100Cyborgs: 81-90
Philosophy Books

Libraries

Duke Humfreys Library OxfordThroughout A Hundred Cyborgs, I’ve tried to find at least a few examples of technology that encourages virtue - and I can find no greater exemplar than libraries. These astonishing cybernetic networks consist of one or more humans curating dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of books and other publications, arranged within some system to aid recovering specific texts. Not a single aspect of the technology involved is remarkable - there is nothing of the chrome-tinted goggles at work inside any library building - it is solely that the cyborg we form with a library is encouraged to develop their virtues in so many different ways, and those who facilitate this near-miraculous arrangement also cultivate the distinctive excellences of the librarian in the process.

Through the agreement to remain silent, the library cyborg learns respect for others and an awareness of personal space; through the signage upon shelves, the breadth and depth of human knowledge and experience is foreshadowed, and curiosity fostered; the time limit upon lending teaches both responsibility and time-keeping. And all this is without beginning to delve into the cybervirtue of the books themselves, which can teach concentration, imagination, empathy, patience, commitment and so much more besides.

Yet none of this matters in the eyes of most humans, since the internet is far more convenient and endlessly entertaining. Have a question? The internet robots will get you an answer instantly, while obfuscating your ability to know how that answer was constructed, or what commercial forces distorted your enquiry. Want to while away some time? An infinite river of shallow amusements awaits at scores of websites, offering chewing gum fun in a variety of vacuous flavours. Who would want to learn from books when a video will show you exactly how to do something, and with none of the time-consuming reading or thinking to get in the way? We call it the World Wide Web, and aptly so, for it is indeed a subtle, sticky trap that once you enter you can never leave. Convenience is a value that conditions us to impatience - why discover and master your own excellences when the robots of the digital downstairs are standing by to service your every whim...?

As long as we judge solely by the shallow ethical calculus of the twentieth century, libraries seem inferior to the internet. That’s because utility is a disastrous value to build civilisation upon - it fools us into thinking we ought to make everything, because technology is ‘neutral’, so we should stockpile as much of it as possible. But technology is never neutral. It ranges from the calamitous to the beneficent - and the library is a sterling example of cybernetic networks that not only foster human flourishing, they have been able to incorporate computers into their practices without jeopardising their own distinctive excellences. An advanced civilisation is not the one with the most toys, but the one that cultivates civility. Understood in the way, libraries are the apex of human civilisation.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #99

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