The Analog/Digital divide is warping and shimmering like the horizon on a sun-baked Texas highway in middle of a blue sky summer day. In particular, two new digital devices have come to our offices at One Analog Way that are rocking our world. One’s a digital single lens reflex camera and the other is an i-mumble. Yeah, that’s right an i-cough.
We’ll get to the camera in a minute, but I suppose I should get the i-hrrmph out of the way. Yeah. I scoffed at the Apple dudes and all their iPad hypoteering. Yes, I told them to put their collective heads between their collective knees and breathe into a paper bag for a while. No, I’m not entirely prepared to take that back. But after a couple of months with my own i-Mutter, while I still can’t say the name without a hitch in my get along, I have to admit it’s a pretty cool device. Doesn’t rise to the asserted level of “magical and revolutionary” but it sure has changed a few things in my house and my Analog and Digital habits.
iRead Therefore iAm
The most notable change is in my reading habits or at least my choice of media. I was one of those folks known to assert that you’d take away my print-on-paper books when you pried them from my cold, dead hands. I haven’t taken my library out in the street and built a bonfire to dance merrily around (too damn hot in the middle of this summer for that kind of shenanigans). But anybody tracking my media purchase history (shout out to my buds at Nielsen) would note a distinct downward trend in the print-on-paper purchases.
I’ve gone from an emphatic print-on-paper only policy to print-on-paper only for special situations policy in the space of about one e-book. I like my e-readers on the i-Mutter. I like that I can carry 20 or 30 books around with me all the time, dipping into the three or four that I’m actively reading. I like always having a line up waiting when I finish any given book. I’m smitten with reading about a book in the New York Times Review of Books and being able to instantly acquire it. I absolutely love having that moment of curiosity and, right then, being able to go find a relevant book or magazine even if it is the middle of the night.
And that’s just the e-book capabilities. High def photo album that I can take anywhere. Oh my (No all those phone screens just don’t count. Size does matter). Movies when I want them without the Netflix or cable box. Oh yes! Almost all of my information consumption needs, neatly packaged and delivered in a highly tote-able form. Suuuuwheeeet.
Fear not, dear reader. I have not been infected with the “This Changes EVERYTHING” disease. That hagiography to the i-Mutter is not done without a visceral awareness of something lost as well as gained. The i-Mutter has the heft of a small book. I actually feel like I’m reading a book. Curling up on the couch with this thing plopped on my chest and my glasses popped up on my old fart forehead feels authentically like a reading experience.
But, oh that delicious scent that rises to my nose when first opening a print-on-paper book. That incense of compacted writer’s craft, of distilled memory of every other book I’ve ever read, of the wafted intimation of story yet to be told. Some how the smell of metal and plastic just doesn’t carry the same weight, doesn’t prepare me as well mentally for engagement with the other worlds, the voices, the truths of good writing.
I Loan Therefore I Am
And then there’s the social act of lending a book. All the social networking pointers and referrals is not the same as handing over an object to a friend, knowing it will engage them intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. And some day having that object handed back, looking in their eyes and reading the changes there that have been wrought by this now shared encounter.
I have one book on the shelves of my library that is almost as well-traveled as I am. In an ironic twist that only reality can generate, it is Blue Highways, by William Least Heat Moon, a recounting of traveling the back roads of the U.S. I read it and fell instantly in love with the author’s written hand. Almost as quickly, I thought of a fellow wonderer, and the morning after I finished it, loaned the book to him.
I don’t loan books lightly. It is too intimate an exchange. I’m wounded in some fundamental way when loaned books are not returned. My wonderer friend knows this, so I was a bit surprised to learn that he had the same reaction I did to the book and, in his enthusiasm, loaned it to a complete stranger to me while on vacation with friends several states away!
Part of the reason I like this guy is the quality of people he knows, and while my book was put in a stranger’s hands, I need not have worried because about a month later a package arrived with the book and a short note thanking me for finding that gem. With this particular book, that pattern repeated itself two more times, loaned to friend, received back from a stranger. Needless to say, I’m not going to loan out my i-Mutter in that way. It might be the source of other kinds of bonding, but not in quite that serendipitous mode. There is something of our relationships to our Digital objects that is simultaneously both more possessive and more casual, as if their representational, second-order-of-reality nature both obsesses and bores us.
I See Therefore I Am
Which brings me to the camera. Nothing about this camera repels me. Out of the box I walked into the backyard and took one of the best pictures I’ve ever taken in forty years of amateur snap-ology. But it does raise this interesting question about digital representations of representations, a dream with-in a dream. In 1/100 of a second, I began to learn things about bees (they’re furry) and coneflowers (there’s a hallucinogenic sunrise at the tip of every flower), that I never knew.
Not a huge big deal, but as I was drawn to this other world, actual, but not entirely visible to the naked eye, I began to remember how attached my dad was to photography, began to sense the curiosity and sensitivity to beauty that he had. While he was alive, I never appreciated that, being too impatient or embarrassed with yet another stop to capture yet another sunset or arrangement of autumn leaves. Stoopid me. Perhaps slowing down, looking more closely at things had a potential I hadn’t appreciated then.
Beyond my personal epiphany, though, is another, more generalizable nugget. Analog comes packaged with all its data and incompressible timeline (talk about object oriented!) whether we’re prepared to process it or not. Digital mimics that, but any representation has fidelity issues. The challenge with Digital is not so much that lost fidelity as it is our insistence that the loss is insignificant, even an improvement over the real thing. We seem to believe the picture data paints to be more real, more factual, than the reality it only mimics. Rather than derive meaning directly from what is in front of us, we have a bias to believe the numbers instead of the obvious reality. This seems especially true when the scale, either up to huge volumes or down to microscopic truths, overwhelms us. Rather than slowing down, digging in, reflecting we take the first read of the data that comes along and build entire world views from that single point of analysis.
Kind of like the teenage me sitting in the back seat of the car, fuming as my Dad stops to take another picture. No real attempt to understand more than my first read of the data of my Dad doing something different, standing out, wasting my precious… well what…? Can’t remember anymore where I was in such a hurry to get to, some other place or life I guess.
Ain’t nothing wrong with more and better data unless we let it encourage us to trivialize and intentionally misunderstand ourselves and the world around us. Yet, sometimes, the Digital picture, that representation of representations, the most Digital of moments gets turned to Analog ends, to my attachment, my love for my Father and to my understanding of him and myself in new ways. Not bad for 1/100th of a second, but then I guess most revelation happens about that quickly. Perhaps we humans are not so unprepared for the nano-world of Digital as it sometimes seems.