Just recently, the much anticipated biography of the great intellectual and writer Susan Sontag by Benjamin Moser appeared on the shelves of book stores. Although Sontag was known for any number of comments on a variety of subjects, from the inherently limiting nature of the photographic image to disease being used as a metaphor, one of her most famously quoted lines was, “Love words/ agonize over sentences/pay attention to the world.” What she most likely meant by this admonition was that by pushing oneself into the meaning of words on the printed page one is in effect connecting him/herself more directly with the particulars of the world in which one lives.
Unfortunately, one of the acutely negative effects wrought by the coming of our current digital age is that people tend to be in the position of increasingly getting their information about the world from predominately visual sites like YouTube or Data Art, rather than from books, papers, and digital web pages where the ability to dive into a piece of writing at length in order to receive significant information on a particular subject is what is required. As a result of this, what may be occurring is that as information and knowledge are increasingly accessed through images rather than through words, the opportunity which people have to connect themselves more fully with their world thought the written word may over time be in the process of being significantly diminished.
Ultimately, words can be fragmented pieces of information that prevent us from seeing the whole about some area of human endeavor simply because as soon as one attaches a word to something it tends to limit it by defining it. And if there is in fact a unitary, expansive consciousness, then that surely exists on the other side of words and thoughts. Yet at the same time, words and thoughts have led to certain towering intellectual achievements, such as Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species or Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. So without being fully attentive to the meaning of written words, human beings couldn’t possibly have explored their world or their universe as fully as we have done.
At the same time, one has to wonder just what might occur if people grow too attached to the pictures, images, and videos inside their phones or PCs as primary sources of information. Will our capacity for exploration begin to grow limited simply because we will be less acquainted with how to effectively use words and thoughts as tools for our our explorations? And will we be less able to fully sink into the images and pictures that are presented to us in the digital world simply because we no longer have the written word to effectively guide us in doing so?
There is also the matter of the significance of the written word in the sort of post truth age that we now seem to be in. For now more than ever we all need to be very careful of the meaning of words within various social and political contexts so that we can remain certain that words and the truth remain one and the same. On the other hand, if people increasingly get their knowledge and information largely from pictorial images or videos, there is a significant danger that the truth can be manipulated more easily. Susan Sontag was able to write so brilliantly about a variety of subjects – from the photographic image to the interpretation of art to international relations – primarily because she was so in love with the written word. It would be a shame if this same love of words began to disappear in our current cyber age.
Lyn Lesch’s book Intelligence in the Digital Age: How the Search for Something Larger May Be Imperiled is being published later this year by Rowman & Littlefield and will be available on Amazon.