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.