For the past thirty years the West has been undergoing a communications revolution the likes of which it has not seen since the fifteenth century. Digital media have altered every aspect of our lives from the way we eat and travel to the way we interact with others, from our sense of time and space to our very sense of self. They have undermined the institutions of the print culture upon which Western societies have been based, igniting a legitimation crisis in a global order founded on individualism, pluralism, deliberation, disinterestedness, and the rule of law. They are contributing to the polarization, mistrust, tribalism, memory atrophy, and the unwillingness to distinguish truth from falsehood we see today.
To understand the origins of the crisis, it is not enough to go back to 1989, when the Internet first became available for public use, or even back to 1450, when the first Bible rolled off Gutenberg’s press. Media theorists have called our culture post-literate: it resembles less the print culture that immediately preceded it, than the oral cultures of Europe before the arrival of the alphabet. To understand how digital media are re-oralizing our culture, we should go all the way back to the Greek Dark Ages, when a group of wandering bards created the West’s first media technology: the epic poem. For it is by looking into mirror of the archaic that the clearest image of the digital present will appear.
Ryan Ruby is an author and the Albert Einstein-Fellow 2019 in Caputh. His fiction and criticism have appeared in The Baffler, Conjunctions, Lapham’s Quarterly, n+1, The Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere. He has translated two novellas from the French for Readux Books. He is an Instructor at the Berlin Writers’ Workshop and has been an Affiliated Fellow of the Institute for Cultural Inquiry. His debut novel The Zero and the One was published by Twelve Books in the US in 2017 and in the UK by Legend Press in 2018. He lives in Berlin.
Amanda DeMarco is a writer and translator of French and German literature and philosophy. She has received grants and fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the European Union, PEN, the Senate of the City of Berlin, Yaddo, and the MacDowell Colony. Her criticism has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. She lives in Berlin and is working on her first book.