The End of Civilization as We Know It?

A Duke Magazine Forum explores the future of reading.
January 31, 2010
To cap its twenty-fifth anniversary year, Duke Magazine organized a campus forum that explored what it means to create, transmit, and absorb the prime markers of civilization. The program, part of Homecoming Weekend in late September, grappled with ideas and controversies surrounding reading, including the central question of technology's impact on how, what, and why we read. The moderator was Deborah Jakubs, Rita DiGiallonardo Holloway University Librarian and vice provost for library affairs.

The panelists were Sven Birkerts, author of The Gutenberg Elegies, an acclaimed book about the lure and cultural significance of reading; Andy Berndt '89, managing director of the Creative Lab at Google; Julie Tetel Andresen '72, associate professor of English at Duke and author of Linguistics Reimagined: Language Study for the 21st Century; Philip Bennett, former managing editor of The Washington Post and now Eugene C. Patterson Professor of the Practice of journalism at Duke; and Lynn Neary, who covers books and publishing for National Public Radio. Excerpts from the conversation follow.

Deborah Jakubs

Deborah Jakubs. Credit: Jared Lazarus

Deborah Jakubs: I'm often asked about the future of books. I was on a committee a few years ago to help choose the first-year read—all incoming freshmen at Duke read a common book and then discuss it. Someone asked if it was okay if they listened to it as an audio book. The reactions ranged from "sure" to sheer horror.

As Kindles and other e-readers catch on, I'm starting to see a kind of polarization of the Kindles versus the non-Kindle people, and value judgments about books and about digital books are starting to surface. But books are not just vehicles for content. The books on our shelves are a kind of intellectual biography. They represent who we are, and I think I'm probably not the only one who, when invited to the home of someone for dinner, as I wander around, I kind of check out their bookshelves. And seeing what they have chosen to keep and have on their bookshelves gives me some sense of who that person is.

Reading is how we get our news, how we teach and learn. This topic raises questions of how we employ technology and further our intellectual pursuits. And it's all about how we communicate new ideas, scholarships, opinions, and discoveries.

Sven Birkerts:   The last few decades have brought one disconcerting development after another. The alarms are familiar; I'll just summarize the main ones: That screens and reading machines will replace books. That databases will be our sole conduit to information and text. That newspapers and review media will fold and put all critical assessment into the hands of maverick bloggers.

I have a new angle of concern now: I'm thinking about libraries. A few weeks ago, Boston's Cushing Academy announced that the library would no longer acquire or center its services on books. It would convert, in effect, to an electronic learning center. This is big news not so much because of the one specific decision, but what it signifies, which is that the idea has not only arrived—we knew it was coming—but that it has worked clear through to institutional sanction. It illustrates a disposition, a kind of thinking that is sure to gain ground. Something recently unthinkable has become thinkable.

Much of my writing has focused on the differences between book and screen reading in terms of the individual. I've reflected on the psychological implications of connectivity, especially the subliminal impact: What happens when the text is pried loose from its context, its housing, and, as so often happens, is outfitted with links? How is the ancient author-reader circuit altered when the ersatz page, the screen, is part of a live system? Attention itself is redefined and, with that, the whole array of our cognitive priorities. Not just what we are looking at, but how we look at it, how we read and learn. And so what does it mean when a traditional print-and-paper library transforms itself into an electronic information center?

The written word is regarded as intellectual information—content—and the idea is that one vessel or means of transmission, the bound book, can be replaced by another, the screen and database. Further, there's the widespread certainty that the latter system accords better with how people access and use information in our digital era. Go into any high school or college library and see what the main activity is. Students are mainly sitting at terminals, clicking keys, scrolling.

The issue is that if the Cushing Academy model is widely adopted, we will not merely be substituting one delivery system for another. We will also, pardon the ready-made phrase here, be assenting to a paradigm shift.

Sven Birkerts

Sven Birkerts. Credit: Jared Lazarus

The system of the printed book has always been premised on individual authorship, on systematized classification, and on cumulative progress along a timeline, at least where scholarship is concerned. The library has physically embodied this. Given that books were costly and scarce and that most individuals could only possess a very few, the library's purpose from the start has been centralized access. But, in serving that practical function, libraries also acquired a powerful symbolic status. As much as the university, they've been our culture's way of putting an institutional imprimatur on the life of the mind. But things have clearly changed.

The astonishing capacity of database technologies has already begun to short-circuit the centralized distribution function of libraries. Anyone with a laptop can access from home a good deal of what is otherwise housed between covers in stacks. If Google's search initiatives succeed as planned, the original prime purpose of the library will be all but eliminated in a decade or so. The laptop will be the new library.  Physical stacks will have been eliminated by chip capacity and the refinement of search engines.

Books in libraries, books collected with deliberation, tended, arranged, present in physical mass, give a concrete picture of our collective relation to knowledge. That a book exists in a library means something: It has earned its way into print through a prescribed process and was deemed worthy according to the selection criteria of the library—a double gate-keeping process. Books assembled on shelves in classified order testify to the breadth of a subject area and visually enforce the understanding that knowledge is cumulative. Classification itself references a consensual understanding about scholarly interrelation. Taken together, these realities project the material importance, the outward reality of scholarship, of what might be called the structure of knowledge.

Think of the student who has more or less grown up in our electronic culture, who already uses books differently, far more sparingly than those in the generation ahead of her did. Imagine this student placed now in an environment stripped of books, which offers only the power of the technology and the near infinity of data within keystroke reach. Where does she find her primary idea of context, of the principles of relatedness? What paradigm of knowledge does she hold, and by what sanction does she hold it? On a screen, where all data are created seemingly equal, where does she get her idea of authority? What is her developing picture of knowledge and its many branches?

The physical book represents, among other things, the idea of authorship, with all the implications of individual authority contained in that word. The wholesale transposition of books to screens and databases would make of knowledge a vast referential weave—obviously, a far more collective enterprise. Where there is so much information webbed and linked, we can expect, and we are already seeing, the emergence of the Wikipedia model: collective correction and adjustment and augmentation—the hiving of information.

In the process, we are rewriting the literal and conceptual relation of self to society. I can't start to theorize what this implies about power, control. The debate over Google [book] scanning, over copyright—these are early conspicuous instances of the shift. The individual navigating the system will inevitably cede more and more initiative to that system, trusting the rank and recurrence of linkages over the testimony itself, forgetting in the process that the system embodies only the authority of the collectivity, nothing else.

Andy Berndt

Andy Berndt. Credit: Jared Lazarus

Andy Berndt: I have to recount a moment that I had a couple of weeks ago. I went and got the mail, and there was that flier about this event. And I read: "The End of Civilization? The Future of Reading." And I had to say to my assistant, "Was that 'End of Civilization' part on there when we accepted to come to this thing? Because this image flashed up in my head of these five sitting around in a circle in front of a roaring fire with me on a spit, just turning—and I think we're off to the right start.

Birkerts: You knew that was coming.

Berndt: Yeah, I did.

I love books to death. I order books whether I need them or not. A bigger fear for me is one-touch ordering on Amazon. It's a problem for me personally. I think the decision that Cushing Academy made to get rid of books is—and I'm not representing Google—is horrible. I can't imagine how impoverishing that would be—to take the library and empty it of books.

Our effort at Google is pretty simple. The idea that if you go to Google, and there's that little white box, and you type something in there, you're just looking for information. You're not necessarily looking for the webpage that has that information on it. And a huge amount of the information, knowledge, and wisdom of our accumulated culture is in books—much more than on the Web. If that information could come back to you, even as a little snippet, without getting into any of the actual IP [Internet Protocol] of that book, and it would help you find that wisdom or that information, then we think searching would be a lot more useful.

We look at Book Search as more access, for more people, to more books. If you're the average kid who lives in any rural place in America, you have access to maybe 6,000 books in a library. If we add to that—not replace, and this is an important point—access to something like Google Books or anybody's scanned books, that number becomes 10 million. And to me, that feels like a good thing.

But we're not interested at all in replacing books. A lot of people who talk about this haven't even ever used Book Search. The hope is that if you can search for something about a topic, and you can find a book, even a snippet of a book, that exists somewhere else, you might continue to pursue that interest. If you can't, you might not. And that seems hugely important. 

Julie Tetel Andresen: I recently ran across an article that touted seven ways to prevent cognitive decline as we age, and I'm going to give them to you in reverse order. The seventh was meditate, then do puzzles, then brush and floss, drink alcohol sparingly, eat blueberries, then exercise. The number-one way to prevent cognitive decline is to surf the Internet. The article went on to say that scientists had discovered that surfing the Internet may be more stimulating then reading. Interested, and perhaps alarmed, I tracked down two articles that seemed to speak to this issue.

Julie Tetel Andresen

Julie Tetel Andresen. Credit: Jared Lazarus

The first was by a team of psychologists at Indiana University; this appeared in August 2008 in Psychological Science.  It posited a relationship between "spatial foraging" and internal cognitive search. And it cited evidence that the neural mechanisms that evolved for the purpose of modulating between exploration and exploitation in spatial foraging have been subsequently adapted in later species for the purpose of modulating attention. In fact, modulating attention, and this would be goal-directed cognition, is exactly what is problematic in human pathologies such as attention deficit hyperactive disorder, drug addiction, Parkinson's disease, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, and certain autistic behaviors.

The psychologists hypothesized that if particular spatial tasks could be made to have long-lasting effects on the generalized cognitive-search processes—for example, by exposing individuals to tasks during development—this could provide useful hints toward non-pharmacological treatments for disorders of attention. That seemed to suggest why both doing puzzles, number six on the list, and  surfing the Internet, number one on the list, might be good for cognition—because they're both foraging tasks. 

I was satisfied by that understanding until I remembered the claim that surfing the Internet may be more mentally stimulating then reading. So I found a second article by a team from UCLA, "Your Brain on Google," published this past February in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. In their study of normal fifty-five-to-seventy-six-year-olds, they found that the patterns of brain activation during fMRI scanning while subjects performed a novel Internet search task was greater than on the control task of reading text on a computer screen formatted to simulate the prototypic layout of a printed book, where the content was matched in all respects. They had two groups: the Internet-savvy and the Internet-naïve. There was a two-fold increase in brain activation in the Internet-savvy in regions mediating decision-making, complex reasoning, and vision.

One of my definitions of literacy is the ability to read a long text, a 300-page philosophy treatise or a Russian novel, and to understand it in all, or at least some of its complexity. I call this professional reading. The UCLA study brought to the fore two of my assumptions concerning professional reading by so directly challenging them—namely, that being able to read a sustained argument or plot is a) somehow good for you, and b) even better for you than say, surfing the Internet.

Although the UCLA article cautions that its findings must be interpreted lightly, I am willing to imagine that reading is somehow better than surfing, and that those of us in the fifty-to-eighty-five age group who have mastered the skill of professional reading have some kind of cognitive superiority over the twenty- and thirty-somethings who surf up a storm, and who are fast becoming less-professional readers. We will always need professional readers, which is why an English major will remain an excellent preparation for future lawyers. But this particular skill may become a specialty, just as has sewing, which was once mandatory for all girls to know.

Philip Bennett: I'm going to talk a little bit about this particularly tantalizing paradox that journalism is in, which is that it enjoys more readers than ever, even as we know that the industry is disappearing. I think that it's useful to make a distinction between the crisis in the business of journalism and the challenges that journalism itself is facing. A lot of the debate about the future of journalism is really about trying to find new business models for journalism, and there's much less effort [spent] trying to discover new journalism models for journalism. And I think that this—in the academy, in newsrooms, and elsewhere—is a missed opportunity.

Before I left The Washington Post about two months ago, I spent some time working on a project with, yes, Google. The exercise itself, as you can imagine, was, by itself, a clash of civilizations that sort of ranged between The Last of the Mohicans and Monty Python as newspaper people and Googlers talked about the future of news coverage. One of the things that we worked on developing was something called a "living story." This would be a story that would acknowledge the incredible changes in what the news cycle has become: an on-demand system where people access largely their screens to find out what's happening. And they want news stories to be continuously updated, not just in response to evolution of events, but in response to their own reading experiences. In other words, they want you to capture for them what's new and what's deep simultaneously—for them individually.

Philip Bennett

Philip Bennett. Credit: Jared Lazarus

In the case of a breaking story, a living story would provide a continuous stream of information to a newspaper or magazine's website, but it would also begin the trails of deeper reporting that would grow as a story developed. As you returned to a page you would see changes that were in response not only to what was new, but also what was new to you. And you would be able to remix a page depending on how deep you wanted to go into it. Over time, news pages would evolve into reference pages.

For journalists, there's an interesting question about what the lifespan of a story is. An investigation like the one The Washington Post did into Walter Reed Hospital was handled like a traditional newspaper investigation, meaning people spent months accumulating the reporting, doing the writing. But once the newspaper put it in the public domain, the journalists' contact with that content, their involvement with a story, essentially ended. Coming up with models in which those stories live on, and the journalists involved with them can continue to advance the research and reporting, is an opportunity for news organizations.

In my fantasy journalism league, eventually The New York Times puts Wikipedia out of business, not as a reference site, but as a news organization. I think Wikipedia has probably become the biggest stealth news organization in America. When people hear about something that happened, whether or not it's about Sarah Palin or something else, they type it in to their little white box, and Wikipedia performs much better in Google page ranks than almost any traditional news site. Part of this system, and this is one of the things that we talked about with Google, was trying to come up for a formula for annotating all news. What that involves is trying to envision a system in which the source material for journalism, rather than being opaque to the readers, sits very close to the surface of a story.

Lynn Neary:  I'm here, I think, because of a story I did last summer about the Kindle. It was when some Kindle owners woke up one day to find out that Amazon had deleted 1984 and Animal Farm from their Kindles. And it got me thinking, if a book can just disappear from your electronic device, what exactly does it mean to "own" a book, and what is a book? Is it a physical object, or to use a word that I don't like, content? And is reading a print book really different from reading a book on a digital device?

So I talked to a few people about this, people who own an electronic reader or the Kindle, and I think each of them represents a kind of interesting archetype for this discussion. The first is the librarian. This was a woman who shrugged off the protests of her fellow librarians and went out and bought an electronic reader. Even though she loves books, she wasn't sentimental about traditional books, because she'd found this to be so convenient. But she did say that when she goes home at night and she's tired, and she wants to pull out her favorite novel to read, she doesn't like to curl up with her reader. She likes to get out a real book and turn the pages.

Lynn Neary

Lynn Neary. Credit: Jared Lazarus

The next is the collector. His love of music led him to the iPod, and while he still has his collection of vinyl albums, he never listens to them anymore; he listens to music on the iPod.  And that made him think, Well, maybe I can read books on an electronic reader as well. Now he never reads books anymore in the traditional format. He reads them on his Kindle, and he said, "I curl up with my Kindle all the time."

He is also a book collector. He continues to collect his Star Wars books in hard cover, but he reads them on the Kindle. So he has already moved from the book as something to read, to the book as a collector's item.

The next person is the early adopter. He described a traditional book as a physical memento. And he also said he doesn't feel any need to own something that just sits on a shelf like an ornament. He reads on all platforms: print, computer, iPhone, Kindle. What's most important to him is the ability to access what he wants to read, when he wants to read it, and on any device. And he likes e-books because they're easier to use. He also thinks they're more searchable, so he's moved past the whole idea of a physical book and has bought in fully to the idea of a book as content—not a physical object.

Last, but not least, we have the designer, who does not own an electronic reader, but likes to think about them a lot. He says he sits in his apartment in Brooklyn and looks at all of the books that he and his wife have on their bookshelves and thinks, Why do I need all of these things? So he's kind of moving to that "ornament on a shelf" kind of position. And he thinks of books as metaphors and says there's no reason for us to think they won't be very different in the future—not just the physical design, but the content. He asked, "Why do we need chapters? Why do we need pages if we're going to scroll down?"

We already have an example of where things can go with the little novels that are being written on Japanese cell phones. Generally they're written by young women, and they're usually kind of romance novels written as serials. I gather that indeed the paragraphs can be a sentence or two, and they're not known for their elegant sentence structure necessarily. But they are wildly popular in Japan, so much so that the publishing industry caught on to it and printed them as hard covers. Whether you put them on the printed page or not, they still have a recognizable style, and they are called cell-phone novels.

I wanted to talk about some of these questions with Lev Grossman, who is a novelist and also reviews books for Time. He wrote that since electronic books are not bound by physical constraints, novels will get longer. There will be more serials; writers will be able to update their work. Narrative will still be important, maybe even more important, and it's going to have to move really quickly to keep up with the pace of digital reading, which presumes, I guess, that we're going to be reading faster. And, not surprisingly, he said that there will be a literary culture of immediate gratification.

Before calling him, I wanted to read his novel, The Magicians, a sort of adult version of Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia combined. I opened the book, and right there on the inside cover is one of those maps that you find in kids' books. It has a little pine forest over here, and a castle here, and little arrows pointing to various, sundry places. I called him up, and I said, "This map, Lev, tell me about this map. It wasn't what I was expecting." And he said, "Yeah, I had to keep fighting with the book designer to make it more crudely drawn, because they kept wanting to neaten it up, you know?"

There's something about that map that reassures me about the future of reading and the future of books. It makes me feel like e-books are not going to overtake the world, because at this point anyway, you really couldn't duplicate that map on an electronic reader. You might be able to somehow put the picture there, but it just isn't the same thing as a beautifully illustrated book. And that makes me think of kids because I still say we're not going to be reading Goodnight Moon to kids on electronic readers.

Some kids, the most avid readers probably, are going to fall in love with the look and the smell and the feel of a book. And they're always going to feel sentimental about that, and they're always going to love that as an object and a place that they're going to want to go back to. I would predict that all of their textbooks they're going to carry around on a digital device. I think that all of these things are going to coexist for a good, long time. And I think that bodes well for the future of reading.