Friday, October 24, 2003

Amazon.com and the Future of Research!

Jacob T. Levy is excited about the new "search inside the book" at Amazon.com, and he is right to be. I've been getting e-mail about it from friends and students. Jacob writes that "looking at this feature I [had] the strongest sense I've had in ages that it was something revolutionary and marked a profound change in how I would read." He also links to Alec Nevala-Lee, who writes that: "between this monstrous djinn and Google.com, I have no excuse, no excuse whatsoever, for not writing a grand synthetic essay of everything, or a brilliant, glittering, Pynchonesque novel...because millions and millions of beautiful connections between people and ideas are already out there, at my fingertips, ready to be made without effort or erudition. I hate to say this, but it's all up to me now."

Information really is getting ever more accessible, and ever more thoroughly so. How will this change research in the long run? Where are we heading? Reading Alec's comments, something popped into my head: an old science fiction story, by someone I hadn't read in ages. Running to my bookshelf I found it, and realized: this has all been foreseen....

Leyel Forska sat before his lector display, reading through an array of recently published scholarly papers. A holograph of two pages of text hovered in the air before him....When he came to the end he did not press the PAGE key to continue the article. Instead he pressed NEXT.
The two pages he had been reading slid backward about a centimeter, joining a dozen previously discarded articles, all standing in the air over the lector. With a soft beep, a new pair of pages appeared in front of the old ones.
Deet spoke up from where she sat eating breakfast. "You're only giving the poor soul two pages before you consign him to the wastebin?"
"I'm consigning him to oblivion," Leyel answered cheerfully. "No, I'm consigning him to hell."
"What? Have you rediscovered religion in your old age?"
"I'm creating one. It has no heaven, but it has a terrible everlasting hell for young scholars who think they can make their reputation by attacking my work."
"Ah, you have a theology," said Deet. "Your work is holy write, and to attack it is blasphemy."
"I welcome intelligent attacks. But this young tube-headed professor from--yes, of course, Minus University--"
"Old Minus U?"
"He thinks he can refute me, destroy me, lay me in the dust, and all he has bothered to cite are studies published within the last thousand years."
"The principle of millennial depth is still widely used--"
"The principle of millennial depth is the confession of modern scholars that they are not willing to spend as much effort on research as they do on academic politics. I shattered the principle of millennial depth thirty years ago. I proved that it was--"
"Stupid and outmoded. But my dearest darling sweetheart Leyel, you did it by spending part of the immeasurably vast Forska fortune to search for inaccessible and forgotten archives in every section of the Empire."
"Neglected and decaying. I had to reconstruct half of them."
"It would take a thousand universities' library budgets to match what you spent on research for 'Human Origin on the Null Planet.'"
"But once I spent the money, all those archives were open. They have been open for three decades. The serious scholars all use them, since millennial depth yields nothing but predigested, pre-excreted muck. They search among the turds of rats who have devoured elephants, hoping to find ivory."
"So colorful an image. My breakfast tastes much better now," Deet said. ("The Originist," Maps in a Mirror: The Short Fiction of Orson Scott Card, pgs. 214-215)

The parallel? Well, just as the capitalist Leyel Forska opened up the archives for his own purposes, so has Amazon.com done so for its own reasons. And now--well, there's the world of information, for better or worse, at your fingertips. Search away! And if you are--like Jacob and I--a scholar who depends upon research, then you had especially better get searching. A few more new electronic toys like this, and we may all find ourselves getting hammered by those more aggressive searchers, who realize that 10, or 100, or even 1000 years of simple title and keyword searches just won't ever be enough.