On Books and Toast

The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik writes about books, toast, and assorted prognostications on the Internet in, “How the Internet Gets Inside Us.” Definitely worth the time to read.*

One way of measuring the social significance of the rather historic rate of technological change we find ourselves living in, is the volume of books written upon that very subject. I appreciate Gopnik’s metacommentary about books on books:

“A series of books explaining why books no longer matter is a paradox that Chesterton would have found implausible, yet there they are, and they come in the typical flavors: the eulogistic, the alarmed, the sober, and the gleeful.”

These types of books on books are summed up into three competing (yet in some cases overlapping) schools of thought: the Never-Betters, the Better-Nevers, and the Ever-Wasers. Books and technology are kind of like toast, as it turns out:

When the electric toaster was invented, there were, no doubt, books that said that the toaster would open up horizons for breakfast undreamed of in the days of burning bread over an open flame; books that told you that the toaster would bring an end to the days of creative breakfast, since our children, growing up with uniformly sliced bread, made to fit a single opening, would never know what a loaf of their own was like; and books that told you that sometimes the toaster would make breakfast better and sometimes it would make breakfast worse, and that the cost for finding this out would be the price of the book you’d just bought.

Well, to play further with the books and toast analogy — maybe, at the end of the day, there’s too much of a furor made about the toast itself, when what we really care about is the bread. Ok, that’s enough with that. Mentioned specifically are two of my favorites: Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains and Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody. (Gopnik also gets points for beginning an article with a Harry Potter reference, ending it with Lord of the Rings reference, and making it work).

Here’s a quote lifted from Nicholas Carr on the comparative effects of an old and a new technology upon our attention spans: “As a technology, a book focuses our attention, isolates us from the myriad distractions that fill our everyday lives. A networked computer does precisely the opposite. It is designed to scatter our attention. . . . Knowing that the depth of our thought is tied directly to the intensity of our attentiveness, it’s hard not to conclude that as we adapt to the intellectual environment of the Net our thinking becomes shallower.”

I don’t necessarily disagree with Carr on this point; but there is also a line of thinking that would argue the inverse — that books can serve as a distraction for us from our everyday lives, which isn’t a bad thing.

And there are some shrewd observations on book history in this article — Gopnik points out the dangers of oversimplifying historical causes and effects which can lead to sweeping generalizations about what the advent of the book did or did not do. In addressing specifically the Print Revolution, Ann Blair from Harvard offers an intriguing alternative: that perhaps it was the invention of paper that was more revolutionary to shaping our thinking minds than the invention of print. (This brought to my mind Derrida’s essay, “Plato’s Pharmacy”; an enjoyable read if you enjoy deconstructing the hell out of the relationship between the spoken and written word).

Probably the idea that had me thinking the most: “Contraptions don’t change consciousness; contraptions are part of consciousness.” Gopnik outlines a rather interesting historical trend of how we use technology as metaphors of the mind — “our most complicated machine will be taken as a model of human intelligence” — the brain is like a telephone; the brain is like a television; the brain is like a computer. What does it say about our notion of the mind that we tend towards metaphors of a thinking “machine”? That technology is an extension of the mind?

In keeping with the metaphor-ization of things, Gopnik concludes that there is “a simple, spooky sense in which the Internet is just a loud and unlimited library in which we now live.” It is, and it isn’t. But that we would think to reach for such a metaphor to describe the Internet also suggests to me that the Internet is in turn causing us to rethink our notion of what a library is and does.


*My alternate title for this article would have been: “How the Internet Turns Us Inside Out.” I do rather like Gopnik’s idea of “the inverted self” — that the Internet has enabled the behavior of making (oftentimes annoyingly) public what once would have been (better off left) private thoughts.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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