Thursday, March 12, 2009
  Loss of library privileges
Angkor Library Sunset by Stuck in Customs on Flickr
Sven Birkerts, author of the classic Guttenberg Elergies, has written a thoughtful and interesting piece "Resisting the Kindle". There he argues that Kindles represent a move to electronic reading. The convenience and effectiveness of such reading devices hasten (I am not writing from experience, Kindles are not available or usable down here!) is killing something significant in human culture.

Birkets is still a fine writer. He still has a gift for perceiving significant changes beneath the surface of culture. So I have tried to read his piece sympathetically. But, its wrong headed.

Birkets argument (as I understand it) is that the physical manifestation of culture in "books" (by book he means a paper codex) and libraries is important, not just as an organisation of information, knowledge and ideas but somehow for that very physicality. Asa Christian this idea is appealing. Birkets is claiming that the cultural "soul" cannot be split off from its "body".

He argues persuasively that knowledge is contextual, and that a fact retrieved on a handheld electronic device (his example is a Blackberry accessing a service like Wikipedia) decontextualises information. He is right. And this decontextualisation is a major problem with current electronic information systems.

And yet... When he writes:
Turning up a quote by tapping a keyboard is not the same as, say, going to Bartlett’s—it short-circuits all contact with the contextual order that books represent. As I see it, the Kindle ethos—offering print by subscription, arriving from a vast, undifferentiated cyber-emporium out there—abets the decimation of context.
He suggests a weakness in his argument. For surely a dictionary of quotations is itself a decontextualisation of information. Its convenience and its predigestion of knowledge are bookish forerunners of the very electronic systems Birkets bemoans.

For Birkets, like an anti-technophile who deeply loves his favourite technology (the codex and the library) concludes that the medium is the message in a deep and irreplaceable way:
So if it happens that in a few decades—maybe less—we move wholesale into a world where information and texts are called onto the screen by the touch of a button, and libraries survive as information centers rather than as repositories of printed books, we will not simply have replaced one delivery system with another. We will also have modified our imagination of history, our understanding of the causal and associative relationships of ideas and their creators. We may gain an extraordinary dots-per-square-inch level of access to detail, but in the process we will lose much of our sense of the woven narrative consistency of the story. That is the trade-off. Access versus context. As for Pride and Prejudice—Austen’s words will reach the reader’s eye in the same sequence they always have. What will change is the receiving sensibility, the background understanding of what this text was – how it emerged and took its place in the context of other texts—and how it moved through the culture.
Think about this claim. It is another example of the fetishisation of the "book". Somehow for Birkets finding a novel shelved just so in a library evokes the historico-cultural context of the novel that Birkets learned through his education. Finding the same text through an electronic process (even though the contextual information might be presented in more convenient form - accessible even by poor plebs who lack a refined education) will fail. Because it fails to evoke the mystique Birkets desires.

Don't cry for lost manuscript editions, learn to use print effectively. Don't bemoan the supercession of books, learn to recontextualise text in the electronic medium!

Such recontextualisation is precisely what Blackberrying a quote on Wikipedia permits, in a setting where books and libraries are inaccessible. This is potentially a democraisation of knowledge as well as information. Instead of weeping for lost privilege (an expensive education and a library card for the best institutional libraries) learn to assist the masses as we adopt the new technology!

HT if:book

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