Thursday, September 3, 2009

Why I Don't Have A Kindle

One generation of ignorance effaces the whole series of unwritten history. Books are faithful repositories, which may be a while neglected or forgotten; but when they are opened again, will again impart their instruction: memory, once interrupted, is not to be recalled. Written learning is a fixed luminary, which, after the cloud that had hidden it has past away, is again bright in its proper station. Tradition is but a meteor, which, if once it falls, cannot be rekindled.

--Samuel Johnson, Journey to the Western Islands

People say that once something is on the internet, it's permanent. Things you said on Facebook five years ago come back to haunt you in job interviews today, and so forth. But I don't know that anything can be called permanent which is only a few years old. I remember, myself, a time when the internet was new to me and it was a strange and special thing for an ordinary layman to access it in their home. I remember the first time I saw a website. To my children this will be amusing and strange, the way our grandparents remember the first TVs, their parents the first radios, and theirs the first telephones.

To my point, however: I am very skeptical that the internet is a permanent thing. I doubt very much whether it has the properties which Johnson attributes to books above. A book will indeed lie dormant for centuries in a monastery library, ready to be read whenever a learned man comes along. I have books on my shelves more than a century old, which have never been read--their pages uncut, relics of the time when books came that way--passed for generations from library to library and bookstore to bookstore, waiting for me. But when I sit, penknife in hand, they are as clear and simple to use for me as for those who first bought them, long dead now. This is not the case for anything which needs a machine to access it.

If I were to find a father's or teacher's or colleague's diary after he had died, I could open it and his thoughts would live again for me. But say, decades from now, I were to find a shoebox full of punch cards. Or a floppy disc. Or a diskette. Or even a CD. Would I be able to access whatever was on it? Would I have any way of knowing whether it was worth seeking out whatever antique machine and antiquarian technician I would need? No. The papers I wrote for high school can still be easily read on whatever hard copies I've preserved, but the computers I wrote them on and the discs I saved them to are long defunct.

Electronic "memory", like human memory, is fragile and requires constant refreshment and updating. Just as oral tradition--unlike books--requires continuity to survive, so does our vast modern storehouse of information. If one want to preserve electronic information for twenty years one will have to move it from machine to machine, reformatting it every so often, to make sure it stays accessible in a meaningful way. Our machines are not a monument to future generations, but a temporary expedient. Nothing is built to last ten years, much less a millenium. If the internet seems so permanent now, isn't that only because our horizon is short and because our civilization hasn't had any upsets in the last twenty-five years? If once the chain of machines is broken, though, won't it all be lost? Are Google's servers, which make the contents of so many libraries so accessible to the world, really a better and more reliable word-hoard than the libraries themselves?

It seems to me that putting something on the internet is less like engraving it in stone than like saying it aloud in a crowded room full of nosy and opinionated listeners. Sure, it may come back to haunt you; sure, it may be dredged up long after you forget saying it. But in the long run it will be as though it never happened. Our age, perhaps, is like that civilization Chesterton imagines in The Everlasting Man, which leaves no record of itself for posterity because its greatest accomplishments were in weaving, the products of which have all decayed. Posterity thinks it barbarous when it was only ephemeral.

For similar reasons, then, all of our computerized gadgets of convenience, especially those which rely on satellites, the internet, or other networks presupposing a great deal of infrastructure, and intrinsically transitory. Sure, it's great if I can have any "book" (read: sequence of bits formatted for display on a screen) I want in seconds, wherever I am. The problem is that I can't be sure any of those "books" will be there tomorrow. One thing is nearly certain: unlike my actual library, they will not be there a century from now, waiting for my great-grandchildren.


Lee Faber said...

Five bucks says our blog archive will last until the end of Time

Michael Sullivan said...

No doubt; but will it last in Google database or in vellum manuscripts laboriously copied out in monasteries after civilization as we know it has perished in the Zombiepocalypse and we have become for posterity the wisdom of the ancients?

Also: I'll take your five bucks, and pay up at the end of Time if I lose. Deal?

Anonymous said...

Here's to a splendid apologetic for "A Canticle for Liebowitz" (but not its sequel)!