Michael Heim. Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. xxi + 303 pp. $18.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-300-07746-9.
Reviewed by Susan C. Hines (Department of English & Program in Digital Arts and Multimedia Design, La Salle University)
Published on H-Ideas (October, 1999)
Hines on Heim's Electric Language
Michael Heim's Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing provides students of the electronic age with a refreshing academic "why" rather than the typically commercial "how to" in terms of its approach to electronic writing. Like Goethe's Faust, whom Heim cites in the book's first chapter, Heim is himself a philosophical romantic of sorts, for he "shows the word transformed from the contemplative word to the electrified deed" (p. 45). Tracing the foundations and ramifications of electronic writing, the goal of Electric Language is to consider the results of writing technologies in general and of word processing in particular. This second edition (published in 1999; the first edition was published in 1987) follows a spate of publishing on hypertext and cyberspace textuality as if to remind readers that the electronic word has a history worthy of exploration, if not a present in need of a kind of reckoning.
While Heim's book-length study was important in the late 1980s (characterized by Wired Magazine founder Andrew Joscelyne as "no simple geewiz account"), his work seems even more relevant a decade later. With an increasing number of publications in the vein of George Landow's Hypertext (1992) and Hypertext 2.0 (1997), Janet Murray's Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (1997), and Katherine Hayles' How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (1999), there is a serious need for a text such as Heim's, which lays the theoretical groundwork for discussing the impact of writing technologies on human thought while also helping to bridge the gap between word processing and what hypertext guru, Ted Nelson, has called "world processing."
With the first edition published two years before Tim Berners-Lee developed the Hypertext Mark-up Language (HTML) and at least eight years before the Word Wide Web (WWW) gained in widespread popularity, Electric Language remains remarkably fresh in its view that new ways of writing are, indeed, changing old ways of thinking. The thesis is especially compelling because of Heim's solid, historical approach. By fleshing out many of the cultural and psychological changes associated with certain (primarily Western) writing technologies of the past, Heim makes a case for word processing that is reasonable and systematic. Drawing upon philosophies both ancient (Heraclitus, Plato, and Aristotle) and modern (Heidegger, Havelock, and Ong), Heim contemplates the "transformative" (p. 46) qualities of writing. He demonstrates how different modes of communication (oral, written) can alter human reality by differentiating between the characteristic features of pre-literate or "oral-aural" Greece (a poetic, heroic age that is "made memorable through an acoustic shape which includes rhythmic measures, sections linked by cross-reference and repetitions, and thought orders of patterned parallels" [pp. 52-53]) and literate Greece (an analytical or philosophical age that can record and reflect upon thought with "a clarity attained so as to fashion connections not altogether evident in the immediate reality" [p. 55]).
To Heim's credit, his chronological or historical analysis avoids the pitfalls of absolutism or meliorism, and he examines word processing--as he examines antecedent writing technologies--in terms of its shortcomings as well as its benefits. While Heim has been criticized for "a predominately negative tone" about the primacy of electronic writing, his concerns about technologies that facilitate an immediate, often unreflective, composition are validated somewhat by the by the vast mediocrity of the WWW. In fact, Heim's tone is more realistic than negative. As someone who understands and puts to full use the technologies about which he writes, he is understandably more prudent and cautious. Computer networks have affected and will continue to affect what Heim calls the "solitude of reflective reading and writing" (p. 215). Against the backdrop of the latest instructional technologies (asynchronous discussion and IRC chat, for example), educators, especially, can see that solitude of contemplation in abeyance.
Heim's supposition that individual thought might be at risk in this age of electronic writing (not to mention other electronic forms of communication!) makes good sense, and that he devotes the final chapter of his book to staving off or mitigating some of word processing's negative effects makes the work of this philosopher--in the same sense that a land developer extends himself to make a project "green" or environment-conscious-- exceptionally moral. It is a pleasure to read a fully conscious, wholly thoughtful and conscientious work, and Electric Language is of that caliber.
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Susan C. Hines. Review of Heim, Michael, Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing.
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