The following post is something of a miscellany, so I apologise in advance if it follows no clear structure.
Something has happened to me in recent days that has caused me to reconsider my relationship with technology in this crazy digital world that we live in. I find myself in a coffee shop, typing on a laptop, with four items next to me on the table. A moleskine notebook, an amazon kindle, an iphone, and a fountain pen. What a miscellany of items from different worlds! How can I reconcile these divergent devices? What follows is an internal monologue, a miscellany of thoughts and questions about my digitalisation.
It is worth further studying these items: the moleskine –a nostalgic recreation of the classic writing notebook that has provoked a storm of bibliophilia in the young writer crowd; the fountain pen, made in germany out of plastic with reloadable cartridges with a nib that writes from any angle (something that would have been impossible in the past); the iphone, over two years old and looking somewhat battered, my faithful warhorse for on-the-spot information retrieval, and the shackle that binds me to the internet 24-7; and the newest addition, my kindle, upon which I am ironically reading a book entitled Program of Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age by Douglas Rushkoff, having purchased it based on a decision arrived at while listening to a podcast. If I had a coat of arms, it would probably contain these items. For further anachronism, there would be a Latin motto.
How did my life become such a crazy mish-mash of digital and analogue, and is this a good thing? Do I want to be a tech warrior? Not really. The simple fact is that the collection of gadgets before me are not early adopter avant-garde items, but increasingly common tools of the modern academic. One of my favourite blogs at the moment is Profhacker, in which computer motivated ‘hacks’ for academic life are doled out day by day by an array of tech-enabled and intellectually curious academics.
Where does the scholar end and the internet begin in this digital world? Why am I simultaneously an enormous fan of high quality notebooks, fountain pens and e-readers? I do not remember any of this happening, and yet now I look around me and my life is a digital-analogue hybrid. Did I become assimilated by the borg when I was looking the other way, or am I simply a human being with new tools?
I often wonder how I came to this juncture, at the crossroads between the past and the future of academia. I wonder if there will ever be a generation of scholars that will so clearly see both sides of the divide. I have been coasting the wave of computer technology ever since I was in junior school, remembering the time before everything I now possess, and yet inhabiting the new world. What series of events and decisions brought me to this point? In my ebook copy of Program or be Programmed, I found the following passage intriguing.
For most of us, the announcement of the next great “iThing” provokes not eagerness but anxiety: Is this something else we will have to pay for and learn to use? Do we even have a choice?
Did I have a choice when I purchased these items? In my case, I think the answer is a resounding yes. I remember carefully considering the notion of buying each of these items (some over several years), and the internet enabled my choices. Did my twin cores of futurism and nostalgia push me into the moleskine/kindle paradigm?
I can immediately see benefits and drawbacks from my choices, as I slide further into the digital abyss. Retrieving the highlighted passage above was extremely easy – magically so – and yet all I can only see is that it comes from ‘Location 717’, since an e-book has no page numbers. Thus, my choice to read this book in e-format has both brought me closer to the book, and alienated me from its traditional markers such as page number. This is perhaps the reason why I still love my pen and notebook. It provides a touch of the old school in an increasingly abstracted digital world. Creativity and penmanship must still be best friends in my world.
Paradoxically, I feel powerful and yet I feel alienated. I have more information than it has ever been possible for a scholar to collate at the tips of my fingers, and yet I feel less intimacy with it. I can deal out a massive collection of article citations like a deck of cards, and yet I have no physical evidence that these articles ever existed. My world has become a sea of files and metadata, mediated by a few devices. I despise piles of paper, so this fills my mind with an austerity and clarity that I have never before known. Any yet I feel cheated, robbed of an experience so typical of scholars. The academic sitting alone in a sea of books, poring through ancient tomes. Yet i’ve still got my fountain pen which, rather than an obscurantist hipster fashion statement, keeps me in touch with the roots of what I do. I like the feeling of using one, but it stopped being about feeling cool a while ago. I won’t deny that this may have crossed my mind at first, but something grew with my pen-fetish. Why, if we are increasingly creating ideas digitally, should I use a crummy ballpoint pen? If I am going to use one analog tool, why should it be a convenience item? If I am going to refrain from burying myself in paper, why shouldn’t I enjoy a nice moleskine?
Where will all this end? The answer, I posit, may be in the paradoxical image of the augmented analogue, the moleskine-that-is-also-a-kindle. As we move towards digital ubiquity –the stage at which technology is so common that it simple becomes our material culture– I feel that my twin urges for analogue and digital will be recognised. What is to stop me, in a coffee shop in the year 2030, leaning back and writing with my fountain pen stylus on a device that looks like a book, and yet hides the faculties of a computer? What if my notebook allows me to write and to add hyperlinks , to play back my own writing in a synthesized voice – to contain a series of wafer thin paper-like oled screens? Lord knows where this road is going, but I am on it, for good or ill. Whether I am absorbed by the machine or the machine disappears into total ubiquity, the future is exciting.
NOTE – 21/5: Having reread this post, I think it is interesting that there are a few technologies that do just the thing that I described in the final paragraph. The Livescribe smart pen, for example, and the speech synthesiser/ annotation tools on the Kindle 3. Still crude, but developing fast. Flexible OLEDS will be hitting the scene soon as well. Forget 2030, more like 2015!