The Great Strawman Massacre

This past week, Robert Darnton published a curious opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education. I am sure that by now, more qualified bloggers have already puzzled over this column where Darnton positively obliterates several strawmen (strawpersons?) about our digital future.  Darnton begins his brief reflections by identifying and refuting five myths of the information age:

1. The Book is Dead. Here he argues that since more books are produced each year than ever before the book is alive and well as a medium for communication.  I am not sure that I’ve ever read anywhere that the book is going away. In fact, most people say that recent changes in way books are produced, published, distributed, and read is a cause for some celebration! The real questions have surrounded our definition of the book and its place within our increasingly convergent media universe. So if the book is dead, long live the book.

2. We have entered the information age. Darnton points out cleverly that “every age is an age of information” as if this somehow undermines the idea that our age has celebrated and problematized information in new ways.  While the changing pace of our ability to discover, manipulate, and communicate information is perhaps not “unprecedented”, our fixation on this abstract notion of information perhaps is.  In any event, his argument is pretty facile. Every age seeks to define itself and almost every age identifies itself somehow and in most cases, these identifications tell us more about how that generation imagines itself than a perspective on some kind of absolute historical character.

3. All information is now available online.  First, I’ve never heard anyone say that.  I suppose someone might have only because people say the darndest things.  It’s such a crazy notion that I am not going to comment any more on it here.

4. Libraries are obsolete. Aside from people who are library haters (and our local politics have reminded me that some version of these people do exist), few serious people have argued that libraries are really obsolete. They are changing, of course, to keep pace with new ideas of what constitutes a book and our fixation (fetishizing?) of information, but they are coming to occupy an important place in our expanding information infrastructure.

5. The future is digital. While it might seem impossible to argue with this, it all depends, of course, on what we mean by digital.  Darnton points out that the information environment will be “overwhelmingly digital”, but also reminds us that printed material will continue to be important as well.  Again, it seems hardly valuable to note that “old technologies” like print will continue to be value just as long-playing records, typewriters, radio, and old houses continue to be cherish as opportunities to reflect on media and through media on our own past.

To be more charitable to Darnton’s offers these strawmen as myths and his few concluding paragraphs offer more compelling observations on the changing landscape of information. He’s particular insightful when he challenges the idea that digital reading habits are undermining long-standing practices of reflective, sustained reading by arguing that there is growing evidence that people read in snippets and gleaned from texts in the past. So, perhaps in the final analysis his article does have something to contribute, even we might even see his effort to push back against such seeming facile and polarizing perspectives as perhaps warranted. I would like to think, however, that massacring such strawmen is an activity better left for a popular outlets than a publication like the Chronicle.


One Comment

  1. Regarding your number 3, I encounter these people all the time working on the front lines in the library. Undergraduates are routinely stunned to be told that a recent book they want to look at is not available for free online, and I recently had a very hard time persuading a graduate student in history (!) that there is not really any such thing as “digital microfilm” and no, we were in no position to be able to digitize a 91-reel microfilm set on demand, for staffing reasons let alone copyright issues, and really, coming into the library building was the only way to look at this material. Yes, really.

    Now, I agree that these students – and my state legislators, for example – don’t read the Chronicle. The history grad student should maybe start…


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