Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 6, Number 9: July 2006


Scan This Book?

Change the question mark to an exclamation point and you have the title of Kevin Kelly’s essay-cum-manifesto in the May 14, 2006 New York Times. Why would I comment about a pile of technological determinism from the Wired editor who, if I’m not mistaken, was the big noise behind “the long boom,” the assured prediction (around 1997) that the Dow was on its way to 30,000 or more and we were at the beginning of a global boom that would last for decades?

Because a respected paper gave Kelly a lot of space, because loads of people commented on it, and because a high-profile blogger who used to be a mediocre TV Guide essayist went even further.

Kelly’s essay claims that the various book scanning projects are “assembling the universal library page by page,” quite an ambitious claim for OCA, Google Library Project, and friends. He goes on to say that this “planetary source of all written material” will “transform the nature of what we now call the book and the libraries that hold them”—toward Kelly’s “Eden of everything” and “away from the paradigm of the physical paper tome.” He assures us that search technology will enable us “to grab and read any book ever written,” surely not a likely outcome of any current projects—and that “with tomorrow’s technology” his estimate of “the entire works of humankind” (he says 50 petabytes) will “fit onto your iPod.”

A bit later, he seems to assert that nobody prints out web PDF documents; people “happily read” them on computers. He claims “still more people now spend hours watching movies on microscopic cellphone screens”—without any apparent evidence. Then he launches into his fevered dreams of books “reading” one another, a future where “no book will be an island.” Somehow, indexing every word—or, as he puts it, as each word is “cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled” they will be “woven deeper into the culture than ever before” as “every page reads all the other pages.” Whew.

Tags will “serve better than out-of-date schemes like the Dewey Decimal System.” Every book, “including fiction, will become a web of names and a community of ideas.” Kelly throws in more figures: there are 100 billion web pages with 10 links each, making a trillion “electrified connections”—and, for those who find those numbers suspiciously neat, raising a question as to whether Kelly just makes this stuff up.

What happens when all books become “a single liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas”? He says this will “deepen our grasp of history” and cultivate a “new sense of authority”—or, just maybe, it could leave us drowning in interlinked trivia.

There’s more—a lot more. Kelly loves universalisms. It’s “obvious to all that copyright now existed primarily to protect a threatened business model.” “No one doubts electronic books will make money eventually.” [Emphases added] He also loves oppositions, contrasting “people of the book” with “people of the screen.” He assures us that digital technology “has now disrupted all business models based on mass-produced copies.” He suggests authors should make their livings through performances and sponsorship, giving up any chance of royalties as such. We’re told “copies don’t count any more.” Not that books matter much anyway: “The only way for books to retain their waning authority in our culture is to wire their texts into the universal library.”

Sample Reactions

Michael McGrorty at Library dust offered thoughts about the “inevitable transition” to electronic formats and noted (correctly, I think, although I disagree with aspects of the essay) that libraries are about stories—or, as McGrorty puts it, literature. Barbara Fister at ACRLog discussed Kelly’s “utopian dreams” and noted that the assumptions that books are separate and unsearchable are both wrong: “Libraries don’t lock books up, they put them together so they can be discovered.” Angel, The gypsy librarian, took issue with Kelly’s assertion that this utopia would make every book available to “every person,” noting that even if it was feasible, that doesn’t give the third world and the poor elsewhere either the readers or reliable electricity to make it universal. Nicholas Carr also notes that Kelly distorts the reality of current books—and, as I kept seeing, that his case is “completely unsubstantiated. There’s no argument, only picture-painting… Like the true believer he is, Kelly demands that we take his prophecy on faith.”

Some library bloggers immediately took other bloggers to task for criticizing Kelly, calling them knee-jerk reactions and suggesting librarians were trying to maintain control of “our books”—neither of which I saw in any liblogs. Indeed, some libloggers (e.g., Peter Bromberg at Library garden) seemed positively enthusiastic about the Kelly piece.

T. Scott, who likes the idea of dynamic text linking, points out that, “as is typical of net evangelists,” Kelly “undervalues the physical printed book” and creates a “clash” that need not (in fact, does not) exist. “He quickly glides over the fact that books have never, in fact, been as isolated and lonely as he would project.” Scott also points out that Kelly misses the virtues of a book’s physicality—and raises an interesting question: “If the only thing that we valued about books was the content, why would there be so much variation in type design and paper and size and shape and color and artwork?” Scott’s not some aged librarian intent on preserving a building full of books: He’s in biomedical research where, as he says, “there will be very little, if any, need for print in just a few years.” For that area, that may be sensible—”I see no cause for regret in that whatsoever”—but elsewhere, “Printed books & magazines will continue to have value…because of those very physical qualities.”

The distant librarian wondered about the figures—for example, the assertion that there have been more books than songs (which I also find improbable), and wondered how you’d go about doing effective searching in a universal library full of snippets and remixes. The writer makes a key point: “All this search stuff is great if you’re searching for some information. But what if you just want to read a story?” (Although this is cited as a difference between fiction and nonfiction, I’d go further: It’s a difference between information and stories, many of which are nonfiction.)

John Updike and Jeff Jarvis

Bob Thompson reported on various hoohah at BookExpo America in the Washington Post, asserting a clash between the “technorati and the literati” (ignoring all us geeky book-lovers). Thompson nails Kelly’s essay as “the messianic/hyperbolic style favored by Wired” and goes on to John Updike’s vivid reaction, including his suggestion that for authors to make livings by selling performances was “a pretty grisly scenario” and his note that “books traditionally have edges” and “are intrinsic to our human identity.” One Google person’s reaction was part right, part odd: While saying (correctly, I believe) that Updike’s criticism of Kelly had an “apples and oranges” aspect, this person also asserted that books meant to be read sequentially are “a minority” of books. Can that be true—that reference works and other nonlinear books are the majority of published books? I find the claim unlikely, almost impossible.

Then, Jeff Jarvis, who I remember as a second-rate TV Guide “critic,” posted “The book is dead. Long live the book.” at BuzzMachine. He starts out with what appears to be a flat-out lie:

I have nothing against books.

But the book is an outmoded means of communicating information… We give undue reverence to the form for the form’s sake…

The problems with books are many. They are frozen in time without the means of being updated and corrected. They have no link to related knowledge, debates, and sources… They tend to be too damned long because they have to be long enough to be books… They limit how knowledge can be found because they have to sit on a shelf under one address; there’s only way way [sic] to get to it… They depend on blockbuster economics. They can’t afford to serve the real mass of niches… They aren’t searchable… They have no metadata… Print is where words go to die.

The statements in the second and third paragraphs (excerpted) appear to contradict the first one-sentence paragraph. Now, boys and girls, how many false statements can you find in that third paragraph—particularly with Publish-on-Demand and more than 170,000 different titles published last year in the U.S. alone? (Any librarian who agrees that books “have no metadata” really ought to find another profession.) It was hard to read these paragraphs under the mass of red after I marked them up. Later, Jarvis says (correctly) that a lot of books “are utter crap,” and I couldn’t help but note, “as are a lot of blog posts.”

Jarvis tells us “we need to get over the book.” Naturally, he praises Kelly’s essay. He also wants us to “get over” (a phrase I loathe as a sneering dismissal of valid perspectives) the idea of “one-way culture,” that is, appreciating what someone else creates.

When I printed out the two-page post, it was accompanied by 49 comments taking another 10 pages, some of them insightful. Some were a little sad: One person “completely agree[d] with Jeff”, saying, “I find the long-form utterly useless and the lack of interactivity [in a book] infuriating.” Fortunately, there are always games. One determinist assured us that “Books are indeed outmoded and on the way out. Technology will triumph over whimsy.” This person took pains to tell us that, while they used to read books voraciously, “non-fiction ONLY,” they haven’t read a full book in years. The next commenter called the essay “silly” and “profoundly anti-intellectual,” noting that great books “enter a conversation which continues and echoes back and forth.” Yet another split readers into “the fiction crowd” and “the non-fiction crowd”—apparently believing that nonfiction never has narrative force. As for interactivity, threads, etc., several people offered comments perhaps epitomized by Steve Baker: “I read books when I want to be immersed. I don’t want a conversation, I don’t want to be interrupted, I don’t want to click onto a detour. I just want to be in the thrall of someone’s story or line of thinking.” But the next person assured us that “the cult of the book doesn’t have enough devotees to keep the publishing industry afloat.” That’s probably true (there are relatively few book cultists), but book readers manage to pay for an industry estimated at $32 billion U.S., $80 billion worldwide. I love comment #44: “I’ve tried this post and all the comments, but my eyes are starting to hurt. Is your blog available in paperback yet please?” And at least one librarian was represented—Bob Holley, who noted the importance of permanent media as establishing content at a specific time with a reasonable degree of certainty.

More Responses and Conclusion

Jonathan Weber in the Times Online responded to Jarvis, saying “I think he totally misses the point.” He notes that books are about a lot more than “communicating information.” He finds it hard to separate words from context—and he responds to Jarvis’ objection to “lecture media”: “Lectures have their place. I’m not looking to have a conversation with Dostoevsky, or Don DeLillo, or even a great non-fiction writer like Robert Caro. I’m looking to be carried off by their words, enchanted by their artistry, and the fewer digital distractions and yammering commenters, the better.” Weber says “the great narrative will always have its place, or at least I hope it will.” Chris Armstrong, the info NeoGnostic, objects to the “or” thinking in Jarvis’ essay (which I also found prevalent in Kelly’s manifesto)—that is, “remix” text isn’t a replacement for narrative, but may serve other purposes. (Armstrong also points out that it isn’t print books or ebooks, and that’s true even when ebooks start to have market impact—but I don’t believe the Kelly and Jarvis essays have much to do with ebooks.)

Finally, go back a month to Mark Lindner’s quick comment (at …the thoughts are broken…) on a portion of an article I chose not to comment on, Thomas Frey’s “The future of libraries: Beginning the great transformation.” One of ten so-called “trends” is that we are transitioning from a product-based economy to an “experience-based economy,” and this means “books themselves will transition from a product to an experience. As books change in form from simple ‘words on a page’ to various digital manifestations of the information, future books will be reviewed and evaluated by the experience they create.”

Lindner notes that the trend itself is “pure and utter (marketing) nonsense,” but goes a little further on the books portion: “That is one of the (intellectually) saddest and just plain stupidest sentences that I have read in over 40 years of reading!” As Lindner says, books will remain a product (even if the product is access to etext)—and there’s an assumption that “if something doesn’t have flashing lights, (computer) interactivity, and require electricity then it cannot be an ‘experience.’ Nonsense.” Lindner says “every book that I have ever read has been an experience.” (Lindner goes into a small rant on futurists and marketers which warms my heart, and you’ll find it in his archives on April 21, 2006. But as he notes, “at least the ‘good’ ones made what they predicted sound good. This is just stupid.”) If you’re wondering why I didn’t comment on Frey’s piece—well, I couldn’t do so as calmly and objectively as Lindner, particularly after adding a forest of red marks to the paper.

What’s the trend? Technological determinists write silly projections. “Conversational media” triumphalists say stupid things about books and stories. Pointless and irrelevant oppositions are created when there should be room for multiple perspectives. Technology is credited not only with inevitability but with utopian powers. And life goes on. As do books (and print magazines, and electronic media, and conversational media, and searching, and…)

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 6, Number 9, Whole Issue 79, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG.

Cites & Insights is sponsored by YBP Library Services,

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