Two recent discussions –in very different venues– take an interesting look at the role of reading, individual knowledge, and disciplined reflection in the Internet Age.
The first author is Larry Sanger, one of the founders of Wikipedia, who has gone on to found a renowed public-interest wiki Citizendium.org and the directory of educational videos online, WatchKnow.org. With a Ph.D. in Philosophy (Theory of Knowledge), Sanger is hardly one to down-play the role of the Internet in civil society, or to be accused of being a Luddite by the rhetorically inclined.
Sanger discusses in some detail the importance of individual knowledge, rooted in (but not exclusively):
- memorization –how can you really know something that you don't remember?
- individual learning (as differentiated from social knowledge learned in groups); and
- books –complex, deep strands of thinking that require absorption and uninterrupted attention.
The second author is Michael Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, a long-standing, mainstream Christian publishing empire famous for devotional literature and Bibles. Far from special pleading from a print publisher, Thomas Nelson is in fact a leader in electronic publishing, and Hyatt has led the transformation.
Hyatt writes in defense of books, of the activity of reading as a way of viewing the world –you can read his blog-post here.
Beyond (or because of) his broad and deep commitment to digital publishing, Hyatt values serious readers' "ability to follow extended arguments and enroll their imagination in
the reading experience." What Hyatt regards in peril is the ability to engage in extended conversation with its potential for transformative exchange, replaced instead by a media-driven amusement that "will become the ultimate value against which everything else is measured."
Libraries, like Universities (and especially University Libraries!) have a cultural agenda: that the examined life is definitely worth living, that such examination requires reflection, conversation, and an openness to the experiences of people very different from contemporaries –people of the past. Amusement, group knowledge socially constructed in networks heedless of group and individual memory –these things are no replacement for the examined life. In fact, Plato might suggest that they are merely the shadows upon the wall of the cave in which most people live their lives, unaware of the light and the source of the light outside the cave.
Do I cavill with a straw man? I hope so, but fear that I do not do so. As contemporary Americans we pride ourselves on a world-wide cultural now built especially upon science, medicine, and technology –but we also prefer the disconnected amusement the some even disparage the "old" knowledge based upon remembering, individual reflection, and reading.
Sanger and Hyatt, from very different perspectives and social and business locations, converge on similar points. That convergence is worth pondering.