Information vs. Knowledge (the Times they are a-changin’)

January 22, 2007

Lots of recent activity in the British press concerning future books: last weekend’s Sunday Times contained not one but two pieces on the subject.

The first piece, Google plots e-books coup, reports on the Google Unbound conference we mentioned last week. Unfortunately, it’s all fairly techless, reporting that “the internet search giant is working on a system that would allow readers to download entire books to their computers in a format that they could read on screen or on mobile devices such as a Blackberry” (er, Gutenberg?) and “commuters in Japan were already reading entire novels on their mobile phones” – something some of us have been doing for a while in this country too (see iCUE).

It does, however, contain a nice quote from if:book‘s Ben Vershbow: “Google seems to be simultaneously petting the industry and saying everything is going to be all right if they just let everything go, but at the same time telling them: ‘We have you guys up against the wall’.”

Serial crank Bryan Appleyard then takes up the story in Could this be the final chapter in the life of the book? Despite some cogent analysis of the Google/Publisher fight – with special mention going to Jean-Noël Jeanneney, president of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, for his work highlighting the inherent cultural and corporate bias of Google, which makes it far less neutral an information dealer than it would like to present itself as – Appleyard can’t help the hyperbole: “We are, it seems, about to lose physical contact with books, the primary experience and foundation of civilisation for the last 500 years.”

Coming off the back of several paras about academic textbooks, this is unfortunate. Most of the debate about book digitisation is framed in terms of poor authors, starving in garrets, unable to make a penny because of evil copyright-infringers. But the vast, vast majority of digitised content is academic and/or technical; it’s being put out there to help people learn more, better, and more easily; to improve the world. Such works are pure information – their format is simply not important. The heft of a good novel may be pleasing to the bibliophile, but few would go so far as to say they must have the latest X-thousand-page volume of the International Journal of Electrical Engineering in hardback.

Appleyard draws the distinction, with John Sutherland, between the algorithmic search engine and the wisdom of the human-made index. But in the end he totally misunderstands the nature of information, arguing that it is a separate quality to ‘knowledge’, instead of its central, essential building block:

[…] David Worlock of Electronic Publishing Services said, “Ultimately it’s not up to Google or the publishers to decide how books will be read.

“It’s the readers who will have the final say.”

No, it is the teachers who will have the final say. They will determine whether people will read for information, knowledge or, ultimately, wisdom. If they fail and their pupils read only for information, then we are in deep trouble. For the net doesn’t educate and the mind must be primed to deal with its informational deluge. On that priming depends the future of civilisation. How we handle the digitising of the libraries will determine who we are to become.

“The net doesn’t educate”? If Appleyard means by the above that teachers must do more to help pupils learn to navigate the new digital libraries, to harness the flow of information themselves and to make their own judgements about the quality of information, then he is correct. But they’ve been doing that for centuries too, and as resources like Moodle (and Sloodle), the Million Book Project and the now entirely digital Open University show, they are embracing the new mediums with much more enthusiasm than doomsaying journalists.


[Update 23/01/07] More evidence of naysaying, or just lazy journalism: Contrary to Appleyard’s assertion that Google Unbound was “an invitation-only conference”, registration was open to all, and rapidly filled up.

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