When moral and spiritual ideas were handed down via oral tradition, they could evolve with the cultural and technological context in which they existed. Some stories were repeated often around the fire while others, less favored, eventually faded into the hazy past. Uninteresting details might be omitted by a storyteller, others elaborated. New implications might be extracted—rules, roles, and ideas about the natural world--depending on the needs of the era. The gods themselves matured.
The advent of writing changed this. On the one hand, writing was one of humanity’s most powerful inventions. It allowed information to be transmitted directly between people who didn’t know each other. It allowed knowledge to accumulate. But it also allowed ideas –especially those that couldn’t be tested—to stagnate. Written words are frozen in time, a snapshot of the mind of the writer at a specific point in history. Allegiance to a set of civic, moral or spiritual writings allows a person or a group of people to become developmentally arrested, bound to the insights and limitations of the authors.
As a problem that originated in communications technology, the nuclear standoff of tribal fundamentalisms in which we live may be transcended also by communications technology. Canonization, the process by which an authoritative body designates a specific set of writings as complete, perfect, or more holy than all others, makes this worse. Prior to canonization, a single fragment of text may be static but the mix can evolve, with some documents moving to the fore and others falling out of favor, perhaps being lost altogether. Canonization freezes the mix, giving priority not only to the written word, but to a specific set of written words that have received the blessing of a specific human hierarchy.
Ironically, the invention of the printing press, a world changing wonder insomuch as it accelerated the growth and spread of human knowledge, made even worse the opportunities for developmental arrest. By making a static set of sacred texts widely available, it removed yet another form of flexibility and spiritual/moral growth. Clergy could no longer selectively emphasize those canonical texts that fit the moral consciousness of a given time period (omitting the rest), without losing their authority in the minds of many adherents. Some scholars have suggested that fundamentalism had its birth in the invention of the printing press, and that its spread across the planet region by region, religion by religion, has paralleled the growth of literacy.
This leads to two conclusions:
- Religious fundamentalism, a phenomenon that many consider one of the top current threats to our longevity as a species, can be thought of as problem of communication technology. Specifically, it may be thought of as book worship or, in religious terms, bibliolatry. Recall that an idol is an object (shaped by human minds and hands) that attempts to represent and communicate the essence of divinity. For pre-literate people, statues, images, icons, and sacred spaces filled this role. In an age of mobility and literacy, what better idol than a book? And what more likely idolatry than bibliolatry?
- As a problem that originated in communications technology, the nuclear standoff of tribal fundamentalisms in which we live may be transcended also by communications technology. Problems introduced by technological evolution frequently are solved by further technological evolution. In fact, I might argue that they are rarely solved otherwise.
In this light it is tremendously exciting that now, for the first time in human history, we have communication technologies that combine the best of oral tradition and the written word. For the first time, utter strangers thousands of miles apart can exchange ideas and information via living documents that evolve continuously.
A book, they say, is out of date the day it is in print. Not so with the Web. Web 2.0 allows an individual text to evolve the way that oral instruction once did. Wikipedia articles change daily as new information becomes available. The Web also re-opens evolution at the level of the collection—a rich, indexed, ever-changing library replaces a canonical list of authoritative texts.
Savvy, entrepreneurial fundamentalists have latched onto new web technologies as a means of dispersing the words and world view of our Bronze Age ancestors, just as their ideological forebears did with the printing press. But in their devotion to this world view they miss the stunning opportunity we have been given.
Now as never before we have the means to honor not the answers of our spiritual ancestors but their questions: What is Real? What is Good? How can we live in moral community with each other? Because we have moved beyond the age of the book and of sacred books, we have the means to make this a conversation, not of a priestly class nor of a single culture, but of scholars and seekers and life lovers from every part of this precious planet. Together we can take the conversation from where it got stuck and set it free once more to flow forward on the currents of human need and knowledge.
Valerie Tarico, Ph.D.