Is knowledge naught to you
Unless another knows that you know all you do?
—Aulus Persius Flaccus, satirist of Rome ca. 60 CE
One evening not long ago, a tour group of Cub Scouts and their parents filed into my broadcast studio at Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. I explained what I did—play recordings of classical music, talk a bit, push buttons; the guts of radio is still pretty much an analogue thing—and tried to describe the purpose of the rather dazzling array of electronic control boards and digital displays. One Scout, about 9, raised his hand.
“Why do you have so many computers there?”
A sensible, but also a shattering, question. Above the console floated no fewer than four computer monitors. And one, a recent addition mysterious even to me, was dark, waiting for some future raison d’etre.
An important moment, I believed. This boy, obviously touched by a certain genius, was forging a 21st century update of a timeless fable. His question deserved more than quotidian details. Yet I knew that this was the kind of thing parents explained to their children in their own good time. I should respect that, not usurp their role. But I couldn’t help myself. With a sheepish look at the grownups, I faced the avatar of the boy who reasonably observed that the Emperor had no clothes, and blurted out, “Honestly, I have no idea. But, as your parents know and can explain further, the world is run by the IT Department.”
A slow dissolve now away from electronics to a soft chair in a quiet nook out of sight, out of time. Here, legions of a 500-year-old technology dominate the scene. They stand patient and mute, a little dusty, secreting once-vital information, row after row, stack after stack. Thousands of them. The library as we’ve known it. The library as Michel de Montaigne designed it for himself in 1571, when he retired from the world of affairs to write his Essays (thereby inventing the essay), among them “Of Solitude,” which includes the epigraph by Persius above.
If this is your fond idea of what a library should be, brace yourself. The library is becoming a creature of IT, too.
Technology drives its priorities and growth. And this magazine: It’s changing in the way it’s presented, too. Responding to costs, efficiencies, opportunities. Nothing, we may lament (a constant of human experience), is permanent.
The purpose here, in this poor drab shadow of Montaigne’s invention, isn’t necessarily to ask, like the Cub Scout, why are there so many computers there? Rather, accepting that we billet the magic beasts as we would occupying soldiers, it’s to suggest a homely salve for those of us feeling grimly flushed out of one refuge after another.
But before beating our chests and rending our clothes over the loss of the library as refuge, a haven for thought, a place for solitude, please note that by-now familiar underlined type. Almost everyone knows by now that if you click that hyperlink while you’re online you’ll take a magic carpet ride directly to another source. Aren’t we a little foolish to sell short such an astounding thing?
Connectedness, and instant, on-demand information are at issue here. Not merely as cool benefits of the integrated circuit and its offspring, but as needs. Basics for economic and emotional survival.
What would it mean to refuse connectedness? Or, at least, to de-fuse its invasiveness as a putative tool that metastasized to become an appendage, or even a vital organ? Is it even possible? At the same time, is it even desirable? Doesn’t connectedness, after all, represent a boon for democratic interests? For leveling the playing field? For giving everyone unprecedented access to information? Hasn’t our homely old book symbolized an old entrenched privilege?
The mind reels.
The novelist Walker Percy, in an essay written in 1954, discussed the difficulties of maintaining what he calls sovereignty over our own experience. Can we continue to exercise certain faculties, of observation, valuation, appreciation, in the face of towering technocratic hierarchies? I quote the opening passage, because of its poetry, and because of its utility:
Every explorer names his island Formosa, beautiful. To him it is beautiful because, being first, he has access to it and can see it for what it is. But to no one else is it ever as beautiful, except for the rare individual who manages to recover it, who knows that it has to be recovered.
“The Loss of the Creature”
Percy’s point is that few of us get there first. None of us is going to discover the Grand Canyon again. We are all latecomers. News of the world mostly comes to us in filtered form, either through media, or through the oracular assertions of experts, whether doctors, electricians, geneticists, anthropologists, or the IT guy who launches your company’s new financial software. Even when we do observe something directly, there’s a good chance we’ll wonder what the experts might say. Their verdict is more “real” than ours.
Yet, Percy suggests, the specialists are not there to vex us. Their interest in their subjects is genuine. They work at their crafts, their arts. If collectively their efforts amount to an assault on our self-reliance, or conspire to shift the ground beneath our feet every other day, we could respond by railing at these gods of our complex, networked world. (Something that we’ve been doing, in one way or another, since before James Thurber swore at his Mixmaster.) Or we could acknowledge the struggle inherent in maintaining sovereignty over our experience, and prepare a battle plan.
This sets us up for a complicated confrontation with technocratic systems. We may chafe at them, but we ARE them. They’ve infiltrated not only the means of our economic prosperity (if not our survival), but our ways of thinking.
So it may be a little late in the game for hand-wringing about the Kindle replacing books or the digitizing of everything. Productivity and efficiency are fetishes we ourselves have accepted step by step for generations now. If we can’t deal with that elephant in the room, we shake our heads at secondary implications, mere droppings: the passing of this or that way of thinking, this or that way it used to be.
This may sound defeatist, even dystopian. But if optimism means a selective alarm over such changes, even as we validate and embrace them in a thousand other ways that seem to serve us and whose darker implications we don’t choose to notice, then I’ll take a certain gloom. Because that gloom leads me back, (as refuge, haven) to the heavy-lifting of recovering something beautiful for myself: the book.
In “Of Solitude” Montaigne says that at some point a person naturally ought to be able step away, if they choose, from affairs in the world, from leadership, contending with business, to think, read, paint, plant, write, whittle, in solitude. It’s just that you won’t wield influence, or gather laurels, anymore.
On a political level, of course, such a stance is disastrous. If we think certain essential values are under threat, we must act, not bury our heads in the sand. Right?
But in this case, I’m not sure what’s under threat. If anything. Whatever comments I make here might, in two years (or two minutes), expose me as a cousin of the Cassandras declaring “The end is near,” when trains reached 30 mph.
So the strange thing is, I wouldn’t dream of advocating the pleasures and challenges of the book. Or even recommending them. They’re far too isolating, even dangerous. It’s a rarified need, this refuge for a certain kind of book-related thought. It’s a rarified complaint, this skepticism over connectedness. To withdraw from the essential agreement of logging in has consequences. It’s a vast commitment, like becoming an artist, or a priest.
Talking about the book this way is bound to lead me into all kinds of snares. Am I suggesting a Manichean world, where one either surfs the web or bathes in Dante and Proust? No, of course not. But granting and charting complexities doesn’t necessarily assure happy co-existence, either, whatever the conflict.
I simply don’t understand well enough the gulf between the experience of the book and the experience of digital information consumption to be able to measure it accurately. I think it’s likely, though, that the gulf is wide, and that something is lost in going from one to the other, or in trying to include both. Whether that something matters a great deal is, I suppose, a personal debate.
My own debate involves a sense that my ability to wrestle with a difficult, discursive but rewarding text involves a certain vigilance. Doesn’t matter if it’s late Henry James or an early Naval diesel engine maintenance manual. If I don’t commune regularly with these things, the ice is going to form on the top of my poor brain’s chilly cistern, and I’ll have to spend time breaking it up before I take it up next time. Neglect them too long and the water freezes through and the book is closed.
Since I quote Montaigne, I should stress moderation. (Even he warns against excessive bookishness.) But because the rewards of reading the physical book are peculiar, cumulative, and result as much from the act as from the information “downloaded”, I can’t say for sure that such a balance (forced on most of us anyway by economic necessity and habit) isn’t a chimera.
I only know that when I hear Paul Otellini, the CEO of Intel, say to Charlie Rose that when we have every sort of networked connection in every device (phone, car, television, computer) it will mean the obsolescence of ignorance, I wanna run to my Orwell.
In his book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (1977), author Jerry Mander suggests a common self-deception among television viewers: that if we choose to watch the Super Bowl or a documentary about Kenya, we believe we’re engaged in different activities. Essentially the same idea as Marshall McLuhan’s “The medium is the message.” The content matters less than the fact that we’re all watching television. Or fiddling with your favorite mobile device.
I don’t know where or if a tipping point resides. But, I don’t have to know. Neither do you. This isn’t another test, another evaluation of happiness or the lack of it, and certainly not another drug or bromide to enhance the one or treat the other. It’s merely an observation: that if there’s a dissatisfaction with a certain kind of informational treadmill, a certain unease with relentless change (which, as realists, we call a constant), retreats do exist and refusals are possible. They just come at a price.
If we’re harboring the expectation that, given the right conditions or the right encouragements, people might still discover Trollope, or Lucretius, and make them part of the national conversation, don’t you think we can stop now, and let that go? They’re the dust-gatherers, and they don’t (in a particular way) matter. But maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be drawn to what doesn’t matter. Maybe no one needs to know that you know what you do. And considering the implications of connectedness, could this augur an untapped reservoir of freedom?
In the end, the book is beginning to look like a totem of an obscure practice, every bit as esoteric as cultivating bonsai trees or practicing voodoo. Public commerce, education, even spiritual institutions progress to faster, more efficient systems for information retrieval and dissemination. These systems become normative, and our homely book occupies the place to which it, as a new technology, consigned the illuminated manuscript, just as the manuscript made unnecessary the cultivation of prodigious memories.
We haven’t mastered the book and moved on. We’ve been hurried along, and we’ve responded like kids on a snow day. Innovations in technology create markets and jobs and wealth (all of which we tend to like), not to mention sugarplums dancing in our heads.
I realize that five decades after learning to read, I remain an apprentice in the world of the book. And I always will be. That’s its requirement and its promise, a quality of thought that endures and embraces the realities of living precariously.
In spite of the dust, in spite of the foolishness, we’re still perfectly free to luxuriate in the irrelevant, archaic pleasures of the book. Nobody’s yet stopping us. That should be enough.
Illustration David Wheeler