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Deleting Humankind's Cultural Heritage, There's An App For That

Of all the milestones along the road to human civilization, none is more profound than the advent of reading and writing. But in the name of interactivity, the 21st century is marked by the shallow language of social media that risks burning all our acqui

Swiped away...
Swiped away...
Jaime Pinsky

-Essay-

SAO PAULO — The process of civilizing society hasn't stopped since the first appearance of human beings. The discovery of fire and invention of the wheel, domestication of animals, the creation of gods and structuring of cities were all milestones in the history of humankind.

But after the emergence of spoken language, it becomes difficult to pinpoint civilizing factors that have had greater impact than the invention, the rationalization and the universalization of writing. Through it, humankind became capable not only of producing culture, but also of preserving it efficiently and passing it on to both contemporaries and future generations.

Presenting discoveries, describing inventions, revealing techniques, explaining ideas and concepts, admitting weaknesses and sharing feelings became far easier with writing. But initially practiced among elites only, writing spread the accumulated knowledge parsimoniously. The conservatism of those who held power was such that it blocked the democratization of progress in material as well as immaterial culture.

Initially with papyrus and parchment, then with paper, and later with the invention of movable type printing, culture and an accumulated heritage reached an ever-growing number of people, popularizing knowledge and giving new opportunities to a larger segment of the population. The whole history of humankind would have been very different without writing and books.

The 19th century saw the populations of developed countries learn to read and to write on an unprecedented scale. As machines began to replace manual work, agricultural productivity grew, as did the services sector and cities, seemingly placing the world on the path to a reality that, up until then, had been only the dream of utopians.

By reading books, writing letters, putting the result of complex reflexions on paper, citizens were sharing ideas, thoughts, feelings, and they were all the stronger depending on their ability to use writing and reading techniques. Back then, it was possible to dream of a universal society of literate people whose opportunities to move up the social ladder would be determined solely on their merits.

But in our 21st century, utopias seem like a bad remembrance of a distant past. Although many people don't like the world we live in, it seems as if we've given up on changing it. We live in societies that are either consumerist or bureaucratic, when they're not fundamentalist. We pretend we can find happiness in buying stuff, obeying rules or believing in an improbable afterlife.

We're throwing away thousands of years of advancing civilization so we can turn into app-driven consumers. We're losing the ability to read complex texts, and we content ourselves with the poverty of social media language.

In the name of interactivity, we're becoming unremarkable, common. Without serious readings, we're abdicating humankind's cultural heritage, which previous generations took thousands of years to build.

We don't even need a Big Brother to order that books be burned. We're burning our unused, unnecessary bookshelves ourselves, and not even to replace them with e-books. Instead, we're leaving knowledge in the sole hands of software creators.

*Jaime Pinsky is an historian and professor at the University of Campinas. He's also the founder and CEO of Brazilian publishing company Contexto.

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