Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Ye Olde Pizza and Book Parlor

Jerry Stratton, June 2, 2008

People have been making wild complaints about how the digital revolution throws out parts of our culture that will be missed for years now; in a series of essays I wrote in 1995 or so, I responded to what MIT dean William J. Mitchell called “the parable of the pizza parlor”:

The customers also liked the new setup; they could always get exactly what they wanted, quickly, reliably and inexpensively. But they sometimes missed the atmosphere of the ramshackle old parlors, the conversations that unfolded there and the opportunities that the pizzerias afforded to get out of the house and feel like part of a local community.

The customers will miss no such thing, because (1) they won’t know it existed, (2) they’ll get into their own conversations with who they want to talk to, (3) they will use the term “get out of the house” to include getting onto the world-wide discussion, and (4) they will already have their own definition of local community that will not include the dean at MIT. The only people who will miss it are the dead and a few aging MIT deans. Cliff Stoll, Silicon Snake Oil, warns that giving in to the hype will create on-line addicts, lonely for real community. I think that the most lonely will be those who stay behind.

Similarly, I was in a discussion in a forum several years ago about how modern word processors were taking away people’s ability to write because they contained templates for things like MLA format. The thing is, people don’t want to write in MLA format. They want to write. Computers also take away people’s skill at hitting the carriage return after every line. Writers aren’t missing out on writing because they don’t hit the carriage return any more, or have to hunt for paper after every page.

If you took away my pocket notebook, I’m not going to take some tree bark, a shredder, and some water and make paper on my own. I’ll go get another notebook. Some things that we used to learn, and some things that we learn today, have no purpose other than getting something else done. If we can get that something else done better and faster in another way, then there is no reason to waste time on it anymore.

But sometimes we’re so hidebound we have no idea what we’re missing by not taking the pizza parlor on-line. In The Book Collection that Devoured My Life, Luc Sante writes about one of two things he’ll miss if his book collection were replaced with a digital collection:

But I would very much miss books as material objects were they to disappear. The tactility of books assists my memory, for one thing. I can't remember the quote I'm searching for, or maybe even the title of the work that contains it, but I can remember that the book is green, that the margins are unusually wide, and that the quote lies two-thirds of the way down a right-hand page. If books all appear as nearly identical digital readouts, my memory will be impoverished.

I’m not going to complain about how crazy he is to like books. I do, too; my apartment is stuffed full of them; vinyl and CDs and DVDs too. But one thing I would not miss is trying to track down what page that quote about dangerous advice is on. Yes, I remember the look of the book and the general idea of the page, and it probably had something to do with wizards. But I’m sorry, that isn’t nearly as useful as being able to hit Spotlight on my Mac and type "dangerous advice Tolkien" to get the answer in about fifteen seconds.

Hat tip to Hit & Run.

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