100Cyborgs: 81-90
Philosophy Books


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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Ironically, perhaps, I've found that libraries (and bookstores) tend to distract by encouraging deep-dives into knowledge I don't presently have time to properly accrue. I also discovered earlier in life that merely reading information is rarely sufficient to "know" it -- only putting it into practice does this (just as you've discussed with great nuance in "Wikipedia Knows Nothing" and elsewhere).

For me, the internet encourages a much more efficient set of practices: ignoring the avalanche of shallow entertainment and irrelevancies, incisively seeking exactly what it is I need to know (or at least discovering that what I need to know is obscure enough to be hard to find online) -- and then immediately putting the information into practice, to verify both my understanding and the veracity of the information. Videos are almost always to be avoided when possible, but text search massively speeds targeted research.

All that said, your claim that libraries promote civility more than the internet is, I think, pretty much beyond dispute, and I make no claims that my anecdotal experience generalizes.

Hi Nathan,
This is a wonderful counterpoint... I think it true that libraries are terrible sources of information next to the internet (and share your disdain at the video as a horrifically inefficient conduit for information). For knowledge, however, books are infinitely superior to the internet in my view. I am so glad I am not dependent upon on the internet for my knowledge, since to be so - as so many are today! - is to allow oneself to be (if you'll forgive the euphemism) 'programmed by Google'. This is an ever-growing cause of concern for me.

I would be the first to admit that I have been able to write complex philosophy books in the fraction of the time it would have taken me if I had not had access to the internet. But that ease has come at a price. I did not build my own knowledge half as effectively as when I was working with a library to write philosophy books. Caveat emptor.

"All that said, your claim that libraries promote civility more than the internet is, I think, pretty much beyond dispute, and I make no claims that my anecdotal experience generalizes."

I appreciate this endorsement! For me, it is an aspect of libraries that is too often overlooked, because we have learned to view everything - including knowledge - as merely a resource, and therefore the more efficient conduits of those resources seem superior. This narrowing of values is the disaster the 20th century bequeathed us.


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