Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Why Our Future does not need Firemen (Fahrenheit 451)

The Providence Journal's Edward Achorn has just won my heart! His column on February 27, "Tossing Print onto the Digital Fire," considers the movie Fahrenheit 451. In that movie, based on the novel of the same name by Ray Bradbury, the government employs firemen, not to put out fires, but to start them -- with books and all other print! Achorn begins by considering that dystopian future, and comparing it with our current world. He says:

the film’s vision of the future looks rather silly these 40 years later. For one thing, there’s too much leisure time, walking and public transportation in it! And though giant, flat, wall-mounted TV screens have come to life in our age of plasma high-definition sets, the government requires no squads of Men in Black to keep a stupid and “happy” citizenry from reading books and newspapers.

We’re doing it ourselves.

The love of print on paper — the magic many of us felt in holding, touching, smelling books, and then reading, disappearing into a world of imagination, or learning about the past, or sounding out beautiful phrases, or meeting some of the smartest and most interesting humans who ever lived — seems to be vanishing right before our eyes.

Computers are providing our information now — in little snippets that, because of human neurology, fail to convey information the way the printed word does.

The brains of homo-sapiens react to pulped wood differently than to electronic light. A computer is great at giving us segments of sorted information at a quick speed. But reading print requires a special form of thinking, an ability to focus for long periods of time, to retain information, to pause and reflect. Print can be underscored with a finger, marked up with a pencil, carried easily under a tree or into a nook. I think that’s why even today’s college students print out computer material onto good old-fashioned paper.

Achorn notes that librarians, rushing to meet the perceived demand of their public, are pushing music, movies and computers. He considers the problems with this trend:

* People don't know they want or need something until they stumble over it by serendipity. Serendipity is finding a book on the shelf, or coming across a fascinating article on the way to the page you thought you wanted.

* Context is easily lost when you search in databases. For instance, you know where a statute fits into the structure of the code, because you had to look at the whole set of statutes to pull off the single volume that has your citation. You lose that physical marker of the structure when you search a database. Or, you use a table of contents to browse for the statute (or section in a treatise), and locate other relevant items as well (this is sort of like serendipity, but it's also context -- it matters WHERE in the subject-ordered universe things sit). You can browse the shelves of a library and find books you never find through the OPAC (maybe that means we need to improve our catalog further, but I think it also means physical location still carries meaning if you visit live).

* Achorn makes a fascinating argument, one I don't think I've seen before. He thinks that reading in print will become the purview of the power elite, and maybe an age-demarker, too. This is so much the other side of our long-time arguments about "information illiteracy" and the "digital divide" where the have-nots lack access to computers! Here is what he says:
This anti-print trend, naturally, sends tremors of terror through my industry. Newspaper circulation is in decline as older readers die. Many young people can’t be bothered. In the early 1970s, 70 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds read a daily newspaper. Today, the figure is 35 percent, and falling.

That’s a disaster for journalists, but it’s an even bigger disaster for our society. Printed papers offer something of incalculable value: context. It is easier to see how important something is by its placement on a page, something even a newspaper Web site cannot easily duplicate. Often, by means of turning a page, I stumble onto an important story about some topic I might never have clicked onto, or “called up” on a Web site’s search engine.

The elites will continue to read print, including history and fiction, because intelligence often translates to power and money. Books will survive, as will specialty periodicals. But, if our culture continues in its rapid flight from print to digitized information, many citizens will lose the ability to ponder seriously, to vote intelligently, or to understand the world around them.

Many in government would like that just fine. And just think: It can be done without the messy drama of burning anything!

Ironically, the image is of an audiobook of Bradbury's novel, at


Jim Milles said...

I've never understood the idea that computer use sacrifices serendipity. Every time I do a Google search and find thousands of hits on a simple concept, I'm benefitting from all kinds of serendipity. Blog aggregators like Bloglines and Google Reader also foster serendipity by bringing to the reader a tremendous variety of information which might be of interest or use.

Betsy McKenzie said...

Jim, that's serendipity in one dimension, and I certainly enjoy that, too. But, you lose the serendipity of browsing shelves and browsing through a treatise when you find a document in a database. You have no idea what sits next to it, subject-wise. And when you use "next term" to browse through a document or list of documents, you also lose the serendipity of finding relevant material with different terms as you page through or use a table of contents or index. There are many mansions in Serendip. :)