The defining element of the desktop GUI is the icon, which, although it often has a name, is above all a picture that performs or receives an action. These actions give the icon its meaning. As elements in a true picture writing, icons do note merely remind the user of documents and programs, but function as documents and programs. Reorganizing files and activating programs is writing, just as putting alphabetic characters in a row is writing. Rather like the religious relics after which they are named, computer icons are energy units that focus the operative power of the machine into visible and manipulable symbols. Computer icons also remind us of the cultural functions of Hebrew letters in the Cabala or of alchemical and other signs invoked by such Renaissance magi as Giordano Bruno. Magic letters and signs were often objects of meditation, as they were in the logical diagrams of the medieval Raymond Llul, and they were also believed to have operational powers. As functioning representations in computer writing, electronic icons realize what magic signs in the past could only suggest.
The words are all on a transparent film. The experiences to which they refer are taking place seamlessly behind the film overlay. The words are like digital samples of a continuous analog experience. If you focus on the word-film, the experience becomes a blur, the way that focusing on an insect on your car windshield prevents you from seeing the road in the distance clearly. Preverbal experience of primitive people takes place entirely behind the overlay or rather without it. Early verbal cultures see the word and the thing which it names in somewhat equal focus, connected by an invisible membrane. Later verbal cultures come to see only the verbal overlay, with a vague blur of experience behind. As Homo Sapiens lives ever more in the realm of symbols the membrane connecting thing and symbol atrophies. Discourse becomes a same-symbol with-different-underlying-meanings/same-meaning-with-different-underlying-symbols quicksand.
Eric Havelock’s Preface To Plato is a book I’d come across often: McLuhan frequently cites it, as does Walter Ong in Orality & Literacy. Well just before Xmas I got round to reading it, and I’ve just re-read it this week. I have been deeply impressed by the book because of its wealth of ideas, its deep sense of scholarship, and because it is so well written: for a book on such a relatively obscure and ancient subject it is a surprisingly good read. Despite being an overtly academic text it manages to provoke a deep sense of wonder about ancient Greek culture, and offers a tantalizing glimpse of the unfathomable alien-ness of their ways of thinking.
The book begins by asking why Plato makes such a sustained and vehement attack on poetry in The Republic. Havelock suggests it is because ‘poetry’ for the Greeks at that time—around 360 BC—bears almost no relation to the rather ephemeral art form we now know, but was an “encyclopedic” repository for the culture’s storehouse of knowledge. It was central to the preservation of the culture’s history, traditions, belief systems, social mores, and technology. It was as important didactically as it was for entertainment.
Because this culture was primarily an oral culture, memorization was achieved through repetition. This is because sound is an ephemeral medium where each utterance disappears the moment it has ceased, and it is only through ritualistic and incessant repetition that information can be maintained in the group consciousness. This creates a hypnotic, trance-like, mental state that Havelock likens to indoctrination, where “the task of education could be described as putting the whole community into a formulaic state of mind”. It was this that Plato was railing against.
Havelock’s argument is that Plato represented a new type of man: the literate man. Literacy allowed information to be stored externally. This “preserved knowledge” broke the spell over the hypnotized oral culture and allowed new means of expression, categorization, abstract thought, and the creation of ‘subject’ and ‘object’. That is, rationalism, and the “supreme music” of philosophy. Havelock goes on to say that Plato, and later Aristotle:
… created ‘knowledge’ as an object and as the proper content of an educational system, divided into the areas of ethics, politics, psychology, physics, and metaphysics. Man’s experience of his society, of himself and of his environment was now given separate organised existence in the abstract word.
This then is the conceptual core of Preface To Plato. It’s a marvelous book. Along the way there’s lots of good stuff about narrative, performance, the relation of performers to their audience, and plenty of interesting textual analysis of The Iliad.
However, although I do basically agree with Havelock’s position, I think he has overstated the influence and importance of epic poetry as an oral culture’s means of storing knowledge (which in this particular context means overstating the importance of Homer). There are certainly other ways of remembering things without writing—images, song, ritual, plays, sculpture, and story, for example. This criticism is borne out by critics such as Halverson.
Nonetheless, wholeheartedly recommended.
Halverson, J. (1992) ‘Havelock on Greek Orality and Literacy’ in the Journal of The History of Ideas.
Havelock, E. (1963) Preface To Plato. Cambridge, London: Belknap Press.
Ong, W. (2002) Orality and Literacy. London: Routledge.
When reading a book or even a sentence, there is a beginning step. A book and a sentence both have a beginning that is formally denoted. There is a middle, and, hopefully, there is a solution to a problem that is posed. The reader is recognizing symbols and making associations. The reader controls the pacing, the level of participation, and the dwell-time. But, essentially, the part that interests the reader are the symbols and finding the solution to the problem: that is, making meaning.
Launching an application follows the same steps as reading, with the user of the program recognizing symbols for the sake of solving a problem. The user determines the pacing, the level of participation, and the dwell-time, but in the end is only concerned with the symbols and the solution to the problem.
Simply put, running an application is an interactive form of reading.