Mr. Tracy’s library

Edge’s annual question for 2010 is “How is the Internet changing the way you think?” Some 170 folks submitted answers, including me. (I found it a bit of a challenge, since I wanted to avoid pre-plagiarizing my upcoming book, which happens to be on this subject.) Here’s my submission:

As the school year began last September, Cushing Academy, an elite Massachusetts prep school that’s been around since Civil War days, announced that it was emptying its library of books. In place of the thousands of volumes that had once crowded the building’s shelves, the school was installing, it said, “state-of-the-art computers with high-definition screens for research and reading” as well as “monitors that provide students with real-time interactive data and news feeds from around the world.” Cushing’s bookless library would become, boasted headmaster James Tracy, “a model for the 21st-century school.”

The story gained little traction in the press—it came and went as quickly as a tweet—but to me it felt like a cultural milestone. A library without books would have seemed unthinkable just twenty years ago. Today, the news almost seems overdue. I’ve made scores of visits to libraries over the last couple of years. Every time, I’ve seen more people peering into computer screens than thumbing through pages. The primary role played by libraries today seems to have already shifted from providing access to printed works to providing access to the Internet. There’s every reason to believe that trend will only accelerate.

“When I look at books, I see an outdated technology,” Mr. Tracy told a reporter from the Boston Globe. His charges would seem to agree. A 16-year-old student at the school took the disappearance of the library books in stride. “When you hear the word ‘library,’ you think of books,” she said. “But very few students actually read them.”

What makes it easy for an educational institution like Cushing to jettison its books is the assumption that the words in books are the same whether they’re printed on paper or formed of pixels or E Ink on a screen. A word is a word is a word. “If I look outside my window and I see my student reading Chaucer under a tree,” said Mr. Tracy, giving voice to this common view, “it is utterly immaterial to me whether they’re doing so by way of a Kindle or by way of a paperback.” The medium, in other words, doesn’t matter.

But Mr. Tracy is wrong. The medium does matter. It matters greatly. The experience of reading words on a networked computer, whether it’s a PC, an iPhone, or a Kindle, is very different from the experience of reading those same words in a book. As a technology, a book focuses our attention, isolates us from the myriad distractions that fill our everyday lives. A networked computer does precisely the opposite. It’s designed to scatter our attention. It doesn’t shield us from environmental distractions; it adds to them. The words on a computer screen exist in a welter of contending stimuli.

The human brain, science tells us, adapts readily to its environment. The adaptation occurs at a deep biological level, in the way our nerve cells, or neurons, connect. The technologies we think with, including the media we use to gather, store, and share information, are critical elements of our intellectual environment and they play important roles in shaping our modes of thought. That fact has not only been proven in the laboratory; it’s evident from even a cursory glance at the course of intellectual history. It may be immaterial to Mr. Tracy whether a student reads from a book or a screen, but it is not immaterial to that student’s mind.

My own reading and thinking habits have shifted dramatically since I first logged onto the Web fifteen or so years ago. I now do the bulk of my reading and researching online. And my brain has changed as a result. Even as I’ve become more adept at navigating the rapids of the Net, I have experienced a steady decay in my ability to sustain my attention. As I explained in an Atlantic Monthly essay in 2008, “what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.” Knowing that the depth of our thought is tied directly to the intensity of our attentiveness, it’s hard not to conclude that as we adapt to the intellectual environment of the Net our thinking becomes shallower.

There are as many human brains as there are human beings. I expect, therefore, that reactions to the Net’s influence, and hence to this year’s Edge question, will span many points of view. Some people will find in the busy interactivity of the networked screen an intellectual environment ideally suited to their mental proclivities. Others will see a catastrophic erosion in the ability of human beings to engage in calmer, more meditative modes of thought. A great many will likely be somewhere between the extremes, thankful for the Net’s riches but worried about its long-term effects on the depth of individual intellect and collective culture.

My own experience leads me to believe that what we stand to lose will be at least as great as what we stand to gain. I feel sorry for the kids at Cushing Academy.

7 thoughts on “Mr. Tracy’s library

  1. Niraj

    What would you say to guy like me.

    I have a 2.5hr daily commute and the way I started liking me commute is by going (audio books). Now I,after about about 2 years of commute and about 20 books down my head, look at the audio books as the best form for reading.I do 90% of my book reading on audio books now.

    I have adjusted to a totally new media form and frankly love it. Am I losing out on some deep thought and insights I would get by reading a Hardbook/Paperback. I don’t truly know, but most likely I am not.

  2. tomslee

    Very nice, and I am looking forward to the book.

    As for contemplation, my only partial solution to that has been to walk more – in the last year I might have done more good work on the way to and from my office than when I am actually there. On the other hand, I sometimes have an iPod or BlackBerry with me, and there goes the meditation.

  3. Hbrownsworth

    There is little doubt that technologies such as e-mail, instant messaging, text messaging, facebook, twitter, etc. are electronic demons working to not only destroy language, but to hinder humanity’s ability to think and reason at deeper levels. However, it is difficult to condemn all technology or even all facets of the Internet. The Internet, even with all of its shiny useless trinkets, has a single redeeming quality, it has provided greater access to information than any library in history.

    If Mr. Tracy has found a way to put Chaucer in the hands of his students rather than Mario, how can his his means be disputed? If the intent of the author is to be read, it is the word, not the medium, that is truly important.

  4. Noach


    I heartily second the favourable view of audiobooks. In a similar way to the radio shows of yesteryear, they evoke deep attention, thought, and imagination.

    There is an ancient quality to the power of narration and the oral word: far from being ‘just a word’ it takes on the living personality and style of the (always) human speaker, his or her soul and breath of life – or spirit, as biblical texts hold.

    As a medium that does indeed matter, and with which we think, oral transmission predates writing and continues at this invisible, fragile, and easily lost high level of spirituality.

  5. Dape

    Thanks for your interesting article, thought provoking and sadly correct. Working in this industry is about quick fire responses that last about as long as the daily blog. Deeper thought tends to be saved for personal projects.

  6. Balazs Szemes

    I think that there is a very important distiction between an ebook reader and a networked computer. As an e-ink screen makes it virtually unusable for anything that requires frequent screen refresh (and thus frequent interaction) it’s not like a networked computer.

    I’m speaking from personal experience only (I am a happy owner of a Cybook, which is a device without any kind of wireless connection), but I don’t feel that much of the reading experience is lost by using an ebook reader, as there is no more distraction than reading a paper book. (While I used to read on a computer as well and there I have also noticed that my attention is broken into shards between the reading, im, mail, twitter, etc.)

    So while I fully agree that medium matters a lot, I feel that there is a much greater distance between a networked computer and a currently very specialized ebook reader than an ebook reader and a book.

    Unfortunately the current batch of e-ink devices are likely to remain a niche at best and more multi-use devices are to take their place.

    Still currently there may be an important enough difference between a Kindle and an iPhone, deserving some deeper inspection.

  7. Gary Frost

    Another way to approach the Chaucer under the tree motif is to consider that the simulations derive from a parent format from the turn of the 15th century. The display, regardless of delivery device, still conveys conventions of navigation, legibility and comprehension that are old.

    Now imagine an online shopping adventure under the tree. Not many would consider shopping in a paper catalog equivalent to one click purchasing. Here, in a strange inversion, print is the faulty derivative of the connected experience.

    The point being that format is a factor and so is the provenance and influence of the source format. What is the template and what is the simulation?

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