Unbound for glory

Kevin Kelly is excited again. In a fascinating feature story in tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine, the prophet of The Machine heralds the dis-integration of the book. By scanning, digitizing, and uploading the words printed on the pages of the dusty volumes caged in libraries, he says, we will free those words of their literal and figurative bindings. They will merge, on the web, into a greater whole providing a greater good:

The static world of book knowledge is about to be transformed by the same elevation of relationships [that we find in hyperlinked web sites], as each page in a book discovers other pages and other books. Once text is digital, books seep out of their bindings and weave themselves together. The collective intelligence of a [digital] library allows us to see things we can’t see in a single, isolated book … All the books in the world [will] become a single liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas.

You will no longer have to read books piecemeal, one by one. Instead, says Kelly, you’ll be able to surf from book to book “in the same way we hop through Web links, traveling from footnote to footnote to footnote until you reach the bottom of things.” (It’s good to know that there is a bottom of things, and that it is reachable.) You’ll also be able to add your own links and tags to the digital book soup, which in combination with other people’s links and tags will add a whole new layer of “intelligence.” Reading will become “a community activity,” which by definition – at least by Kelly’s definition – is always superior to a solitary activity. Finally, and best of all, we’ll be able to take bits and pieces of books and mash them up into custom creations suited to our own taste: “once digitized, books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page. These snippets will be remixed into reordered books and virtual bookshelves.”

It sounds beguiling, but as with most utopian visions Kelly’s conjuring of a literary “liquid fabric” subtly distorts the past even as it imagines a future that will never arrive. Book knowledge was never a “static world,” and books were never, as Kelly suggests, “isolated items, independent from one another, [each] pretty much unaware of the ones next to it [on the shelf].” Books have always been parts of a broader conversation, their words woven together by both the art of the writer and the intelligence of the reader. No good book has ever been read – or written – in isolation. All literature is a mashup.

What Kelly is really suggesting is that the process of literary synthesis – which might also be called the process of reading – can be mechanized and automated, made radically more efficient through the application of computer technology. It can be accelerated to net speed, as the mindlessness of the crowd replaces the mindfulness of the individual reader, as the cut-and-pasting of snippets replaces the slow accumulation of paragraphs, as search-fueled link-hopping replaces contemplation.

The problem with Kelly’s case is that it’s completely unsubstantiated. There’s no argument, only picture-painting. He does a great job of describing a utopian orgy of communal surf-reading, but he provides no evidence that this orgy will either happen as he describes it or, if it does, that it will make us smarter or wiser or otherwise better, either individually or as a society. There’s actually already a great deal of literature available in digitized form online, complete with hyperlinks. If there is any evidence that it’s making us better readers or improving our ability to make deep connections between works, I haven’t seen it. More generally, where’s the evidence that surfing linkwise through information brings us to a deeper understanding than old-fashioned, page-turning reading does? Again, I haven’t seen it. Like the true believer he is, Kelly demands that we take his prophecy on faith.

If we can use the internet to bring books to people who otherwise wouldn’t have them, let’s do it. But let’s not demean the act of reading – and writing – in the process. Snippets, Kevin Kelly, aren’t literature.

16 thoughts on “Unbound for glory

  1. Bob McIlree

    A strange thing I do when reading PDFs, e-books, and other items of interest on the net: I print them out and staple or clip them together. If the piece is worth saving, the hard copy gets filed and the electronic version recycled (unless I paid for it). Much for me to read and digest hard copy than on a screen. There are millions like me, I’m sure, and the printing/publishing industry will change, but not die…

  2. Scott Karp

    Nick, I wonder whether the ideology of social 2.0 collaboration is to the 21st century what the ideology of communism was to the 20th century — neither being particularly realistic about human nature.

  3. Mathew Ingram

    Oh come on, Scott. That was quite the big, fat softball you just lobbed at Nick — couldn’t we find a harder one to pitch him than that? He’s already sung that old “Web 2.0 is like communism” tune a few too many times.

    Is Kevin Kelly’s vision utopian? Probably — and he definitely suffers from that ailment pretty regularly, judging by some of his other Wired pieces. But why should connecting great works of literature together, so that readers can follow threads from one to the other, necessarily be such a bad thing? I don’t see why it has to immediately be dismissed as fostering “the mindlessness of the crowd,” or being just the “cut-and-pasting of snippets.”

  4. Scott Karp

    Mathew, you’re missing entirely the point of the comparison. One might argue that there are elements of socialism that have (more or less) been successfully implemented without embracing pure communism. Similarly, there are elements of media 2.0 that, as you point out, will likely have real value. My point is that people like Kevin Kelly have turned 2.0 into a new ideological hobby horse, pushing the notion of “collaboration” to impractical extremes — so it’s precisely the utopianism that Nick and I are taking issue with. Is Nick overly derisive in his response? Perhaps, but utopianism is not unworthy of some derision. And besides, isn’t that what bloggers do? I might observe that you’ve done your own fair share of derisively dismissing ideas you don’t agree with.

  5. vinnie mirchandani

    Nick, understand the joys of cuddling up with a classic but many people like condensed versions, audio tapes…I thought Reader’s Digest magazine was spawned from that consumer demand…several decades ago

  6. Kingsley Joseph

    I have always placed Kelly firmly in the mostly loony camp. However, I believe that his prediction that printed books will go away and give way to hyperlinked spaces is both significant and accurate. Whether the social enjoyment of literature will enlighten us or drag us down is still up for grabs.

  7. Joshua Porter

    Although I agree with your main point Nick, that technology does not necessarily lead to deeper understanding, you misrepresent Kelly’s piece by suggesting that his vision is mechanized reading and the replacement of contemplation.

    Nowhere in the piece does he suggest such a thing.

  8. Steve

    You claim to have not seen the evidence of more efficient reading through digitization and hyperlinking, but I see the evidence right in front of me. I won’t have to read Kelly’s article if I don’t want, because I can quickly find five trustworthy sources (of which I certainly count you one) and get not just an overview of his ideas but also some additional insights. Instant access to citations and analysis is one immediate benefit of a “liquid fabric”.

    Other benefits: Directly embedding others’ work means the length of your book is proportional to its new ideas rather than meeting some standard size. Books become timeless as you can jump in at any point, say an original work, and navigate to the followups, retractions, derivative works, condemnations, etc. that appeared afterwards. The structure of the “mashups” that have always been present can be exposed (as footnotes, etc do today) with only as much visibility as the user has interest. Etc.

    None of those ideas are very radical, they’re just evidence of how hyperlinked literature has already changed my reading habits. None of this is impossible with traditional literature, it’s just much, much harder to do right. I think it’s a bit hypocritical to invoke the “mindlessness of the crowd” when you yourself are addressing that crowd – and I don’t find your writing mindless at all. If more people were providing your kind of insight in blogs rather than books I think the benefit of interconnected texts would be much more obvious.

    Basically, I imagine the “liquid fabric” as a big literary database that is only as interesting as the queries you can perform against it. They start with simple things like keyword search — pure syntax without meaning — then get more complex with hyper-linking — muddled meanings — and even moreso with tagging, reputation management, etc. until perhaps someday structured blogging/semantic web ideas *may* allow you to make very meaningful queries. (Not that I’m a big believer in the cap-S semantic web, but /something/ will emerge.)

    So no, snippets are not literature, but the queries may allow you to create a new kind of personalized literature from snippets. Through queries that help provide context you can come away with a better/more efficient understanding of a whole topic. And yes, if they are noisy (like today’s keyword searches and forum conversations) you can also get confused or distracted. But digitizing and linking (hyper- and user-) turns the context into a problem that some Google/Technorati/whoever can at least attempt to solve on a large scale.

  9. Parijat

    Insofar as digitization of literature makes it more accessible to people, it is a good thing. However, with the current technologies that we have for reading digital content, I think people will still prefer to read printed material. However, maybe this is just a psychological block. The people in the world today are still those who started out life with reading printed books. Later generations, however, that find digital content to read from day one may not have the same hang-ups as we do. The argument that it is far more pleasurable to read a book while lying down in bed may not hold good with the next generation. Again, with e-ink technologies, there might not be a great difference in the way digitized content is presented and the way traditional printed books look.

    As far as the Social 2.0 argument is concerned, I’m not a big fan of reading commentaries by any and everyone on pieces of literature. It is true that there might be great insights, great jewels embedded in the tonnes of crap that would be written about these texts. The problem is that much wisdom and much time is required to sift through all of it and perhaps it is better, as Nick says, to sit back and contemplate what one reads rather than reading what hoardes of other people have to say about it.

    Finding a group of people who think exactly like you and then being able to read the ideas they read is only a reinforcement of your beliefs and you are then insulated from ideas that are potentially better than your own and that could probably credibly challenge what you think. Is that a good thing? I don’t think so.

  10. Nick Carr


    re: you misrepresent Kelly’s piece by suggesting that his vision is mechanized reading and the replacement of contemplation. Nowhere in the piece does he suggest such a thing.

    I apologize if I gave this impression. As anyone who reads his article will see, Kelly certainly isn’t making a case against contemplation. (He truly believes that the liquidization of literature will make us wiser and better.) My point is that this is the implication of his vision of computer-mediated reading – an implication his utopianism blinds him to. This blindness, or maybe tunnel vision would be a better description, is the great danger of utopian thinking.

    I don’t think Kelly is “mostly loony,” as Kingsley says. I have a great deal of respect for him and his work, which I always find interesting and challenging. I just disagree with him. He sees technology as a moral force; I don’t.


    re: [Nick’s] already sung that old “Web 2.0 is like communism” tune a few too many times.

    Help me out here. Point me to somewhere I’ve said this. I just searched this entire blog and nowhere have I even used the words “communism” or “communist.” I see it more like commune-ism than communism. But Scott’s right that all utopianism reflects a misapprehension of human nature.


    True enough, but Kelly isn’t making a case for Readers Digest condensations. He’s making a much grander claim.


    As I’ve written before, I believe what we call the “wisdom” of the crowd actually stems from the crowd’s essential mindlessness. I certainly don’t believe that the individual members of the crowd are mindless. Just the opposite, as your well-considered comment shows. Still, though, I think you’re mistaken in believing that personalization and efficient searching lead to better understanding (or better reading).

  11. Steve

    Thanks for the reply, Nick; the addition of the hyperlink made your point clearer! (Does that in some small way support Mr. Kelly? :) )

    To clarify my own point: I wasn’t necessarily talking only about personalization and efficient searching, at least as we think of them today. Those do affect my reading already, but I’m really looking forward to the new opportunities that digitization and hyperlinking provide, and how they might allow us to get *past* automatic selection routines in the future.

    Memorandum, Slashdot, Digg, etc. are the first steps towards efficient reading, but they’re still “muzak”, to use a musical analogy. What I’m anticipating is the emergence of literary “DJs” with the ability to collate and comment on a playlist of snippets that are only /easily/ referenceable because they’ve been digitized. The queries I was talking about are still best done by (semi-)pros. When the playlist is human-generated, you’re not replacing contemplation, but benefiting from someone else’s.

    Only this time, it’s at massive scale, because automation will assist distribution, not just generation. The overall selection of playlists may regress towards the mean (or worse), but I think it will always be easier to find and subscribe to a good editor than to do your own editing. Hopefully everyone will do a little of both. Better yet, those who do a better job with their own editing will be able to more easily share their “virtual bookshelves”.

    Speaking of which, thanks for consistently producing thought-provoking commentary. I’m not sure whether you consider your blog articles “snippets” or complete literature, but I’m sure glad I can reference them.

  12. Mathew Ingram

    Sorry, Nick — I cast that particular aspersion a little hastily, it seems (I guess Scott is due an apology too, but I can give him one in person at the mesh conference in Toronto tomorrow).

    I guess I was thinking of Andrew Keen, who wrote that piece in the Weekly Standard back in February entitled “Web 2.0 is reminiscient of Marx.” You’re still wrong though :-)

  13. Kevin Kelly

    Nick says:

    “What Kelly is really suggesting is that the process of literary synthesis – which might also be called the process of reading – can be mechanized and automated, made radically more efficient through the application of computer technology. It can be accelerated to net speed, as the mindlessness of the crowd replaces the mindfulness of the individual reader, as the cut-and-pasting of snippets replaces the slow accumulation of paragraphs, as search-fueled link-hopping replaces contemplation.

    The problem with Kelly’s case is that it’s completely unsubstantiated.”

    I would agree 100% that I did not substantiated this case. I did not because I don’t believe it is true, nor was I trying to make this case. No where did I talk about efficiency. In fact in my New Economy book I talk about how efficiency is exactly the wrong thing to be interested in. No where did I talk about reading becoming accelerated. No where did I talk about reading becoming automated. And while I did talk about collective intelligence as it applied to both the creation of reading material and its appreciation, no where did I suggest this was to replace individual reading or appreciation.

    Nick suggests that the above points are what I am *really* suggesting, rather than what it appears that I am suggesting — that massive hyperlinking, and deeper analysis of ALL books together will change how we view books and libraries.

    Who am I to argue?

  14. Nick Carr

    Kevin, I’m sorry to have rendered your argument in words that you’re uncomfortable with. I realize that “mechanization” and “automation” and “efficiency” are ugly terms and don’t fit well with your rapturous rhetoric about creating an “Eden of everything.” (I live a bit east of Eden.) But in talking about compressing all the world’s books into a searchable database that can “fit onto your iPod,” you are talking about automating and mechanizing and accelerating the process of literary synthesis and, indeed, making it vastly more efficient. If your vision of being able to “hop through the library in the same way we hop through Web links” isn’t a vision of greater efficiency, I’m not sure what it is. But, you’ll say, it’s so much more than that. And that’s where we part ways. Your need to see a technological Eden ahead requires you to foresee the internet bringing a revolutionary enhancement in “both the creation of reading material and its appreciation” (I know I’m taking that snippet out of context, but I assume you’d agree that it accurately represents your belief). I don’t see that at all; I think the internet will bring a general degradation in the creation and appreciation of “reading material” (that’s an interesting phrase, by the way) – while acknowledging that “general” does not necessarily mean “universal.” I think what it comes down to is this: You believe Eden is attainable, while I believe that the belief that Eden is attainable is a dangerous belief – and must be countered. It’s no wonder that there should be friction between our rhetorical strategies. I’m hoping the friction throws off at least a little light. Nick

  15. Kevin Kelly

    Yes, I think you have correctly pointed to our differences, but let me clarify it from my side.

    I am one of those people who believe in progress. I read both history and our current situation worldwide as evidience that we are improving our lives each year (on average). I don’t believe in perfection — either that it exists or that we can attain it. In this way I am not a utopian, but a progressive.

    There are others — and you seem to claim to be one of them — who read the same evidence and see decline and degradation (on average). That’s fine. But declinists often mistake progressism as uptopiasm because where else can increasing and everlasting improvement point to except utopia? Sadly that confuses a direction with a destination.

    I am guilty of believing that the internet and the web will better our lives overall and on average. At the same time I believe that every new technologies creates as many new problems as it solves — which is why I am not a utopian. Each new problem is a new opportunity for a new solution and betterment. Sort of like ideas. New ideas breed new questions. Over time we gain both knowledge and ignorance (questions). In fact the best ideas are those that suggest great questions.

    A tally of the advances and problems generated by each invention would on average balance out to a wash. So one might be tempted to say that the total value of technological innovation is a matter of temperment — of looking at the glass half-empty or half-full. But this misses what our progress is. What technology brings us is NOT unsoiled benefits, nor overwelmng problems, but choices and possibilities. On average old choices persist while new ones expand. Paper books will be around a long time. We still make new parts for steam cars. There are now more blacksmiths than ever before in history. What has changed is the vast expansion of possibilities in all directions.

    As far as I can see, there is a one-way movement throughout history and the world toward more possibilities. Whenever people see more choices, they gravitate toward those. That’s one reason why the entire planet is gradually moving into cities and adopting techology – because cities and techology offer expanded choices. And this expansion is progress.

    Digitizing books is merely a small step in this expansion of possiblities. It will expand the ways we can read a book, while allowing the old ways to be used as well. The old ways will be re-defined by the new, but in general if people find value in them, they will remain as options.

    Eden as perfection is unattainable, and I concur with your zeal to contest its validity; Eden as a desireable territory of continously expanding possibilities is not only attainable, but exactly the road we are on now.

  16. Kingsley Joseph

    “Mostly loony” is perhaps too strong and I’m quite possibly wrong on this. I have just felt that Kevin Kelly usually makes reasonably strong cases and then drags them through something (that I find) ridiculous, like his faith. His spirituality seems to permeate his work, and that lowers the credibility of the whole. Again, this is my opinion and I’m willing to be swayed.

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