Rage and the book

Peter Osnos of the Century Foundation asks today "what should happen to books?"

His answer is eminently sensible. Osnos reminds us that technology is always dependent on content and that search engines and hand-held devices are "only as useful as the material that they carry." Technology, he explains, "provide tools, pipleines and plumbing for information." But technology is not the thing-in-itself. It has no essential value independent of knowledge.

On a day when the photograph of a dead Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is scrawled across the world's media, Osnos' remarks on the marriage of social rage and the intellectual hooiiganism that all-too-often accompanies interactive content are particularly resonant:

It has always been accepted that advancements in technology, in particular making information more available, is progress, and it usually is. But I remember noting that of the fifty or so Arabic language channels available to me in my hotel in the Sinai a couple of years ago, the majority featured angry men with beards shaking their fists and the channel from Israel was the only one in our international hotel that seemed to be jammed. Web sites and search engines bring a universe to anyone who chooses to use them, but alas, the flow of what is putrid and hateful is an ever-greater stream.

Osnos writes about the increasing ubiquity of what he calls "rage" -- a human condition that, unfortunately, equally colors much of contemporary talk radio and the blogosphere:

Rage has never been really restrained by barriers. What is disturbing about the interactivity of the Web is that it has developed a protocol that tolerates vilification to the point of incitement as standard discourse—and unlike printed matter, the possible audience is unlimited.

It is Ironic that, at a time when the digital utopians are penning obituaries for the book, we are in most need of books. One antidote to blind rage is the long-form book which has provided ideal housing for the thoughts of the most tolerant members of society -- from Erasmus and Thomas More to Birkerts and Postman.  True, Mein Kampf was a book too -- but imagine the terrible mischief that the National Socialists would have got up on the Internet. And they wouldn't have need bonfires to burn all the books of the Enlightenment. Today's digital idealists would have done their dirty work for them.