augmented intelligence

I used to turn on a computer and feel, if not smarter, then at least like the thing had the potential to make me smarter, extend my reach.

That feeling’s gone missing, but I got a little of it back when I went to the library this morning to return an overdue book and renew three others. I had a nice conversation with the librarian, who asked me what I thought of “Turing’s Cathedral.” I did my business and made a quick scan of the new releases on my way out.

All of which has me thinking about what a library is and does. I’ve just started, and there’s probably not an ounce of anything original here, but it occurs to me that you could view a library as a kind of active – though slow – intelligence augmentation device. We already think of libraries (to begin beating the computer metaphor to death) as networked, searchable storage, and the people coming in and out as the very rough equivalents of users logging into and out of various aspects of the internet.

But I think that may put the emphasis in slightly the wrong place, by calling the library “storage” and treating the “for who” question as incidental. That’s what I’m chewing on now – whether heavy library users self-select, or (more likely) whether the form and technology of the library dictates who it is most useful for, the user strikes me as oddly deprecated, and more important than you’d expect.

Libraries aren’t created equal for everyone. You can get on a computer there and use Facebook, but it’s less than ideal for that purpose. You can’t always be on – your turn is limited, the library closes – and that means means social media, which relies on ubiquity, is limited. You also can’t get up and buy anything. Again, you could use a computer, go to Amazon, but libraries themselves are pretty much marketing-free zones, one of the few left in public life. So shopping – which is a lot of things including a form of intellectual activity – is not very effectively done from a library, and I could probably add a few other non-fits if I thought hard enough: video games, extended bouts of TV watching. All forms of knowledge, but not really library knowledge.

So what strengths does a library have? I’d say three things – or one thing with three sides: constrained searches, relatively high signal to noise ratio, a useful environment for drift. Let me explain.

Constrained searches: a library isn’t Google. It only holds so much, and mostly it holds books. That means you have an inherent bias in what you’re seeing – you won’t get blog posts and tweets on the subject you’re interested in – and there’s a kind of presentation bias as well: you have physical objects, with heft and size, to examine. Hard for them to not occupy an outsized place in your judgement.

Obviously, you can borrow a library computer and hit Google. Also obviously, what I described above can leave you with some big blind spots. But on balance, I’d guess a competent library can get you up to speed on most topics pretty quickly, at least in part because so much is left out.

Signal to noise: along the same lines, the library discriminates in what kind of information it considers valuable, by what information it chooses to hold. It’s mostly the realm of the extended text, presented without someone trying to steer you – obviously, the texts themselves can hold lots of opinions, but the library isn’t trying to get you to buy anything, or vote one way or the other. (That’s not entirely true – with its relative quiet and strong sense of order, libraries are machines built for considered thinking, so I suppose you could argue that, say, science gets a fairer shake than superstition.)

A good place to drift: many people have had this experience at their library: you start out looking for one thing, and something else interesting catches your eye. And if you know even a little about how a library is organized, you can run down whatever the new thing is fairly easily, which leads to a bunch of other related stuff and then, maybe, yet another new thing. Also, if you have a general idea of what you’re interested in, you can go to the section in question and get a fair idea of the size of the subject. This is the experience the internet sort of duplicates with linking, but linking seems more directed to me; when I’m drifting through the music section at my library, I’m not serially looking from one book to the next. I’m taking in several at once and making some quick, imperfect decisions about which to open first, knowing that there’s not much cost associated – I can get a good feel for if I’m interested and if not, move on to the next. There’s no exact web or app version of that, at least in part because books aren’t free, and because there’s still no great way to randomly dive into a book you have online. That experience, at least, remains superior in the physical world.

I don’t want to overstate the case for libraries; obviously I spend a whole lot of time on my computer and understand how to use some pretty marvelous tools to do things. But when it comes to getting smarter, the old ways still have much to commend them.

(Aside: has anyone ever treated a library literally as a peripheral and tried to figure out in a rigorous fashion just what kind of bandwidth one provides, at what speeds?)

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