On Browsing

Is a good bookstore the opposite of Facebook?

On Browsing

Before we get to today’s letter, I’d just like to express my thanks to those who wrote in after my last to say they appreciated “A Pro-Choicer’s Guide to the Pro-Lifer Logic.” Their thoughtful remarks made me happy to find them here, out in the open water.

Also: If we run into each other in person and you find that I’m wearing my new red shoes, credit the regular correspondent who let me know that red shoes go with everything.

Now on to today’s thoughts, on browsing and browsers.

Although they may be strangers, like people on the late city trains heading home from the big games and shows, books talk to each other. And I’ve just finished reading two short books that are having quite the lively conversation in the railcar of my head.

One is an argument for good bookstores – a passionate defense of a certain kind of browsing – and the other an argument for avoiding social media that tracks you – a critique of internet browsers, especially Google.

In Praise of Good Bookstores is by Jeff Deutsch, the director of the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Hyde Park, the place where I picked it up. If you go to the Sem Co-op, you’ll find that the interior of the current store was designed as a labyrinth where books pull you toward them but then wait for you to turn their way, at most giving you a tap on the shoulder. Amusingly, Deutsch’s book is currently displayed like no other at the co-op, yelling from a large and dedicated display with its red, white, and blue cover.

But if you read this surprisingly evocative work, you’ll see why the bookstore wants you to have it: to convince you of the psychological and cultural importance of good bookstores and especially of “the browse.”

Deutsch explains, “The good bookstore sells books, but its primary product, if you will, is the browsing experience.” He continues, “To create a space that is intentional in its gathering of materials meant to provide intellectual and literary stimulation, a space wholly devoted to books, be it a bookstore, a library, or a personal collection, is to understand the fulfillment provided by the activity of rumination and reflection.” (pp. 24-25)

The best bookstore is the kind that, in Deutsch’s words, “can give you permission….permission to be among books outside of an institution of learning, be it a university or a yeshiva, and outside of a teleological paradigm” (p. 12).

Interestingly, the problem of having nasty teleological and ontological paradigms imposed upon us is the last of the “ten arguments for deleting your social media accounts right now” put forth in Jaron Lanier’s book of that title. I picked up a lightly used copy of that book online from Thrift Books after a fellow Tweeter recommended it. (Yes, I get the irony.)

Lanier persuasively argues that the undermining of truth in social media has happened not with conscious intention but with the prioritization of profit leading to the hyper-pursuit of “engagement” – social media companies keeping people hooked into systems they think are “free” so that they can be farmed for profit.

If going into a bookstore were like being on most social media, you would be tagged with multiple devices at the front door without fully realizing it. Then, computers running secret algorithms would decide which books the moving mechanical shelves would show you at which moments. This would happen subtly, all in an effort to learn as much about you as possible in the process so that that lots of information about you – how you think, how you move, what you spend money on, who you stop to talk to –  can later be sold.

You don’t need to buy anything for this kind of information-gatherer to use you for profit. This is very important to understand, so Lanier hits it again and again. When we use social media like Facebook and Google,  the customers of these big companies are not us. The customers are the advertisers. We, the “free” users, are the products being sold.

We are, as products, made ever more profitable and efficient through the use of hidden algorithms that are constantly checking us to see what will make us move toward ultimately doing something that a social media’s advertisers (Whole Foods, the New York Times, a gubernatorial candidate) want us to do (buy lettuce that’s expiring soon; increase their click rates; grow too cynical to vote if we our information suggests we would vote for the opposing candidate).

The consequence of the dominant social media business model – which Lanier notes is not the only possible one – is that “virality is truth” (p. 138). What is real is that which takes off and convinces people it is real. That’s how you get people with guns righteously trying to free imaginary abused children from the basements of real pizza parlors. That’s how you get January 6.

The fundamental difference, then, between browsing at the Sem Co-op and browsing on Facebook or Google is that at the Sem Co-op we are the customers, and on most social media, we are the product. At the bookstore, we are small farmers looking to feed ourselves and those around us. On Facebook and Google, we are the pigs.

Deutsch argues that good booksellers provide a kind of social service, and indeed, this is the logic behind the Sem Coop’s decision in 2019 to become a nonprofit corporation and to elicit monetary donations. Deutsch and his team specifically want people to leave their shop in better mental states than when they came.

Compare Facebook and Twitter. Lanier notes that, unfortunately, people remain more glued to social media that makes them angry, sad, and tribal, so the algorithms at places like Facebook and Twitter are set to keep us in that state – angsty and glum – to keep us consuming like pigs for the slaughter. This means that subtle and collaborative (well-intentioned, open-minded) debate across differences are relatively squashed. Instead, we are fed posts we are likely to either agree with or disagree with strongly because our brains adhere to that.

Writes Lanier, “There is no evil genius seated in a cubicle in a social media company performing calculations and deciding that making people feel bad is more ‘engaging’ and therefore more profitable than making them feel good. Or at least, I’ve never met or heard of such a person.”

He continues, “The prime directive to be engaging reinforces itself, and no one even notices that negative emotions are being amplified more than positive ones. Engagement is not meant to serve any particular purpose other than its own enhancement, and yet the result is an unnatural global amplification of the ‘easy’ emotions, which happen to be the negative ones.” (p. 19)

This is like farm techs who for generations have fed antibiotics to animals to make them grow. The factory farm administrators have just gone with what appears to work for the goal – never mind the unintended consequences.

In sharp contrast to the social media context, Deutsch writes of entering a good bookstore: “In the privacy of our own minds, when the external din is quieted, when the prevailing opinions and judgements (which resemble conscience, but function mostly as pernicious censors) are silenced, we discover our own voices. We bring these voices back to the public square that we might, in the words of a Seminary Co-op bookseller describing the ethos of the store, ‘trouble easy consensus’” – trouble the tribalism social media amplifies. (p. 111; cp. 133-135)

The good bookstore, Deutsch suggests, may even embody a kind of algorithm to bring out the good in us. He recalls a local librarian writing to him, “I realized that books help you wander outside of yourself, which can help you to be kind, because it can help you see issues from another person’s perspective. Wandering sounds like browsing. So, it makes me happy to think of wandering through the aisles as a journey of kindness, one that takes us beyond the narrow limits of the self.” (pp. 130-131)

Yes, booksellers are deciding which books we will encounter in their shops. But this is nothing like the kind of statistical, manic channeling of text happening to us on places like Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Again, in one we are the customer, and in the other, the product to be sold.

Both of these authors remind us we have one life to live, with Deutsch doing a calculation that he himself has time to read another 700 books before death. Both struggle with the question of what we are to make of existing as small beings in a world of so much text produced by other small beings, or, in the case of social media, text that appears to be produced by other small beings but may in fact be produced by corporate or state machinery.

There are just so many books, and so many posts and pages online. What is a person with one body and one life to do?

Both authors come to the same solution: realize that a worthwhile life can be had through the slow interaction that comes with making sure you are connecting with real people and meaningful ideas.

Lanier: “What if listening to an inner voice or heeding a passion for ethics or beauty were to lead to more important work in the long term, even if it measured as less successful in the moment? What if deeply reaching a small number of people matters more than reaching everybody with nothing?” (p. 72)

Deutsch: “Slow, or immersive, time – like the hour of the browse – makes us receptive to the memory of humanity; we are uninterested in the ephemera created by speed and efficiency.” (p. 141)

At the very least, it seems to makes sense to try to spend your time in spaces set up to care for you.

Be a free-range animal in your reading. Consider even being a wild animal, untagged, untracked. Consider paper. Pay cash?

A programming note: My next interactive talk for The Garden will be on Tuesday, June 28, and the topic will be conjoined twins, a way of being that I first started thinking about when I was researching One of Us.

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