Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Is analogue more precious than digital?

On arriving home last Friday I sifted through the usual pile of junk mail lying in my front hall. Amongst the usual detritus of pizza and digital TV ads was a quaint relic from a forgotten age. A postcard, sent to me by my good friends the Smiths while on holiday in Greece.

It is now resting on my studio's DAB radio, a small but significant symbol of communication and shared friendship. At some point it will be consigned to a wastebasket, but not before it has been frequently glanced at and the hand-written message has been re-read a number of times.

It made me think of a recent conversation with Rory. He's in the midst of preparing to move from a full-sized house to a very desirable but more modestly-sized flat, and is rationalising his accumulated belongings in anticipation. When we last chatted, he was agonising over where to store his family photographs, generations of memories stuffed in shoe-boxes and folders.

Of course, he could scan them onto a computer hard-drive. The majority of my photo-collection is stored this way. But it occurred to me that there is a special pleasure that comes from viewing a conventional photo-album or discovering and sorting through a box of prints.

Is this a generational thing? Will my children find the same joy in searching through their image collections stored on flash-drives and remote servers? Or is this love of 'real' things an intrinsic part of our species' psychosomatic make-up?


Teifion said...

I find that when planning out something such as a complicated Database schema, putting it on paper really helps a lot. But that's just me, I don't really enjoy viewing photos and such unless they're funny.

ConradGempf said...

I'm not sure how much of the difference is between analogue and digital and how much is because you've got 360-degree vision in the analogue world and only a porthole-view into your digital world. Let me explain.

A card or a photo propped up in your living space is something that can gracefully collide with your attention-space on your way to doing something else without impeding you; or something that you can choose to reach out and finger as an aside without extra effort.

If you lived your life wearing goggles that only allowed you to take in a rectangular portion of the world directly in front of you, a screen's width (admittedly, given your computer, you'd see a LOT more of the world than most of the rest of us), pictures on the wall, cards on the radio and stuff like wouldn't have anywhere near the same impact on you.

Conversely, if (or when!) constructs like Second Life become the Operating System interface rather than an application window on your computer, then you can start to glimpse where such things might have a place... if you saw photos of friends as transitions between things in your work and lifespace on line, it might have the same effect. Think of the 'genie' effect in the current OS X implementation of minimize window. Imagine an interface where clusters of application windows are grouped in a virtual 'room' like a 3-d version of "Spaces" in 10.5... Instead of a genie effect, you might have a "quick zoom through a corridor" effect that accompanied moving from one context/cluster to another. And in that "virtual corridor" you could hang photos of or from friends that you'd bump into as you 'moved'. At that point a digital thing could have the same impact on your life and consciousness as an analogue thing does now, not because of a change in the object but because of a change in where you spend your time and how you experience that 'place'.

But you, more than most people, already do something similar with desktop images, don't you? If I sent you a digital postcard -- a holiday snapshot of me with an uncharacteristically warm greeting typed on it in a bearable typeface, wouldn't you get the same pleasure by putting into your desktop rota as you have by putting the Smiths' card on your radio?

A lot of the problems had to do with the limitations of size and resolution of computer screens. Sorting through the CD collection was always nicer than browsing the list in iTunes. Until last week. Coverflow lets you browse through the covers, without the limitations of how many can you hold in two hands, without having to take them off and put them back on the shelf. If we had the booklets and back covers digitized as well, I think that you'd think that the digital experience was just as good or better even before we get laser-quality display screens.

brett jordan said...

Thanks Conrad. However perhaps next time you could make you comments less infuriatingly brief :-)

brett jordan said...

Oh, and regarding the questions... the 'touch-and-feel' aspects of a book, postcard or CD still win over the 'virtual' equivalents, but utilities like Coverflow do enhance applications that are emulating an analogue experience.