Sunday, July 18, 2010

Importance of the Digital World, Besides Search

Deptford Pink (dianthus armeria) near the athletic track

No-one would deny the importance of online search at this point. It illuminates previously dark or hidden corners of the world, for better or worse, in a way that has never been possible before in history. It makes information accessible to people who in the past were never able to reach it, and it can relieve geography of its constraint.

This democratization of access is impressive to say the least, but widespread digitization doesn't change the existence of information -- only the way of getting to it. Accordingly, I struggle to find examples of meaningful changes to human knowledge.

It is true that new technologies enable certain endeavors in the realms of business, medicine, and even the arts, and also serious scholarship that technology companies such as google are encouraging. It is even mainstream to believe that computers are opening up new ways to teach and learn. (This last reminds me of the high hopes for television when it was new. At best, that one turned out to be a mixed bag.) As much as I appreciate and use technology in my everyday life, occasionally I wonder whether it's all one giant convenience masquerading as something more enduring.

Someone recommended a book called In Search of Zarathustra to me this week. In my local library system, I can only get it as a browser-based e-book. This is the first time this has happened, and so I tried to read it exclusively online. It drove me nuts, and I'm to the point of making the effort to get a printed copy. I've heard other people recount what I'm experiencing: I'm trying to do a close reading, engaging with an entire composition, rather than searching for something or skimming it, and the e-book is failing. For searching or skimming, an e-book is fine, but in trying to seriously pay attention to a piece from beginning to end, the format doesn't work.

In the past when I've heard people say this, I've frankly been a bit dismissive. I figured they weren't trying hard enough. But usually, the reason to adopt a new technology is that it makes something easier. I had to work really hard to read a browser-based e-book in the way I'm accustomed to reading a printed book. It's true I wasn't using a devoted e-reader, but I was reading on my relatively new flat screen computer monitor, which I use regularly to read on the internet. Maybe the lack of an e-reader is the problem? Right now, I'm not inclined to try and solve a technology problem by throwing more technology at it.

And so I continue to swing between whole-heartedly embracing new technologies and hoarding printed books out of fear that they will disappear in my lifetime. Next, to get a copy of Zarathustra.


  1. I share your frustration with browser-based ebooks, but can tell you from my own experience that reading books on a reader (or in my case, on my iPhone) is a completely different experience. I'm an ebook convert now, and find ebooks on the phone to be great for both fiction and nonfiction reading.

  2. One drawback that occurred to me with e-readers is that darned sharing thing...I'm going to have a stack of books with me during vacation, and if someone wants to borrow one while I'm not reading it, s/he can. Not so, if all my books were on an e-reader...