I woke up this morning thinking about a patch of lower roof on “Commons”—the main building on the campus of Bennington College—holding in mind an image of that small expanse and remembering how I’d stood at a window one afternoon years ago staring down in rapt contemplation. I had been on the third floor, an untenanted storage space full of old stage props and played-out instruments, which means I was either hiding out from students (I was teaching at a writing residency) or feeling exploratory, and as I slowly panned the topography of slates and vents and miscellaneous islands of strewn clutter, two very distinct thoughts came one right after the other, the first being that, at the moment, nothing anywhere could be more pointless than this distressed and random-looking surface, and the second, yielding a sudden, epiphanic flip: there had to be contexts within which these same chipped and sooty-looking surfaces and protruding pipes would seem the most interesting and important features in the world. What if, I put it to myself provisionally, I were an artist, a draughtsman, charged with rendering this finite terrain down to its least detail, required to regard each bump and rivet as the visual challenge it in fact is, forced to study each serrated edge of slate until it came to hover at the brink of the noumenal? I could imagine such a task. I considered Cezanne and his landscapes, which are more like depth studies of the act of seeing itself, and Marcel Duchamp’s Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, that tour de force ambush of the ordinary, or sub-ordinary, partly consisting of dust collected on a large pane of glass. John Cage was in my thoughts, too, the idea of the transfer of focus from object perceived—or heard—to the perceiver’s expectations and pattern-making impulses.
Still immobile there, I also devised a fantasy-scenario, featuring myself as a man in desperate flight, hiding out, or trapped, with no choice but to “Crusoe” the time ahead, making do with whatever was at hand, prying and stacking the thick shingles, computing sight lines, researching the most protective possible alcove, keenly attuned to acoustics, to the movements of sun and shadow, and starting to cock an eye at local pigeons and their docking patterns. I would regard those few hundred square yards as the most vital determinants of my survival.
I saw, in both cases-and I’m sure endless other scenarios could be drawn-how a virtual nothingness can come to radiate the exciting gravitas of ultimates. It was all very Walker Percy, a hypothetical play with the metaphysics of mattering. In fact, there’s a moment in Percy’s novel *The Moviegoer *when his character Binx, studying the accumulation of objects on his dresser, suddenly feels the awakening of a great existential curiosity. “They looked both unfamiliar and at the same time full of clues . . . What was unfamiliar about them was that I could see them. They might have belonged to someone else. A man can look at this little pile on his bureau for thirty years and never once see it . . . Once I saw it, however, the search became possible.” I felt some of that sense of awakening, but with a more specific tilt. Mine was, I later realized, an epiphany about information.
Information—I had my inklings even then—is a function of context, pure and simple. In isolation, a fact or a bit of data is nothing. It gains meaning, which is to say it becomes information in the old-fashioned sense, only when it becomes an answer to a question, when it is summoned, raised up from the dead-dust inertia of its mere potentiality. And this can only happen when there is some kind of narrative, a context of significance. The easy example is the telephone directory, basically a mass of coded pulpy paper, utterly without interest, until we need a specific phone number, at which point that vast chaotic gathering of names and ciphers becomes—briefly—the most important thing in the room.
This insight is maybe obvious, and its connection to the roof scenario merely quirky, but right now, in the wake of reading Kevin Kelly’s somewhat futuristic projection “Scan This Book!” in The New York Times Magazine (May 14, 2006) and John Updike’s rejoinder, “The End of Authorship,” adapted for the Times Book Review from a speech to the American Booksellers Association (June 25, 2006), it has come to life for me—acquired context—and seems to have everything to do with Kelly’s cyber-fantasia.
Kelly, self-styled “senior maverick” at Wired magazine, is the author of, among other books, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World, a work which proposed, significantly, that the collective organization of bees could serve as a template for the human in the emergent information age. His Times essay posits that with the advent and normalization of potent digital technologies, the information picture has changed utterly, and one of the paramount consequences is that “the universal library is now within reach.”
Kelly’s vision, as he sells it, out-Borgeses Borges. He dreams of alchemizing all of the world’s text into bits, but achieving compression and total access is just the first step. High-speed scanners are already putting thousands of books into digital format daily; whole libraries are being crammed into wafer space. The real revolution—the excitement—will begin with the dissolving of the walls that have always kept written materials separate. For once all text has been digitized, then the power of search engines like Google can be released; then we are ready for the great and unprecedented merging of texts.
“The real magic will come,” writes Kelly, “as each word in each book is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled, and woven deeper into the culture than ever before. In the new world of books, every bit informs another, every page reads all other pages.” That “new world” might start up unpleasant associations for readers of Aldous Huxley, but never mind. Kelly goes on to explain how, “once digitized, books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further into snippets of a page. These snippets will be remixed into readers’ books and virtual bookshelves.” As he sees it, the only real obstacle is the vexing and antiquated notion of copyright, which currently keeps a great many of the world’s texts off-limits for scanning. But if we are tempted—as I am—to cashier him out as another crackpot visionary, let’s remember where his article was featured.
There is so much to address in Kelly’s piece that I hardly know where to begin. Do I pick up where I left off some years ago when I worried myself apoplectic about the arrival of the electronic age; do I resume the old argument (still valid, to my mind) about the gainloss dynamic, how screen and book cannot merely co-exist, how the former displaces the latter, bringing with it new assumptions and values? That all pertains, but it feels like old news. I’m more interested, right now, in one salient aspect of this ongoing paradigm shift (even in our double-click era, paradigms don’t change overnight).
Kelly’s scenario arises from and furthers a new way of thinking about information, one that seems to be gaining ground rapidly these days. I mean the idea of a collective intelligence, to fix my own label to it, the idea that allows Kelly to assert, “[T]he link and the tag may be two of the most important inventions of the last fifty years.” A link, we know, is a connection between discrete pieces of information; a tag is an identifying attribution added to such an item that allows it to be searched and linked along a new axis, intensifying its potential visibility on the Web. For example, someone searching “puppy” will find links via “dog” as well as, say, “cute,” provided that someone has “tagged” it that way.
This sounds innocent enough (especially if we picture puppies), but in fact the implications are enormous, and, to those of us with techno-wary dispositions, seriously alarming. Once we grant the quasi-futuristic possibility of the digitized totality of texts, accessible in a flash and liable to the kind of linkage described by Kelly, the crude features of a new beast can be discerned. These links and tags disclose their true potential, which is not merely to allow the retrieval of information across an ever wider spectrum, but to initiate a kind of automatic statistical voting on the “importance” of connections made by users—and thereby to create a Google-like hierarchy based on quantities of links and the frequency of their use. The universal library would replace the integrity of distinct texts with an open-source weave reflecting-and reinforcing-patterns of collective use.
Some years ago, writing an elegy to the library card catalogue, Nicholson Baker observed that veteran users of those catalogues knew to follow smudges, to note via visual traces the paths of previous users. Well, the logic of tag and link will amplify that recognition a thousandfold, to the point where using the digital omnium-gatherum might resemble disembodied intellection, and in time, participation in a kind of hive thinking. The tallying of traces will surely be useful; but it will also create a revolutionary new form of context, a shift away from the private to the consensual, from individual to group.
Kelly is hardly the lone proselytizer of this tendency. Two months after the Times essay came Stacy Schiff’s feature piece in The New Yorker on Jimmy Wales and his brainchild, Wikipedia, the collectively generated encyclopedia that in just five years has outstripped the venerable Encyclopdia Britannica as the reference tool du jour, its million entries exceeding the offerings of the latter almost tenfold, with more folds to come. Yes, true, the scholarship is of a different order, the sourcing sometimes provisional, the arbitrariness of inclusion often troubling, but I’ve found that my students are already citing it exclusively, as if to go to the Britannica were to cast a vote for the dead past.
And here’s the rub. If these pervading instances of collaborative intelligence, of mass-derived information, gain ground, or eventual dominance, it will be through sheer implementation. Just as “Google” is now almost synonymous with “search,” and as Wikipedia gains the de facto acceptance of usage, so the prospect of the universal digital library begins to seem less and less like something conjured from pipe smoke. After all, any high school or college student writing a paper these days is already advancing the cause, very likely not researching with a physical book, and probably not even reading consecutively the texts he fishes up from the Google well, trusting to the branching path of links. And this is just using our current Web. Does anyone believe that if the full archive-cum-search tool were available it would coexist quietly with the books in bricks-and- mortar libraries?
Were Kelly’s digital fantasy to be realized—and the technology and know-how exist, as does a certain social momentum—it would quickly supplant the old book system with a polymorphously referential new order. We would see vast changes—gains and losses. Certainly, egrazing of that sort would open an array of new perspectives and syntheses, not to mention fresh intellectual procedures. This is not to be discounted, or even underestimated. We would also find a much expanded sense of knowledge as a collaborative venture, a shared enterprise. What some have felt to be the tyranny of hierarchies and so-called “master narratives” would be further undermined, schematic systems and accounts giving way to more associatively textured representations.
Needless to say, the priority of individual books and authors would yield, as it is already yielding, to pluralism, to a decentered cultural sampling of the sort that Kelly celebrates as engaged and democratic, but that a more skeptical person might see as betokening a large-scale dissolution of reliable context and the authority it implies. I am that skeptic. I imagine vast fields of liberated information, organized only by prioritized links (made by whom, for what purpose?), and I can’t help but wonder: How would we navigate the data bazaar; what would we draw on for structure, if anything; where would we find the breath of larger coherence to animate these pullulating infobits? Yes, I can see some of what excites Kelly, but I also see, as he doesn’t appear to, the debit side of the deal.
The diminution of authors and books is one of the major negatives-for its own sake, but even more importantly, for what it implies about the place of the self. Authorial vanities aside, I would ask as Updike does, “[A]re 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?” He puts it mildly. Author and text, thinker and thought—these shape the foundation, the matrix, of who we are and what we know. What Updike is talking about here is the mother of all contexts—the old system, the assumption of communication as individuated, originating and ending in the self. Kelly sashays around the issue by never bringing it up; he plants us in his brave new order without taking the steps to get us there. Which makes me wonder whether for the digerati the world might not already be like this.
Why do I find these thoughts so troubling? Because data without context is inert. Our world of books and authors, texts and readers, has always represented the very opposite-an active questioning of the world by the self. Though its manifestations are often public, literature’s core motives have always been private. The thinker and the thought; the knower and the known. The book has for centuries been the vessel-and symbol-of this. It is only very narrowly a compendium of information, specific contents. Far more, it is an invented structure, what critic Hugh Kenner called a “patterned energy”; it creates an occasion of sense. A book is an individually generated, fought-for context that takes its place among others like it, contending and corroborating. To unmake it, separating its elements and linking them to other far-flung elements, is to destroy the binding tension. It is to turn off the current, strip the orbiting bodies of their magnetic field; it is to destroy the old foundation of context.
I see Kelly’s projection as the hyperbolic consummation of tendencies that are gaining ground all around us. We are increasingly geared to trolling, navigating, slipping from site to site, sharing files, sifting mainly local sense from the oceanic totality and not worrying about the larger map. Kelly approves all this without substantive questioning; he also reckons the reality of the subjective self very lightly, readily assimilating it to more collective aims and ends. He doesn’t get—possibly because he’s not interested-that book and author are one of the last bulwarks we have against info-glut, which, like global warming, may already have passed its recovery point. If we treat the danger shruggingly, it’s because we still have our remnant contexts to take refuge in. But that could change in a generation. I meet people all the time who not only are not sustained by any sense of coherence but can’t imagine that anyone else might be, who see no argument against floating weightless from here to there with no strong notion of origins or destination. I’ve heard that information wants to be free. I need to think about that. I’ve also heard that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it—but I would say, far worse, that they might begin to think it doesn’t matter. At which point hive life is all but inevitable.
Sven Birkerts is coeditor of AGNI. He is the author of ten books: An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th Century Literature (William Morrow), The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry (William Morrow), American Energies: Essays on Fiction (William Morrow), The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber & Faber), Readings (Graywolf), My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time (Viking, 2002), Reading Life (Graywolf, 2007), Then, Again: The Art of Time in the Memoir (Graywolf, 2008), The Other Walk (Graywolf, 2011), and Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf, 2015). He has edited Tolstoy’s Dictaphone: Writers and the Muse (Graywolf) as well as Writing Well (with Donald Hall) and The Evolving Canon (Allyn & Bacon).
He has received grants from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. He was winner of the Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle in 1985 and the Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award from PEN for the best book of essays in 1990. Birkerts has reviewed regularly for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Esquire, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Mirabella, Parnassus, The Yale Review, and other publications. He has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, Amherst College, Mt. Holyoke College, and the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, which he directed for ten years. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts. (updated 10/2022)