I think we might see more and more discussion around the relative merits of physical vs digital media this year, as Leila Johnston put it in her recent piece in Creative Review, “We are alone in our interactions with objects, and those adapted to a highly sharable world are bound to feel uncomfortable.”
I’ve long been fascinated by our human relationship with objects and how physical qualities are highlighted by their comparison with digital media. As if by some divine intervention, we have created a technology that is different in every conceivable way to the physical world we have evolved in — and for those of us over the age of 40 — have grown up in. In this difference lies a wonderful opportunity to understand the value of physicality by comparing it with something that isn’t.
So, I’m going to lay out this comparison in a series of posts on here and see where it goes. I have a feeling it’ll end up as a book, but I know it has to be a book that's conscious of its own physicality — 'a book about being a book' as John Willshire succinctly described it. Books and print media are an important part of this story, not only because they’re so obviously and directly threatened by the new technology, but also because their development took place hundreds of years before this ever became an issue. Printing is not a fleeting technology like cassettes or CDs that enjoyed a brief period of dominance before something better came along. Printing is the original information distribution medium, designed in medieval times to solve the very modern problem of information dissemination.
Yet, printing’s main protagonist, Johanes Gutenberg wouldn’t have been remotely interested in physicality or its value, nor would he have understood it. As revolutionary as his invention of moveable type was, it was simple expediency — a way of reducing the cost and increasing the accuracy of the written word over hand-scribed books. The qualities of physical objects we only are beginning to appreciate now — the ones I’m going to explore here — 550 years later. When it was created, his most famous work, the ‘42 line bible’, was valuable because of its content — the word of God — but is now treasured because of its physical qualities — its scarcity, historical significance and its cultural value.
Perhaps we should look at digital media as the obvious way to distribute content. Rendering words, pictures, audio files, films, data and information as non-existent numbers that can be sent around the world at virtually no cost is so much more efficient than what went before. Indeed, perhaps we should look at all the physical distribution technologies that went before as highly compromised forerunners — inventions ahead of their time, waiting for the real technology to be invented.
So, if digital media are perfection-at-last, why haven’t we simply abandoned books, records, magazines and newspapers?
Well, clearly there must be some reasons, because in some instances, physical media are thriving. So, there must be some real, tangible value that people are prepared to pay their hard-earned money for. I believe this value is complex — some of it will be conscious and seemingly obvious, and some of it will be subliminal. Rather than merely state it, I intend to unpick it and find out why these qualities are valuable; what it means to us as humans and draw some conclusions that might help us understand how these values might evolve as the digital world around us develops.
Even though these technologies are mature — there’s not much innovation in bookbinding — the world around them is changing rapidly. It’s the digital context that highlights the value and provides the comparisons that help us understand why we love real things.