Suzanne Fields

Google promises everyone on line an online Christmas present. The popular Internet search engine announces that it will make available on the Web volumes in the research libraries of Harvard, the University of Michigan, Stanford, Oxford and other sources of collected knowledge, including the New York Public Library.

What we will be able to read on our computer screens will be determined by copyrights and technological expertise. Michigan's library alone contains 7 million volumes, which would fill a bookshelf 132 miles long. That's far more than a marathon run of knowledge. Google says it will offer Internet readers unrestricted access to books in the public domain. Short excerpts will be made available even from copyrighted material.

The latest promise for googling is mind-boggling. The promise coincides with the digitizing of many international libraries. We'll have to update McLuhan's famous dictum that the medium is the message. The message has become the medium, making it possible to read and write vast amounts of the written word for pleasure or to conduct arcane research without leaving home or office.

We've known for a long time that the Internet could be the turning point in the democratization of learning for the millennium, commensurate with the impact the printing press made on the previous millennium, offering a range of information and creative thinking for anyone curious enough to seek it. But will this affect how we utilize and understand what we read?

Google can provide the written word with greater speed, but speed is of little use to wisdom that requires rumination, reverie and reflection. You can't scribble in the margins of a computer screen. If the environmentalists see electronic libraries as saving trees, they should calculate the number of pages downloaded to computer printers. High tech always arrives with mixed blessings.

Let's not forget that the Enlightenment, driven by an explosion of scientific information along with its processing through the scientific method, led many of the "enlightened" to believe new inventions would drive intellectual reasoning inevitably toward progress and perfectibility, enabling mankind to gain control over nature. But greater access to information merely enabled the same old sinners to use new information for better and for worse. Man retained his capacity to do harm as well as good.

The Luddites among us cry "bah humbug!" It's tempting to join them. New technology is not necessarily neutral and we need to understand that. The way we read has an impact on how we write, think, create and publish.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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