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.