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Are Books Bad at Spreading Ideas?
What if in their slow, long and difficult to share nature, books–as compared to the Web–are actually bad for both ideas and encouraging exchange?

Ten years ago, you could have gotten away with saying that the internet was only good for porn, news, and really freaky porn. Not anymore. For all its many faults and flaws, the web is a place for the best and worst of culture, and lolcats and philosophical tracts sit by side-by-side. (I’ll leave it to you to decide which of those two things is worst and best.) Yet, despite our appreciation for the worth of the web, most of us tend to believe that real intellectual value resides in books. If the web is good for short- and medium-form writing, it’s books and their demands of length and sustained focus that are truly home to the ideas and arguments that shape our world. But what if, in their slow, long and difficult to share nature, books are actually bad for both ideas and encouraging exchange? It’s a provocative idea, and it’s one most recently argued by Nieman Lab’s Megan Garber. She was responding to the fight that erupted after web critic Evgeny Morozov wrote a scathing, biting review of Public Parts, the latest book from new media priest Jeff Jarvis, who in turn responded with his own critique of the critique. But rather than the specific details of the Morozov-Jarvis spat, Garber was more interested in how the argument itself was happening online, and what that meant for the role of books: Books both e- and analog – the kind that exist not to tell a tale, but to advance an argument – face a fundamental challenge: The interests of books-as-artifacts and books-as-arguments are, in general, misaligned…. The precise thing that makes idea-driven books so valuable to readers – their immersive qualities, the intimate, one-on-one relationship they facilitate between authors and readers – also make them pretty lousy as actual sharers of ideas. Books don’t go viral. Garber was basically arguing that the economic pressures on books have been “designed to advance books within the marketplace, rather than the marketplace of ideas.” But in saying so, Garber also invoked a broader, more interesting question, too: Do complex, important ideas need to go viral? For what it’s worth, Morozov’s response on Twitter was that saying books are bad at propagating ideas is like arguing that “good food is much, much less great at actually propagating calories.” The point is not to simply exchange ideas; it’s to ensure that the very best ones get created. It’s a fair point. Intellectual advancement requires engaging with ideas on the very highest level. It’s quite true, for example, that Foucault’s very careful re-reading of Nietzsche upended how academics think of power and self-determination. Yet, 30 years on, most of Foucault’s ideas aren’t exactly commonplace or particularly accessible. “Serious books” largely speak to academics and other serious books, which isn’t exactly great for getting those ideas out there. So the tension here is between the quality of ideas and their distribution throughout society. Is it more important that a precious few people know the dense, book-length arguments of Judith Butler’s brilliant work on rethinking gender?; or that hundreds of millions of people are aware that gender isn’t simply natural and we should stop treating it as such? Maybe the question is itself a false choice. It seems unlikely that feminism, anti-racism or, hell, science, would have ever made their way into mainstream discourse had academics and thinkers not been pushing their highfalutin boundaries. There is a back and forth between book-length discourse and the more compressed, public kind, and looking at things like the 20th century civil rights movement, it seems to have worked pretty well so far. Yet, to leave it at that would be too neat and pat. The web offers an opportunity for debate with an immediacy and scope that far outstrips books. That capacity to help generate exchange means that ideas, rather than coming out fully-formed, are always temporary, but also vetted and refined along the way. But perhaps most importantly, by having that exchange be a public process–as debates on the web tend to be–readers can follow along and have their own debates long the way, making those ideas spread far more quickly and efficiently than books. To wit, books are good at being rigorous, finished products; the web is good at all the things that lead up to that completed object. It’s a bit of a utopian vision, certainly. But to simply argue that “the idea world” is a only place of books is equally naive. Intellectual development is something that must take place in a back-and-forth environment. The complexities of the modern world will often necessitate that the exchange of ideas happen more quickly, involve more people and occur in a more non-linear fashion. Books will always be a part of that. But surely, if the dissemination of novel, innovative thinking is our goal, it’s the web that will be home to the world of ideas. __ Navneet Alang is the Toronto Standard Tech Critic.

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