Between a book and a web search

In a well-turned essay to be published in tomorrow’s Los Angeles Times, available immediately thanks to the miracle of digital type, Beau Friedlander, the editor-in-chief of Air America, looks into the “chasm between virtual texts and their printed counterparts.” He quotes Diane Ackerman on the blessings of the World Wide Web, which can make research a breeze:

While planning her most recent book, “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” author Diane Ackerman used the Internet “to know what animals the Warsaw Zoo kept, what animals called when, what they sounded like, smelled like, looked like and so on. ‘Gibbon calls,’ I thought. I Googled them, and heard their duets! I needed to know what birds would have been there, so I used the Internet to discover the aerial flyways over Europe in 1939. Previously, I would have made a trip to Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, and spent hours there.”

But Ackerman also “did a lot of old-school research,” reports Friedlander. “‘I read a sea of books, interviews and testimonies – by and about people who witnessed the Holocaust – and I studied World War II history, armaments, cuisine, leaders, airplanes, medicine, architecture, fashion, music, films and such,’ she says. ‘Some of that I could find on the Internet, but not much; most of it meant reading books, some of which I had to have translated.'”

For all its convenience, Google’s snippet-view of information flattens knowledge, erasing context. Sometimes truth lies not in the needle but in the haystack. Writes Friedlander:

Books require a different sort of communion with one’s subject than the Internet. They foster a different sort of memory – more tactile, more participatory. I know more or less where, folio-wise, Eliot gets nasty about the Jews in his infamous 1933 lecture series “After Strange Gods,” but I always have to read around a bit to find the exact quote, and the time spent softens the bite of his anti-Semitism because the hateful remarks were made amid smart ones. For literary works, books are still, and most likely always will be, indispensable.

But technology has a curious way of making the indispensable dispensable. Markos Moulitsas Zuñiga, of the Daily Kos, tells Friedlander, “Google makes it possible to learn anything, near instantaneously. Like natural selection, there are species that adapt to the changing environment around them and thrive, and others die off.”

Except that nature has nothing to do with it. It’s what we call “progress,” a word that salves all wounds.

7 thoughts on “Between a book and a web search

  1. Tom Lord

    Google makes it possible to learn anything, near instantaneously.

    That’s part of a very messed up serious of re-defining that the net has been bringing us. “Privacy” means preference settings in a central database that’s regularly mined for views of the private. “Friend” means a database entry that control various database access features. It also means a “point” in a scoring game. “Reputation” means database entries where people rate you from 1-5 or similar. “Collaboration” means enriching a corporate entity, along with other customers, by contributing free labor. “Freedom” means your right and duty to do so. “Production” means using investment to gather up “collaborators” and sell their accounts to Google or Microsoft.

    I guess it’s just natural that “knowledge” should be re-defined as “that which can be obtained from Google nearly instantaneously.”


  2. Shaun

    ‘While planning her most recent book, “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” author Diane Ackerman used the Internet “to know what…’

    And that’s where the RSS feed cuts off. I felt sure it was going to say, “… not to put in the book”. Pity.

  3. Charles

    You remind me of Jacob Bronowski’s book, “The Ascent of Man.” I read it (and watched the TV series) decades ago, but I have never forgotten his closing argument.

    He asserts that Man is the only animal with “social evolution” through language and stored memories in books. Lower animals can only evolve as fast as Natural Selection permits. But Man can evolve more rapidly, since we can read, learn, and build on human knowledge accumulated through hundreds of years, and then teach it to others. Animals have no language and thus no recorded history, so they can only emulate the behavior of their immediate predecessors, their parents.

  4. Tom Lord


    Language does a lot more than just “store knowledge”.

    Language also has a very rich syntax compared to anything other animals have. Comparatively abstract and complicated messages (notice I did not say “ideas” or “knowledge”) can be conveyed.

    Homo sapiens can thus (and do) exhibit more complex kinds of social behavior.

    That capacity gave rise “oral traditions”: ways to preserve (with drift) certain linguistic expressions over time, space, and individuals. Full blown writing systems extended that. Then presses. Of late, things like the Internet.

    But, notice that I’m very careful to not talk about preserving “ideas” or “knowledge” because that’s only a part of what language does and there’s not even any a priori reason to think it’s a permanent part of what language does.

    Language can also convey pure ritual, for example. By ritual, I mean “language games” that a person or group of people can “act out” — translate from just the remembered song or the the big tome into some social practice in the real world, people really “acting out” the ritual with no understanding – no meaning beyond “here, we do the ritual”.

    Now, consider a particular piece of writing. Could be a procedures manual for running a nuke plant or it could be a teacher’s manual for teaching “Huckleberry Finn” complete with instructions for testing the student’s “literary appreciation” with some multiple-choice and short-essay questions, could be a grocery list, or could be War and Peace.

    Are those writings the sort that convey ideas and knowledge? Or the sort that convey pure ritual?

    Each is both.

    It happens in the real human world, all the time, that writing slips back and forth between conveying ideas / knowledge and conveying pure ritual. A school starts teaching Huck Finn by rote and winds up teaching only the ritual of passing the cliched quizzes, for example: knowledge lost, ritual dominant. Maybe new teaching staff notices and reminds everyone of the original intent of the quizzes — of the ideas behind them — leading to a change in practices. Knowledge “recovered” from ritual at the last moment.

    It isn’t hard to imagine a society in which, at least for the bulk of the people, all writing becomes pure ritual with the only knowledge commonly held being the practice of ritual itself.

    Such a society would first become a kind of “cargo-cult” parody of itself, seeming at first to continue operating more or less normally. For example, the nuke plant staff may steadily lose any sense of knowledge behind their procedures and yet, if the plant was well built and the procedures well designed, initially the rituals keep the plant running whether the people understand how or not.

    A “cargo-cult” phase would give way, eventually, to a degenerate phase in which “things fall apart” but the knowledge of how they were supposed to work — the knowledge needed to design repairs — is gone. Oops. The nuke plant mysteriously exploded. Now what?

    What of the case of Eliot’s antisemitism quoted in Nick’s piece? What is it, exactly? Is it neatly captured and “taught” by a few sentences in Wikipedia? Or by sampling a few sentences from various on-line theses? Something you can figure out almost instantaneously using Google?

    If you think so, I say that that’s a slip from knowledge to ritual. Pavlov’s dog could understand as well: someone says “Eliot” the good dog does a quick search and says “antisemite!”.

    Whatever was Eliot’s case it was a real, singular, case in a real, specific historic context. Eliot’s case is, if nothing else, rich with detail. We don’t learn about Eliot’s case by hearing it ritualistically dubbed “antisemitic”. We learn about antisemitism in a particular historic period by, for example, examining Eliot’s case.

    In the economics of scholarship – good scholarship – we tend to not forget that just saying “antisemitic” doesn’t in and of itself tell us much about Eliot. We tend to remember and remember how to explore that we learn about antisemitism in part by studying the details of Eliot’s case. The Google approach to “learning anything quickly” doesn’t convey scholarship — just quick and dirty call-and-response labels.

    In the idealized and perfected economics of Google, people mostly sit around consuming and producing content through the enactment of rituals as encoded in the logic of web pages, indirectly controlling the flow of money and goods. Producers observe the people and compete for their purchases by giving them fractions of the purchase price through advertising. People buy on-line, extract some use-value, and resell on-line. The system is not much interested in preserving and conveying scholarship for scholarship can not be conveyed “almost instantly” in a few well-selected search results.

    The Enlightenment gets “defined” lots of different ways and I’m not much of one for definitive definitions but one way to define it:

    The Enlightenment is the convergence of a set of important ideas: the idea of individual freedom; the idea of rationality and of the limits and problems of rationality; the sense that an aware-of-the-problematics employment of rationality is not only compatible with but necessary to individual freedom; the sense that the social and economic order is what reproduces the Enlightenment across time and space and what can fail to reproduce it. (Thus, for example, it leads directly to the American Revolution.)

    As we more and more intrusively let the Net redefine “friendship,” “reputation,” “freedom,” “collaboration,” and “knowledge” we are turning our attention away from the real social order and we’re turning our backs on the Enlightenment entirely. We’re giving up all of that to play a video game, with Google, complete with Real Prizes. We’re picking ritual over ideas and knowledge.


  5. Nick Carr

    Why not a book with hyperlinks and take advantage of the traditional physical advantages of books combined with the interaction of the internet.

    But, Simon, then it’s not a book. A book isn’t just a physical object; it’s a way of reading and even, I’d argue, a way of thinking. Hypertext is not text. Hypertext is a different way of reading and thinking. I think that the introduction of links into books is probably inevitable, particularly if and when ebook readers become popular, but that’s not going to mark the improvement, or modernization, of books; it’s going to mark the transformation of books into web pages. It will be an occasion for mourning.

  6. Simon Wardley

    Hi Nick,

    I’d completely agree with you that a book isn’t just a physical object but represents a way and style of reading and that Hypertext is a different way of reading and thinking.

    However, these two aren’t mutually exclusive and the physical nature of books does impact the method of reading.

    The point of a paper book with hyperlinks is that it operates as a normal book (hence it is bound by all the constraints and benefits of a printed source of information and maintains the context of any discussion) but this is then combined with interactivity through the printed medium itself (for example using conductive inks).

    There are many times that I’d like to see the core arguments of a book extended or if a particular research topic is mentioned, I’d like to be able follow through to that topic and the authors views and notes on such. Whilst this can be achieved through an entirely web based medium, you lose the overall structure and context that a physical book enforces.

    I’d argue that using paper based books (hence maintaining the overall structure, context and flow of any argument) and enabling author led investigation extends rather than detracts from the nature as well as the physical qualities of a book.

    In my view, both ebook readers and the web have a weakness as they fail to maintain context strongly but also traditional forms of books have a weakness as the capacity for learning is bound at a moment in time with no further investigation of the authors view.

Comments are closed.