I’ve recently noticed a strange discontent online. It looks like this: the physical world is making some kind of comeback.
I thought at first that it was just me, and the last two months I’ve spent in Taiwan on an intensive Chinese summer program. Typing in Chinese (these days, at least) is simple and commonplace: so much so that there has been an observable phenomenon of Chinese ‘character amnesia‘ exacerbated by overreliance on computers for writing in Chinese. Certainly my school didn’t require work to be handwritten. But still: I’d spend hours writing and rewriting my essays by hand, in an effort to bind muscle memory to the work of language learning — to put the words I was learning into my very body. The quiet succession of brushstrokes, as words and sentences inched their way across the page (right to left!), became meditative, hypnotic. I learned by making, creating, doing. Typing was insufficient: the words I’d try to learn slid right out of my head. And just reading — the silent, head-echo sort which by many accounts is a relatively modern practice — is no good way to master any language at all, to say nothing of Chinese.
So in Taiwan, I carefully selected and bought paper notebooks; I bought a pencil case, and filled it with pens which I used to fill my notebooks with words and meanings. The joy of writing spilled over into other areas. I began working on my research primary sources by hand; I arrived at a workflow of curious hybridity. I had photographs of archival material which I’d ransacked, desaturated in Photoshop, compressed, turned into PDFs, deposited into Dropbox and downloaded onto my iPad. But in Taiwan, I’d take that iPad into my favourite cafe, prop it up on my Bookchair and write notes into a projectbook. In blue ink. In fact, as I write this, a short essay of mine on DevonThink and historical research is going to press this October in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives. Among many things, it states my own uncertainty in the paperless dream.
I thought it was just me. But I’ve noticed it surfacing now more frequently, and I realized that I’ve been noticing it for a long time. Suddenly it seems like all my information streams, many of whom were on the cutting edge of every technological advance, have been starting to whisper: maybe, just maybe, we need to get back — just a little bit — to the physical.
Over here, a ‘Little Printer’, for which advance orders opened today: it’s a tiny printer which lives in your home, bringing you your own personalised digest of media subscriptions printed out on tiny receipts — ‘a timely, beautiful miniature newspaper’. The rebirth of the hard copy: a redaction of the paperless dream.
Over there, the observation that capturing thoughts on an iPhone is an incredibly tedious series of actions from ‘slide to unlock’ to ‘enter code’ to ‘open note program’ to ‘add new note’ — by which time the best fleeting thoughts are little more than a deflated snarl (god, what did I want to write here again?) He’s right: very few things are more frictionless than a scrap of paper to hand.
Over here, the observation that being on top of information all the time forecloses rather than feeds conversation. Disconnection is an opportunity for connection. ‘Did you hear the latest news?’ ‘No — tell me.’ Over there, some time ago, a similar thought: fast from information. And everywhere, a steady stream of Facebook deactivations, or else those who set up new accounts in an exasperated cull for ‘actual’ friends, or else those who, ensnared, continue while waxing cynical about the unbearable flatness of the online social world.
Cynicism, rather than thrill. When phrased like that, it’s a familiar story: what product, what rockstar, what book, what explanatory hypothesis does not go through such revisionism? But I think it would be wrong to view this as a step backward. Perhaps it’s not that we need to ‘get back’ to the physical, so much as discover, or invent, balance. I love the way Matt Webb, inventor of the Little Printer, put it: ‘We need to stop thinking about the physical and the digital as separate realms’. Isn’t this a precis for the 21st century? the story of DRM, of the crisis of the newspaper industry, of QR codes, of Netflix’s Qwikster debacle, of tenure review in the digital humanities, of Foursquare and Etsy… Yes, perhaps we do need, now, to reconcile ourselves to the persistence and interdependence of both, and to brace and innovate for a hybrid world, which may yet prove to be greater than the sum of its parts.