Digital ephemera?

Although we now clearly live in a digital age, we are often still very hesitant about accepting its robustness. In fact, though I am an enthusiastic user of every digital device and all electronic media, even I can be uncertain about their durability. A couple of years ago I was asked by a group of schoolchildren to advise them what format to use for electronic data they wanted to put in a time capsule, to be opened in 100 years. Paper, I said without hesitation. I could not be sure that a disk, or a memory stick, or a DVD would still be readable in 100 years time, or indeed that they would not have degraded in the interim.

So what does that mean? Should we assume that what we consume in digital format is for the moment only? This question has been raised on some occasions in relation to ebooks: is reading literature (or anything else) in this format the same as reading a paper-based book, or is it in some way different? The author Jonathan Franzen has recently suggested that the ‘impermanence’ of ebooks makes them unsuitable for serious reading. This becomes an issue in universities when the prospect arises of distributing course materials entirely in digital format, so-called ‘etexts’. Some argue in favour of using these, others are more cautious; but the early evidence is that they can be very effective educational tools.

Personally, I am willing to read pretty much anything in ebook format, though if I believe that I will want to read the book again and may want to reference it in future, I’ll buy a paper copy. But textbooks are different anyway. Most students dispose of them after they have completed their studies. There is therefore little reason to conclude that having etexts is somehow worse than having traditional books; indeed the use of etexts may provide lecturers with an opportunity to use innovative pedagogy.

I still do not know how the digital world will develop, and I am absolutely ready to believe that what we use now in electronic format will not be useable in 30 years time. But I do believe that the principle of electronic reading will continue to be adopted, and the technology will eventually produce more durable products; and I see no evidence of any pedagogical disadvantage. We must continue to innovate, even if the books on my bookshelves will remain also.

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4 Comments on “Digital ephemera?”

  1. OMF Says:

    Ephemeral does not begin to describe how fragile digital data is. It is in fact ethereal.

    The voyager probes now lie beyond the edges of the known solar system. It takes over 15 hours for their signals to reach receiving stations on earth. The probes transmit gathered data as a radio wave, propagating through empty space. Once transmitted, the data is deleted from the probe, to ready scare buffers for the next reading.

    The wave continues through space until it is read by radio dishes on this planet. Say Voyager 1 transmits 1MB of information. For 15 hours, this data is neither remembered by the probe, or yet read by computers on earth. It exists as a weak electromagnetic wave, hundreds of thousands of kilometres long, dispersing slowly somewhere between the planets.

    THAT is digital data. As fragile as a smoke ring and almost as difficult to interpret.

    The machines, software, and even languages needed to decode digital data appear and decay almost as frequently. Unless your written material is plain ASCII text, your audio in uncompressed WAV, your images in plain BMP format, and the whole lot stored on four independent technologies and constantly updated, I wouldn’t give you two decades before the whole lot becomes effectively illegible.

    If you don’t believe me, try getting data off an old 5 1/4 inch floppy some time. Or an old cassette tape. I doubt most family photos now stored on SD cards will be available for grand-children’s viewing in the future. The lesson for us all is to make real, tangible hard-copies of data that is truly important. That goes double for libraries and universities.

  2. Vince Says:

    Ahh, it won’t matter once we’ve the replicator up and going. And failing that won’t we have the transporter.
    Solve a lot by way of overdue books, that will. Imaging instead of a snitty little letter or text, the thing shimmers and hums. Then poof, back on the library shelves and, the fines whipped from your pocket as it goes.

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    I am a book lover, no question about it, a case of love at first sight and it could not be otherwise because at the age of four it is illustrations that catch a child’s eye, however when a year later I started to decode the enigma that the alphabet had been up to that point I was hooked ‘forever’. The lasting character of the experience does not mean though that I share Franzen’s views that for a serious reader a “sense of permanence has always been part of the experience. What I have prized in reading has been a sense of ‘permanent mobility’, the fact that words on the page were a direct ‘link’ to other words and other minds, the way that books, and their content, can be totally transporting. Besides, books were not frozen solid before the invention of the Kindle, famous authors kept revising their works for decades, deleting, changing, moving text around well before the invention of computers.
    Franzen’s apocalyptic ramblings (he even thinks that democracy itself could be at risk following the demise of the book) are not unique, only a couple of weeks ago I was at a lecture by the eminent neuro-scientist Prof. Greenfield who, in the context of the British Science Festival, rehearsed the argument that digital technologies are making us stupid (!) Franzen and Greenfield are only the epigones or a tradition which has characterized all four Information Ages in human history.
    Following the invention of writing and with the Greek alphabetic system of transcription Socrates famously lamented that writing diminished the mind, distracted us with an excess of information and weakened the power of memory. When Gutenberg developed movable type, the fear was that the authority and significance of the God-ordained and supported Scriptorium would be lost. During the Industrial Revolution, when paper made books became widely available the list of fears included distraction, loss of an ability to focus productively, licentiousness, violence, diminished appreciation for great literature or complex philosophy. It is uncanny how the same list returns almost unaltered (some permanence!) to the letter in our own Information Age.
    As educators we should be particularly aware that reading is an unnatural act; we are no more evolved to read books than we are to use computers and that our literate societies become literate by investing extraordinary resources, every year, training children to read. Schools and universities have now the enormous responsibility to figure out the best way to shape our use of digital tools. We owe to this generation of young people to help them to invent cultural norms that do for the Internet age what the intellectuals of the 17th century did for print culture formation Age. Some caricature luddism misrepresented as scientific fact and based on the view that recent past was a high-water mark of intellectual attainment does not help.
    In a recently published (in print but also available digitally) academic paper of mine entitled ‘The many futures of the book’ I conclude that the nostalgically framed questions surrounding the death of the printed book are the symptom of deep felt anxieties regarding more complex issues such as: the evolution of human communication, the implications of technological controls on our ability to manage intellectual discourse, the emergence of new business models in the publishing industry, the subversion of established power relationships among publishers, readers, and authors and finally the disruption of all cultural practices, consumer expectations, and legal frameworks related to the codex tradition. Personally, I believe that the book has many futures ahead, as many futures as the various hybrid forms it is going to evolve into. Some such forms, as it has been predominantly the case so far, will aspire to be literal translations of the printed page into its digital representation (e-books), others are going to develop into multimedia art forms connected to the World Wide Web. In any case they will all be part of a complex media system, which includes not only social, economic, and cultural issues but also the authors’ and the readers/viewers’ collective perspectives, dreams and aspirations.

    Click to access Lubianapaper.pdf

  4. cathyby Says:

    Possibly not a problem with texts – as you say, they tend to be discarded after the user leaves college (there are issues re cost especially when the book cannot be sold on).
    But there is an issue with background reading. Reading a badly formatted academic book, where you have to scroll to find footnotes is not a pleasant experience. And while annotating and underlining is possible, there is no guarantee that the notes and underlining can be ported to whatever future format emerges. and DRM means even the book may not be portable.

    Add to this the difficulty of getting academic books in Kindle format (Ireland is in “Europe” so many books available in the UK and US are not available). On the whole the e-reading experience has some way to go to be a real academic alternative.

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