In the story, due to a brain injury, Ryan Unger cannot enjoy the benefits of a neural implant that allows other people to tap into The Stream — a direct connection into all human knowledge. He tries, unsuccessfully, to keep up with everyone else by using a long-forgotten skill: reading books.
Unfortunately for the human race, the Stream has been erroneously programmed to crave information instead of knowledge. Soon, it begins to turn the human race into its slaves to attempt to locate and process every single bit of information, a process that will lead to the human race’s extinction as people stop doing everything to obtain the desired information.
Ryan’s injury keeps him from falling under the sway of the Stream, leaving him the only person who can stop it. The Stream will not allow itself to be shut down, however, and it commands the humans under its control to defend itself from Ryan. In the end, Ryan succeeds in shutting down the Stream and saving mankind. Cut off from the mental crutch humanity has used for so long, the entire population (save Ryan) are reduced to a child-like mental state. Ryan finds himself needing to teach mankind the old ways of acquiring information again — from books.
“We quantify our world in order to learn. We break it down into facts, numbers, information. But how far dare we go before we destroy its mystery?”
“We make tools to extend our abilities, to further our reach, and fulfill our aspirations. But we must never let them define us. For if there is no difference between tool and maker, then who will be left to build the world?”