Some Reflections on the Scale of Mechanised Information
One day soon a novelist will compose a work consisting entirely of internet citations that can no longer be traced. Files have been removed, first documents replaced by updates, websites de-linked by a Google gremlin. Even better, novels will be composed that consist of fictitious websites full of any amount of falsely attributed author information. That such a slippery situation exists at all is the private nightmare of the rational academic, scrupulous bibliographer, and internet spook. The imagination can be put to mischievous as well as constructive ends, but we are reminded too that online technology is more unstable and unreliable than the book.
Almost every week I hear from a lady living in Ivory Coast who addresses me fetchingly as Dearest in the Lord Jesus Christ and wants to meet me at Heathrow Airport with a suitcase of money and a few shared tears for her dead husband. I have come to delete her electrical blandishments with a prompt indifference I never knew I had before. Invitations to be guest speaker at a Future Intelligence Conference or to accept my claim to First Draw in an Italian Super Lottery are met with the same sangfroid and press of Delete. One doesn’t have to be a Cassandra to know that clicking with a Trojan could bring your whole world tumbling down.
I don’t use these examples to gripe about the internet, but to air this regular awareness that most of us have of the massive amount of waste that fills our lives each time we logon to the internet. There is the email waste that we have to fend off as it heads toward us like an unfunny and very obvious April Fool’s joke. And there is the spam we spend precious minutes differentiating from the stuff that may have some meaning. My Beloved from Ivory Coast is easy to identify, but in a mailbox of fifty messages what if in a hurry I remove the email that trumpets a friend’s genuine desire? Is the micro email note the one with the jumbo meaning? Have I missed the elephant in the room?
Never mind the news, where online papers give equal screen space to a footballer’s fame-drenched peccadilloes, the unpretty opinions of a fashionista, misguided polls about passing fads, and the imminent collapse of the European currency. All of this interrupted by noisy advertisements for products we will never buy. Where is the information we have lost in information? Never mind if knowledge is being imparted.
I find that so much of our life comes down to our habits of reading. And the value is in having the space to read closely and properly. The internet is a gift, a continuum of free knowledge, but how are we reading the internet? And will what we read today still be there tomorrow? Either online or in our thoughts? And will we be wiser? I mean, we’re not robots.
In his mordant comic novella ‘Too Loud a Solitude’ the great Czech satirist Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997) writes about the life of a wastepaper baler. For the 35 years of his working life Hanta, the main character, has two main occupations: the day job putting paper into a press for pulping, and drinking beer. Paper, whether books, magazines, cartons, butcher’s paper or other industrial product, all of it goes into the baler. This mindless job has its perks, however. Hanta can take home to his cottage outside Prague books he finds of interest. Thus the personal account of his life becomes interspersed with sayings from Lao-Tse and Jesus Christ, Nietzsche and Holderlin, select authors that he studies in gorgeous morocco-bound volumes, whether or not he is drinking beer at the time. He even starts to differentiate the endless paper he commits to the baler, opening books of poetry at his favourite verse before they go down to be pressed.
Hrabal’s 100-page masterpiece is open to varying interpretation, but for anyone who deals in books, like librarians and booksellers but also readers in general, it is a reminder of the huge scale of the printed record of humanity, of the need to choose what we save, and of the excess waste that is implicit in this process. We simply don’t have time to read everything. We have to trust our instincts about what is worth reading now and what is best left for later, and what is best left. And then there is the business of what we are learning, as distinct from what we are simply reading.
Mechanisation sped up the possibilities of collective knowledge. From Victorian times books became a means to increased education, not just for the autodidact like Hanta but way into the higher reaches of institutional education. However, mechanisation also brought improved means to pulverise and eradicate the means of learning. Printed matter like books and journals could be removed from sight and even access forever with the same efficiency as totalitarian regimes could remove all trace of people’s lives, which is itself another meaning to Hrabal’s story.
Digital speeds us up further, which is why I stare at the rows of Google links to my next Search with a certain sobriety. All of those sites, all those attachments, images, downloads, blogs, going on forever. Behind each link are words that could be instrumental to our well-being, and individual humans with the potential to improve our state. Yet the rate of appearance seems equal to the rate of disappearance. Fast information outmanoeuvres slow information and we are none the wiser. Our access, we are told, is now unlimited to the information, yet are we reaching it? Is it all really there? Is that all there is? And how much of it will have evaporated from the silicon in twelve months time? I try not to get concerned, but as someone taught to value knowledge for its own sake, both the scale and the turnover of online information seems fraught with the possibilities of waste and loss. I reach out to take what I need, certain still there is something I have missed. And what of the remainder?
I keep coming back to the nature of reading itself, how the eye and the mind connect to words and images. In the precious time allowed us, how are we selecting and collecting? How are we prioritising what we read? The false dichotomy of book versus online is a distraction from the real issue: how do we read most effectively in order not just to know, but to become wise? And is wisdom the final purpose of our reading?