THE BLOG

It's Okay to Be Ambidextrous, but Don't Let Either Hand Do All the Work: on Jaron Lanier and Book Buying

09/21/2010 06:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Jaron Lanier (author of You Are Not A Gadget) wrote this past Sunday in the New York Times Magazine about technology and education, while touching briefly on the pains of letting algorithms choose your music, and even defining what your musical tastes might be.

It struck me that his key point could also be used in how we think about book browsing -- online searching and shopping vs. the somewhat aimless yet frequently serendipitous browsing discoveries in a "real" brick'n'mortar bookstore.

Lanier wrote:

While it has its glorious moments, the computational perspective can at times be uniquely unromantic.

Nothing kills music for me as much as having some algorithm calculate what music I will want to hear. That seems to miss the whole point. Inventing your musical taste is the point, isn't it? Bringing computers into the middle of that is like paying someone to program a robot to have sex on your behalf so you don't have to.

And yet it seems we benefit from shining an objectifying digital light to disinfect our funky, lying selves once in a while. It's heartless to have music chosen by digital algorithms. But at least there are fewer people held hostage to the tastes of bad radio D.J.'s than there once were. The trick is being ambidextrous, holding one hand to the heart while counting on the digits of the other.

How can you be ambidextrous in the matter of technology and education? Education -- in the broadest sense -- does what genes can't do. It forever filters and bequeaths memories, ideas, identities, cultures and technologies. Humans compute and transfer nongenetic information between generations, creating a longitudinal intelligence that is unlike anything else on Earth. The data links that hold the structure together in time swell rhythmically to the frequency of human regeneration. This is education.

Online book shopping shows up the flaws as well as the virtues of our increasingly digital, connected world: we have instant access to any book we might think of. If we already know of the book we're looking for, then finding it online is the work of seconds and buying a physical copy can be accomplished in a few more seconds, thanks to "One Click." If we wish to have an ebook, a minute more and it's on our device.

But what if we don't already know what book we're looking for? A great read? Something that we once heard about on NPR, but have forgotten the title, author, air date? What if we're just looking for something new but need some guidance?

Online search & shop can only take us so far. A savvy Googler will likely be able to solve the mystery of that lost book from NPR. But I think that the book suggestion algorithms in online stores can only go so far to replicate the human interactions between wandering customer and experienced bookseller. And please remember that those "If You Bought This, You'll Probably Like This" links are usually paid-for promotions by one publisher or another. They may seem like magic, but it's not that different from seeing a promotional poster of a book in a store and saying, "Yep, that's the book for me because I saw the poster near a book I once liked."

And the "browsing" experience in every online store I've ever tried just doesn't serve any customer well for serendipity. Your options are essentially limited to keyword searches, or browsing lists of books, sorted by title, author, release date or "popularity." This is great if the book was just published, or if you're looking for something that's currently a best-seller.

But what if you want something off the beaten track? Or by an author whose name starts with "M"? Or a book published six years ago? Or all three of those criteria? I'm thinking of a book I spotted over on my bookshelf, Joe Meno's Hairstyles of the Damned, published six years ago by Akashic Books, one of the publishers I represent.

If you already knew you wanted that particular book, or even a book by Joe Meno, your online searching would be easy. You'd have a link to click in seconds.

But if you didn't know that you wanted that book, but were merely clicking through the fiction pages at Amazon.com or Borders.com or the iBookstore, looking for something interesting, how many pages would you have to click through until you got to Joe Meno? Hundreds? Thousands?

In fact, you might end up taking a chance on some other book long before you got to Joe. And that, I guess, would also be some kind of serendipity. But not one that answers your need for Joe Meno's particular brand of edgy all-American fiction.

Indie bricks and mortar bookstores may not always be able to satisfy that desire for "search-find-click-done" instantaneity, but they do have an edge in browseability. And I would give a physical bookstore the edge in what I might describe in parallel terms as "wander-browse-sample-done".

Algorithms and Google's almost magical ability to deliver search results may be a fast route to finding a specific book, and that must satisfy many of our modern tastes for speed and efficiency.

But our human nature must also sometimes treasure what Lanier calls "longitudinal intelligence" -- which I imagine might include a bookselling equivalent to his stories in the linked article about his father's intuitive teaching skills.

Instead of trying to provide exactly a copy of every single, specific book you might want out of the universe of all available books (which doesn't really scale well for bookstores that have a physical limit to their store's square footage), actual bookstores focus on teaching their bookselling staff some key skills in locating books that do exist in the store, learning how to match customer's requests with books that might be on hand, how to recommend books that will satisfy a customer's desires, and how to locate books that might be orderable.

It's this duality that gets to the heart of what I think Jaron Lanier is writing about: Some days, you feel like getting exactly the right book right now. And some days, you feel like wandering through a real store with your real body and interacting with other humans to see what life might put in your path.

It's perfectly fine to be ambidextrous. But as with all skills, you need to keep working both sides of the duality. If all your book-buying is done online, you might find that your local physical bookstore is no longer there when you have one of those "I wonder what life will put in my path" sort of days. And that would be a shame.

Cross-posted at www.my3books.com.