A webpage is a book
I was watching the archives of re-publika and enjoying a lot of the speakers particularly Geert Lovink. Geert works at the Institute of Network Culture (he founded it) in Amsterdam. The Institute has been responsible for a lot of very interesting events including The Unbound Book.
Geerts talk from 2010 at re-publika linked me to the 2008 essay “Is Google Making us Stupid” by Nicholas Carr which I downloaded to my Kindle and read over dinner. Its apparently a very well known essay but I had not picked up on it before now.
There are a couple of personal observations of this process before I go on – I was quite happy to pay a very small sum for the essay and read it on my kindle, also keeping it there to refer to later, although I could have read it online for free. Second, I brought the book at the same time from which the essay was derived.
Anyways – one of Geerts arguments, also reflected in Nicolas Carrs writing, is that the web is changing our way of thinking. Essentially, as I understand them both, we fly through information looking for bits and pieces and compiling them in our brain on the fly. We no longer read a text more than a few paragraphs long but instead dive into a endless torrent of short information snippets – jumping from one hot source to the next, swapping context and media in rapid fire until we are fatigued or sated.
As a result we can’t read long form texts since our brains become reprogrammed. They simply work differently as a result of feasting on the net.
Most of which I agree with except I am curious about is why this is framed as a binary. From reading Carrs book I sense that he feels he has lost the ability to read long texts and claims this is true of most of us. But I dont think it is an either or situation. We have retained the ability to read long texts but we also have a new skill to read and compile hyper narratives on the fly.
The reason I believe we have both is partly from my internal sense of the issue gained to some degree by observing myself – I read Carrs long text about how I should not be able to read long texts anymore, and now I am reading his longer text about the same issue (his book).
Secondly – it seems the evidence is that people are buying long texts in amazing quantities. In 2011 Amazon announced that ebook sales had surpassed printed book sales. In some categories Amazon sold 105 times more ebooks than print books. What is difficult to discover is how many books that is exactly. It could be that consumption of books (print or digital) is plummeting so quickly that the total number read is still lower than the days before the net had its way with our brains.
I don’t have numbers on this – it would be useful to know, however it does seem to me that there is a lot of apparent consumption of long form text in the form of ebooks so until proven otherwise I am going to assume this is true.
What that indicates to me is that the problem is not that we can’t read long form text, but that we spend a lot of time online flying around looking for things that the web can’t deliver – or has not delivered. We jump around looking for facts and figures, changing contexts and sieving through information until we find the collection of snippets we want. However it could be that this behaviour is in part caused by the fact that there are no ‘contained spaces’ where we can find comprehensive information ‘in one place’.
The net once promised this – at least to me. ‘Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible’ as Google would put it. But the web does not organise all the worlds information, the web is a chaotic medley of data thrown about the globe and intercepted by enormous quantities of spurious junk. The web needs Google to make some kind of sense of it but that is far from ‘organising’ it unless I am missing some nuance of the term.
Where is the place you go to find comprehensive information on a specific topic? It is not the web. You go there to assemble bit and pieces – be inspired by tangents, get some great quotes, and feed off the flotsam and jetsam of data flows.
If you want to find comprehensive information you go to a book. Its a self contained space.
What is interesting is that the web has not delivered these spaces and yet books now are webpages. Epub, the most commonly used standard for ebooks, is actually a self contained archive (zip) and it contains a website. Epubs are HTML files ordered in a particular way so that ebook readers can display the contents as ordered chapters.
It is peculiar that epubs are books because it means that books are webpages, and the apparent popularity of ebooks suggests to me that networked media has failed to deliver something we still want – comprehensive long form text in one place.
I can’t explain it in its entirety. It is a puzzle but it does suggest to me that the book is here to stay. The book as a place where we find comprehensive long form texts on a topic is something we can still consume, we still want, and more importantly we still need.