IN 1996, the US computer entrepreneur Brewster Kahle set up the Internet Archive, its mission being to provide “universal access to all knowledge.” This admirable project strives to store copies of every single Web page ever posted: a ghostly archive of the virtual. So what are we to make of the fact that, a decade and a half later, this digital pioneer is turning from bytes to books? In what seems, on the face of it, an act of splendid perversity, Kahle has set up a series of converted shipping containers in California where he hopes to create another archive — one that contains a copy of every book ever published.
His action touches on an anxiety. Are books, like defunct Internet pages, heading toward the point where they will be archived as an academic curiosity? Some think so. You won’t find any shortage of people willing to pronounce the printed book doomed, arguing that the convenience and searchability of digital text and the emergence of a Kindle-first generation is going to render them obsolete.
Certainly, electronic books have overcome their technological obstacles. Page turns are fast enough, battery life is long enough, and screens are legible in sunlight. Digital sales now account for 14 percent of Penguin’s business. But there are reasons to reject the idea that the extinction of the printed book is just around the corner, just as there were reasons to reject the notion that e-books would never catch on because you couldn’t read them in the bath and, y’know, books are such lovely objects.
Personally, I’m still in the habit of paperbacks. Much of my professional life is spent reviewing, and I like to scribble on my books and bend the pages back. Plus I can’t be bothered figuring out how to get publishers to send e-versions. But habit is all it is. I’ve no hostility to digital. I’ve spent a good deal of time with the Kindle, and it does the trick.
THE READING EXPERIENCE
In some ways, though, the question of whether we do our reading off paper or plastic is the least interesting one. More interesting is what we’re reading, and the manner in which we do so. A large number of literate Westerners spend most of their waking hours at computers, and those computers are connected to the Web. The characteristic activity on such a computer has been given the pleasing name “wilfing,” adapted from the acronym WWILF, or “What was I looking for?” You work a bit. You check if it’s your move in Facebook Scrabble. You get an e-mail. You answer it. You get a text. You answer it. Since your phone’s in your hand, you play Angry Birds for five minutes. You work a bit. You go online to check something, get distracted by a link, forget what you were looking for, stumble on a picture of a duck that looks like Hitler, share it on Twitter, rinse and repeat.
Sci-fi author Cory Doctorow has called the Internet “an ecosystem of interruption technologies.” TS Eliot’s line “distracted from distraction by distraction” seems apt. Zadie Smith, among other writers, has said that the key to the sustained attention required to create a novel is to work on a computer that isn’t online. You could call wilfing multitasking, or parallelistic cognitive layering — or you could call it cocking around on the Web. Whatever, it’s fair to wonder what, if anything, it is doing to our heads.