A Culture Lost – What We Lose As We Transition Toward Absolute-Digital

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POV By Sumner Burstyn.

NEW RESEARCH REVEALS we humans are becoming bi-literate. Reading online and reading on paper require different parts of the brain. Online we are non-linear. We skim and dart and skitter.

Manoush Zomorodi, the host of New Tech City, says we’ve adapted so well to this we’re losing the deep reading part of our brains.

Abigail Sellen, author of the Myth of the Paperless Office, says the implicit feel of where you are in a physical book is more important than we realized.

Other research explores the ephemerality of e-books and how the lack of weight, cover, typeface, identity, and smell creates haptic dissonance. To resolve this, designers are racing to invent tactile technologies to recreate the tangible experience of reading on the ancient technology of paper.

But all this research on how we comprehend and relate to e-books is missing the fact that books are more than repositories of information. They are artifacts of our lives. A single book is a signpost to who we were at the time we read it.

I used to read sitting on the middle stair while above my small daughters pretended to sleep.

That stair was the halfway point between my parenting self and my other self. I can recall much of the books I read while perched there, like Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. But more than that I remember the feel and smell of that stair, the sense of being poised between two worlds. Those books were as much about my life at that time as their subject matter.

We once gave books and inscribed them, or quelle horreur wrote our name inside the cover, or jotted thoughts in the margin. Years later those physical books bring back far more than the author’s words and ideas.

Our daughter picks up a copy of Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson and asks her step-father about the inscription – Los Angeles 1998, and suddenly it all comes back to him. ”I was miserable,” he says and launches into a story, not about the content of the book, but about his life at that time.

I once stepped into an antiquarian bookstore and was immediately drawn to a book with a broken cloth spine. It was a tatty English language version of Struwelpeter, a German book of violent cautionary tales for children. I turned to the inside front cover. There, inked in cursive was a name and the words ‘best wishes on your birthday, 1908. The name was my name and yes, it was my birthday. But the year was 2008.

On an e-reader all books are alike in weight and texture, all words have equal status. The intangible traces of who we are, pressed between the words are lost to our future selves, and to our inheritors, known and unknown. And yes the book found in 2008 is still a mystery, strange and significant in some unknown way.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Sumner

    your thoughtful and stimulating paper makes me react.

    Ray Bradbury said that sure, to burn books is horrible but what is even worse is not to read them.
    I love my e-reader but I prefer a real book; which does not imply I have to choose between one and the other. Statistics say that those who own an e-reader buy two printed books a week. Why? because the need is to read, not to have a gadget. By having an e-reader i save lots of money, research and notation is fabulous and i get to sample lots of stuff. I also get to read even more. Amazon has opened the possibilities of reading to many people who live outside of the cities. Does that mean I love Bezzo? no.

    This distrust of all that is digital smacks of a new superstition. Which does not mean that we are not losing something in the process. It is the either/or position which drives me crazy. This is the world we have built, we are all responsible for it. It is our duty to present solutions and not always be choosing between Israel and Palestine, Islam and Christians, digital and organic etc.
    all the best and please keep us thinking

  2. Yes! Great column.

    I love books with covers, ink, paper. I love to smell them. And caress them. And just gaze with affection at them. I never read digital books. I hate them.

    And…

    A little thought that has been dogging me for the last year:

    1. My brother Steve is just finishing an IMAX film about trolleys. He calls it: The Trolly Who Saved The World. Trolleys are making a huge comeback all over the planet. He is quite brilliant at using the trolley as a metaphor for universal change of an unexpected nature.

    2. I play poker with the same four guys, for forty five years now. We have a lovely Italian dinner, then go next door to a HiFi store owned by one of us, Claude. We set up a round table at the very back of the shop, put vinyl records (recently produced) on a $5,000 turntable, and listen to music on $20,000 speakers. Claude says vinyl is making a huge comeback. More so than people realise. Analog. Not just 0 & 1.

    The thought that dogs me … is that maybe we are reaching a certain point in our technological history such that we realise we have by-passed technologies superior to the technologies that have replaced them. And we are, very slowly, almost invisibly in terms of reportage and mainstream, taking stock. And some of us are stepping back, and acknowledging this superiority.

    I went into Indigo a few days ago. They’ve made the coffee shop smaller, because they have a LOT more new books. When I get on the subway, there are more people reading real books, still, than digital books. Though there are more people staring glassy eyed at their cell phones.

    Did you read about the study they did in the US (in schools) where they discovered that iPads and iPhones stimulate a particular chemical reaction in the brain that is virtually identical with that produced by heroin. Only more addictive.

    Tuesday morning. My day begins.

    All the best,

    Benito

  3. The image of the author sitting on the middle stair, reading in between her two lives, is vivid and wonderfully telling.

    Like Sumner and her husband, books with covers mark time, place, emotions, relationships for me. Their presence on my bookshelf also charts my education and (on-going!) growing up in a way I doubt an e-library could. But electronic reading has its place as well; certainly, those of us who like to travel mostly give thanks for the ability to collect reading material from all over without having to carry a second suitcase.

    But to rephrase Anthony Powell’s philistine Widmerpool’s observation for the positive: (Physical) books do furnish a life, in a very special way.

    Thanks Sumner!

  4. The image of the author sitting on the middle stair, reading in between her two lives, is vivid and wonderfully telling.

    Like Sumner and her husband, books with covers mark time, place, emotions, relationships for me. Their presence on my bookshelf also charts my education and (on-going!) growing up in a way I doubt an e-library could. But electronic reading has its place as well; certainly, those of us who like to travel mostly give thanks for the ability to collect reading material from all over without having to carry a second suitcase.

    But to rephrase Anthony Powell’s philistine Widmerpool’s observation for the positive: (Physical) books do furnish a life, in a very special way.

    Thanks Sumner!

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