What is Old is New Again

Facebook has named its new app offering, which debuted today, “Paper”. As Lev Manovich points out, this naming signifies that “Old media metaphors are not going away” In fact, old media themselves aren’t going away.

Nowadays, fears that e-books and mp3s will dominate the reading and listening landscapes are all over the media. These fears seem somewhat cyclical, with the same old complaints cropping up decade after decade, as documented by the NYTimes more than once, Tom Standage in Wired, and XKCD, among others. Fear of the new manifests itself as dismissal of the digital, or whatever new technology has come to the fore.

Research has proven that not only do books have some staying power, old forms of music media are regaining popularity as well. Millenials are buying more books than other generations, and vinyl records are making a comeback. Cassette tapes, even, have found a resurgence.

According to a recent Pew study, “Almost seven in ten adults (69%) read a book in print in the past 12 months, while 28% read an e-book, and 14% listened to an audiobook.” Most notably:

“87% of e-book readers also read a print book in the past 12 months” while only “5% said they read an e-book in the last year without also reading a print book.”

What it seems to come down to is the experience. The contrast between a digital and an analog experience can alter interpretations of media.

Print remains a dominant form for reading, and while vinyl can’t match the distribution potential and ease of access that mp3s hold, people are attracted to the experience of it. As one German record shop owner describes it:

““If you buy a vinyl record, you buy free time for yourself.  You slow down.  You hold the record and it needs time.  You look at the cover.  You read the lyrics.  You can do all that, slowing down. If you do that on a computer it’s like being bombed with information.  That’s the difference. With vinyl, you hold it in your hand.  You take your time: put it on the record-player and listen to the music.””

As of 2012, there is a proven preference for printed books over e-books in many cases, all dependent on the reading experience:

diagram of when printed books are preferred over e-books

Print works best with the social reading experiences, sharing books with others and reading with children, while e-books win in terms of convenience and portability, just like mp3s do over vinyl. Ironically, typical digital media such as mp3s tend to flourish in the social aspect, but early DRM efforts and the file formats the encode e-books restricting where and how they can be read make them much less amenable to being shared digitally.

Ownership also factors into the experience of “old vs new”. Ownership of books and vinyl is tangible, and people tend to attach nostalgia to the feel of the page or the process and ritual involved in playing a record. It’s all about the experience:

“Vinyl offers a listening experience light years beyond that of the mp3; where the mp3 sounds crisper and punchier, vinyl is round and generous, with greater audio fidelity. Vinyl is also tactile. You run your fingers along the sleeve’s edges, gingerly pull out the fat black disc, hear the pop and hiss as the needle settles into a groove. The process is much like leafing through a book, feeling the pulp under your fingertips, breathing in its smell.”

The experience isn’t the only thing valuable about ownership of “old media” (re: physical media). Collections become tangible representations of ourselves, shelves full of authors and artists reveal our intellectual or guilty pursuits. Digital collections lack that aesthetic and personal power:

“Now a personal library is something that resides on a computer server somewhere, accessed through your Amazon account. You can sell your house and traipse across the country or overseas, but all that changes is the IP address from which you access your “library.” The books do not become dog-eared, they are never misfiled. A guest in your home will no longer note that Gibbon or Boswell lies next to your easy chair. If someone wants to know who you are through your books, the place to look is GoodReads and LibraryThing. The printed book is aware of the passage of time.”

Print has its place, as does digital. Publishers are beginning to realize that. As an essay published by Random House Canada points out, “it’s not just about print versus screen, but about the space between lines and margins, the letterform, the grammar, whether colour or black and white, footnoted or hyperlinked, haptic or static.”

Even if digital e-books take over the old media of print, there are still new opportunities for storytelling in these new formats, and reading is still happening all across the digital realm, even if efforts are less focused exclusively on books. The Random House essay points out as well that “When you recognize the book as technology, you realize that print and screen, like body and mind, are not mutually exclusive mediums, but that they are increasingly mutually influencing.”

Nicholas Carr further proves this point in an essay in Nautilus, agreeing that the experience offered by print books is in fact complementary to the one offered by digital e-books:

“We were probably mistaken to think of words on screens as substitutes for words on paper. They seem to be different things, suited to different kinds of reading and providing different sorts of aesthetic and intellectual experiences.”

He goes into detail about how the tactile experiences of reading a print book differs from that of an e-book, and further, how our interpretations of the text differ based on the medium in which it is presented to us.

Digital technology is forcing us to reexamine knowledge and information — how we experience it, how we understand it, and how we interpret it. Digitization of content that used to reside exclusively in “old media” formats, however, means that there is an opportunity to rediscover that which is older, and could be forgotten in the stacks of libraries, or even long since relegated to satellite locations to be sold in library sales to save space.

While viewing books in a library allows the context of seeing the book near other books on a similar topic, it’s also harder to discover books that are similar but shelved elsewhere, categorized differently, or not owned by the library.

Digital technology and digital archives, if managed well, can allow for discovery of long-forgotten works and study of now-relevant titles. Vinyl allows you to immerse yourself in the work of a single artist, and a single album, to create a single listening experience. Mp3s and the discovery potential that they offer means that you can “take any genre of music, from death metal to R&B to chillwave, and the cloud directs you to not just similar artists in the present but to deep wells of influence from the past.”

As Paul Ford continues, having access to these media all at once means that “the past gets as much preference as the present” and “the idea of fashionability in music erodes, because new songs sit on the same shelf as songs recorded five, 25, and 55 years ago”, although as Google reveals in its new music timeline knowledge graph, that doesn’t mean that trends have gone by the wayside.

As indicated by Facebook’s new app, and other offerings that hearken back to forms of media that have been somewhat supplanted by digital versions (think sticky note apps that live on your computer), “old” media still holds a large presence in our lives. The Paper app itself opens with a montage of “old media” tasks: writing on a postcard, typing on a manual typewriter, fanning the postcard to dry out the ink, and opening up a newspaper, culminating in a view of the app itself on an iPhone. Facebook categorizes this digital app as something which will hold the same sort of experience, tactile and otherwise, in your life, when in fact it merely needs to understand that it could be a seamless way of transitioning from reading the NYTimes in paper format, to finding the same article in a Paper stream and sharing it with your friends.

Apple is moving away from skeumorphic design, but in a way that means that they are erasing the past and the connections that skeumorphs allow us to draw between the new and the old. Design that recalls the past provides a transition period, and allows one to understand the experience from analog across to digital.

“Until the iPhone and iPad came out, our experience with touchscreens was laughably limited to balky ATMs and the like. In most cases, digital onscreen buttons simply replaced real-world buttons.”

While design can help mimic certain experiences, and digitization allows us to explore what is old in a whole new way, we’re not necessarily ready to abandon old media, and may never be. As this excellent essay in Maison Neuve points out, “Older technologies persist because, in some cases, older does not necessarily mean less useful.” Books and vinyl have proven that they remain useful, whether for the experience they offer or the complementary role they play within our increasingly digital lives.

Edit: After reading this excellent blog post by Clive Thompson, I’m compelled to mention that the size of smartphone screens, and reading something of that size is also not new. We’re used to (especially in America) books of a certain size, but they haven’t always been that way. As Thompson explains, some early books were designed with one-handed reading in mind, and were actually rather small–like the size of a book on the screen of a smartphone.

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