Friday, November 21, 2008

Cellulose Automata?

Most of us occasionally reflect, listening to the radio while driving, or when in want of an antenna, that surrounding us, running through us and everywhere are the voices of the radio and music of the world. A richness that is ever present has more in common with metaphysics than common sense. But still you can listen with a radio if you have one. So it had become a kind of postmodern shorthand for me in my youth to imagine information as a pervasive, and still abstract thing, of books and brains and waves in the air. Sometimes if I were lucky, or in the right light, I just might encounter it. How the world has changed.

My brother and I, maybe fifteen years ago, used to joke about a "trivia device" the purpose of which was to serve as a sort of intellectuals opium den, wasting large swaths of potential productivity, enlightening pleasurably its user, who would hardly notice the burdens of their new found knowledge. Clearly, my brother and I were unaware of the days ahead of us.

As a twelve-year old in Zionsville, Indiana, I had at my disposal what is still known as a memorial library. It did not occur to me at the time how appropriate the modifier "Memorial" was to that profoundly inadequate institution. I was just thrilled to have some access to books. I'll never forget the librarian refusing to lend me a book about cancer. I'm sure she meant well. A spoon full of ignorance helps/makes alot of things go down.

There were luckily many books in my family's household. Leatherbound Eastern Press books were a monthly feature in the mail (remarkably only fifteen dollars more expensive each than a newsstand magazine). My parents, who had a good income, regarded owning books as a pretty normal and even healthy thing. As my childhood progressed our bookshelves sagged with our mutual collections. Only once I left home did I realize what a wonderful thing that was.

There were two libraries in central Indiana that memorably impacted me. One was the downtown Main Library (Central Library perhaps, I don't really remember its name, strangely). I'll never forget signal moments in my life going there. As a child with my mom (never to borrow books, I believe) to look up data for science fair projects (where was the internet then? my father did buy Godiva chocolates for Grandma on Compuserve! what was the baud rate?) The same day the Space Shuttle Challanger was lost in 1987, my mother took me to that library. For some reason I think of the way that felt, and looked, the growing smoky dusk of a certain era for a country, through the eyes of a child researching at a temple of knowledge, a roost for human dreams and pigeons alike.

The other library was the Nora library, east of our neck of the woods, near North Central High School of Indianapolis. While certainly no monument to Neo-Classicism, the architecture of great ideas (and super silly looking ostentation on a mcmansion, or better, doublewide), the pedestrian, single level city library, at Nora, had something more powerful to the boy of privilidge from Zionsville: the atmosphere of well worn knowledge seeking. Something about the library spelled "museum of knowledge use" to me. That is the library I remember when I tell people how profoundly libraries have moved me since I was a tiny little boy. I used to walk into the library, and stop, looking out across the stacks and still standing card catalogue (it had computers, but the boxy old relics were still being used by a few of us). Even as a child I remember thinking of the strangeness of having so much available to me for no, you might say, commodified reason. Why all this information? Why all this power? Inventors discovered, and reasearchers dedicated their lives so they could have their singular accomplishments condensed to this? It seemed strange to me as a child. By the time I was in high school I would enter the library and wonder what historical figures would make of the information. Would they run around, in a state of fever, exclaiming constantly? In time, I came to realize, I was that historical figure, for what did I know of the knowledge of the world? Epistemological wandering might be a kind of time travel. Unless imagining the branches of human accomplishment were its equivalent. To this day I wonder about that.
What would Jefferson make of your local library? What do you make of it? What will I make of it?
With all of this, one might think I feel defensive about the internet, but I have been enormously inspired by the librarians. Between Google, private/public partnerships, ect. the librarians seem to realize their shelves are bigger than ever, and man is that true. I was shopping for a hard drive the other day and noticed to my astonishment that if I bought one for under $200.00, it would almost ceratainly be a Terabyte drive. I still can't forget trying to fill the first hard drive I ever bought in 1987; how does anyone fill up 200 megabytes my brother and I mused. That was a megabyte per dollar of our Christmas money. A two hundred dollar Terabyte couldn't have been imagined.
Recently I saw a TED presentation about the digitization of books. I do not remember who gave the presentation, but it hardly matters given how incredible even a random pick of TED speakers generally is. (Dave Eggers Wish: Every child in every community have a few hours of adult attention assigned to them by a wonderful free floating volunteer organization. Study after study shows the impact of a child knowing throughout their life that a least one adult is thinking of them. Cheap and powerful solutions to heartbreaking problems.) The secret speaker I am not remembering was trying to help the audience visualize the size of the memory device needed to warehouse the books and media of the entire Library of Congress. It would not exceed the size of one typical card catalogue cabinet. One. I believed him due to my hard drive shopping I spoke of above. The Library of Congress has something like less than one hundred terabytes in its collection. Somehow I find that just stranger than fiction.
So the question is whether my pedestrian somatic associations of the environment heretofore known as "Library" will continue in this world of the endlessly unfolding internet. It is true, like so many other such individuated paradigms of localized identity, the library lives as symbol, brick and morter idealism, a surprise to the cynic, but sustanance too. Its physical reality meant that its catalogues could never hold hyper-cards. But its walls and floor, its doors and windows, its location, and air conditioning, are all bowed in deference to that vessel of the human soul: the body. And we seekers walk in the library, passing the sunlight from the window, sometimes (how rare this is) giving no heed to it at all, as we pay no passing attention to a warmer glow: the promise of knowledge. Piled in (what else): stacks. That is why we love you library. And that is why we will remember you as we fall with gathering speed into the Mandelbrotian like set of knowledge itself. Weightless like waterbabies, we will still remember.