I WOULDN'T CALL IT "PISSY"--the anti-Internet rant by novelist John Updike in today's New York Times Book Review. But certainly the tone of the piece--which excoriates cyberutopian Kevin Kelly for proclaiming the death of books by Google digitization--suggests that it is less the work of an erudite, informed commentator, and more the work of an old man whose livelihood is tied to a moribund technology--like a guy who made a fortune selling whale oil writing about the horror of the Edison light bulb.
Updike's piece is a response to a typically mushy-headed, over-the-top rant by Kelly published in May in the NYT Magazine. In the original piece Kelly opined that Google's decision to digitize and redistribute every book the company could get its hands on would democratize access to information and change the relationship between information creation and wealth.
Kelly, like all cyberutopians, makes the same assumptions about Internet technology that all white, well-off, well-educated technodweebs do--failing in his dreams of the democratization of information to imagine the fates of the hundred of millions of humans across the globe without computer and broadband access and with no computer literacy; failing to think through the implications of and dilemmas that arise from the human choices that are made when analog information is digitized, such as: what gets digitized first, how the material will be indexed, who is responsible for making those choices, what are the goals and interests of those responsible, what information gets left behind, what happens with digital information gets lost, etc.
Updike DOES properly identify the flaw, at least for content creators, in Kelly's giddy enthusiasm. For Kelly a world of digitized, user-manipulated, bookish, factoid microchunks, while destroying the old, packaged-goods business model of authorship, creates new business opportunities in which links, not thoughts, are the currency, and advertising, sponsorship, personal appearances, and subscriptions are the revenue sources. But, as Updike obliquely points out, this model, if it works at all (and there's plenty of room for doubt on that subject), works best at the lowest end of the quickest, smallest information--recipes, horoscopes, stock quotes, etc. But works worst as a means of financing the kind of long-form works of imagination in which Updike and other literary novelists traffic.
But Updike's rant collapses because of his surprising misunderstanding of the nature of the way people share information, thoughts, images, writing, movies, and more over the Internet.
In imagining a huge, virtually infinite wordstream accessed by search engines and populated by teeming, promiscuous word snippets stripped of credited authorship, are we not depriving the written word of its old-fashioned function of, through such inventions as the written alphabet and the printing press, communication from one person to another --of, in short, accountability and intimacy?
No, John, in fact, quite the opposite. There's no comparison between the intimacy and accountability offered by a novel and that offered by, say, a blog in which the blogger is participant in an on going conversation, in which the line between reader and original poster is blurred beyond recognition, in which collective comment replaces old-fashioned ivory tower editing with a kind of universal peer review. For intimacy and accountability, the Internet trounces the book. The kind of intimacy offered by a book is the kind of intimacy offered by masturbation to pornography, a faux intimacy constructed in the mind of the imaginer in response to some static, external stimuli. By contrast the Internet offers actual engagement. And no, it's not the kind of formal, cocktail party facade of engagement you imagine, John, not just a "personal encounter, with all its merely social conventions, its merciful padding of blather and mutual forgiveness." In fact, quite the opposite, it's a multi-way community exchange sometimes too ruthlessly stripped of the social conventions of politeness and consideration.
"Yes, there is a ton of information on the Web, but much of it is egregiously inaccurate, unedited, unattributed and juvenile," Updike writes. But one wonders if Updike has been to a bookstore lately where images of Brangelina line the magazine racks at the check out counter, where Ann Coulter's inaccurate juvenilia tops the charts, and where Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, is much better known than Updike's own Rabbit.
There IS danger lurking in the looming Internetization of all information. I teach journalism and writing to undergraduates and it has been my experience that today's generation of students has lost the ability to conduct basic research. The mental tools of skepticism and inquiry have begun to atrophy--a Google search, and a quick perusal of the top few returns without attempting to confirm facts found there, now are both the beginning and ending of the research process. But like an analog library, the Internet is but a research tool and it is incumbent upon us in the transitional generation to guide and instruct the younger generation in its best use, not to wax nostalgic about the editions of Thomas Aquinas in Latin that we admired but did not purchase in the glorious, musty bookshops that lined the greens of Oxford.
Maybe something threatens to be lost in the translation from book to Net, but something can be gained too--precisely the intimacy and accountability that Updike incorrectly mourns. And don't worry John, as long as computer screens are lousy platforms on which to read long pieces of text books will continue to have a place.