Wednesday, September 22, 2010

(Why) Does Print Matter?

Almost every time I tell someone about the project I’m working on they tell me they’re uncomfortable with the idea of books disappearing from our everyday lives. “I can’t imagine not holding an actual book in my hands!” they say. “I like having something that’s not my phone to hold onto when I’m on the tram.” It’s true that second perhaps only to mobile phones books are probably one of our best hand-holding devices. By which I mean, somewhat cornily, you’re not alone if you’ve got a book. But it is true, look around an airport or a crowded bus and you’ll see what I mean. And, while you can certainly read a great book on an iPhone these days the comments from my pop-quiz respondents suggest that there is something else about holding books in our hands that a digital device just can’t satisfy.

There is something about the existence (or the disappearance) of the book that affects us profoundly. A world without actual books seems somehow diminished; perhaps it’s the shades of Farenheit 451 or 1984 that the idea conjures: a dystopian, tyrannical world where individual consciousness is erased; maybe we don’t all always want to be part of the “hive mind” of the digital world. Books (as we know them – cloth bound, mass produced) are associated in our cultural history with the radical individualist, with dangerous ideas, the Romantic, self-discovery, the quest for truth. None of those things are impossible with a digital text, we just haven’t yet developed an association between digital material and slow, introspective connection. A seemingly trivial, but revealing, example of this: what we talk about when we talk about the digital: speed. Fast equals good, slow equals bad. It might be helpful to start thinking about the possibility for fast (technical) connections (e.g. broadband-width) while also holding onto a more human-paced engagement that we’re familiar with from reading, writing and other time-heavy (slow) pursuits. I’m still sceptical about the technological determinism that creeps into discussions of the benefits of books vs. the net, but I am curious to see what gets said this evening at the Wheeler Centre by Nicholas Carr.

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