Weapons of mass distraction

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  • Published 6.04.07

Kurt Vonnegut, one of the greatest satirists of our times, said in an interview that “there is no shortage of wonderful writers. What we lack is a dependable mass of readers.” That was way back in 1977. But it is probably truer today than it was 30 years ago. Truer, because the mass distractions we have today intensify the competition for mental space so much more. Readers are giving way to viewers, whose number is increasing with the proliferation of satellite stations. Would more stuff online cause a growth in Indian readership, or a further decline through an information overkill?

Google is digitizing 3000 non-copyright books every day. So, a conservative estimate is that it will digitize at least 10 million books. Google’s biggest rivals — Amazon, Microsoft and Yahoo! — are in the game too, as are individual libraries around the world. The idea is “to create a modern library of Alexandria containing all public domain texts and videos.”

Will the over-abundance of digitized books make people read more, and therefore be better informed and more critical of the complexities of the world around them? Will reading habits change? Will the physical character of the book, as we know it, itself change as it faces competition from the digitized world?

Many critics believe that nothing would change in India because many have no access to computers. This is only partly true. Every library worth the name has multiple computers that are readily accessible to regular users. In fact, more computers ought to be added as prices come down. Besides, telephone booths, equipped with multiple computers linked to a central console and printers, can now be found in the remotest corners of the country.

The bigger problem is whether information, sense and understanding would not be lost in a flood of random facts and rhetoric.

One needs to be reasonably computer-savvy to explore the hyperlinks that would elicit and expand the information required. But with some effort, and more user-friendly software, this would not be a problem. For non-fictional works, such as dictionaries, encyclopaedias, cookbooks, etc. a digitized format will be a spatial boon.

However, fiction would not do well in the digitized world. Readers are not used to screen-reading, they prefer hard copies. An experiment was made by Stephen King by placing a short story online, but it did not work. Besides, publishers, who make their money on hard-copy sales, would not like it either.

In fact, many potential readers first desire a ‘feel’ of the book, and then buy or borrow the hard copy. But, if the traditional book will be around for a long time to come, so will its digitized version that is likely to help supplement it in many ways.