So Google is turning 13 today. It's hard to imagine how we found anything without it, or where we searched. Yet - old though this makes me feel - I remember when it was born. I was already at university; I learned about this extraordinary new search engine in a class on research methods. And now it's all grown up!
Actually not quite. Sherry Turkle, Director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and the Self, reminds us that the digital world is in its infancy. We've only begun to explore its possibilities and assimilate its modes into our own forms of consciousness and ways of being. Her book Alone Together skirts the risks of technology's dehumanising, isolating propensities, but argues finally that the device-driven life can still be an examined one. When used responsibly and within certain limits, it can facilitate rather than inhibit our deep needs for communion and presence. (I enjoyed her conversation about it with Krista Tippett on Public Radio, which I found using Google.)
However, while Google is immeasurably useful, much of the digital is mostly distraction. Johann Hari calls ours “the age of distraction” and says “there's a reason why that word – ‘wired’ – means both ‘connected to the internet’ and ‘high, frantic, unable to concentrate’.” Books, he writes, are the remedy. “A book has a different relationship to time than a TV show or a Facebook update. It says that something was worth taking from the endless torrent of data and laying down on an object that will still look the same a hundred years from now.” He also quotes David Ulin's book The Lost Art of Reading – Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time: “Reading is an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction... It requires us to pace ourselves. It returns us to a reckoning with time.” And TS Eliot, who called books “the still point of the turning world.” (H/T Google.)
I'm always happy to join a chorus praising books, but I don't see any essential conflict between books and the turn of the digital world. Nor between technology and the solacing of human needs. Those who read will read, in whatever format books are found. Those who don't read will be distracted, in any age, by anything that moves. Those who feel no need for communion will not seek it. Those who seek, now as then, shall find.