Friday, November 25, 2011

Old guys in bow ties

The internet has taken the donkey-work out of academic research, and devalued personal memory and expertise. Much of my research time in the past was taken up leafing through neglected volumes in 'research collections' (i.e. the stuff nobody reads anymore if they ever did) of academic libraries, scanning back-of-the-book indexes, and very occasionally turning up unexpected links between thinkers and bringing to light forgotten comments and analyses and predictions which often seemed to give the lie to commonly accepted views on intellectual history (where the focus tended and perhaps still tends to be on a few intellectual 'stars' who are credited with more originality and prescience than they had in reality).

Now, thanks to search engines etc., one can do in a few minutes what previously took months of searching. The dusty research collections have been or are being digitized - but what of the experts, the old guys with bow ties whom one valued highly for their lifetime's worth of knowledge? One of the pleasures of researching a topic was interacting with these often-eccentric people, chatting with them, making hurried notes as they gave one important clues and names to follow up on. Such mentors are fading out of the picture as so much of what they had to tell can be found now online.

But still there are questions of a type which Google doesn't really seem equipped to answer. Specific questions that an individual might have come up with in the course of reading or research require interlocutors who can put themselves in the position of the questioner - who can empathize intellectually. Or sometimes one is interested in the relationship between this and that - and a Google search will give one all there is to know on this and all there is to know on that, but never the twain shall meet (or at least not in the way one wants).

And then there are fundamental questions about the worthwhileness (for me or in general) of this or that subject area, this or that profession. This type of question is often the most important of all - and a human mentor (preferably old and learned) is definitely called for.


  1. There's also the problem of old books. Once, these had a niche value. They were both rare and prestigious -- though only to the tiny minority who wanted to read them. Now their contents are available instantly and for free. No need to search though dusty back rooms and maybe find nothing. We can go online a dial up whatever we might fancy.

    For me at least, the dead tree version remains something special, but it's not easy to say what makes it so. The digital version captures the old typography as well as the content, so it has some of the aesthetic side covered. But it still doesn't at all feel like reading an old book.

    On the plus side, online buying means paper copies are easily found and competitively priced.

    Maybe some of the old folk in bow ties are writing blogs?

  2. Yes, Alan, as book content is increasingly being read on tablets or printed on demand, books become a sort of secondary medium and lose that aura they used to have. More importantly, the technology of the book (coupled with the absence of competing technologies) created an audience - readers of a certain kind (readers who sat and read in silence for sustained periods); and newer technologies are creating a very different kind of audience.

  3. On your last point - I'm sure there would be an army of them.