“Your Edges Are Our Edges”

Consder the following:

  • You can search for and watch millions of video snippets on sites like Youtube and Google Video. Sitting down and watching a film for 90 minutes (or God forbid, two hours) is becoming less and less tolerable. Feasting on 10–60 second snippets of whatever is becoming the norm.
  • For $0.99, you can own one of millions of songs of just about any album on Apple’s iTunes service. Mix. Reorder. Customize your own playlists. The notion of picking up a CD, heading to the park, and letting the tracks unfold in sequence seems almost archaic.
  • The hot new basic currency for written text is the blog entry. The newspaper or magazine articles that…*gasp*…run for multiple pages are threatened. And books? Pfft. Forget books.

We don’t sit down for meals much anymore these days on the Web. Instead, we just snack a whole lot. The Web relentlessly slices, dices and serves up entertainment and knowledge. Some have heralded this trend as the True Web, a grand democratization of information. Whereas access to such riches were only available to a privileged few, the Web delivers all these pieces to the masses. Categorized. Searchable. Retrievable. Easy to digest. As the artifacts of our world are consumed and infinitely linked together in this web of snippets, few would doubt that we are all gaining something. I also think we’re losing something as well.

The major search engines of today, most notably Google, have come to realize the power of owning information and content. When I use the term “owning” in this context, I don’t mean “taking possession of” but rather the notion of learning, studying, scanning, copying and indexing. Once digested, the content is now searchable and retrievable by a search engine. We’re all being told that the digitization and indexing of the world’s information is a good thing and in many ways it is. We’re still reaping the rewards of the hyperlink. As more content, and more types of content come into the fold, the sum of all this content becomes that much more potent. Connecting all this stuff is wickedly powerful. There is no denying that.

And so, we are nearing an age where Google and its brethren are indexing everything, connecting it all together, and readying it for easy retrieval. Anyone can find anything at any time. Complete knowledge is no longer the exclusive domain of a priviliged few. By moving the world’s Library to the digital realm, the playing field is being leveled. In a recent New York Times article by Kevin Kelly (now only available under the Times’ subscription service), Mr. Kelly extolled the virtues of surfing from book to book, as the major search engines are on a relentless course to scan and index the world’s books. Beyond finding and riding links between books, we’ll be able to mash up books to create our own creative interpretations.

“I just love real books.”

In response to the supposed coming of the eBook revolution (a revolution which in fact never came), I’ve often heard friends talk about how they love their real books. They appreciate the actual physical object in their possession. They can’t pin down exactly why they prefer physical books. Their arguments most often default back to a sort of nostalgic, almost romantic view of books.

I’ve never heard a good, sound rationale as to why real books are better and shouldn’t go away. I think the slicing and dicing of creative works sheds some light on it. A book is, in many ways, a conversation. A direct link between reader and author that brings with it a certain tempo, atmosphere and intimacy. An emotional reaction will rarely occur in the first few minutes of reading. Instead, we’re slowly drawn in and if we’re enjoying it, a relationship ensues. That direct, unencumbered link is sacred. And that object – the physical book – symbolizes that relationship. A conversation over cocktails comes nowhere near the level of intimacy we can expereience with books.

Welcome To Short Attention Span Theater

Some of my favorite albums of all time are albums. The sequence of tracks give the whole a greater meaning than its parts. While the individual songs may be distinct, the album itself is often its own experience. It often conveys a mood or time and place. An album like Okkervil River’s Black Sheep Boy is more an opus than an album. Not only setting mood and setting but conveying a common thread throughout the songs. Should you be able to slice this album’s tracks to your liking? I wouldn’t make a judgment about that. I just think it would be a shame to not experience the album as a whole.

The tangible lines that separate these creative works are disappearing. Today, we struggle to conceptualize the physical counterpart to all these creative works. All this “stuff” is just floating out there. We see glimpses of it in search results and in samples here and there. As consumers, we’re not just consuming anymore. We’ve been handed tools. We’re now conditioned to participate. Remixing and collecting and compiling. We are not only consuming anymore. We carve to our liking, taking the pieces we want and regurgitating them with a hint of our own identity.  

The casualty in all this is the original creative voice. Whereas it once had hundreds of pages to speak, it now has a blog entry. Or minutes of music. Or seconds of film. It has lost the benefits of that physical artifact. I imagine that Vietnam memorial wall. It is both a tribute and a fallacy. Each person drowned out in a sea of names. All perfectly spaced apart and alphabetized. Step back from it and you see nothing but a gray blur.

It isn’t just about how a book feels in your hand. It’s about how that book’s physical independence and integrity stands for the author’s voice. It is a manifestation of the creator’s soul. As the Digital Machine steamrolls across all of this content, that voice is lost. It is drowned out by the overwhelming shrill of the masses.

In a recent appearance at a booksellers convention, the author John Updike gave an

2 Comments “Your Edges Are Our Edges”

  1. Chris LoSacco

    Great, insightful post.
    I can think of another personal example from the music realm: ELO’s Eldorado. A friend of mine won’t tolerate it when I tell him that sometimes those songs come up when I’m listening to my iPod on shuffle (which is 95% of the time). “It’s an album,” he says. “It’s meant to be listened to as such.” And while I will allow myself to listen to the occasional out of order track, I absolutely agree that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
    As the web continues to shrink the size of our information portions, let’s hope we can realize when we’re over-carving.

    Reply
  2. Kat

    It’s funny when irony slips up on you. I found this particular article using a Firefox add-on called “Stumble Upon”, which pulls up random sites submitted by users. It’s intended to speed up websurfing, allowing you to spend only seconds per page.
    On the attractiveness of real books, I would say they’ll never be replaced because their physical existence is absolutely necessary. Maybe this is because I’m studying English in college at the moment, but I can’t understand why anyone would prefer an e-book over a real one. You can’t take an e-book with you wherever you go, underline the passages and write in notes, get them stained and worn from those litlte accidents of life. I absolutely hate it when a professor assigns online reading, because it means I have to helplessly stare at a computer screen for hours. I inevitably end up printing the reading out so I can attack it with pencils, highlighters, bending, paperclipping, dividing and sorting, and all from the comfort of whatever location I choose. A computer screen can never replace that.

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