That the reality of machines can outpace the imagination of magic, and in so short a time, does tend to lend weight to the claim that the technological shifts in communication we’re living with are unprecedented… The scale of the transformation is such that an ever-expanding literature has emerged to censure or celebrate it. A series of books explaining why books no longer matter is a paradox that Chesterton would have found implausible, yet there they are, and they come in the typical flavors: the eulogistic, the alarmed, the sober, and the gleeful.
The New Yorker‘s critic-at-large Adam Gopnik reviews the recent spate of books about the internet and our minds — including Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, and Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers — neatly dividing them into the categories “Never-Betters”, the “Better-Nevers”, and the “Ever-Wasers”:
The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others—that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment. One’s hopes rest with the Never-Betters; one’s head with the Ever-Wasers; and one’s heart? Well, twenty or so books in, one’s heart tends to move toward the Better-Nevers, and then bounce back toward someplace that looks more like home.