Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Tag: digital culture

PowerPoint doesn’t make you stupid, and LOLcats doesn’t rewire your brain

Via Duke professor Cathy Davidson, I just came across this L. A. Times piece by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. (They’re authors of The Invisible Gorilla. The essay aim at “digital alarmism,” the argument that the Internet is making us stupider by “trap[ping] us in a shallow culture of constant interruption as we frenetically tweet, text and e-mail,” both leaving us less time to read Proust, and rewiring our brains so we’re incapable of paying serious attention to… anything.

More at Contemplative Computing.

On “Growing Up on Facebook”

Catching up with some reading, I came across Peggy Orenstein’s New York Times essay “Growing Up on Facebook,” published earlier this year. One of its themes, about the conflict between leaving behind old social circles and reinventing yourself on one hand, and remaining in ambient contact with your old social life on the other, resonated especially strongly:

As a survivor of the postage-stamp era, college was my big chance to doff the roles in my family and community that I had outgrown, to reinvent myself, to get busy with the embarrassing, exciting, muddy, wonderful work of creating an adult identity. Can you really do that with your 450 closest friends watching, all tweeting to affirm ad nauseam your present self? The cultural icons of my girlhood were Mary Richards of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and Ann Marie of “That Girl,” both redoubtably trying to make it on their own. Following their lead, I swaggered off to college (where I knew no one) without looking back; then to New York City (where I knew no one) and San Francisco (ditto), refining my adult self with each jump. Certainly, I kept in touch with a few true old friends, but no one else — thank goodness! — witnessed the many and spectacular metaphoric pratfalls I took on the way to figuring out what and whom I wanted to be. Even now, time bends when I open Facebook: it’s as if I’m simultaneously a journalist/wife/mother in Berkeley and the goofy girl I left behind in Minneapolis. Could I have become the former if I had remained perpetually tethered to the latter?

This also connects with an excellent William Deresiewicz essay about social media’s erosion of solitude– which in our pop psychology moments we tend to equate with loneliness and want to banish, but which serves a tremendous psychic need. Humans are social creatures who seem to grow in equal parts through being with others and learning to be on their own– my children are currently both going through a phase in which they spend a non-trivial amount of time in their rooms– and Deresciewicz argues that solitude offers a chance (as Orenstein puts it) “to establish distance from their former selves, to clear space for introspection and transformation.”

[To the tune of Django Reinhardt, “Swing From Paris,” from the album The Best of DJango Reinhardt (I give it 2 stars).]

New Facebook group on “Digital Middle Age”

For a while now, I’ve been thinking and writing about how Web 2.0 fits in the lives of people my age: how technology affects memory (especially how human and computer memories differ); how the omnipresence of the Web may affect our capacity to forget and grow and mature; and how Facebook serves as a kind of time machines. I’ve now started a Facebook group on “Digital Middle Age” around these subjects.

There’s an assumption that anyone over about 24, pretty much by definition, will find games, new media, and Web 2.0 to be a Strange Foreign Country. Partly this is an extension of the reigning assumption that only the young really “get it” when it comes to new technology. Witness Pamela Satran’s gently humorous pieces in More.com explaining how not to act old on Facebook and Twitter. (Okay, a magazine aimed at women over 40 is likely to play on age anxiety more than most; but easy way the articles take for granted that teenagers know the “right” way to behave (certainly the first time in human history we’ve assumed that!) is still pretty striking.)

But the articles overlook the fact that their readership grew up with PCs, spent thousands of hours in front of computer screens, and is perfectly familiar with the Web. My cohort is one that grew up with computers, but not with social media. I was in high school when the first personal computers appeared. I spent hours with my high school’s Apple II; I crunched the numbers for my senior thesis using Lotus 1-2-3; wrote my dissertation on a Mac; and got my first e-mail address when I was a postdoc. People my age have all the technical facility (I refuse to use the word literacy) necessary to rapidly take up services like Twitter and Facebook. There’s a good reason older users are the fastest-growing user populations in the Web 2.0 world.

But unlike the teenagers and college students are using these services, we have lives that have taken place offline, largely outside the gravity well of the Internet. These services aren’t just continuations of our current lives: they can reconnect us to people we haven’t been in touch with for twenty years. Watching myself and my friends online, I sometimes think I’m watching a collision of two very different kinds of social worlds. And if like me you’re seriously interested in the social impacts of new technologies, studying these kinds of collisions and transitional groups (like people my age) is a particularly valuable way to see how new technologies affect the way people work and play and socialize and think.

And while teenagers are an interesting subject because they’re reckless, extreme, irresponsible, and everyone worries about them– when you’re not certain they’re dead in a ditch, you’re yelling at them to get off your lawn– I think its safe to say that their parents have large amounts of disposable income, access to credit, a majority vote in household technology-related decision-making, etc.– all the things that ought to make them very interesting not just to academic geeks like me, but to advertisers and publishers. (We also have more to lose: drunken blog posts or sexting may be bad when you’re 19, but accidentally Tweeting trade secrets is a lot worse, if only because mortgages and parental responsibilities multiply the potential impact of big mistakes.)

So, as part of my ongoing effort to understand how media have affected this transitional generation, I’ve created the Facebook group. It’s open to everyone who’s in Facebook, and my hope is that it’ll help me better understand how social media function in the lives of people who already have lives. Does reconnecting with people from high school really matter? Does it change your life in some non-trivial way? I think it can, but data is not the plural of anecdote– especially when you just repeat the same anecdotes (your own) over and over.

Maybe there’s an interesting article here. Who knows. We’ll see what happens….

[To the tune of Daryl Hall & John Oates, “Out of Touch,” from the album Big Bam Boom (I give it 3 stars).]

Another art project, and when did LGBT become “restrictive”?

This time via the b.a.n.g. lab blog:

In technésexual, Echolalia Azalee and Azdel Slade commit playful erotic acts in physical and virtual space simultaneously, using devices to amplify the sound of their heartbeats for the two audiences….

[The project] seeks to open discussion on the multitude of sexualities outside of the restrictive LGBT formulation and homo/hetero categories, both of which are rooted in binary gender assumptions. The mixing of realities in this project can be seen as paralleling our own personal experiences of queer mixing of genders and sexualities, queering new media. Virtual worlds such as Second Life are facilitating the development of new identities and genders, which allow for unimagined relations and relationships. Through the use of mixed reality technologies in performance, technésexual seeks to look closely at these new relationships and how they affect our everyday lives and our horizons of possibility.

Yes, here's the video. It's kind of like burlesque meets a 1980s video game at a rave– and it's about as smooth as most tech demos you've seen– but maybe I just don't get out enough.

technésexual // Echolalia Azalee and Azdel Slade from azdel slade on Vimeo.

[To the tune of Pax, "Exorcismo," from the album Back To Perú (I give it 3 stars).]

Slow communications manifesto

I'm noticing an uptick in the number of articles on digital sabbaths, zeroing out, or whatever you want to call it. This from John Freeman in the Wall Street Journal:

It is time to launch a manifesto for a slow communication movement, a push back against the machines and the forces that encourage us to remain connected to them. Many of the values of the Internet are social improvements—it can be a great platform for solidarity, it rewards curiosity, it enables convenience. This is not the mani­festo of a Luddite, this is a human manifesto. If the technology is to be used for the betterment of human life, we must reassert that the Internet and its virtual information space is not a world unto itself but a supplement to our existing world, where the following three statements are self-evident.

1. Speed matters…. "The speed at which we do something—anything—changes our experience of it…. The Internet has provided us with an almost unlimited amount of information, but the speed at which it works—and we work through it—has deprived us of its benefits. We might work at a higher rate, but this is not work ing."…

2. The Physical World matters. A large part of electronic commu nication leads us away from the physical world. Our cafes, post offices, parks, cinemas, town centers, main streets and community meeting halls have suffered as a result of this development…. Sitting in the modern coffee shop, you don't hear the murmur or rise and fall of conversation but the continuous, insect-like patter of typing. The disuse of real-world commons drives people back into the virtual world, causing a feedback cycle that leads to an ever-deepening isolation and neglect of the tangible commons.

3. Context matters. We need context in order to live, and if the environment of electronic communication has stopped providing it, we shouldn't search online for a solution but turn back to the real world and slow down. To do this, we need to uncouple our idea of progress from speed, separate the idea of speed from effi ciency, pause and step back enough to realize that efficiency may be good for business and governments but does not always lead to mindfulness and sustainable, rewarding relationships.

In a different register but playing some of the same themes, Mercury News tech columnist Troy Wolverton confesses, "I've been thinking I need to take a break from technology."

Resisting the urge to check my e-mail on my phone, say. Finding something else to do when the TV's not on at night than retreat to my computer for some Web surfing or game playing. Focusing on the people in my life, rather than the gadgets….

Reading a newspaper Web site on my iPhone while sitting next to my son may seem no different from when my dad used to read a real newspaper while I was eating breakfast as a kid. But the iPhone tends to be a lot more engrossing and addictive than a physical newspaper — and not just because the latter keeps getting thinner.

I can peruse hundreds of newspapers on my iPhone, seeking out those stories and topics I'm most interested in. If that gets dull, I can check my e-mail. If there's nothing there to grab my attention, there's always my Facebook app or a game. In short, it's hard to pull away. And once you're entrapped, it's hard to pay attention to anything else.

[To the tune of Keith Jarrett Trio, "Five Brothers," from the album The Out Of Towners (I give it 1 stars).]

Read it in the line for tickets to Maker Faire

My latest article, on tinkering and the future, has been published in the latest issue of Vodafone's Receiver Magazine. The piece is an effort to draw together a couple of my research and personal interests (though the boundaries between those two categories is pretty blurry), and to see the tinkering / DIY movement as one piece in an emerging strategy for creating better futures.

Almost forty years ago, the Whole Earth Catalog published its last issue. For the American counterculture, it was like the closing of a really great café: the Catalog had brought together the voices of contributors, readers and editors, all unified by a kind of tech-savvy, hands-on, thoughtful optimism. Don't reject technology, the Catalog urged: make it your own. Don't drop out of the world: change it, using the tools we and your fellow readers have found. Some technologies were environmentally destructive or made you stupid, others were empowering and trod softly on the earth; together we could learn which were which.

Millions found the Catalog's message inspirational. In promoting an attitude toward technology that emphasized experimentation, re-use and re-invention, seeing the deeper consequences of your choices, appreciating the power of learning to do it yourself and sharing your ideas, the Whole Earth Catalog helped create the modern tinkering movement. Today, tinkering is growing in importance as a social movement, as a way of relating to technology and as a source of innovation. Tinkering is about seizing the moment: it is about ad-hoc learning, getting things done, innovation and novelty, all in a highly social, networked environment.

What is interesting is that at its best, tinkering has an almost Zen-like sense of the present: its 'now' is timeless. It is neither heedless of the past or future, nor is it in headlong pursuit of immediate gratification. Tinkering offers a way of engaging with today's needs while also keeping an eye on the future consequences of our choices. And the same technological and social trends that have made tinkering appealing seem poised to make it even more pervasive and powerful in the future. Today we tinker with things; tomorrow, we will tinker with the world.

2009: The Year of Unplugging

This is my prediction for 2009: in addition to the global recession continuing to play havoc with all of our lives, we're going to see more people explicitly trying to balance their time online and offline. Zeroing and digital sabbaths will become more popular.

The latest data-point: Lucy Kellaway's Financial Times column:

This is our first experience of recession in the internet age, and so far I don’t like it one little bit. You could say that the internet makes the recession more bearable as there are all those networks to help people get jobs and there is Ebay for buying things second-hand.

Yet such things are trivial compared to what the internet is doing to our confidence. The internet has created a global psyche. The web has mentally joined us at the hip, so we can no longer put our heads in the sand. If that sounds painfully contorted, it is because it is. Just as no country can decouple itself from the ailing global economy, none of us as individuals can decouple ourselves from the ailing global psyche.

Through blogs, websites and e-mails the world’s economic ills are fed to us on a drip all day long. It is not just that we hear about bad things faster, we hear about more of them and in a more immediate way. My worries become yours, and yours become mine. On the internet, a trouble shared online is not a trouble halved. It is a trouble needlessly multiplied all over the world. After reading this article, people in Australia will surely start worrying about my paint colours, too.

This would not matter so much if it were not for the fact that confidence is the medicine that cures a recession; and all this sharing of bad news leaves one with no confidence at all.

If I had been alive during the last comparable recession, over 60 years ago, I would have limited my news injection to reading The Times every morning. In those days it had a front page given over not to big scary headlines, but to small classified ads. The news inside would probably have left me a little depressed over breakfast, but I would have had the rest of the day to recover my equanimity.

Instead, I sit over my computer all day and feed my anxiety.

Games without frontiers

[From the Red Herring blog, 2005]

1.

I was about ten when I saw my first video game. As a kid obsessed with science fiction, astronomy, and computers, Nolan Bushnell's Pong seemed like the coolest object this side of a telescope clock drive. Growing up, I would spend more hours (and quarters) playing video games than I like to think about: the worlds of Defender and Xevious came be to as familiar to me as my backyard, but a lot more exciting.

Like most kids of my generation, I thought of video games as an alternative reality. Not only were the games other worlds: arcades were inevitably dark, slightly space-agey places populated entirely by teenagers.

Of course, games have come a long way since then. In technical terms, video games are more complex, realistic, open-ended, and intense than in my boyhood, but they're fundamentally conservative technologies. Despite all the changes around the edges—the better graphics, the spectacular violence, the five hundred-button controllers that you have to learn to use in utero—they're still worlds in boxes, ultrasophisticated versions of arcade games or personal computers of old. Playstation and Xbox are incremental improvements over Galaxian and Pac Man: granted, they're very big increments, but my 10 year-old self would have no trouble grokking a Playstation.

2.

But the game world is poised to undergo a revolution. In the coming decade, everything that I took for granted about video games will change. They won't be alternate realities; they won't be confined to edgy spaces with names like Station Break; and they won't be arcade-like experiences. We'll have games without frontiers.

To appreciate this revolution and what it'll mean, we need to take video games serious. Too often, games don't get no respect. They're easy to dismiss as a social problem, to criticize as a waste of time, or insult as the lowest form of pop culture. But games matter. Video games have driven innovations in hardware, software, and interface design. For better or worse, they're big business, and major sociological phenomena. (This isn't just the case in the United States: the Korean multiplayer game Lineage has about 4 million subscribers—almost ten percent of the population.) Games metaphors are woven through our language, and structure the way we behave at work and approach relationships.

And playing video games isn't always the isolating, alienating experience that some critics make it out to be: LAN parties bring together game players, and Lineage clans will take over Internet cafes for an afternoon, playing together in both virtual and physical space. People can be just as creative around games as they are within them.

Multiplayer games have already capitalized on this fact. There are hardly any successful PC games that don't have multiplayer capability, and massive online games like Everquest are creating a new art form out of persistent, open-ended worlds. They show just how much farther we can take video games before we exhaust their potential.

3.

The future of video games will be driven by two kinds of changes: a proliferation of interfaces between games and players' bodies; and an integration of game-worlds and the real world.

It's strange that video games and exercise equipment have never gotten together. There have been a few exercise bikes with cycling video games, or video game controllers that attach to exercise equipment. But only in the last few years have we seen games that involve players' bodies, not just their thumbs. Dance Dance Revolution, in which players copy dance moves on a sensor-laded pad rather than a handheld controller, was the breakout game in this genre. Previous attempts to marry exercise and video games had been failures: exercise equipment companies couldn't make compelling games, video game companies couldn't figure out how to build interesting alternative input devices, and early products remained too expensive for the mass market. DDR showed that there was a serious market for games that involved more of our bodies, and that such games had an attraction that went beyond video games' traditional young, testosterone-heavy core market. In fact, for some players, DDR isn't a "video game," but serious exercise—a substitute for health clubs, not a competitor to Halo.

Other companies are building on the concept of video game as an exercise machine. Yourself!Fitness, which was released this fall, is aimed squarely at women. Some of its elements are drawn from exercise videos: it has a peppy soundtrack, encouraging instructor (Maya), and a variety of exotic workout locations (a desert resort, a Matrix-like dojo). But it also creates an exercise program based on your physical shape and fitness goals, chooses exercises that use exercise equipment (hand weights, Pilates ball) you already have, introduces new routines over time, and adjusts its difficulty depending on your performance. It's not a deeply interactive game in the way DDR is, but it uses customization to create an interesting variety, and to deepen the relationship that players have with Maya and the regimen.

4.

Some electronic games are recasting the relationship between bodies and game-play. Others use things in the real world as resources for games that you play partly in the real world, partly in game space.

The great example is geocaching, a game that draws on GPS and the Web. Shortly after the U.S. government sharpened civilian GPS signals (they had previously been kept purposely fuzzy for security reasons), people began hiding "caches"—usually just a few simple objects in a box—in various places, posting approximate geographical coordinates and hints about a cache's precise location on the Geocaching Web site (at www.geocaching.org). People who find a cache may take an object, leave an object, and note their find online.

The game is completely unregulated and unsubsidized, anarchic in the classic sense. It's also growing like mad. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of players and tens of thousands of caches worldwide. The caches themselves now constitute their own field, and are supporting the growth of new games: geobugs, for example, requires players to move marked tokens between caches, with the aim of fulfilling some goal—having a bug visit all 50 U.S. states, for example, or every country in the EU.

Interestingly, in its early days, geocaching was described as a kind of nerd treasure hunt, an activity that would appeal to gadget freaks, or the kind of sportsmen who buy radar for their fishing boat or military surplus laser sights on their deer rifles. More recently, however, as the cost of GPS units has fallen and the number of geocaching sites has grown, the game has been redefined as outdoor family fun—a way to get kids away from the Playstation and into the world.

Other games combine the power of the Web with information that resides in things. In Where's George (www.wheresgeorge.com), players tag dollar bills with a message to register a bill's serial number online, and to record the date and place they found the bill. The result is a kind of travel history of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even more fanciful is Skannerz, a handheld game based on the premise that warring alien species inhabit bar codes, thanks to an out-of-control nanotechnology weapon (I know, not the world's most linear plot line). Players build characters by scanning UPC codes, which are on virtually everything, and "collecting" weapons and talents (a quest that anyone exposed to role-playing games will immediately recognize).

5.

Geocaching uses the Web and GPS to help players find (and find out about) objects in the real world. Other games treat the physical world as a kind of game-board, and make physical proximity an element of the gaming experience.

Not surprisingly, the most popular of these games are played on cell phones. Mogi is a treasure hunt game in Japan, in which players navigate their way through Tokyo to locations where they can pick up electronic prizes. There's no physical good to collect—the prizes are virtual—but you can't get them sitting at your computer. Scandanavia's Battlebots, in contrast, operates not in specific physical places, but in social spaces: players cluster into cafes or parks to pit their bots against each other.

From a technical standpoint, these are relatively simple games: no one is hooked on Mogi or Battlebots by the bleeding-edge graphics, or the compelling storyline. What seems to be appealing about them is two other things. First, they fill idle time. Lots of Battlebots games happen on trains or buses, and Mogi prizes tend to be near public transportation stops. Second, they find serendipity in the random, often anonymous experience of traveling and living in modern urban cities. The person three seats down on the morning train may become your sworn digital enemy, but at least you've connected.

6.

So what will games look like in the future? Some people will continue to prefer the world of first-person shooters, and will look to their Playstations or Xboxes as a retreat from the world. On the other hand, other players will take electronic games more deeply into the real world, and create new kinds of games.

One obvious move will be to map video games into physical places. Imagine, for example, college students creating Everquest spaces that are only accessible on-campus; overlaying Doom 3 on a building, turning a student center or parking structure into a monster-infested death zone; or creating game challenges that can only be played in subway stops when more than four players are present. Games like Everquest and the Sims have shown that players are capable of exercising remarkable ingenuity creating online spaces and resources; giving them the ability to apply these skills in the real world could exponentially multiply a game's variety, difficulty and appeal. It would also broaden a franchise beyond the console, and bring in players who would never consider sitting down in front a screen.

Another move will be to create games that blend virtual and real economies. As economist Edward Castronova has discovered, players in massively multiplayer games may create thousands of dollars of wealth, and build elaborate underground economies in which they trade virtual goods—often using real money. There economies are currently black markets—game companies claim to own everything in their games—but eventually, a smart company will realize that this phenomenon is a feature, not a bug. But this doesn't have to be confined to trades of money for virtual goods: you might redeem frequent flyer miles for Elven chain-mail, earn strength points for your avatar by reaching your real-world fitness goals, or be awarded secret powers after making the dean's list.

The examples of geocaching and Where's George show that we should also take a broader view of what a successful game can be. They needn't be like board games of sports, with end-points and clear winners; geocaching isn't a competitive sport. For example, imagine a courier game consisting of teams of players scattered around the country. The objective of the game would be to get a digital package—which can only be passed between players via Bluetooth-enabled PDAs and cell phones, say—from one end of the country. Each player would be required to make contact with the package (so I couldn't just take it with me on a trip I'd already planned); but teams can recruit others to carry the package from city to city. In such a game, the fun wouldn't be in the rapid-fire play, but in the challenge of enlisting and organizing teammates and friends.

Scrolling Forward

This a review I wrote of David Levy's Scrolling Forward, which originally appeared in the L. A. Times about ten years ago. Not that long. It just feels like it.

David M. Levy, Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age (New York: Arcade, 2002).

When I got the chance to review Scrolling Forward, I went to Kepler's, my local bookstore, to pick up a copy. I had seen a stack there a few days earlier, but by the time I arrived it had moved, and I had forgotten the title. I asked at the information desk about a book that had been on the "New Science and Technology" table that past weekend, had orange and blue on the cover, and was about documents. They couldn't remember the title either, but they remembered the book, and knew the most likely place their stock of half a dozen copies had been moved. So, despite not knowing the author or title, we found it in a matter of seconds.

Drawing on knowledge of its recent location, jacket design, general subject, and the way books circulate between display tables and shelves to find a particular volume may seem disorganized and baroque. It is, but it's how most of us work. Our complicated relationship with documents– everything from Post-Its to encyclopedias– is the subject of David Levy's Scrolling Forward: Thinking About Documents in the Digital Age. Levy, a computer science Ph.D. and calligraphy, is well-placed to compare the old and new. His books is organized around broad subjects– reading, writing, and the like– but each chapter is a meditation, written more on the this- reminds-me-of-that principle, rather than something more formal. Such an approach can occasionally get out of control, but at its best the book's style effectively juxtaposes printed and electronic documents, and calculates the gains and losses of moving information from one medium to the other.

The very fact that Levy is interested in this question indicates a growing maturity in our attitudes towards digital materials. A decade ago, the first important works on hypertext and multimedia– George Landow's Hypertext and Jay David Bolter's The Writing Space— declared that thanks to the computer, the author was dead, the reader reigned supreme, the book was doomed, and linear thinking was passe. They were widely praised within academic circles, and provoked defenders like Sven Birketts to assert the eternal value of the book. The debate that has followed has largely been beside the point, because it misses several things that Levy wisely considers in depth.

First, arguments over "the future of the book" focus on books, particularly high literature. But we live in a world saturated with texts: we might not read Dante every today, but we'll read street signs, scan newspapers, select from restaurant menus, answer e-mail, ignore ads, type URLs. To drive the point home, Scrolling Forward begins not with a discussion of encyclopedias or the Bible, but a… deli receipt. Even something so utterly inconsequential turns out draw upon thousands of years of history and complex social institutions, not to mention a host of technologies. "Over the centuries a complex network of institutions and practices has grown up to create and maintain meaningful and reliable paper documents," (162) Levy argues. This is as true of receipts as it is of Rilke: "To be a receipt is to be connected to cash registers, sellers, buyers, products, expense reports, the IRS, and so on." (29) It takes a village to make a document.

Levy's receipt was a hybrid, a printed record generated by an electronic system; therein lies a second big point. It turns out that documents have sloshed between electronic and printed form for decades. Checks and airline tickets were computer-printed from the 1950s. Mainframe computer publishing systems were developed in the 1960s and 1970s for newspapers and other high-volume publishers. (It is instructive that the early adopters weren't book publishers, but companies that had high-volume, varied, or rapidly- changing material. The Encyclopedia Britannica's publishing system was adapted from one developed for the Jehovah's Witnesses, who published countless pamphlets in dozens of languages.) In the 1980s, word processors allowed writers to create digital texts. In the 1990s, web browsers gave readers direct access digital works. This last, and most-publicized step, was a culmination, not a revolution. Seen in this light, the whole "print versus digital" debate seems irrelelvant.

The fact that the debate over "the future of the book" took off in the last decade suggests that what's at stake isn't just materials, but practices and cultural institutions. We pick up cues about the utility and reputability of printed sources from the publisher, the feel of the paper, even from a document's location in a library or bookstore; such cues have yet to be reproduced consistently online, and the social networks that add value to printed works weren't threatened by the computerization of typesetting and printing. Documents, Levy argues, aren't just information; they're also material things and cultural artifacts. Even digital documents aren't "just" immaterial bits. As Levy notes, "the ones and zeros of our digital representations… are embedded in a material substrate no less than are calligraphic letterforms on a piece of vellum." (156)

This is not to say that an electronic document can't have all the qualities of a printed one. It IS to say that those qualities can't be programmed as features in the next upgrade: they have to be created in the social world, and in the world of human practices and attitudes. Levy's concern is that we recognize that books and journals are much more than containers from which content can now be "liberated." They have influenced– often to the good– the way we read, organize our thoughts, and create order in our intellectual worlds.

© 2017 Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

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