Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The decline and fall of everything, again

"The democratic youth ... lives along day by day, gratifying the desire that occurs to him, at one time drinking and listening to the flute, at another downing water and reducing, now practicing gymnastic, and again idling and neglecting everything..." -
Plato, The Republic

Nicolas Carr, in The Atlantic this month, asks "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" For those who want more anecdotes and photographs of privileged children to accompany this query, we have a spin-off piece in the New York Times.

Both of these pieces, although they muddle the issue, are concerned about a transition from knowledge to information. Carr even implies, citing Socrates, that the invention of writing may have moved us from wisdom to knowledge, and that our decline has been on an even longer trajectory. Now, for both of these articles, the central concern is that the Web (including search engines, fanfic, and social networking sites) has shortened our attention spans at a fundamental cognitive level.

I'm not that worried. There are two potential trends that I think these pieces skip over, both of which I think librarians can help move in a positive direction.

My first unaddressed concern - and here I do in part agree with the narrative of decline - is the pervasive commercialism that comes with getting all of one's information online. Carr does talk about the incentives Google has for getting us to visit as many different sites as possible, but neither article addresses the omnipresence of advertising on most websites.
One of the huge advantages of real books, and of the libraries that contain them, is that they are one of the few places left in America where no one is trying to get us to buy anything - persuade us of an idea, perhaps, but not actually to acquire consumer goods for cash (or credit). Librarians do our best to build collections that are free from a commercial agenda, and so libraries are a wonderful example of the "third place," and the books in them are a medium that is purely about content - the information, argument, and art. This might be a point of outreach.

As a counter to the narrative of decline, there's a technological hope for long-form reading - the Kindle. I haven't gotten a chance to experiment with one yet, but this is its primary selling point - an ability, unique among electronic devices, to induce "ludic reading." Some people have asked why we need a fancy, expensive device when paper and ink do this perfectly well, but maybe the answer is that it will draw in new readers who are simply used to screens. Technology might be shifting our emphasis to one kind of thinking, but the Kindle is a new technology that might shift it back.

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Libri & Libertas: Books & Freedom in a Web 2.0 World by Laura H. Wimberley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Noncommercial - Share Alike 3.0 United States License.