The shrinking perception of knowledge

I don’t remember who first said it that humanity’s accomplishment of circumnavigating and mapping the world has led to the conceptual shrinking of the world as perceived by our minds. After the whole of the Earth has been discovered, the boundless horizons with their infinite possibilities have been transformed into the certainty and finality of the globe one can hold with one hand.

One thing that I have not seen mentioned in the debate about paper and digital books is the question of the perception of knowledge itself. Nassim Taleb has coined the term “antilibrary” to describe the books you own but have not read. Most people, he writes, assume that you’ve read all the books in your library, and so are very impressed if that library is large. A few, however, understand that the value of the library is not in storing read books, but in the research capabilities the library provides you. From The Black Swan:

Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

The antilibrary gives knowledge a physical presence, it give it volume. It is humbling and instructive to see and feel the magnitude of ideas yet unexplored. But this is only possible when the antilibrary is made up from physical books, when your shelves are filled top to bottom with paper, ink, and linen.

The move to digital books flattens the library down to the size of a tiny tablet device, shrinking and concealing that mass of books behind a screen no larger than a few inches. There is no longer any volume to it, the “menacing” look is no more. Like the circumnavigation of the Earth that led to its shrinking onto the tiny surface of a globe, the effect of our transition to digital screens shrinks our perception of knowledge and flattens all work to the size of a single page through which we interact with it, and so, ignoring the weight of the content itself, the presence of War and Peace is equalized with that of a blog post.

Published November 2015