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Understanding Print?

Understanding Print?

What do we understand when we speak of print culture? Are we only talking about books and magazines? What about advertisements? Stamps? Birthday cards? Flyers? Catalogues? Posters? Bookmarks? Menus? Money? Or think about it another way: when was the last time you received from a new work acquaintance a (printed) name card — these had to be given and received formally with both hands. And has someone lately come around to your house to invite you to their son’s or daughter’s wedding, and to deliver the all-important (printed) wedding invitation card?

Since the advent of the printing press, human habit, thought, trade, politics, even the very structure of civilisation have been shaped by print at a scale that Neil Postman describes as ecological in Technopoly. Print, through journalism, is even responsible, according to Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities, for the construction of nationalism. At the level of the individual, novels have been fundamental to the modern articulation of selfhood; the most emblematic of this is Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

Print has had roughly six hundred years of development and its acculturation alongside pre-existing media such as manuscript and orality has proceeded at pace. Over the centuries, surprising interactions and synergies have occurred. Interactions that remain include writing in printed books as a method of commentary, writing an ijaza or licence in a copy of a classical text taught in a traditional halaqa, discussing texts orally in a bookclub, listening to audiobooks, reading aloud to children, and so on.

What do we understand when we speak of social media culture? Are we only talking about selfies and cat videos? As we stand on the cusp of a major media change, we must understand that the medium we inhabit determines — in profound ways — the way we create, think, and live. Already social media has demonstrably, according to Jonathan Haidt in The Anxious Generation, reconfigured childhood and precipitated an epidemic of mental health illness among the young. What happens when this generation enters adulthood? How will social media create civilisation anew? What will the nation-state or any future collective look like? How will selfhood be articulated and negotiated?

TikTok and Instagram are still, relatively speaking, in their infancy, but there is some indication that print will persist and produce unimagined interactions with this new media, the same way it did with older media that predated it. The worrying difference now however is that the speed with which new media is being adopted threatens to disrupt existing social or institutional structures at a pace that civilisational adaptability cannot accommodate. There is no time for centuries-long gentle acculturation.

To stretch Postman’s ecological analogy, the new media of today is like an invasive species carelessly introduced into a habitat. What results is often ecological collapse that leaves a wasteland in its wake: nothing survives, not even the new species. What is feared now with the uncritical adoption of new media as default — and turbo-charged by generative AI — is epistemic collapse: how will we know what we need to know? The question is not whether print will survive, but rather, will we?

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