Are You a Victim of On Demand Disorder?

6/5/09Follow @wroush

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there’s a lot of stuff that either won’t be digitized for a while because of the logistical or legal hurdles, or shouldn’t be experienced digitally anyway because it loses so much in the translation.

In the first category, for example, is the huge class of books known as “orphan works.” These are the millions of out-of-print books that were first published after 1923 and are therefore still technically covered by copyright, but for which there is no identifiable, living copyright holder. For most of these books, there’s not enough demand for anyone to bother reprinting them—and few publishers would take the risk in any case, since you never know who might come out of the woodwork to sue you. So the only way to read them is to go to a library or find a used copy at a bookstore.

Google is gradually scanning many of these books with the intention of making them searchable and perhaps downloadable online. The terms under which it makes them available are the subject of the controversial, as-yet-unapproved settlement between Google and a group of publishers and authors. But even if the settlement goes through, it probably won’t be easy or cheap to access the full text of Google’s digitized orphan books. And ODD sufferers, by definition, don’t go to the library. So orphan books are likely to stay permanently off the radars of all the people who are becoming addicted to Kindle-style book shopping convenience.

In the second category—stuff that shouldn’t be experienced digitally, or at least not only digitally—I’d include things like classic cinema and fine art. There are some great black-and-white movies (Casablanca, Rebecca, and The Third Man come to mind) that, to be truly appreciated, have to be seen on a big screen, projected from real celluloid, in a dark old moviehouse like the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square. And having just been to Philadelphia to see a massive exhibit on Paul Cézanne and his followers, I could go on for hours about the difference between seeing a digital copy of a famous painting and actually being in front of it. Yes, I am the same person who has written whole columns about the Corbis CD-ROMs that first turned me on to Cézanne in the 1990s. But unless you’ve stood close enough to a Cézanne canvas to see the bumps and cracks in the paint, to absorb the fact that Cézanne’s brushstrokes have a texture and a direction and a materiality that distinguishes them from the strokes of a Matisse or a Picasso or a Jasper Johns, you’re missing something fundamental about modern art.

In sum, there are certain artifacts of culture that will teach you more if you go out of your way to experience them the way their creators intended. But the more of these things that can be reproduced in “close enough” fashion on our computers or mobile phones or HDTVs, the more we may choose to forego the real things and settle for the easy things.

Now, I don’t want to sound like some kind of snob or aesthete who thinks that direct experience is always better than mediated experience. In fact, I’d say that your state of attention when you encounter something is far more important than whether you experience it first-hand or second-hand. The main thing is to be ready to engage your mind and your emotions. That’s why I don’t buy the idea that “Google is making us stupid,” to paraphrase the title of Nicholas Carr’s much-discussed July 2008 cover story in The Atlantic.

Carr’s main argument is that different media affect our thought processes differently, and that Internet content, because it’s so often full of tempting links to other content, is “chipping away at [our] capacity for concentration and contemplation.” That may be true for certain kinds of digital media—perhaps including blogs like this one, where variety is the whole point. But I think the flavor and impact of a media experience all depend on what you bring to it. If I am in the mood for Forster, then Howards End is no less engrossing just because I’m reading it on my Kindle and there are 270,000 other books a click away. But if Howards End weren’t available on the Kindle and I didn’t have the patience to find it in a bookstore, that would be a different story.

That’s the danger I’m thinking about today—that on-demand technology is training us to settle for whatever is immediately available, and that we’ll start judging the world not by how much color is in it but by the content of our iPods.

The cure for ODD, happily, is simple. Pick something you’re passionate about, start exploring, and don’t stop with the first thing that Google or Bing or Comcast or iTunes offers you. Whether the tool of exploration is a computer screen, a cell phone, or your own two eyes doesn’t matter so much. Just find something that gets you thinking and feeling. Now go!

For a full list of my columns, check out the World Wide Wade Archive. You can also subscribe to the column via RSS or e-mail.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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