets” of anti-glare, liquid crystal displays. The codex—the page-bound book—must now share text with the luminous screen.
This post is not simply a case of nostalgic griping. This is not just moaning over an era bygone. This is not contemptuous distrust for all things newfangled. The screened life is not all bad. But reservations are in order. As our reading shifts from ink-blasted pages to the plastic screen, we are making a dangerous choice.
The choice to allow access. To allow unknown women and men access to our attention. When I read a book, that technological wonder of ages past, no marketing team has access to my visual space. No ads. No flashing colors that make sudden appearance in the upper left or lower right, screaming for that half-second glance, for the minutest alteration of visual trajectory that makes the world go round. To choose reading the screen rather than the book is to make an open invitation to untold numbers of anonymous non-friends and their influences.
A book-reading populace does not serve the interest of media brokers and the corporate realm (unless they are in the—somewhat risky—book business). The page of a codex offers them no ad space. No banner commercials, no scrolling text, no blinking lights, no embedded video in the margins (not even on the Kindle… yet).
So reduce the guest list for your attention. Read off-screen. Read books. Scandalous. Against a new tide.
And here is a second warning. As our reading shifts from book to screen, the style and pattern of reading and writing shifts as well. Nicolas Carr has written about this. In The Shallows, he argues that screened reading actually reworks our brains. On-screen writing is different from ink-on-page writing. Reading online is snippet-reading, distracted hyper-linked reading… the brain adapts to the new technology. In the process, the brain may be forgetting how to process the old technology, the technology of the codex.
But Christians are codex-people. People of the Book.
The ultimate self-revelation of God is Jesus (Heb 1.1-4; Jn 1.1-18). But since His Ascension, the most reliable source of divine self-revelation is an ink-blasted, page-bound codex. Holy Scripture is inscribed into the technological medium of a book.
If screened reading reduces our capacity for following long, twisting arguments, then we cannot read Romans. If screened reading increases our impatience for complicated narratives, then we cannot read Torah or the Gospels.
Read online, sure. Let the brain learn the new technology. But keep it re-trained and ever fit for reading off-screen. Read Russian and Victorian novels. Read lengthy journal articles.
New technology requires a unique discipline, the discipline of using it responsibly, without forgetting how to use the old.