Saturday, January 29, 2011

Sobering Thoughts about the "Digital Revolution"

Reading Jason Epstein’s “Books:  Onward to the Digital Revolution,” in the latest issue of The New York Review, is not a pleasant experience.  His take on that revolution extends far beyond the “turf” he is examining, which was once the flourishing ground of independent bookstores and, as a corollary, the general publishing industry.  However, he is not trying to lay all of the ills on the world and how the Internet has made that world;  and it is the broader perspective that makes reading him all the more troubling.

For example, he does not directly blame the computer for the drastic attrition of independent booksellers.  Rather, he argues that the independent bookstore was once a fundamental element of city life, as significant in cultivating a reading public as the free library system was.  Thus, the death of the independent bookstore had less to do with the rise of technology and far more to do with the general exodus to the suburbs following the Second World War.  Because the suburbs were not cities, they needed alternative central agorae (with ample parking space) to see to the shopping needs of suburban families;  and the shopping mall, as we now know it, evolved to create conditions that favored chains over small individually-owned shops.  Now malls dominate cities as well as suburbs, and it is almost impossible to buy anything any more without going to a place that is part of some major chain or conglomerate.  Such soil is not fertile for the products that those old independent bookstores offered.  Indeed, it is downright arid.  (I found it interesting that one of Epstein’s footnotes observes that this is the fiftieth anniversary year of the publication of The Death and Life of American Cities by Jane Jacobs,)

Epstein’s logic then proceeds from the vendors to the publishers.  It would be fair to say that no bookstore that is simply a link in a major chain is interested in the needs of readers.  It is interested only in moving product and “making its numbers.”  Thus, the relationship between vendor and publisher no longer has to do with cultivating and satisfying a reading public.  Rather, it has to do with how the publisher can make its numbers buy cutting the right deals with the vendor.  The result is a reader-hostile climate that is not too different from the conditions I recently observed at my local Safeway, which no longer seems to make its own inventory decisions but has to abide by the will of some centralized data analysis software.  In critiquing those conditions, my best stick for bashing the software came from a passage by Friedrich Hayek about the limitations of statistical analysis.  That passage is worth repeating:

Far from dealing with structures of relationships, statistics deliberately and systematically disregard the relationships between the individual elements. It is, to repeat, concerned with the properties of the elements of the "collective", though not with the properties of particular elements, but with the frequency with which elements with certain properties occur among the total. And, what is more, it assumes that these properties are not systematically connected with the different ways in which the elements are related to each other.

Reading is a highly personal matter.  Reading interests and experiences may be shared;  and, indeed, such sharing used to play a major role in community-building.  However, communities are built because readers are individuals, not because they form some kind of “collective.”  Every reader is one of Hayek’s “individual elements;”  and those “elements” no longer signify in places like Borders any more than they do at Safeway.

This takes us to the next level of generality in Epstein’s analysis.  It begins with a sentence that captures all of poignancy of his nostalgia for the old days of publishing:

The company made money but this was a means, not an end.

This is the unpleasant dinosaur in the room, so to speak.  That sentence is not just about a publishing house or a bookstore or a supermarket.  It is about just about any workplace we now encounter;  and, if those grand designers of the World Economic Forum have their way, then it will be as true of any encounter in Yogyakarta as in Shaker Heights.  The fact that “making the numbers” has become so fundamental to the rhetoric of business means that making money has “graduated” from being the means to being the end.  This may then lead to the corollary that our global culture has become one in which we either cannot or will not turn our thoughts to any other ends.  We may have become a worldwide society, but it is a society with severely impaired vision.

That leaves only one question:  Is that impaired vision the cause or the effect of a lifestyle that is no longer accommodates a reading public?

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