Let’s Let Less Be More

While I’m all for pushing technical boundaries, experimenting, playing, goofing around, exploring, and dreaming of one day making either a superb new product or a good product a great one, there is such a thing as inventing something we don’t need.  Google’s new interactive e-books fall into that category.

It isn’t just, as Liz Stinson reports, that the ex-texts can’t be printed;  it is also that the presentation of those texts are–and can be–cluttered with useless, distracting, and unnecessary material.

We humans are coded for language.  Even our sense impressions of the world around us–its sights, smells, tastes, and textures–are reinterpreted into the languages with which we think and read.  We are not coded to handle a barrage of both images and words.  We can handle either one separately, but not both at the same time.  Like it or not, humanity is verbal, and the printed word takes primacy over everything else.

It is fun, every once in a while, to break verbal conventions, to play with language in some new ways, as Laurence Sterne does in Tristram Shandy (“draw a picture of Uncle Toby in the space below”), or Lewis Carroll does in Alice in Wonderland (math jokes abounding) or James Joyce does in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake (Joyce reproduces both the waking and the dream states of human experience), or David Foster Wallace does in Infinite Jest (Wallace replicates the 24-hour-a-day assault of consumerism upon our consciousness).

But the genius of books, the glory of the greatest of human inventions, is that written language, and our ability to communicate with it and reproduce it multiple times, is the most profound way we’ve ever discovered to develop the process of thinking itself.  The book is, of course, an intermediate source between an author and her readers, but the barrier between that author and audience is literally and figuratively paper-thin.  We can, if we wish, dwell with the words on the page–consider them, weigh them, refute them–and do so within seconds before going on to the next page.  If there were ever a convincing argument that less really can be more, the “book” is it.

We may need nothing else.  An optimist may argue that Google’s interactive e-texts are the first, infant steps toward electronically implanting books in our brains, but that is not likely how these texts are to be used.  These texts are more likely to be used to sell us things we don’t need and to shorten our attention spans even more than they’ve been shortened already.  Come to think of it, our brains are such complex organic devices that we might stand a chance of filtering out all the advertisements and the noise of those future mental texts we’ll get fed.  I’m pretty sure it’ll be a lot harder to filter out the pointless data from the e-books that Google is trying to sell us.


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