Ditigal Renaissance? Ancient Texts, New Media

Books are media. Old-fashioned as it may sound, the book itself was once a radical innovation. In fact, somewhere in the foundational knowledge useful to anyone interested in classical civilizations, is an understanding of how the contents of the ancient Romans, Greeks and other ancient peoples have actually reached us through a series of transformations in the media.

The Iliad is amongst the oldest known documents of ancient Greek literature. As an epic in verse, it is thought to have been the product of an oral tradition of bardic poets who specialized in telling stories in a rhythmical, poetic verse pattern. They developed a large pool of formulaic turns of phrase, which fit into the metre and rhythm of their songs. An added benefit of pre-fabricated formulae was that they would automatically be in line with the overall poetic style of the songs. Thus the formula would come ready-made with an aura of poetic beauty suitable to the context and subject matter – not unlike the modern practices of spoken word poetry.

The genesis of the Iliad and similar texts has puzzled many scholars of ancient Greek. It’s been proven that the Iliad, like the entire epic cycle to which it belonged, was at first an oral tradition, which existed for decades, if not centuries, before it was for the first time captured in writing, in the 8th century BCE. Scholars then wondered if the name “Homer” was the name of the man who wrote it all down, or if he was a prominent bard-master whose accolade gave him the authorship rights to the work altogether.

It has even been argued that the Greek alphabet was specifically developed in order to write down the Iliad.

However it happened, this was the first in a series of several changes of medium, for the Iliad: from its preservation in the collective memory of a network of humans whose job was that of the bard, to the written form: first on stone, and later, on papyrus. For centuries, ancient works of literature like the Iliad were preserved through hand-copying, and from the scroll of papyrus, evolved the folio edition, and the modern book. The invention of the printing press in the Renaissance brought about a major change, and from early print making to the modern paperback, the book form established itself as the default medium for text.

The internet brought back the scroll. Plus, the internet’s affinity with the search-engine brought on new text search modalities, that allow a more thorough-going examination of texts, dictionary building, and data gathering. A much more “scientific” angle on ancient texts is then possible, and lets us map the development of ancient languages with greater accuracy and less effort.

The internet also performs the functions of a library and archive, and provides a rich and multi-faceted communication infrastructure to aid the distribution and dissemination of information on a large scale.

Often compared to the book printing revolution in information technology or even celebrated as a new renaissance of learning and knowledge, it is often argued that the internet provides wider access to learning at a cheaper cost. Simultaneously, other voices have put forward the argument that a digital divide exists in the online infrastructure, which reflects the social divide in education, and remains just as hard to bridge as before.

Likened also to the industrial revolution of the late 18th and early 19th century, the digital revolution is unquestionably changing the way we peruse information, because it changes the way we publish it in the first place. In recent months, the “Hachette Affair“ has made news headlines more than once, because it highlights the grand scale and profound nature of the changes occurring, and underscores the painfulness of these transformative processes, that bring not only innovation and new creations, but also destruction. Online retailers and the digital availability of books first made a dent in the business of physical book shops, and now also is knocking down established pillars of the book publishing industry: a process that few find fault with per se, but that is happening at ravaging speed.

The content of the Iliad and other books remains the same, but the experience of reading them is a different one now that the media of reading change. The pace, expectations, and entertainment value of literary works is a different one in this context. Television didn’t overtake ancient Greek literature, television began with a televised series of Oedipus, expanding upon certain themes and bringing the ancients closer to the modern living room again. The world of computer gaming and fantasy abounds with ancient warlords and mythological creatures from Greece and Rome. But how is ancient literature made palatable to the new generation of readers? So far, the use of out-of-copyright translations which are free to download on kindle, I would say, leaves room for improvement…