Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Future of Books in the Internet Age

There is a spate of recent articles and books discussing the effect of the new means of interactions fostered by the internet on society, our brains, and on how we absorb information. There are many topics worthy of discussion. Here we will focus on the future of the traditional book, a classification that will include electronic and audio books.

Christina Rosen has written an article for the Wilson Quarterly titled In the Beginning Was the Word. She begins with this statement.
“The book, that fusty old technology, seems rigid and passé as we daily consume a diet of information bytes and digital images. The fault, dear reader, lies not in our books but in ourselves.”
Adam Gopnik has an article in The New Yorker that addresses the more general issue of information: The Information. His comments are extremely relevant to this general topic of books.

The issue to be addressed is the assertion that books appear to be passé and superseded by brief bursts of image-dominated information.

Rosen begins by associating the conveyance of information via the internet with a progression that began with the Reader’s Digest For those who may not be of a certain age, or a certain culture, the Reader’s Digest had a good business for almost a century in providing the public with abridged versions of articles and books. Rosen views this process as the beginning of the end. For the record, Reader’s Digest has recently gone out of business.
“The fate of Reader’s Digest would have been of interest to the late historian and Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin. In his renowned 1962 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Boorstin used Reader’s Digest as an example of what was wrong with a culture that had learned to prefer image to reality, the copy to the original, the part to the whole. Publications such as the Digest, produced on the principle that any essay can be boiled down to its essence, encourage readers to see articles as little more than “a whiff of literary ectoplasm exuding from print,” he argued, and an author’s style as littered with unnecessary “literary embellishments” that waste a reader’s time.”

“Today, of course, abridgement and abbreviation are the norm, and our impatience for information has trained even those of us who never cracked an issue of Reader’s Digest to prefer 60-second news cycles to 62 condensed pages per month. Free ‘aggregator” Web sites such as The Huffington Post link to hundreds of articles from other publications every day, and services such as DailyLit deliver snippets of novels directly to our e-mail in-boxes every morning.”
Ouch! She is hitting awfully close to home. But let’s let her make her point.
“Our screen-intensive culture poses three challenges to traditional reading: distraction, consumerism, and attention-seeking behavior. Screen technologies such as the cell phone and laptop computer that are supposedly revolutionizing reading also potentially offer us greater control over our time. In practice, however, they have increased our anxiety about having too little of it by making us available anytime and anywhere. These technologies have also dramatically increased our opportunities for distraction. It is a rare Web site that presents its material without the clutter of advertisement, and a rare screen reader who isn’t lured by the siren song of an incoming e-mail’s ‘ping!’ to set aside her work to see who has written. We live in a world of continuous partial attention, one that prizes speed and brandishes the false promise of multitasking as a solution to our time management challenges. The image-driven world of the screen dominates our attention at the same time that it contributes to a kind of experience pollution that is challenging our ability to engage with the printed word.”
Except for the final sentence, there is much to agree with in that paragraph. The conclusion, however, is presented without any supporting evidence.
“Our need for stories to translate our experience hasn’t changed. Our ability to be deeply engaged readers of those stories is changing. For at least half a century, the image culture has trained us to expect the easily digestible, the quickly paced, and the uncomplicated. As our tolerance for the inconvenient or complex fades, images achieve even more prominence, displacing the word by appealing powerfully to a different kind of emotional sensibility, one whose vividness and urgency are undeniable but whose ability to explore nuance are not the same as that of the printed word.”

“The proliferation of image and text on the Internet has exacerbated the solipsism Boorstin feared, because it allows us to read in a broad but shallow manner. It endorses rather than challenges our sensibilities, and substitutes synthetic images for our own peculiar form of imagination. Over time, the ephemeral, immediate quality of this constant stream of images undermines the self-control required to engage with the written word. And so we find ourselves in the position of living in a highly literate society that chooses not to exercise the privilege of literacy—indeed, it no longer views literacy as a privilege at all.”

Rosen gives the impression that society is losing its capability to read and write—or at least to read and write well. Yet she provides no evidence to support that contention. If what she claims is true then one would expect book sales to be plummeting. The Association of American Publishers issued a press release a few weeks ago.
“New York, NY, February 16, 2011— US publishers’ book sales across all platforms increased +2.4 percent in December 2010 vs December 2009 and +3.6 percent for the full year vs 2009, it was reported today by the Association of American Publishers (AAP).”

“Virtually every book publishing category showed growth in one or both comparisons, with the phenomenal popularity of E-books continuing.”
One would expect test scores in reading comprehension and writing to be in freefall. There is no evidence that this is happening. There have always been people who will graduate from school and never read another book. There have always been people who are perfectly content to sit in front of a TV set all day. Certainly many have brought the same dedication to the computer screen. So, what is actually new here?

Rosen apparently has trouble concentrating while working at a computer. I am sure many people do. But that is a long way from being able to say that distractions and a desire for concentrated information formats are destroying our ability to concentrate.

One goes on the internet in order to communicate via email or social networks, or to find information. For the information process to be efficient one has to find what one is seeking in a concentrated and focused form. If one wishes to know the year Victor Hugo died, one does not pick up a biography and begin paging through it. Google can provide the answer faster than you can provide the question. If you want to learn more about Victor Hugo’s life or his books you query a search engine like Google which provides you with links to various forms of information. You might have the choice between a book review, articles on the life and times of Victor Hugo, A Wikipedia biographical essay, or a link to a site where you can buy an autobiography. The commonest form of information is an essay comparable to what one would find in a newspaper or magazine. Where is this “shallowness?” When exactly does the information become “the easily digestible, the quickly paced, and the uncomplicated?” Other than being quicker, how is this different than how people have sought information since the invention of writing?

Rosen gives a hint of something interesting but does not develop it.
“Our willingness to follow a writer on a sustained journey that may at times be challenging and frustrating is less compelling than our expectation of being conveniently entertained. Over time, this attitude undermines our commitment to the kind of ‘deep reading’ that researcher Maryanne Wolf, in Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (2007), argues is important from an early age, when readers learn to identify with characters and to ‘expand the boundaries of their lives’.”
If there are childhood hood development issues involved, that should have been the theme of the article. In any event, I was intrigued enough by the title to order myself a copy. I look forward to some pleasurable “deep reading.” Rosen probably will not appreciate my comments, but she did sell a book to a reader in the process. If everyone who reads her article ends up reading an extra book, maybe she will have accomplished what she wanted to accomplish and will go away happy.

Adam Gopnik’s essay has a bigger scope than Rosen’s, and provides more entertaining reading. His topic is information itself, not books per se, and is worthy of a separate discussion. As to the issues raised by Rosen, he has this relevant comment.
“The digital world is new, and the real gains and losses of the Internet era are to be found not in altered neurons or empathy tests but in the small changes in mood, life, manners, feelings it creates—in the texture of the age. There is, for instance, a simple, spooky sense in which the Internet is just a loud and unlimited library in which we now live—as if one went to sleep every night in the college stacks, surrounded by pamphlets and polemics and possibilities. There is the sociology section, the science section, old sheet music and menus, and you can go to the periodicals room anytime and read old issues of the New Statesman. (And you can whisper loudly to a friend in the next carrel to get the hockey scores.) To see that that is so is at least to drain some of the melodrama from the subject. It is odd and new to be living in the library; but there isn’t anything odd and new about the library.”
Gopnik also reminds us that if this is an information revolution, it isn’t the first or necessarily the most threatening. How about printing materials for the masses?
“Everyone complained about what the new information technologies were doing to our minds. Everyone said that the flood of books produced a restless, fractured attention. Everyone complained that pamphlets and poems were breaking kids’ ability to concentrate, that big good handmade books were ignored, swept aside by printed works that, as Erasmus said, “are foolish, ignorant, malignant, libelous, mad.” The reader consulting a card catalogue in a library was living a revolution as momentous, and as disorienting, as our own. The book index was the search engine of its era, and needed to be explained at length to puzzled researchers—as, for that matter.... did the idea of ‘looking things up.’ That uniquely evil and necessary thing the comprehensive review of many different books on a related subject, with the necessary oversimplification of their ideas that it demanded, was already around in 1500, and already being accused of missing all the points. In the period when many of the big, classic books that we no longer have time to read were being written, the general complaint was that there wasn’t enough time to read big, classic books.”
And then there was television.
“Yet everything that is said about the Internet’s destruction of ‘interiority’ was said for decades about television, and just as loudly. Jerry Mander’s ‘Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television,’ in the nineteen-seventies, turned on television’s addictive nature and its destruction of viewers’ inner lives; a little later, George Trow proposed that television produced the absence of context, the disintegration of the frame—the very things, in short, that the Internet is doing now.

“Now television is the harmless little fireplace over in the corner, where the family gathers to watch “Entourage.” TV isn’t just docile; it’s positively benevolent. This makes you think that what made television so evil back when it was evil was not its essence but its omnipresence. Once it is not everything, it can be merely something.”
In other words, life will go on. And Gopnik is one helluva writer.

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