You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Author

Software that blurs a writer’s meaning is not progress.

We all know that you can’t tell a book by its cover, but technology is about to deliver its newest mixed blessing: Soon we won’t be able to tell a book by its author.

Last week one of the large textbook publishers, Macmillan, announced new software to let college instructors rewrite textbooks by substituting new material for what the author wrote. This will allow options such as deleting paragraphs or editing down to the level of individual sentences. The software can bring to print and e-textbooks what’s called a “mashup” in other forms like music and videos, where people alter the original with their own preferred version of the real thing.

This seems like another step in the progress of technology. Mistakes can be corrected and new views expressed with the wisdom of crowds—or at least the wisdom of professors—improving the work of a single author. Just as Wikipedia often delivers excellent group work, textbooks can get better with many people altering them.

But we have to wonder about the unintended consequences of a textbook absent an author. For example, since 1948 generations of students learned from Paul Samuelson’s “Economics,” which has sold four million copies. It had quirks and went through many editions. But it also was elegantly written and became canonical. What happens when students learn from what appears to be the same text but isn’t?

“Appalling and preposterous” is how Jaron Lanier described this idea to me last week. Mr. Lanier, the Silicon Valley computer scientist who popularized the term “virtual reality,” is now among a band of Internet pioneers who worry about its effects. Contrary to original assumptions about technology as a force for personal expression, he worries about minimizing individual creativity.

“Without Richard Feynman, where would physics be?” he asks. “Education is the ultimate form of expression. To think of it as a dry process devoid of personal creativity is to take a very antihuman approach.”

Without Feynman’s individual creativity, where would physics be?

Mr. Lanier’s new book, “You Are Not a Gadget,” rails against the Internet for promoting a “digital Maoism,” in which “a mashup is more important than the sources who were mashed.” He says anonymous groups creating content lack the accountability of an individual. “If you’re worried about history or science being politicized, a mashup will be even worse. Individual textbook authors are not perfect, but at least they have a voice with consistency and creativity.”

It is understandable that textbook publishers would embrace new technology. Their business model is under pressure from secondhand sales. Print and e-books customized by instructors for their own classes won’t be valuable in the used-book market, so innovative publishers reckon this will boost their economics.

Mr. Lanier warns this is another step in the open source, information-wants-to-be-free ideology. “Authors, journalists, musicians and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind,” he writes.

Blogs and social networks have boosted individual expression, but the Web paradoxically makes it harder to support professional creativity. Mr. Lanier, who is also a musician, researched the question of how new technologies have affected the ability of musicians to make a living. His conclusion is glum.

“By now, a decade and a half into the web era, when iTunes has become the biggest music store, in a period when companies like Google are the beacons of Wall Street, shouldn’t there be at least a few thousand initial pioneers of a new kind of musical career who can survive in our utopia?” Instead, “maybe after a generation or two without professional musicians, some new habitat will emerge that will bring them back.”

Mr. Lanier calls creative people the “new peasants” and likens them to “animals converging on shrinking oases of old media in a depleted desert.” In contrast, Silicon Valley views its own creativity differently and doesn’t give it away. Google and Apple don’t make the work product of their legions of engineers available for free. Venture capitalists would not agree to a mashup of their early-stage companies, with their investments reduced to divvied-up profits, if any.

In the case of textbooks there should at least be transparency when the relationship between authors and students is amended. Readers should be able to know they’ve read the book the author intended or what changes were made and why.

Technology creates opportunities, and the genie shouldn’t go back in the bottle. Still, the integrity and authenticity that a single author provides should not be lost. As Mr. Lanier reminds us, technological progress is great, but we need to be sure it doesn’t devalue our greatest growth driver, individual creativity.

Gordon Crovitz, Wall Street Journal


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