Peak Digital & The Death of the Death of the Physical
The battle against digital to save our physical lives is just commencing
“Lovers of print are simply confusing the plate for the food.”
Douglas Adams makes a funny point, but is he forgetting that the experience of eating food is as important to us as the actual eating of food? Will Digital eventually deny us the plates to eat our food on? Will plates be digitised too, like everything else that is solid in our lives?
Simply put — is digital going to destroy the sensuousness of our physical world by replacing many of our loved physical objects with ageless digital substitutes?
Digital we are told, is going to change the very essence of our social infrastructure and our daily lives. The revolution has just begun and we are soon to enter a world where nothing will have any value unless it is augmented with an internet overlay of data, next best actions, and live dynamic feedback. Apparently. And we kind of believe it, but we are not being given a choice, as there will be no need. This new digital world will just be an option we will need to choose if we want to be part of the new world.
To witness grown men writing articles upon articles on what the new features of the new iPhone could be, and the frenzy that develops, is to see the projection of our existential life angst on to technological objects. There was a similar reaction to the emergence of digital books and e-readers leading many to predict the complete disappearance of the printed word. We all lauded our ability to take 500 books on our 2 week beach holiday, and saw it as a testament to our evolutionary win over our physical domain. The possibility of the possibility that we might finally finish War and Peace on our holiday, or actually start Don Quixote and A Brief History of Time. All at the same time. Digital has given us choices, and choices are one step closer to actually choosing, and acting. GOD BLESS DIGITAL.
However. Things seem to have turned backwards a tad. The Luddites have returned. Physical is making a return. The printed books that began to disappear into the digital ether, suddenly have begun to reform paper atom by paper atom, and are reappearing in shops and homes across the land. Print is slowly recovering. The question is — is this a trend and have we hit Peak Digital? Or is this just a guerrilla flank attack that will be quashed with a massive show of digital power? Is it possible that this is the beginning of a realisation that a back-lit battery powered slab of metal is no match for a sensuous paper book — a realisation that digital is an adjunct to our physical lives, not a replacement.
I think (hope) it is the latter — and here are four reasons why the demise of physical and the physical book will not come to pass.
1. We need to sense our five senses (and our five senses need to sense us)
We are made of skin and bone and smell and sound and touch and taste. The feel of the front cover of an old penguin paperback is not something we are prepared as a species to give up (yet). A book is so much more than the words in our heads, so much more than the vision in our minds — it is an entirety of sensual interactions that make up the experience of reading a book. And it is the memory of this interlocking sense data that makes up the reading of a physical book — and that which no digital book can create. Our needs as human beings are multi-dimensional and multi-sensory. Digital denies us the full house of our senses. Digital books have no feel nor smell or natural sound. We are 5 sense animals that exist in the world and we need 5 sense books.
2. The ageless challenge our mortality (and make us feel weak)
There is no getting around it, we are mortals who will die. Me, you, everybody. We are born with this knowledge, and much of our life is driven by it. What helps us come to terms with the fact of annihilation is that most everything around us ages with us. Cars, houses, coffee tables, dogs, trees. And the marks of age endear us to objects and embed a history and companionship into those that have accompanied us. Our objects tell our story through our use of them over time. But digital objects do not age. Digital books never fade, never bend, never mark. Digital books never have wine spilled on them on a lazy summer Sunday afternoon, a stain that recalls a perfect memory of that afternoon in an instant. Our possessions live with us and die with us, mirroring our journey through time, and like empathetic companions, they kindly age with us. Digital objects in contrast show us up to be feeble short term creatures of yesteryear that we are, all too fallible and weak. Our digital books show no compassion to our mortal predicament. Their 1’s and 0’s, much like reptiles, have no ability to care for us.
3. The intellect is in need of a showcase (and the ego of a show)
The proud bookcase, a gentle background showcase of the owner’s intellect, one book at a time. The multilayered art piece in the corner of the living room, 20 years in the making, each book found, read, discussed, imbibed and merged with, recogitated as our own, forgotten, remembered, lent, lost, recovered, recommended. A life passed away, passed on, passed down through books. Books carry parts of lives wherever they go, and libraries transport lives and communities across centuries. Where will the great digital bookshelves live? Who will view them, discuss them, share them? How will the casual peacockian intellectual show off his or her literary prowess? Digital has robbed us of our libraries, and it will, if we let it, rob us of our vanity bookshelves.
4. We need an escape hatch from digital interference (and shelter from the storm)
Interruption is the new solitude. There is not a moment when digital isn’t trying to grab our attention to something more important than what we are doing, thinking or saying. It is a real possibility that poetry will die because modern poets can’t find the time to write anything worth reading in-between updating their instagram account with a picture of each word they have written, or of the super healthy bread they baked. Digital is a stalker with keys to our house. We desperately need to create digital free bunkers to escape to. The disappearance of our libraries has robbed us of one such space. But bookshops have come to the rescue. Bookshops are the new churches, places for quiet reflection and protection from the digital storm. And printed books are the new non-digital food for the soul in hard times — reconnecting us to our pre-internet five sense physical selves and teaching us to feel again, one feeling at a time, feeling each feeling without needing to post each one on Facebook for likes.
Nothing is true but change, it seems. The world changes, but the world also stays the same. The basics of our daily lives have not changed for centuries but technology today holds a magical promise of renewal. As we imbue it with god-like properties, and kneel and proclaim the arrival of our saviour, the fight is on between physical and digital. Physical and digital will co-exist for some time, but what will emerge is an integrated place where digital is not a separate world, but a constant and unnoticed overlay. Physical may win some battles to retain key parts of our physical lives along the way – but digital will win the war by going underground. And the real fight to live real physical lives will then begin.
All that melts into air must become solid again — but it will be up to us to fight for what the new solid becomes. Physical books is a good place to start. The death of the death of the physical has been greatly exaggerated.