Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Quality without substance? Digital documents

Recently in IS203, the issue of digital documents came up, and how the physical representation of a document adds to the information contained in the document as a whole. Nancy Van House referenced a story by Paul Duguid about how the smell of vinegar is used by historians to understand the spread of disease. Apparently the adage of "the medium is the message" holds even outside of pop culture.

Simultaneously, in IS202, a reading from "Women, Fire and Dangerous Things" started a discussion about how categorizations of objects based on experiential criteria seems to be more natural and pervasive, than categorizations based on abstract criteria. It reminded me of the experience of being in a library, surrounded by stacks of books. The physical substance of the books, was tied to my sense of the knowledge contained within. Large, heavy books with fine bindings seemed to have a sense of authority independent of their actual content.

If we accept that our culture is moving towards representing information and knowledge in a digital form where the physical form has little to no correlation to the content, and for information on the internet, there isn't really any physical form that is locally experienced - then what does this mean for our intuitions about the value and substance of knowledge and information?

Will the lack of physical substance for books/periodicals and other information sources lead to a change in our basic intuitions about knowledge and information? Or will there be some kind of compensation, where the "status" of some kinds of information/knowledge will be explicitly made clear via some physical proxy/storage? We talk about "quality" in very abstract terms in the class, but if many of our most basic notions are based on embodied experience, won't the notion of "quality" be in for a very radical change?


Blogger Joseph Lorenzo Hall said...

It's also interesting that longer digital documents are rarely read at the level of detail that large books are. (total speculation here)

7:01 PM  
Blogger yardi said...

I have found that it is much more difficult on the eyes for me to read text on the computer than it is to read a printout, especially long texts. It may be because I was raised reading physical books and my eyes and reading techniques have developed based on that, but I am more inclined to think that it is just easier to read something on paper than on a screen. I wonder if others have the same experiences?
On the other hand, I do prefer scanning and searching on the Internet over books, as I'm sure we all do. It is also easier to read techie books online, because rarely am I looking to read the whole book, I am looking for specific sections in specific chapters, which are much easier to bounce around between online.

This may seem like a trivial detail (my eyesight) but it might have profound effects on what type of content is developed online.

10:21 PM  
Blogger Judd said...

I don't accept that our culture is moving towards digital representation as a substitute for more traditional forms. In other words, I think digital forms will find new uses and specifc niches, but will not supplant mediums like the book for the very reasons Steve hinted at.

Last week I asked my family "the question" - whether they imagined the book as we know it today would be around in 50 years. The answer was a pretty solid, YES, we will still have books as we know them today, and for several specific reasons that we have mostly talked about:

1. There are things that you can't do with digital documents. Two we discussed were annotation and pop-ups (a la children's books).
2. People own books as a way of 'owning' knowledge. You can't fill a bookcase with PDFs.
3. People own books as a way of advertising a form of cultural/intellectual capital. There is a popular perception that what you read says a lot about you.

The lack of physical information certainly would change a lot about our world. But I don't think it will come to that because, whether technologists like it or not, technology is subservient to culture. I think sustainable change, the kind that creates a true paradigm shift, comes when technology is adapted to the way people live, not the other way around.

10:29 AM  
Blogger Jono said...

Steve's posting reminds me of Geoff's recent comment in class about checking out whether or not a word was in the dictionary. The guy asking Geoff was not satisfied with not being in a dictionary of '183000 bold face entries' until he had heard the 'thump' of the dictionary on the table. The 'thump' of a book is a real experience we associate with books and it tells us a lot about it.

Scott Carter and I were talking about similar effects earlier this semester regarding having no physically experienced difference no matter how much data is on a storage device. You could have 50 encyclopaedia Britannicas or one empty .txt file and you wouldn't know the difference. Wouldn't it be interesting if for example we could try to physically convey that sense of data in how much is stored in a USB drive for example. Could we make a USB drive that got heavier as you put more data on it? - not from a functional point of view but just to return that physical experience of the quantity of something we are so used to.

1:27 AM  

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