The future of understanding

Books, media, the internet… Is it all too much for us to keep up with? What is happening to understanding as the world changes around us?

We are at a fateful historical moment: we are still capable of limiting the cumulative global effects of 160 years of industrial and chemical manufacturing on our way of living, on other species, and on our atmosphere and oceans. But through media, we are no longer effectively enhancing the capacity of most citizens to understand and change these conditions, and thus to protect our biosphere and enlarge instead of reduce our options for living in the future.

The most profound expansion in cognitive capacity in human beings in the last two millennia occurred only a little more than 300 years ago in the mid-17th century, when the first mass distribution of books expanded the interiority of our thinking and reasoning. This happened because mass book-reading enabled individuals to absorb stories and ideas on their own, and to teach themselves and one another.

In a word, we exited a world in which information came mainly from parents, friends, and neighbors, and entered a world in which anyone who learned to read could teach and enrich others, informally or professionally. Although wars and depressions have occasionally limited the expansion of media and publishing, only now, in the early 21st century, has the availability and reading of books appeared to decline.

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