The Library in the New Age

We are living in the Age of Information, and Nicholas Carr, among others, has made the case that the new IT technology has had a revolutionary impact on the ways we read and absorb information. In “The Library in the New Age” (discovered via Novel Readings), Robert Darnton questions the alleged “newness” of the information age. Although he grants that technology has changed the landscape of reading (availability in particular), he is sceptical of the extent to which the nature of conveying information has been revolutionised. He argues that news, for example, has always been subject to selection and distortion, and concludes that “[i]nformation has never been stable”. He adds:

That may be a truism, but it bears pondering. It could serve as a corrective to the belief that the speedup in technological change has catapulted us into a new age, in which information has spun completely out of control. I would argue that the new information technology should force us to rethink the notion of information itself. It should not be understood as if it took the form of hard facts or nuggets of reality ready to be quarried out of newspapers, archives, and libraries, but rather as messages that are constantly being reshaped in the process of transmission. Instead of firmly fixed documents, we must deal with multiple, mutable texts. By studying them skeptically on our computer screens, we can learn how to read our daily newspaper more effectively—and even how to appreciate old books.

The crucial difference between Darnton’s and Carr’s discussions, it seems to me, is their focus on the medium and the processing of the medium, respectively. I doubt Carr would question the notion that texts have always been distorted, limited, etc., but what interests him is the way in which the medium (and the technology behind it) dictates our perception and processing of the medium.

One of my history professors once warned me not to indulge in “technological determinisms”. This is true as far as it goes. We should never forget that we have the power to control our use of technology; we may be technology slaves to an extent, but only so far as we are willing to let ourselves depend on it. The internet, of course, is no exception. What we do with the internet and how we process the information it offers rests in our hands — as long we are conscious of our own actions and behaviours.

So I agree with Darnton that we tend to overestimate the “revolution” in technological revolutions. Such revolutions are often revolutions in degree rather than kind, in quantity rather than quality. I came to a similar conclusion while researching the consequences of Gutenberg’s printing press on medieval book culture. Surprisingly, during the incunabula period (1450-1500), the impact of the “invention of the millenium” turned out to be remarkably unrevolutionary. Existing book trends were intensified and books became more wide-spread, cheaper (at least after a while) and more readily available, but subjects and use remained more or less the same as they had been a century earlier. The actual revolution followed half a century later (or, depending on whom you ask, a century or two earlier).

On the other hand, I delight in explanations based on technological determinisms and the idea that our behaviour is driven by what we invent, mostly because they provide a neat fundament on which more detailed and differentiated models can build upon. The truth about how we read, I suspect, lurks somewhere in between the reader and the medium.


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