Never-Better and Better-Never make up one category separate from Ever-Waser

In “The Information: How the Internet Gets Inside Us,” Adam Gopnik describes three categories of attitudes toward the notion that books no longer matter. I tried to understand the categories, and where I fit in, by looking at the basic claims with which their arguments begin.

Never-Betters and Better-Nevers seem to accept the idea that books no longer matter as either, optimistically, on the brink of becoming true (the situation has never been better); or, pessimistically, at risk of becoming true (it would be better if this situation had never come about). But I don’t think the Ever-Wasers (those who accept the claim and say “’twas ever thus”) necessarily accept the claim at all. They seem more concerned with explaining the phenomenon of “people acting as though books no longer matter.”

So my first point is that I think the first two categories are different from the third. Never-Better and Better-Never are more useful in describing our levels of anxiety about the technological revolution, while the Ever-Waser position is that it is not as new and different a revolution as people think.

The Ever-Waser is more concerned with explaining why people think the book no longer matters. I don’t really have an answer to that, but like the Ever-Waser, I am agnostic about whether technological change can be “good” or “bad.” Gopnik says that “If you’re going to give the printed book, or any other machine-made thing, credit for all the good things that have happened, you have to hold it accountable for the bad stuff, too.” But I (and I suspect Gopnik) think it’s simplistic to give any technology that much credit either way. Human behaviour and activity is heavily influenced by, but not determined by, the technology at hand. I think that makes me an Ever-Waser on that point. I also don’t think the communications / information / technology revolution is unprecedented. It does seem true to me that these types of revolutions happen throughout history. It might be “our” big social revolution, but more in the sense that every age has its perceived big social revolution.

Like the Never-Betters, I believe that “information [is becoming] more free and democratic” and somewhat agree that “news will be made from the bottom up.” This means that stories will be told from a wider array of perspectives which have been previously suppressed. The thing is, stories can be suppressed for good reasons (they are not true, they promote hatred, they are considered unimportant and are) or bad reasons (they are from oppressed groups in society, they counter the narrative that dominant power prefers, they are considered unimportant but are not). So I guess I’m an Ever-Waser on that point.

Like the Better-Nevers, I agree that “books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t,” but I don’t think that means twenty-second bursts are somehow necessarily inferior. I definitely don’t think that “the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place,” in part because I don’t think it makes sense to say that there is a world that is coming to an end.

So I seem to be an Ever-Waser. I do take the warning to heart, though, about the Romans and the Vandals. Just because it’s happened so many times before doesn’t mean that this time, our fears will also not come true. I also don’t have any answer to the question: “If it was ever thus, how did it ever get to be thus in the first place?”

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