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After Reading | On Memory (Electronic or Otherwise) – Vilém Flusser

By focusing on the moment between Oral and Written culture Flusser calls upon an important historic transition in Human history. All of a sudden the law was not an agreed upon cultural conversation. Instead law became eternally carved in stone, forever stating its dictum upon the culture.

In Phaedrus Plato argues that written language is inferior to its spoken counterpart because the written word is dead. It cannot be conversed with. When someone commits a crime in Oral culture, the group reacts. The whole village gets together and reacts against the crime with some congregative punishment, depending on its severity.

In written culture the ‘book of rules’ has a higher degree of social gravitas than the people in the area. There is no conversation. Instead there is a set list of protocols that are followed. Law is dictated to society. We have a ‘carved-in-stone’ relation to the ‘book of rules’. The concept a law becoming outdated is far more difficult to contemplate when it becomes a written word, instead of a cultural process. The law simply dictates itself the culture. Changing it is a matter of bureaucracy; a conversation among an elite group. Not a conversation among the public.

In this shift to Electronic we are moving away from the message being written in stone. The written word on a screen can be copied and edited, altered, changed, re-mixed. Messages on a material support (paper) are dictated to the reader. Messages on a screen act as a part of a process, rather than an endpoint (the book). The digital document acts more like a message-in-circuit, ever-changing. If the law was written on a wiki, constantly being updated due to recent discoveries and ethical evolutions, the way we prosecute would be radically different.

In conversation, any ambiguity that exists is parsed via a process of agreement and disagreement. The feedback look that exists in conversation between ‘statement’ and ‘response’ is fast. The feedback loop that exists in responding to the written word is slow and often caught up in bureaucratic processes. The electronic document is a hybrid of these two moments. The digital support for text allows for a response to be immediate, and conversations to occur in an ephemeral way. Text on the screen is not carved in stone.


  1. Mattie wrote:

    You make some interesting points that I hadn’t gotten from the reading. You mention “if the law was written on a wiki, constantly being updated,” but in a way isn’t some of the laws we have almost like a wiki since congress changes them, updates, ammends etc. different laws. Granted, they aren’t as constantly changed as a wikipedia entry, but they still change so that they aren’t exactly “set in stone.”

    Tuesday, September 14, 2010 at 12:27 am | Permalink
  2. alexboots wrote:

    @mattie (wow, my blog has no reply function)

    There is one key difference between a wiki-set up and the current legal set up. The legal set up we have now is governed by an elite of 100 people who decide for everyone what is write and wrong This is top-down governing, not bottom-up. This is the main difference, law became something altered and changed at the whims of a few, instead of decided upon by the conversations of many.

    ‘Set-in-stone’ was used more to have the idea of ‘set somewhere’, VS verbal communication which isn’t set anywhere, or wiki’s which are documents with no end-point.

    On top of all that, the feedback-loop congress relies on to figure stuff out is incredibly slow. The internet allows us to close these lines of communication, making the feedback loop smaller, and allowing change to happen more accurately and efficiently.

    Wednesday, September 15, 2010 at 1:33 am | Permalink
  3. Kknight wrote:

    You do a nice job of relating McLuhan to our current media moment, Alex. Do you see any potential meta-feedback between the speedy feedback loop of the web, and the slower more cumbersome processes of legislation? How do these media shift the relationship between elected officials and constituents.

    This topic also relates nicely to Meagan’s post from this week – it would be interesting to read your response to her post on e-democracy.

    Saturday, September 18, 2010 at 2:48 pm | Permalink
  4. Friend Alex, with this post you bring together two of my favorite things in the whole world… the law and communication; I always enjoy the points you bring up in class and this post brings up a interesting international point as well. How do international laws manage to maintain credence when they overlap and intersect via different continents and what effects/correlations relate to this from an emerging media stand point? I worked at a law school not to long ago and enjoyed what type of rhetoric law and communications students debated against each other. There’s some good cross covering going on here sir, keep up the great blogging!

    Wednesday, November 3, 2010 at 4:20 am | Permalink