This week’s New York Times Book Review features two articles — “Dead Again” & “It’s Alive” — about the possible demise or longevity of the printed book. Authors Price and Silverman pepper their separate arguments with predictions and descriptions made hundreds of years ago — my favorite of which includes a future where no one walks to the public library anymore; there’s an airplane drop-off service.
Silverman quotes Thoreau to make the distinction between books and other forms of art that can connect us with humanity: “[The book] is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips; — not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself.”
Words on a page may not be as striking to look at as a painting like Munch’s The Scream, but a book can produce just as much, if not more, emotional stimulation and connection with life as we experience it everyday. Some have argued that film would take the place of books as the primary storytelling medium. And yet, more and more films are based on stories told in books first (The Help, The Bourne Legacy, The Hunger Games). Films are indebted to books; they would never replace them entirely.
What about e-readers & e-books overtaking the printed book? Again, the electronic version of books are indebted to the printed version. The e-readers simulate the turning of a page. One mimics the other. Trains did not disappear when planes were invented; you still “board” both. Farms didn’t disappear when scientists learned how to make food entirely in a lab. Sure, MP3s have trumped CDs, which have trumped tape cassettes, but music has no replacement. The format is not the issue; it’s the medium that matters.
In The Filter Bubble, author Eli Pariser presents various reasons why Internet personalization filters are bad for us. The part that I’ve been most interested in is how these “filter bubbles” affect our ability to think creatively.
As an undergrad working on my English thesis, I had an a-ha moment when I was developing my topic. I was pulling information not just from my knowledge of literature and writing, but going a step further to connect this with facts and ideas from other disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, and science. My brain was connecting all kinds of dots to create a bigger, more fully realized picture. Because I had taken a variety of courses and exposed myself to topics outside of my usual comfort zone, I had access to broader resources which made my thesis more interesting and, I think, more accessible to those outside of the English department.
A major reason for this process and outcome was a result of my ability to think creatively and “outside the box.” And yet, this is precisely what Pariser believes will deteriorate with the increasing popularity of personalization filters on the Internet. These filters find out who we are and what we like, think, and believe and then proceed to give us more of the same. It severely limits our exposure to news, facts, and ideas that we otherwise may not see or hear about. Pariser explains that “ingenuity comes from the juxtaposition of ideas that are far apart” (p. 93). When we are no longer seeing ideas from other disciplines, opinions, and modes of thinking because of a filter bubble, we lose our ingenuity and our access to the innovative mind. Serendipity is deleted from the equation.
As a librarian and Millenial, I have grown up with this paradigm shift — from getting information from books, newspapers, radio, and television, to the Internet being the sole information source for some, if not most, people. I still read books and newspapers. I listen to the radio to catch up on the news. Yet, I’m beginning to see how the filter bubble is affecting younger generations. As an after school leader of a library drop-in homework help program, I try to refer kids to print media first but so many of them say that they would prefer to go on the Internet to look up a fact or answer a few homework questions. They would rather wait a half hour or longer for a computer to open up instead of taking 5 minutes to look through a book. Print media is serendipidous in the way it is organized. This younger generation is missing out on the chance to be surprised and amazed by things they don’t know yet. By flipping through an encyclopedia, dictionary, atlas, or any non-fiction book, kids explore information in a way that the Internet and search engines are not suited for. Children are seeing less and less of the bigger picture and therefore will be impaired later in life when creative and critical thinking skills are highly valued.
Librarians should be aware of the filter bubble and find ways to measure and combat its deleterious effects on our intellectual culture.