The world of books vs. the world of the Internet: An extremely unequal match?

It occurred to me recently that my world is defined almost entirely by books. My day-to-day job involves historical research, writing and teaching; I spend more time in a library than any other place. In addition, I write horror novels, and much of my online activity is also centered around words or books in some direct or indirect way. (Though it is now much more than that, this blog and my Twitter were both originally established to promote my books). I could not imagine a world without books, or living my life in a way in which books are not prominent or even primary to my existence.

Occasionally I encounter people who live in a different world, a world in which books are not only not primary, but sometimes virtually unknown. Some of these people are kids or teenagers who look upon reading as a chore limited to school times, but others are adults who seem to have no use for books or claim “they don’t have time” to read. One of the most amazing perceptions I’ve observed among these people is the assumption that somehow the Internet has “replaced” books. One need not read “real” books anymore, this thinking goes, because everything you need to know in life is now on the Internet, and Google is much quicker to use than trying to find a book on something. Among some people who think this way, the era of books and printed technology may actually be ending, because the Internet, or at least some form of electronic data matrix, will replace the book in the human experience.

This Norwegian TV video (English subtitles) is a humorous look at information technology.

This got me thinking: what is the degree of “overlap” between the Internet and the world of books? Though it’s extremely hard to quantify, it seems to clear to me that the world of books is quite different than the Internet–it’s more diverse, its subjects are broader and the depth of its knowledge is much deeper. Various attempts have been made over the years to count the number of “bits” in an average book, and extrapolate these to some quantifiable figure of how much information might be in all the libraries of the world; that figure could then inevitably be compared to much-easier-to-find (online, anyway) figures about how “big” the Internet is. But this simplistic analysis misses the point. Even with as large as the Internet is and as fast as it’s growing, the body of knowledge in the world’s books dwarf it by a landslide.

Think about it. Most of the Internet consists of data which is not intelligible to human beings. Human expression–webpages, blogs, tweets, YouTube videos, Google Books, audio files, etc.–is a tiny film on the very surface of a deep ocean of 1s and 0s. How much data it takes to make up a particular file also has little to do with its content. A .jpg of a plain white square, at super-high resolution, could be 42 MB, while a thumbnail of the Mona Lisa could be 8 KB. There is no relationship of content to data, as there is in printed matter. You can only cram so many ideas into an intelligible sentence in any of the world’s languages. Even though you may not be saying much, “THE QUICK BROWN FOX JUMPS OVER THE LAZY DOG” printed in 9-point font contains exactly the same amount of data as the same phrase projected in 200-foot-high letters on the side of a building.

Also, what’s on the Internet? A facile answer is that most of it is pornography or cute cat videos. (The BBC actually refuted the oft-repeated statistic that 37% of the Internet is porn). But how much “content” is there in a video of a cat walking on a treadmill or playing the piano? Back in August, as a joke, in one of my Wacken articles I posted a YouTube video of the cantina song from Star Wars repeated over and over again for 10 hours. The fact that the video exists–ten hours of the cantina song–is the content it’s meant to convey. If you watched all 10 hours of it, you wouldn’t have received any more “content” than you do by noting that it’s a ten-hour video of the cantina song.

Cute? Sure. But how much “data” is really conveyed here?

Most books that have ever been published in human history have not survived. Even setting aside high-profile acts of libricide like the destruction of the Louvain University library or the Great Library of Alexandria, the world’s libraries, since their inception thousands of years ago, have exercised a gatekeeping function. They can’t keep a copy of every book ever written, so somebody, somewhere, from ancient Greece to the public library of Elmira, Michigan, must make decisions about which books to acquire and which ones to leave alone. While this process of selection, carried on with totally inconsistent motives over centuries, certainly can’t be proclaimed to have preserved the “best” books of the human race, at least it’s narrowed the field to a body of knowledge that somebody has deemed significant for some reason. Consequently, the data contained in a library is far less random than that on the Internet. There’s no library equivalent of a cute cat video.

Years ago, online, I once encountered a young man–a very naive one, obviously–who believed that the choice of reading books versus listening to podcasts or watching YouTube videos was solely a choice among the available methods of data delivery. He said it was great that I enjoyed reading books, but he preferred watching TED talks on YouTube, as if it was a choice between Coke and Pepsi. While I don’t know, I’d venture a guess this person had never set foot in a library before, or at least never really taken the time to see what’s in one. A life lived solely online is bound to be both a sheltered and unhappy one.

The book is truly one of the greatest technological inventions the human race has ever devised. It’s an information delivery system that has withstood the test of time and outlived many technological Johnny-come-latelies over those years. Books face no serious challenge from the world of the Internet. Thousands of years from now there will still be books. I’m not so sure there will be any cute cat videos.

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6 Comments

  1. As a Librarian I couldn’t agree more and I often find myself defending the printed book against friends and students who see no future for books or libraries. The internet is a fantastic tool but as I point out to anyone who’ll listen, access to good quality information usually comes at a price and it is libraries that offer their borrowers the opportunity to access material that might otherwise be hidden behind an unaffordable pay-wall. It’s also librarians and other information professionals that curate content to provide a coherent collection rather than, as you point out, the random ocean of content we’re faced with on the web. Long live the codex!

    1. You’re certainly right about the value of librarians in defending books and collections. Unfortunately the erroneous assumption that the Internet is “just as good or better” is pretty widespread, and may account in part for why governments and municipalities across the Western world no longer see funding public libraries as a fiscal priority.

  2. I agree on the importance of books and cannot imagine life without the printed word. What I meant in my tweet about going digital: When I started working as a Legal Assistant in the 90s, we had a huge law library in the office and received a new legal resource book each month, with pocket parts yearly to update those books. Now, we use Westlaw or Lexis Nexis to research and cite law in our pleadings. I believe it is the same in many professions. Look at the doctor’s office. Most of them use Ipads or the equivalent to keep up with medical information relevant to their patients. I am sure they have online medical resources available to them that would not have been available even 10 years ago. A lot of us die hard readers use Nooks and Kindles now instead of buying the hardback or paperback book. It is not about cute cat videos, or the other fluff on the internet. I referred to digital as a medium of reading whatever we are interested in or need as a source of knowledge. I love books. I grew up before the internet, met the bookmobile near my house every time it came by. I spent many hours in the local library, which has just been demolished and replaced by a new smaller building containing more digital resources than books. But, I can still check out ebooks from that library on my Nook. I almost cried when I drove by and saw the backhoe and trucks removing a part of my childhood. Reading will always be important to those of us who enjoy it and the word library may take on a whole new meaning to the next generation. Knowledge sets us apart from animals and the human race will always find the information that matters.

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