Society / Technology

The Meaning of Weight and Texture in a Digital World

One day soon, there will be more people who have read Remembrance of Things Past on an e-reader than people who have hefted a physical copy.  Do you think the digital readers are missing out on anything?  I do.  Specifically, they’re missing the sheer weight of the thing.  Whether you find the extreme length of Proust’s book intimidating, pompous, or impressive, you have to admit it makes an impression on you before you even open it.  If that’s what we lose by transitioning to an e-book, what do you think will happen when everything goes digital?

Make no mistake, everything that can possibly be electronic, one day will be.  Thanks to the information age, a whole new part of the world that didn’t exist before has opened up.  People call it by a variety of names, but here I usually refer to it as digital space.   This is a nebulous place, a weightless world of electronic data and connections.  For as long as this new space has existed, there’s been a steady and irreversible tide of things flowing from our world into it.  This tide is sweeping up everything it can, turning the weighty into the weightless, the bounded into the boundless. Letters become email, communities become networks, and Proust’s ponderous volume becomes flighty letters upon a screen.

Large book spines

courtesy flickr/kevinzim

The Problems

The trend toward the digital is great in many ways.  But what actually happens when we lose the physical dimensions of a thing?  Here I list just 3 problems, although you could surely think of more.

A. The Creative Process: Programmer and designer Craig Mod had this to say about his experience creating Flipboard, an iPhone app:

“Something curious happens to our ability to understand scope when we move all that goop of process and narrative into a computer…  When all the correspondence, designing, thinking, sketching — the entirety of the creative process — happens in bits, we lose a connection. It’s as if all that process is conceptually reduced to a single point — something weightless and unbounded.”

Physical attributes matter because they give definition: things within a border belong to object X, and things outside it do not.  Physical attributes also provide a sense of beginning and end, a framework by which we can understand our experiences.  When Craig looked back on a year of work and realized it was all completely intangible, he was hit by a sense of loss.  To have worked so long and so hard on such a deep project, yet have nothing whatsoever to look at or hold… well, it’s unsettling.

B. Art Appreciation:  A Van Gogh painting, represented digitally, just can’t convey the same impression as seeing it in real life.  After all, the physical painting is not just an object, but the sum total of the artist’s creative process.  Every layer of paint and every brushstroke has contributed its own texture and thickness.  Viewing the piece digitally will miss part of this experience, no matter how high the photo quality.

C. Learning and Analysis: Media consultant Robin Raskin thinks the loss of attributes might be bad for learning, too:

“A tiny screen might stop you from being an analytic thinker ’cause you just can’t see enough of a thing at once.”

I’m not sure this is true, but it certainly seems plausible.  Isn’t it harder to think about something in a broad sense if all you’re looking at is a tiny fraction of it?

a wide, endless expanse

courtesy flickr/kevinzim

The Solutions

So if this is all true, what can we do about it?

1. Go the Other Way.  In Craig’s case, his solution to the digital dilemma was to go the other direction and create a physical book, a paper printout of all the various programming commands and revisions throughout his work on the project.  I think this is a pretty great idea.

The problem with this solution is that it’s one-time-only, and hard to generalize.  It required deliberate thought on Craig’s part, plus time and other resources.  I doubt many people will go that far just to indulge in the physicality of the real world.

2. Larger Screens may mitigate the phenomenon.  One day we’ll have entire walls that are displays.  Given this amount of space, perhaps some ideas or projects could be experienced in their entirety, complete with borders.  You could read a page of Remembrance, for example, while the rest of the pages float nearby, weighing on you with all their emotions and developments as you read.

3. Confuse the Physical and the Digital. Another, more interesting development would be highly advanced 3-D printers. (3-D printers already exist today – they apply successive layers of some moldable substance according to a program.  Layer by layer, they bring a 3-dimensional object into existence).

Now think about that digital Van Gogh.  Suppose I own a futuristic 3-D printer that can accurately re-create the painting on my own wall, down to the fine lines of the brushstroke and the places where the paint seeped into the canvas just a bit.  Sweet!  The interesting question here is:

Do we now have a digital object, or a physical one?

The artwork is still digital in the sense that it can be re-created any number of times, could be modified any number of ways, and the program that defines it is of no specific length, width or breadth.

And yet, there it hangs on my wall, complete with weight, dimensions and even texture.

courtesy flickr/hardseat

I find this idea especially intriguing, because it so thoroughly blurs the border between the digital and the physical.  Combined with 3-D scanners and other technologies, we might one day transition objects back and forth at will.  At the extreme, this suggests a future where our objects have exactly the attributes we want them to.  The very existence of weight, length, or perspective could vary according to our needs!

Neat stuff, no?  Thanks for sticking with me through this longer-than-usual post.  And if you have your own thoughts about this, please continue the conversation using the comment box below.

Don’t forget to tell your friends using these handy buttons.  And hat-tip to Rebecca for proposing some of these ideas.
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6 thoughts on “The Meaning of Weight and Texture in a Digital World

  1. The science nerd in me can’t help but point out that digital space does technically have a weight. Though definitions may vary, its essentially the weight of the electrons and atoms required to maintain information as information (i.e. keep it from instantly turning into noise) and/or to render it transmittable. And I wonder how much it is. 🙂

    • Haha, you ARE a nerd! That’s a really interesting question, though: What does information weigh? I’m curious enough to try and calculate it…

  2. I’m about 260 pages into Anna Karenina, this is the third time I’ve tried to read it and in my previous attempts I never made more than a couple pages in. Reading it on my Nook has been the difference. I don’t know why. Maybe not lugging around a giant book has something to do with it. I’ll let you know how it works with Moby Dick, Infinite Jest and Middlemarch.

    • Wow, that’s a heavy reading list. It seems like your e-reader has expanded the universe of books you can get into – definitely a positive.

  3. I for one am all for the electronic age, but there is one thing a book will never do; run out of battery life. The feel of a good book will never be replaced by the cold hardness of a Kindle or an iPad. These little micro machines are great for the sheer volumes they can hold, especially if you are traveling and want something to read, but when I am home, I would rather go to the library or book store and pick up the real thing.

    • I’m an unapologetic book lover, too! The aesthetics of real books are unbeatable. Especially the nice ones, with quality paper and hard covers.

      However, for something like a newspaper or magazine, the physical quality starts to dissolve as soon as you pick it up. So for those, I do prefer e-readers.

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