Recently I had occasion to spend an afternoon at the main branch of the Detroit Public Library. The visit was enlightening. It provided a graphic example of how the Internet has changed our habits of reading in this country.
On the first floor, in various rooms, were banks of computers. Each was occupied.
On the upper level were large rooms filled with long shelves filled with many thousands of books. Thousands on the subject of literature alone. Priceless information, analysis, and opinions. On the entire vast level, there sat at the tables only two women of college age who were using the quiet area as a place for study. In another room sat two librarians side by side at a small desk. Both were occupied on computers. No one bothered them for information about books, neither by phone or in person. When I asked them a question, I had the feeling I was the first person to disturb them that day, if not the entire week. If not for a month. They were covered in metaphorical dust.
I found the books I was searching for, in a room far on the other side of the floor from the librarians, and sat down at a table with a stack of them to browse and read. The floor was eerily silent. I could’ve been in a closed building. The only persons I glimpsed in my several hours reading were the faces of two security guards, making their rounds, possibly surprised at what I was doing.
Meanwhile, on the ground level, scores of ever-changing people busily sat at computer screens.
What were they looking at? A few were doing research, perhaps. The rest were likely on the Internet, surfing the web or occupied with social media. posting notes at Facebook or reading and sending tweets.
What few if any of them were doing was learning a subject deeply. The Internet isn’t set up for deep reading. People learn instead a little about a lot of subjects—much of it gossip—instead of learning very much about one topic. Deep reading is what you do when you plunge into an actual book, or into many books.
This explains a lot to me. The new generation has seemed to me to have superficial knowledge about subjects like economics or the environment. Though ill-informed, they’re extremely arrogant about their positions on those subjects, positions more often than not formed for political reasons, and not because the individual objectively weighed all sides of an argument.
The way knowledge is now disseminated to us, I fear, makes it easy to push and pull a “herd” in the proper direction. The stances taken aren’t based on thorough knowledge, but on the stances others in their camp are taking. What’s the proper side to be on? What are the cool kids saying?
Other problems with the Internet are that the potential exists to determine how many people are reading which sites, what material. To determine exactly what’s being read and learned. Monitoring. Another problem is that parts of the Internet—improper information, say—could be closed off or shut down, in an instant. With a click of a mouse. If not the entire Internet in an “emergency.” I’m not saying that it’s happening, only that it could happen. With the Internet, everyone is plugged into the same tentacled beast.
With books, old fashioned and vanishing, no one knows who’s reading what—what books or information anyone has stashed away. The way things are going, in a generation or two there will be very few books stashed away.
(p.s. Why aren’t people protesting the Internet sales tax legislation?)