Tangible Media and Digital Technology

New Yorker cover

I recently enjoyed a Vanity Fair article by James Wolcott on the demise of public displays of cultural snobbery as “Kindles, iPods, and flash drives swallow up the visible markers of superior tastes and intelligence.” Wolcott described the process of observation, analysis, and judgment we make (often mistakenly) on others and the media they consume in public spaces.

“A tall, straw-thin model glides into seated position and extracts a copy of concentration-camp survivor Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning from her bag, instantly making an onlooker (me) feel rebuked for assuming she was vacuous and self-centered based on her baby-ostrich stare.”

This reminded me of a New Yorker cover by Adrian Tomine, a beautiful example of the connection strangers feel when they discover a shared sensibility, literature in this case. The awareness of a missed connection is eclipsed by the warmth of a momentary intellectual affinity.

Some may value the reclaimed storage space over the mounds of books or old records, while others resist the push to digitize their media sources entirely or partially. For my part, the convenience and accessibility of digitized information is without dispute. But when it comes to books, part of my appreciation for reading stems from the sensory experience that the materiality of the hard copy brings. Yet, electronic paper and eInk are fascinating technologies in themselves, and it’s impossible to separate even a hard copy from a technological process entirely, something N. Katherine Hayles discusses in her book My Mother was a Computer. Her article on Electronic Literature emphasizes that instead of a debate over print or digital, this emerging genre deserves a discussion of its own while acknowledging its historical relationship with the print world. And we can happily keep our shelves lined with books while still recognizing a new manifestation in the field of writing.

These were some of my thoughts as I read through the article, so I was quite pleased when Simon told me about a book-sensitive reading lamp.  The lamp is illuminated when uncovered, but turns off when a book is placed over it. It’s a nice example that the relationship between tangible media and technology can sometimes be reversed, with the former dictating the use of the latter.

Lamp OnLamp Off


2 responses to “Tangible Media and Digital Technology

  1. i read a book-length essay on a PDA once about Nazi technology that was “captured” by US military (like the A-bomb in the later so “successful” Manhattan project, circular planes of rotating turbine blades aka flying saucers, etc). I think I only kept reading because I didn’t have the original or a hard copy (only a very long pdf that I didn’t dare to print). And i think that might already be the biggest advantage for digitized print (if you can say that), not having to bother with blurry sources or other availability issues. like we do it with music today. no more searching for the one record (that’s only great when you’re holiday), just buy online and get immediate audible satisfaction.

    less sexy and decorative but a whole lot more accessible indeed.

  2. Yeah, I agree that accessibility is one of the huge advantages. On the flip side, the process of downloading or sending a file to a friend is a lot less memorable than the experience of obtaining and passing on print media, in my view. I wrote a post about the books I had read over the first five months of 2009 (here: https://smallsight.wordpress.com/2009/05/25/so-far/), to see what I’d accomplished. What became more interesting than what I had read was how I came to read it. The stories and memories associated with obtaining the book (finding it on the street, in a ‘freebie’ pile, from a friend, etc.) became part of my experience of the book itself. I think that whole range of emotions connected to the written word is part of N. Katherine Hayles point in My Mother was a Computer. Admittedly, that’s just part of her point in a much larger discussion about digital text. I think I should also clarify that her discussion about electronic literature isn’t about the translation of existing literature to digital models (such as the Kindle), but about literature created in and for a digital environment. But then, you should read her article.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s