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June 20, 2007

Gorman, redux: The Siren Song of the Internet

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Posted by Clay Shirky

Michael Gorman has his next post up at the Britannica blog: The Siren Song of the Internet. My reply is also up, and posted below. The themes of the historical lessons of Luddism are also being discussed in the comments to last week’s Gorman response, Old Revolutions Good, New Revolutions Bad

Siren Song of the Internet contains a curious omission and a basic misunderstanding. The omission is part of his defense of the Luddites; the misunderstanding is about the value of paper and the nature of e-books.

The omission comes early: Gorman cavils at being called a Luddite, though he then embraces the label, suggesting that they “…had legitimate grievances and that their lives were adversely affected by the mechanization that led to the Industrial Revolution.” No one using the term Luddite disputes the effects on pre-industrial weavers. This is the general case — any technology that fixes a problem (in this case the high cost of homespun goods) threatens the people who profit from the previous inefficiency. However, Gorman omits mentioning the Luddite response: an attempt to halt the spread of mechanical looms which, though beneficial to the general populace, threatened the livelihoods of King Ludd’s band.

By labeling the Luddite program legitimate, Gorman seems to be suggesting that incumbents are right to expect veto power over technological change. Here his stand in favor of printed matter is inconsistent, since printing was itself enormously disruptive, and many people wanted veto power over its spread as well. Indeed, one of the great Luddites of history (if we can apply the label anachronistically) was Johannes Trithemius, who argued in the late 1400s that the printing revolution be contained, in order to shield scribes from adverse effects. This is the same argument Gorman is making, in defense of the very tools Trithemius opposed. His attempt to rescue Luddism looks less like a principled stand than special pleading: the printing press was good, no matter happened to the scribes, but let’s not let that sort of thing happen to my tribe.

Gorman then defends traditional publishing methods, and ends up conflating several separate concepts into one false conclusion, saying “To think that digitization is the answer to all that ails the world is to ignore the uncomfortable fact that most people, young and old, prefer to interact with recorded knowledge and literature in the form of print on paper.”

Dispensing with the obvious straw man of “all that ails the world”, a claim no one has made, we are presented with a fact that is supposed to be uncomfortable — it’s good to read on paper. Well duh, as the kids say; there’s nothing uncomfortable about that. Paper is obviously superior to the screen for both contrast and resolution; Hewlett-Packard would be about half the size it is today if that were not true. But how did we get to talking about paper when we were talking about knowledge a moment ago?

Gorman is relying on metonymy. When he notes a preference for reading on paper he means a preference for traditional printed forms such as books and journals, but this is simply wrong. The uncomfortable fact is that the advantages of paper have become decoupled from the advantages of publishing; a big part of preference for reading on paper is expressed by hitting the print button. As we know from Lyman and Varian’s “How Much Information” study, “…the vast majority of original information on paper is produced by individuals in office documents and postal mail, not in formally published titles such as books, newspapers and journals.”

We see these effects everywhere: well over 90% of new information produced in any year is stored electronically. Use of the physical holdings of libraries are falling, while the use of electronic resources is rising. Scholarly monographs, contra Gorman, are increasingly distributed electronically. Even the physical form of newspapers is shrinking in response to shrinking demand, and so on.

The belief that a preference for paper leads to a preference for traditional publishing is a simple misunderstanding, demonstrated by his introduction of the failed e-book program as evidence that the current revolution is limited to “hobbyists and premature adopters.” The problems with e-books are that they are not radical enough: they dispense with the best aspect of books (paper as a display medium) while simultaneously aiming to disable the best aspects of electronic data (sharability, copyability, searchability, editability.) The failure of e-books is in fact bad news for Gorman’s thesis, as it demonstrates yet again that users have an overwhelming preference for the full range of digital advantages, and are not content with digital tools that are designed to be inefficient in the ways that printed matter is inefficient.

If we gathered every bit of output from traditional publishers, we could line them up in order of vulnerability to digital evanescence. Reference works were the first to go — phone books, dictionaries, and thesauri have largely gone digital; the encyclopedia is going, as are scholarly journals. Last to go will be novels — it will be some time before anyone reads One Hundred Years of Solitude in any format other than a traditionally printed book. Some time, however, is not forever. The old institutions, and especially publishers and libraries, have been forced to use paper not just for display, for which is it well suited, but also for storage, transport, and categorization, things for which paper is completely terrible. We are now able to recover from those disadvantages, though only by transforming the institutions organized around the older assumptions.

The ideal situation, which we are groping our way towards, will be to have all written material, wherever it lies on the ‘information to knowledge’ continuum, in digital form, right up the moment a reader wants it. At that point, the advantages of paper can be made manifest, either by printing on demand, or by using a display that matches paper’s superior readability. Many of the traditional managers of books and journals will suffer from this change, though it will benefit society as a whole. The question Gorman pointedly asks, by invoking Ned Ludd and his company, is whether we want that change to be in the hands of people who would be happy to discomfit society as a whole in order to preserve the inefficiencies that have defined their world.

Comments (6) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


1. Jed Harris on June 20, 2007 3:14 PM writes...

Be careful about using Trithemius as an iconic luddite. He was just trying to motivate his scribes and keep down the competition:

It is ironic that Trithemius might be thought old-fashioned and resistant to the new technology of printing, since in fact he was a strong supporter of the printer's craft and used it to great advantage in circulating his own works. His library at Sponheim was full of printed books as well as manuscripts.
Comment on De laude scriptorum

He seems to have been closer to a cypherpunk, really.

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2. Martijn Kriens on June 20, 2007 3:51 PM writes...

But isn't there a big difference with he Luddites. The Luddites complained that new technology was making them unemployed, which true but happened in a fair market. Machine fabricated and hand woven competed and the first won.

I think at this moment the case is different. Look at the way everybody is quoting the Luddites. Reading the articles it is my well educated guess that most people are retrieving what they know about the Luddites from ... Wikipedia (King Ludd ..). Interesting.

But where do we think that the original knowledge of Luddites is coming from. Again my educated guess would be that sometime somewhere someone copied (rephrased) an encyclopedia.

The new competition for the Luddites did not use work from the Luddites to compete. They had their own full business model. Wikipedia can only be free since most of the original research was done by people that make a business by doing research and whose business model rely on getting paid for it. Who will do our future (original) research. My guess is not the current people filling wikipedia.

Also, at this moment we are all quoting from Wikipedia about Ludd and his companions. I am afraid if it would turn out that the Wikipedia page would be wrong we would all be parotting each other like it would be the truth. That in itself would even make it seem more truthful. Scary when you think of it.

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3. Jed Harris on June 20, 2007 3:53 PM writes...

I agree with your argument. I'd like to emphasize one additional aspect toward the end, though.

You point out that we have been using paper for "storage, transport, and categorization, things for which paper is completely terrible" and of course I agree.

However switching to digital storage for these aspects of information handling mainly increases efficiency. There are other aspects with more profound social consequences (although the ability to store the LOC on your laptop isn't minor).

I was just reading The Wealth of Networks and found myself annoyed that I couldn't add a comment to some remarks of Benkler's on rights in a commons vs. property rights. Reading used to be a relatively solitary activity for me. Now online the door is always open to participation in a conversation about the material. But with paper the door is not very open.

Strictly speaking, this isn't an issue of paper vs. digital. The Wealth of Networks is available online as a PDF. But that still doesn't create a space for fine grained conversation about specific pieces of it. So really I guess the point is that our information will be incrementally converted to new organizational schemas, just as new organizational schemas emerged during the rise of printing.

I think aspects like commenting, annotation, search, etc. have major, irreversible social and cognitive implications that we still can only dimly imagine. My hypothetical grandchildren will find it easy to imagine having all their information on paper (physical books will still be around) but impossible to imagine being unable to search and comment rapidly on everything.

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4. Jake on June 20, 2007 4:28 PM writes...

Interesting points, but why do we always seem to revolve the discussion around current laptop screen resolution vs. tree-based paper as if this is all that will ever exist? We do not consider a world where digital "paper" is not only possible, but cheap to produce and use. Even a fairly cursory online search will reveal lots of research into e-ink and flexible e-paper and a good number of results in development.
No, we are not there yet, but I believe we are far closer than you might think. Perhaps the digital future of paper will be well... paper!

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5. Steve on June 20, 2007 8:41 PM writes...

I think you may be wrong, at least on some points. I have spent long hours curled up with books, and other hours reading on a screen or working with printouts. Books have user interface advantages that would be extremely difficult to replicate in digital form.

(1) Books can be curled up with. You can read them laying down (my own preferred position). You can fall asleep reading them without risking damage to self or media.

(2) Books can be flipped through. If I want to page rapidly through arbitrarily chosen sets of pages in arbitrarily chosen regions of the work, I can do it with a book. I would like to see an attempt to replicate flippability digitally. I haven't had my laugh for the day yet.

(3) Books need no decoding device. The user is the decoding device. They can access the medium on demand with no local suport infrastructure, except perhaps for a comfortable spot to lie or sit.

(4) Well bound is superior to unbound or casually bound. I've dealt with any number of loose, stapled, paper-clipped, and other casual binding methods over the years. The only ones that offer a competitive user experience are those that replicate the look and feel of....a book.

(5) Books are the original "try before you buy" product. I can evaluate the look and feel, as well as content, of a book in the store prior to deciding if I want to make it one of my semi-permanent possessions.

(6) Creating crappy paper output of digital content is relatively cheap, though tedious for long works. Creating a "book-style" paper work on demand is likely to be expensive for the forseeable future.

In spite of movable type and printing, the diffusion of the skill of handwriting and the quantity of handwritten documents has arguably increased, not decreased. I think books will be around for a while. The only way this could fail would be if the digital media competitively dry up the book user base over the next generation, to the point where producing books becomes no longer economically sustainable. This could happen, but it would be sad.


P.S. I notice others have focussed on the issue of commentability. This has been a feature of books for hundreds of years. Was it not Fermat who said "I have discovered a truly elegant proof of this theorem, which, unfortunately, the margin is too small to contain." The point being not that this method failed Fermat at that moment, which it did, but that it was customary and typically worked well.

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6. Michael Chui on June 24, 2007 3:21 AM writes...

As someone who has spent the last two years funding my local bookstore like a kid in a candy store (and not heading to any libraries, mind you), I agree in essence with Steve. However, you're still wrong, friend.

1) I have often curled up with my paperbacks and my hardbacks, but I have also curled up with my laptop, sometimes laying it on its side, my head on a pillow, reading it thus. Tablets are a clumsy technology, at the moment, but in terms of being used purely as a PDF reading experience, they work quite well now, as the stylus and the hand tool combine wonderfully. (I personally reserve a quiet bitterness to tablets, which I saw for years as my savior for drawing, and now discover... they're still terrible devices.)

2) One of the problems with arbitrarily choosing a page is that you can't do it with a stack of of pages. I always know that, when there's but a quarter inch's worth of paper under my right thumb, the story's almost over. It usually makes me speed up my reading. When I perform bibliomancy on the Bible, I know approximately where Psalms and Proverbs are; I'm not going to open on Genesis or Revelation. You can do this digitally: push the button that says "Random Page" and it'll summon an RNG to enact the command.

3) No disagreements substantial enough to argue.

4) And... binding isn't even an issue digitally. I mean, really. If a couple pages get corrupted, you run a search and pull down fresh, free copies and slide them back in. Though spilling water is still occasionally a problem.

5) And I make these evaluations on Amazon, and in addition read the commentary offered by others who have left digital footprints to give me some idea of whether or not I'm interested in the text. I can't ask random people in the bookstore whether or not a particular book is good. They probably haven't read it.

6) To this, I can only point towards the late buzz over print-on-demand technology, which I personally know little about. There was some hype suggesting that out-of-print books could be produced cheaply, and thus make it possible to put them back on the market. I have no idea what the reality is.

As Clay says, the book is not going to disappear soon, especially the book as a novel. This is due, however, more to the fact that technology has not progressed far enough along to do so. It would not surprise me that, in twenty, fifty years, a device is developed that's lighter than your average paperback, is more readable, has its own lighting, and possesses digital capabilities from search to zoom to dynamic footnotes and thus usurps the book's position in the mainstream.

It's not an either-or between the digital and the analog; it's a to-do list.

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