The Instability of Information

In the second part of Darnton's essay in the New York Review of Books, he makes a strong case for the continuing importance of large academic research libraries.  As a self-described "Google enthusiast," he believes that "Google Book Search really will make book learning accessible on a new, worldwide scale, despite the great digital divide that separates the poor from the computerized."  But he goes on to argue eloquently that not only will this mass digitization not make research libraries obsolete, it will make them more important than ever.  I think his arguments are compelling, although they will not come as any surprise to librarians who have been thinking clearly about the issues.

It's the first part of his essay that I found particularly illuminating.  Darnton argues that, contrary to the "common view that we have just entered a new era, the information age," which he sees as rooted in the long-term view of technological transformations, "every age was an age of information, each in its own way, and that information has always been unstable."

As a cultural historian with an outstanding reputation, he is well-suited to making this claim.  Years ago I was fascinated by his book, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, in which he shows how our understanding of history is shaped and molded by the ways in which unstable information is passed on and examined.  In the NYRB essay, he has a couple of excellent examples to make the case that "news has always been an artifact and that it never corresponded exactly to what actually happened. ...  News is not what happened, but a story about what happened."

The common wisdom here in the internet age is that things are radically different from the way they've been before.  This is the point of view that I criticized in my comments on Everything is Miscellaneous in response to Rothman's question about what I didn't like about the book.  This predilection to see the present as radically discontinuous from the past isn't new, of course, and it isn't restricted to views about information.  My peers and I in the late 60s believed that our generation represented a radical break, not just with our parents', but with every generation that had gone before.  We were foolish in this belief because we were ignorant of history.

The point is not that things aren't changing, or that the world isn't different today from what it was a couple of decades ago.  The point is that this has always been the case, and our tendency to think that the world of our predecessors had a kind of stability that is lacking in the present world is an illusion.  Change is continuous and incremental and multivariate and beautifully complex.  When we look at the past, or try to understand the present, we break things up into epochs and ages for convenience sake.  We label the decades and try to pin them like butterflies to a display board.  We categorize and classify time just as we do everything else.  But that's just a way for us to abstract things so that we can find ways to understand and talk about them.   Realities are far more complex.

Faulkner said it best:  The past is never dead.  It's not even past.



Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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