Tangible Media and Digital Technology

New Yorker cover I recently enjoyed a Vanity Fair article by James Wolcott on the demise of public displays of cultural snobbery as "Kindles, iPods, and flash drives swallow up the visible markers of superior tastes and intelligence." Wolcott described the process of observation, analysis, and judgment we make (often mistakenly) on others and the media they consume in public spaces.

"A tall, straw-thin model glides into seated position and extracts a copy of concentration-camp survivor Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning from her bag, instantly making an onlooker (me) feel rebuked for assuming she was vacuous and self-centered based on her baby-ostrich stare."

This reminded me of a New Yorker cover by Adrian Tomine, a beautiful example of the connection strangers feel when they discover a shared sensibility, literature in this case. The awareness of a missed connection is eclipsed by the warmth of a momentary intellectual affinity.

Some may value the reclaimed storage space over the mounds of books or old records, while others resist the push to digitize their media sources entirely or partially. For my part, the convenience and accessibility of digitized information is without dispute. But when it comes to books, part of my appreciation for reading stems from the sensory experience that the materiality of the hard copy brings. Yet, electronic paper and eInk are fascinating technologies in themselves, and it's impossible to separate even a hard copy from a technological process entirely, something N. Katherine Hayles discusses in her book My Mother was a Computer. Her article on Electronic Literature emphasizes that instead of a debate over print or digital, this emerging genre deserves a discussion of its own while acknowledging its historical relationship with the print world. And we can happily keep our shelves lined with books while still recognizing a new manifestation in the field of writing.

These were some of my thoughts as I read through the article, so I was quite pleased when Simon told me about a book-sensitive reading lamp.  The lamp is illuminated when uncovered, but turns off when a book is placed over it. It's a nice example that the relationship between tangible media and technology can sometimes be reversed, with the former dictating the use of the latter.

Lamp OnLamp Off