While many people are quick to applaud recent changes in publishing, we should remember that not all change is good. The advent of new technologies has, it’s true, made books cheaper and more widely available. But at what cost to books and the people who read them?
New mass-publishing technologies simply encourage too much writing of too little value. I can barely get through my bookshelves as is. Now with all the recent technological advances, there is more information out there than one person could ever hope to read and more appearing daily. And while there more out there, the quality of available reading has decreased. Any idiot who wants to drivel on has been given a free licence too by the easy availability of self-publishing and publishers for hire. Manuscripts are rushed without any attention to the quality of the text, and the sheer mass of new books distracts readers from focusing on more classic texts.
Sound familiar? It should. These are common complaints from the Renaissance era after the invention of the printing press, according Ann Blair, professor of history at Harvard University. Her article, “Information overload – the early years”, describes both the general reaction to the printing press and the coping and optimising mechanisms developed to deal with the sudden surge of text.
She argues that, far from the printing press devaluing words, human history is a long process of learning in exponential increases. We are very good, it appears, at both accumulating information and coming up with innovative new methods for dealing with those accumulations.
She also highlights (perhaps accidentally) that getting your sook on about the stresses and changes imposed by new technologies is something the human race seems to really enjoy. The invention of the printing press brought forth a hundred and something year slew of complaints that people currently advocating ebooks, self-publishing and online media might find wearily familiar. Allegations that it allowed any person to speak, irrespective of whether they are really wise enough to be worth listening too. Charges that publishers are too quick to bow to the whims of the masses and release publications that were “foolish, ignorant, malignant, libelous, mad, impious and subversive”.
The article highlights that, while accumulating knowledge and methods of dealing with that are ancient traditions of the human race, so too is having a really good whinge about it.
“Complaints about information overload, usually couched in terms of the overabundance of books, have a long history — reaching back to Ecclesiastes 12:12 (“of making books there is no end,”). The ancient moralist Seneca complained that “the abundance of books is distraction” in the 1st century AD. “Is there anywhere on earth exempt from these swarms of new books?” asked Erasmus, the great humanist of the early 16th century.”
More recently we’ve had have Mark Bauerlein penning The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30), who believes modern technology is fostering a “brazen disregard of books and reading”. Maggie Jackson goes even further with her book, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age in suggesting that our culture of constant information which “warns that modern society’s inability to focus heralds an impending Dark Age—an era historically characterized by the decline of a civilization amid abundance and technological advancement.”
Even Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, which is combines neuroscience with history and pop-culture in a search for how the internet will shape the thinkers of the future, struggles to say anything really positive about the future of text and reading. It’s all doom and gloom in the future, even if we have all the books that we could ever want to read there and then some.
To advocates of ebooks and online reading and writing, all I can say is that slagging off new technologies has a long and illustrious history and this, too, shall pass. Going on the Renaissance model, you can confidently expect the complaining to die down. In about a century and a half or so.