Finding hope in a book-less world

November 11, 2010 at 9:49 am 9 comments

I also finished the Smithsonian magazine 40th anniversary issue on the way back from China.  (It’s a REALLY long trip.)  There were three pieces that I think speak to each other, to point to danger in a book-less world, and a possible reason to have hope.

Kevin Kelly explicitly predicts the end of the book over the next 40 years, and describes how the book-less world will be different:

“In books we find a revealed truth; on the screen we assemble our truth from pieces. On networked screens everything is linked to everything else. The status of a new creation is determined not by the rating given to it by critics but by the degree to which is linked to the rest of the world.”

Vint Cerf’s interview points out (one of) the dangers of this future world:

“[The Web is] a little bit like television. When it arrived there were many expectations that it would improve education and everything else. But what we discovered is there’s a finite amount of quality in the universe, and when there are more channels it has to be cut up into smaller and smaller amounts until finally, every channel delivers close to zero quality, and that’s where we are today, with a few exceptions.”

So Kelly is saying that students won’t read to learn truth from a master — they’ll construct their own truth out of the wide range of what has been written.  And Cerf is saying, “And there’s almost nothing good out there.”  When I read the two of these pieces, I felt dismayed.  It feels like Meno’s paradox. How can you find truth, if you don’t know the truth already?  And isn’t it all the more harder if there’s no or little truth out there to work from?

The hope comes from considering Cerf’s caveat “with a few exceptions.”  There’s something out there.  The student must be diligent in finding it and careful in evaluating it.  The student needs a critical eye.  Maybe that’s actually a huge advantage over where we are today, where students tend to memorize more and sense-make less.

Pre-Web, most people in the United States got their news from only one source.  Even today, how many people get most of their news and viewpoints from Fox News?  How many teachers teach using only one textbook or resource, and how many students use only a single source for learning a given curricular topic?  (And how does that contrast with the number of sources they use when they care about the topic?)  In contrast, how many scientists or doctors use only a single source for all their decisions?

It’s a positive direction for people to learn to work to gather information, to have to evaluate it, and to keep going until they come to a personal understanding.  As teachers, we’ll have to help students learn these skills.

I particularly liked the interview with Sabiha Al Khemir, an expert on Islamic art.  I thought that her comments encouraged this style of thinking, to rely less on the expert, and more on the individual student’s effort at assembling “small” pieces at the “intimate” level:

“Making that effort and wanting to find out is part of the duty of each one of us. Most Islamic art is not even signed; most is anonymous. The concept of a masterpiece is not the same as in the West. The concept of the artist is not the same. This is not art that was produced to be hung on the walls. The scale is much smaller, which calls for an intimate relationship. Basically, it is calling you to come close and look, to accept that it is different and try to understand that even though it’s small, it might have something to say. Maybe it’s whispering. Maybe you need to get closer.”

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Darrin Thompson  |  November 11, 2010 at 12:10 pm

    “In [old thing] we find revealed truth, on the [new thing] we [do something inferior]. [Boo hoo].”

    These are the same experts who would have, had they been alive, written the same thing about the changes brought by newspapers, paperbacks, magazines, postal mail, and even readily available books. They might not admit it, but we all know they’d have written about the dangers of papyrus scrolls on their good-enough-for-me clay tablets had they any opportunity. 50 years from now someone like them will write about how revealed truth is to be found in a web browser and something new is just so much disconnected sugar on a spoon.

    Meanwhile my grandchildren will be learning stuff and doing stuff. We’re going to be fine. Or at least the internet will not be our downfall.

    These folks are the pearls-before-swine caucus and I, for one, am changing the channel right now. And in the process, I’m dating myself. [Shudder.]

    • 2. Mark S  |  November 12, 2010 at 12:39 am

      Clearly, the technology we work with today is having an effect on our minds and patterns of thinking. However, I think the jury is still out on _what_ exactly that effect is. My own personal opinion is that the increasing rates of ADD and ADHD are almost certainly related. There is a certain depth-first traversal itch that is nurtured by the hyperlink that no other civilization prior to ours has been able to idulge in. What does it mean when we start a quest for a piece of information and twenty browser tabs later, haven’t finished reading a single, contiguous paragraph. It can’t be all good.

      I think what’s missing from this analysis is why the hyperlink exists in the first place. We exist in a world full of specialists. A world with so much information, it’s impossible to be a generalist anymore. It’s impossible to write a sentence, without feeling the need to drill down a level, or two, or three. Rarely can a statement ever be taken at face value or even understood without a sea of context.

      I can sense the thought now, “It’s necessary to have the ability to drill down and we have it. That is good, right?” However, I think it’s more psychological than that. From my own experience, the Internet more frequently reinforces prejudices –look at the current political spectrum– and nurtures niche interests more than it allows us to explore the Ocean of information out there, as it were, because it never forces people to listen to an opposing view point or to be in the passenger seat for a while. It creates walls of the invisible kind. This is the hyperlink as a distraction from the big picture.

      I think the real loss of future generations will be felt in the loss of big picture people, those with the self discipline to stay the course on the breadth first search. This will cause a general decay of the way things fit together, which I believe we are only begining to see the effects of in all of our lives. Lawmakers who are clueless on what they are legislating, Radiologists analyzing data for patients they’ve never seen, Software Engineers who do not understand the OS or hardware they are using.

      In my own line of work, computer scientists work along side financial analysts, and rarely do they ever completely understand the other side of the wall. The few people who are able to peek over, are paid very hansomly for that ability.

      But one might argue whether it’s even possible to see over the wall, in many cases.

    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  November 12, 2010 at 10:57 am

      Darrin, I didn’t convey Kevin Kelly’s point well. He argues that “screens” are far superior to books. I don’t buy his argument, but I do see a potential benefit. Vint Cerf is more negative about the Web (Kelly’s “screens”).

  • 4. John "Z-Bo" Zabroski  |  November 12, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    To what extent is Vint Cerf complaining about the expressiveness of the Web today and the general lack of true hypermedia environments like the ones Ted Nelson envisioned in Computer Lib / Dream Machines.

  • 5. Aaron Lanterman  |  November 14, 2010 at 3:07 am

    Am I some sort of anachronistic throwback for loving physical books?

    I love the feel and smell of the paper. I love the ability to “flip through” them in a way that you just can’t get with a scrollbar. I love the look of the spines, all stacked together on a bookshelf. I like reading them in the bathtub. If I find a legitimately free text online (i.e. one posted by the actual author), if I really like it, I sometimes use the FedEx print-on-demand service to buy a nice spiral-bound copy (which is usually cheaper and easier than printing yourself once you factor in the cost of toner cartridges.)

    Granted, I’ve also wanted to be able to double-click on a word in a physical book and have an index pop up. Maybe I need some of that Augmented Reality.

  • 6. Alan Kay  |  November 14, 2010 at 8:59 am

    “101”s please …

    McLuhan, Innis, Ong, Havelock, Postman, Mumford, et al.

    This discussion is missing that our brain/minds have to change in important ways when we get fluent in using new communications systems (and environments in general). You need to ask what does this mean for human thinking? (What has it meant?)

    After writing, printing, and television (plus some neuroscience of behavior) there is now enough known to compare and criticize how goals for humanity collide with “styles of thinking”.

    Best wishes,


    • 7. John "Z-Bo" Zabroski  |  November 19, 2010 at 2:46 pm

      Who are you referring to in Havelock? Havelock Ellis??

      • 8. John "Z-Bo" Zabroski  |  November 19, 2010 at 2:52 pm

        Nevermind. Figured it out. Eric Alfred Havelock. It was the only one on the list I wasn’t able to photographically recall, and couldn’t use Google search effectively to find.

  • 9. mark  |  November 22, 2010 at 12:28 am

    Give me a hard copy of a book any day over an electronic version. It’s easier on the eyes. I can stuff a paper back in my back pocket. Try that with a KIndle


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