Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Steven Johnson on e-reading

Over the next few days, as time permits, — here at Wheaton, we’re getting near the end of the semester, and things are getting a little crazy — I’m going to be responding to Steven Johnson’s recent hyperventilation on digital reading in the Wall Street Journal. This is Johnson in his This-Changes-Everything mode, which is my least favorite of his modes, so I may be a little cranky here. Let’s start with just a few points.

Think about it. Before too long, you'll be able to create a kind of shadow version of your entire library, including every book you've ever read -- as a child, as a teenager, as a college student, as an adult. Every word in that library will be searchable. It is hard to overstate the impact that this kind of shift will have on scholarship.

Yes, very cool, I agree. Just yesterday I was teaching a class how to use Google Books and Amazon’s “Search Inside the Book” feature to find passages in the books they’re going to be writing their papers on. But I already dread what this is going to do to my students’ papers once they seriously glom on to these new technologies. I’ll have essay after essay analyzing every occurrence of a particular word in a novel or long poem. Why? because that’s what these technologies see: words, or, more precisely, strings of characters. Papers built on the powers of string search will find every use of the word “honor” in the Iliad, but may well be blind to passages in which honor is granted or withheld without the word being used, or where some related concept is invoked: “glory,” say. To someone with a hammer, everything looks like a nail; so someone with a search engine, every book looks like a set of strings.

With books becoming part of this universe, "booklogs" will prosper, with readers taking inspiring or infuriating passages out of books and commenting on them in public. Google will begin indexing and ranking individual pages and paragraphs from books based on the online chatter about them. (As the writer and futurist Kevin Kelly says, "In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages.") You'll read a puzzling passage from a novel and then instantly browse through dozens of comments from readers around the world, annotating, explaining or debating the passage's true meaning.

And in the process be taken completely out of the world of the book itself, losing the attentiveness you need to read anything truly worth reading. (Johnson, to his credit, does acknowledge this loss of attention as a problem.) Kelly’s typically hyperbolic statement fails to see that, if we pause for a moment to think, everything is not equally related to everything else: connections are variable in strength and tenacity. The passage early in The Lord of the Rings in which Gandalf expresses approval of the mercy Bilbo showed to Gollum is especially closely connected with the book’s final scene on Mount Doom — much more than to hundreds of other pages of the book. Kelly in his enthusiasm lacks any sense of the need for intellectual discrimination.

Think of it as a permanent, global book club. As you read, you will know that at any given moment, a conversation is available about the paragraph or even sentence you are reading. Nobody will read alone anymore. Reading books will go from being a fundamentally private activity — a direct exchange between author and reader — to a community event, with every isolated paragraph the launching pad for a conversation with strangers around the world.

Johnson does not even seem aware that to many, many people this vision is nightmarish. There are readers, and there will always be readers, who love books precisely because they offer the opportunity to be alone with another intelligence — one other intelligence. This has indeed been one of the chief joys of reading as long as people have read, and Johnson seems to think it is simply going to disappear, and that people will be perfectly happy to see it disappear. Absurd.


  • Alan, I think your first point, that text searches only see documents as strings of characters, is particularly well put.

    As a library science student, I'm very often reminded of how dumb simple text searches can be. They're great for technical language, where well-defined terms are connected to single concepts, but as soon as you step into subjective language -- and, a fortiori, artistic language -- it works terribly.

    So the literary scholar in me sees this technology as a particularly crippling crutch for analyzing literature.

    The cynic in me, however, is just waiting to see the first novel written expressly to game the Google algorithm of popularity ranking.

  • Tony Comstock said...

    When I was on one of my Goolge rants I heard on the radio then found the corresponding article online about Asperger's in the IT industry. The gist was something along the lines of "Of course we build something oblivious to the more subtle aspects of human interaction, and lost in minutia."

    Of course that's only half try. Hammers go looking for nails, but nails also go looking for hammers.

    My wife just finished up our trade show. All human interaction. It went very very well. That might be a hint about the future too.

  • They have been having this discussion for a while now in the realm of Bible study where you have programs, like Logos, that search "everything" by "everyone" on a particular passage. They morn the hard work that used to be involved and feel somehow that "real" study is lost. I don't know, I see that you lose somethings and gain others.

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