Archive for the ‘The Myth of Digital Utopia’ Category

Wikipedia is an awesome resource that I use at least once a day, but all these personal appeals for donations are starting to freak me out. An encyclopedia anyone can edit is cool. It’s not a cause. We already have non-profit institutions charged with making sure information remains readily available and dependable. They’re called libraries, and they come with experts called librarians.

Co-founder Jimmy Wales doesn’t want to dirty up his site with ads because he imagines that Wikipedia is “like a library or a public park… like a temple for the mind.” It is no such thing. That it is persistently mistaken as such speaks to the general devaluation and erosion of meaningful education in Western culture. The difference between an encyclopedia and a library is the difference between passing curiosity and cultivation.

And by the way, Jimmy, solicitations are ads.

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In my last post I talked a lot about libraries, but not at all about librarians. That was a mistake. While I vehemently object to Godin’s flippant assertion that we need libraries “not at all,” I agree with him that librarians are more important than ever (though his suggestion that they teach students “how to use a soldering iron or take apart something with no user serviceable parts inside” is almost surreal). We need them to, in his words, “figure out creative ways to find and use data,” especially now that there is so much of it,  and so much of it is suspect.

Bobbi Newman, at Librarian by Day, also addressed Godin’s post:

We ARE fighting for the future of the librarian as a producer, concierge, connector, teach[er] and impresario, but we know to do that we need books. We need the information contained in those books…

And she makes a great point about all this “free” information that apparently renders books obsolete. In fact, libraries pay for this information, and “The price of those databases is going up, not down.” I like Wikipedia a lot, but it is not and never will be a library.

The lesson here is that, if you want to know something about the future role of librarians, it’s best to ask librarians. Just be sure to wait until they’re done soldering.

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Voig knew that the machines could not really be trusted. The creations were no better than the creators, and indeed resembled them in many of the worst ways. Like men, the machines were frequently subject to something resembling emotional instability. Some became overzealous, others had recurring hallucinations, functional and psychosomatic breakdowns, or even complete catatonic withdrawals. And aside from their own problems, the machines tended to be influenced by the emotional states of their human operators. In fact, the more suggestible machines were nothing more than extensions of their operators’ personalities.

The above excerpt is from an extraordinary 1962 novel by Robert Sheckley called Journey Beyond Tomorrow. The story revolves around a young man named Joenes, who sets out from his insulated Pacific Island home on what becomes a Kafkaesque journey through a future America. Near the end of the book,  Joenes, now a befuddled agent of the U.S. government, is flying back to the Octagon (built over the Pentagon, which turned out to be much too small for the bureaucracy within) when his plane is fired upon by an American missile defense system.

Back in Washington D.C., the War Probabilities Calculator spits out a stream of possible causes behind the attack, and the top five are given to General Voig, who “knew that most of his information came to him from extremely expensive machines that sometimes could not tell the difference between a goose and a rocket; machines that required regiments of highly trained men to minister to them, repair them, improve them, and to soothe them in every way.” 

50 years later, it’s not just the machines that are overzealous extensions of their creators’ personalities, but the programs designed to run on them. Sheckley’s words are eerily contemporary. 

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Jaron Lanier, a virtual reality pioneer, inventor, musician, and author of the Web 2.0-critical You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, had this to say in The New York Times Magazine (“Does the Digital Classroom Enfeeble the Mind“) about the drive to “empower” schools with learning technologies:

The problem is that students could come to conceive of themselves as relays in a transpersonal digital structure… What is really lost when this happens is the self-invention of a human brain. If students don’t learn to think, then no amount of access to information will do them any good.

That last sentence should be emblazoned above the door of everyone who makes decisions about what goes on inside classrooms. Information is not knowledge, though the conflation of the two has become inveterate in the digital age. Our collective compulsion for trivia has become a way of life, no doubt, thanks to Google and 24/7 access, but trivia is not knowledge either.

If someone asks me where the phrase “a handful of dust” comes from and why it has literary significance, I can find out quickly by typing the first few letters into Google. I can then read a snippet of the Wikipedia entry that appears at the top of the page: “A Handful of Dust is a novel by Evelyn Waugh published in 1934.” If I click on the link and read the first paragraph of the entry, I will discover that the title of Waugh’s novel is taken from a line in T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land.  However, if I want to know what Eliot’s poem has to do with Waugh’s novel, and what the two authors are trying to say in their respective works, then I’m going to have to stop clicking around and start doing some serious reading.

In other words, technology can’t do the real work for us, and there can’t be any knowledge without that committed effort, without striving.

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A version of this article originally appeared in PopMatters on February 1, 2010.

READ MORE, the Kindle ad beamed from the margin of my Yahoo! mailbox. It was a promise, but it was also a subtle rebuke: If I could read more with a Kindle, it stood to reason that I wasn’t reading enough without one, and getting and consuming increasingly more information is an end in itself these days. About a week later, as if it could sense my indifference to its high-minded sales pitch, Amazon’s intrepid e-book reader emailed me. It thought I’d like to know that it only cost $299, and that over 300,000 of its most popular titles were available for “free wireless delivery in less than 60 seconds.” I logged out and anxiously waited for the Kindle to rap, ever so curtly, on my front door.

You can’t really blame the Kindle. The idea that someone might not want it, or might not be able to afford it, is simply not part of its program. When the first generation hit Amazon’s cyber-shelves in November of 2007, it sold out in hours (we’re on Kindle 2 now). Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wrote a letter a few months later addressed to his shareholders, but it read awfully like a love poem to his new toy. “Kindle is purpose-built for long-form reading,” he wrote (not the Kindle, you’ll notice, just Kindle). “We hope Kindle and its successors may gradually and incrementally move us over years into a world with longer span of attention, providing a counterbalance to the recent proliferation of info-snacking tools.” (“Information snacking,” he explains earlier in the letter, is the tendency of our networked devices to drive us to distraction.)

The Kindle, in other words, unlike that nasty iPhone (on which Kindle books can be read) and Twitter, is the solution to our mind-shrinking malaise. It’s spreading the Word in electronic ink, and Bezos is the self-described missionary whose “admittedly audacious goal is to improve upon the physical book.” That he is “fervent” about making billions along the way is almost to miss the point.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been an unwaveringly enthusiastic Amazon customer for more than 10 years. When I buy something, that’s where I get it, and I routinely troll my Wish List and Recommendations page. So I want to assure the Kindle, as part of the family, that I bear it no ill will. In fact, I think it’s really cool. I had a hell of a time finding one, since they’re only available through the mother ship, and apparently everyone in my city is, like me, too vindictive to want to READ MORE—but never mind.

The Kindle is super light, easy to use, and the screen is easy on the eye, unlike my computer monitor or the iPhone. The ability to change text size is genius, especially for the visually impaired (though the blind have a powerfully legitimate gripe about the text-to-speech feature), and if I were a business traveler, I’d probably own two of the damn things. What bothers me is not the Kindle’s functionality, or the decommissioning of the physical book (to the sound of Taps) that may result, but the outlandish, at times outrageous rhetoric surrounding a machine that displays a fraction of available texts for a minority of people who can afford yet another endlessly upgradeable technology.

Even Better Than the Real Thing

“At the beginning of our design process,” Bezos says in the same letter quoted above, “we identified what we believe is the book’s most important feature. It disappears… We knew Kindle would have to get out of the way, just like a physical book, so readers could become engrossed in the words and forget they’re reading on a device.” He’s talking sense here, despite the overall creepiness of the address, and even though many people have come to regard reading as an intellectual and tactile pursuit. A book is fundamentally a bunch of words strung together to tell a story of some kind, and it shouldn’t matter how those chains of text are transmitted to the eyes or ears or fingertips, provided they are equally intelligible.

So, if content is king, if words are just words, then why do we need the Kindle? On the one hand, Bezos says he wants to “[improve] upon the physical book”; on the other hand, he admits he can never, in fact, “out-book the book.” What gives? Well, Bezos decided to add lots of cool stuff to the Kindle, that’s what—stuff you don’t and can’t get with traditional books. I’ve mentioned a few of these extras already, but you can also search texts, instantly define words, access Wikipedia and basic web functions, keep running notes while you read, and of course you don’t have to lug around hefty tomes or flip pages on windy beaches. The most important capability, however, according to Bezos, is the “seamless, simple ability to find a book and have it in 60 seconds.”

Even though Kindle books, when available, are generally cheaper than paper copies, I don’t see how uninterrupted access to the Amazon book store and the web make the Kindle “get out of the way,” thereby shoring up the ever-eroding art of long-form reading. The Kindle is very much in the way, as Bezos well knows. He has to redefine the book to beat the book, and the only way he can do that is by making it more like a portable PC, something that flaunts all the built-in short cuts and distractions the wired generations have come to expect, where a traditional book, by its very (soon-to-be outmoded) nature, has none.

Steven Johnson, who wrote the most even-handed article I’ve seen on the Kindle so far, put it like this: “It will make it easier for us to buy books, but at the same time make it easier to stop reading them.” He goes on to say what many of us already know: That the Kindle will eventually allow us full access to the internet (a la that nasty iPhone), the sine qua non of information-snacking. And if the Kindle doesn’t, another e-reader will, although at that point it won’t really be an e-reader anymore. “As a result,” Johnson continues, “I fear that one of the great joys of book reading — the total immersion in another world, or in the world of the author’s ideas — will be compromised.” And if the book is redefined—entrepreneurs are already refashioning “one-dimensional” novels into multimedia extravaganzas and interactive, “open work” experiences—how we “read” them will also change.

There is no denying the excitement of having every single book ever written instantly available and searchable and cross-referenceable. The prospect of downloading a recently “found” history of ancient Greece while standing in the shadow of the Parthenon is awesome, but only if one actually reads the book. The Kindle makes the first part possible, and that’s a great thing for those who can afford the privilege, but to say that it somehow increases the likelihood of the second part is either naive or disingenuous. And yet Kindlers and journalists alike insist not only that they can read twice as much on the machine, but that, in the words of Slate’s Jacob Weisberg, it “provides a fundamentally better experience” than printed paper. Clearly I’m missing something here.

Did Bezos endow his product with magical, cerebral and visual cortex-enhancing powers? If I shell out for a Kindle 2, should I expect glassy-eyed men from Amazon’s Sunshine Carpet Cleaning Division to beam into my abode offering up the divine secrets of READ MORE in exchange for the one thing that can’t yet be collected over the internet—a blood signature?

Brand Name Faith

James Wolcott argues in Vanity Fair that the Kindle, along with our increasing retinue of digital extensions, is emblematic of a cultural shift away from snobbery and self-aggrandizement, a kind of progressive, equalizing force that is leading or will lead to a new kind of consumerism in which our possessions “will be arrayed and arranged to show off not our personal aesthetics or expensive whims but our ethics…”

The first idea, at least, seems sensible on the surface, and it’s been circulating for awhile. That guy reading the Dave Eggers novel on the patio of the coffee shop isn’t just reading a Dave Eggers novel; he’s advertising the fact that he’s reading a Dave Eggers novel (on the patio of a coffee shop). That’s the nature of real books, says Wolcott—they “help brand our identities.” On the other hand, if the guy on the patio of the coffee shop is peering into a non-descript slice of plastic, we don’t know what the hell he’s reading. The Kindle removes the temptation, or so goes the argument, to inject affectation and disingenuousness into the experience of reading, while at the same time preventing passersby from judging us by the covers of our books. (I’m reminded here of E.T. holding up that long, gnarled, glowing finger in front of Elliott’s tear-streaked face, telling him to be good.)

While I thank all my digital storage units for making me a better (fitter, happier) culture consumer, isn’t the Kindle itself (or the iPhone, or a netbook) just as much a potential marker of superior taste as a Dave Eggers novel, a Miles Davis CD, or a Louis Vuitton purse? If anything, the Kindle is even more of a signifier because it’s still new enough and rare enough to be a novelty item, and it’s not like people can check it out in stores, remember.

Reading on a Kindle doesn’t advertise the flavors you enjoy consuming, but the means by which you enjoy consuming those flavors, and when the means involves a new technology that is so exclusively acquirable—long-term financial commitment plus sight unseen availability—it has the appearance of being stamped with an esoteric, almost mystical quality, penetrable to the faithful (i.e. those who paid for it) alone. The mission of the exuberant new convert then becomes, now and always, to preach the gospel to the unsaved. (Here’s Bezos again, in Newsweek: “This is not just a business for us. There is missionary zeal. We feel like Kindle is bigger than we are.”)

Just check out the Kindle Boards, where members decry those who cling to real books for their feel and smell, while simultaneously gushing in a different thread about the cute names they’ve given their Kindles; or go to the “See a Kindle in Your Area” forum on Amazon, where thousands of total strangers offer (plead, even) to show their Kindles to thousands of other total strangers. This is the kind of thing that happens when you mistake the shell—be it a real book or an e-book reader—for the pearl.

I’m not implying that all Kindle owners (or Kindle resisters) are snobs or zealots, only that the infatuation many of them drape over the machine comes down to this novelty effect and a heightened brand loyalty—“Kindle is bigger than we are”—as does the claim that a human being unrestricted by cataracts or arthritis is able to—abracadabra!—read more on electric pages than the real paper the electricity tries so hard to emulate. It simply doesn’t take that long to flip a page. Also, if you loathed reading before and—presto chango!—can’t get enough of it now, then you’re probably the one crocheting a sweater for Katie the Kindle, because it’s sure not what’s inside books that you’ve got a thing for. There is no magic in Amazon’s e-reader, I’m afraid, except perhaps the sham alchemy that conflates buying books with somehow understanding them, thereby vanishing that troublesome, soon-to-be anachronistic intermediary step of having to read more than a few paragraphs of any given narrative.

And what should we make of the more serious claims that the Kindle marks “a cultural revolution” of Gutenbergian proportions, to once again quote Jacob Weisberg? Or how about this one, from the Wall Street Journal, referring to the global availability of the Kindle 2: “The only other events as important to the history of the book are the birth of print and the shift from the scroll to bound pages”? I said before that, as long as books are equally readable and manipulable, it doesn’t matter what kind of package they come in. But there’s something just as important as intelligibility, and that’s accessibility.

Right now Google is involved in litigation that will determine whether or not they have a monopoly on the millions of books they’ve digitized and will continue to digitize, books they ultimately want to make available to the rest of us for a fee of their determining. Amazon, no doubt, is paying tenaciously close attention. There is, I’m sorry to say, nothing new, and certainly nothing revolutionary, about having to pay cash for the means to gain knowledge. A digital library that boasts every word ever written means precisely zip to those who have long been marginalized from traditional education at all levels, and now stand to be locked out of the next phase of information delivery. The fact is that right now anyone can check out a “dead tree edition” (as many Kindlers refer to real books, as if paper wasn’t more biodegradable than Kindle plastic) from the library, but not anyone can afford to read one on a Kindle, despite absurd pronouncements that the e-reader “pays for itself.”

Digital Ivory Towers and the Philosophy of READ MORE

I prowl Amazon’s customer reviews, too, every chance I get. The last paragraph of one of them jumped out at me while I was looking for free Kindle editions of the works of Charles Dickens:

This is another example of how the Kindle has, overnight, made vast and important literary collections instantly accessible to the ordinary reading public without having to make the public library your second home, or impoverish oneself, or devote thousands of square feet at home to musty, smelly, roach-loving old books.

First of all, and as I just discussed, literary collections aren’t instantly accessible unless you buy a Kindle, and the assumption that the “ordinary reading public” can do just that, as well as commit to continuing iterations, is as common as it is wrongheaded. The statement about libraries is incredibly strange. Why would I need to make it a second home if I can bring a whole bunch of books back with me to my first home, that being an essential function of libraries? And then there’s the last bit, about the Kindle liberating so much space (thousands of square feet?), and about real books hogging up so much of it, and doing it so uncleanly. It occurred to me that I’d been reading very similar sentiments (“SPACE! SWEET, SWEET ACTUAL SPACE!” ran part of one) over the last few months while poring over Kindle articles and Kindle boards and Kindle blogs and Kindle reviews and Kindle comments.

In an article for PopMatters called “The Future is an Empty Room,” Michael Antman, after extolling the legitimately democratizing, “almost miraculous” forces of the internet and paradigm-exploding digital technologies, talks about his wariness of the preoccupation with the mere space carved out by this digitization, and the accompanying (and evolving) 21st Century perception of the shabbiness and awkwardness of real things like CDs and paintings and neighborhood shops, and especially books, all of which he identifies not as clutter but as “signs of pleasure and happiness and life.”

He’s not talking about the practical desire, which I share in a big way, to squeeze a few more square feet out of the one-bedroom apartment I share with my fiancé and the longest cat I’ve ever seen. Digital culture tends to consecrate the harvesting of space not only as a bottomless, indiscriminating data bank, but as an embodiment of the future, both aesthetically and ideologically. If what we want, really, is more of everything, then there’s nothing better to hope for or emulate than infinite fill-ability. Who cares, really, about what’s inside, about what might live on all these new worlds pinpricking the void? We’re too upgraded for that—we move too fast now. No one wants to be stuck in the old program, that musty, smelly, roach-loving, beat-up world of “real” objects and face-to-face relationships that are prone to so much dullness, error, breakdown, rejection, corruption, death.


The last email I got from the Kindle—GIVE THE GIFT OF READING—wanted me to know that it was now only $259, and that it offered even more (360,000) of the most popular books, newspapers, magazines, and blogs. The delivery time remains stuck at “less than 60 seconds,” but nobody’s perfect. Not yet. I don’t know how many years it’s going to take, but eventually everybody who’s anybody will be carrying around an all-purpose slate or tablet of some sort, and we really will be able to call up “every book every printed, in any language,” instantly.

If this future is anything like Gene Roddenberry’s utopian Star Trek incarnations, we’ll still be compelled and fascinated by the original, unabridged, un-upgradable chains of words that make up Asimov’s I, Robot and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. But when I think about the final frontier these days, I think mostly of that early scene in 2001, when a professionally pleasant, well-dressed man arrives on a space station on his way to the Moon and clicks down that silent, curving, gleaming white corridor, passing the prim, cold windows of a Hilton and a Howard Johnson’s. He stops for awhile among some colleagues, sitting down at an orderly spread of slight white tables and bright red chairs for what turns into an awkward conversation, everyone stiff but perfectly cordial.

A systematic, tragic irony pulses through this violently clean, HAL-9000-automated universe: We had to become like machines to get to the stars, and we’ve just discovered something strange and wonderful out there among them that requires the long-form intelligence and long-form empathy of a human being.

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