In her essay On Reading, in Living, Thinking, Looking, Siri Hustvedt refers to her ability to pick up a book and open it at a specific passage or paragraph, sometimes years after having read the book. This, Hustvedt says, is part proprioception — our motor sensory capacity to orient ourselves in space.
It’s a skill that I guess is fairly common in much of the hard reading population. I can remember as a child, wondering what the point of a bookmark really was, beyond decoration. It seemed unfathomable to me that someone couldn’t remember where they were up to in a book.
I don’t yet have the same exact physical sense of where I am when reading online, but it may come to me with time. It’s a skill that already exists for many of the digital natives who cut their eye teeth chewing on the corner of a keyboard.
I’m a little irritated by the pushy habit of most eReaders of opening a book at the last place I was reading, but I can see the use of it as a feature. It’s just not always helpful to people like me who tend to have a number of books on the go at once. There is a different physicality to reading online than choosing from piles of books strewn around the house, but it’s important to remember that it is no less a physicality.
Norman Doidge and others have shown us that through neuroplasticity, physical tools and different activities can change our brains. Histories of reading such as Maryann Wolf’s Proust and the Squid argue that reading has impacted the evolution of humans. While this may be so, it doesn’t alter our existing circumstances and habits, or the reality of the space and place we live in now.
It’s past time that we removed notional divides between virtual and real worlds, second lives, of the social and what, the — unsocial media?
It’s time to put away the labels — new media, old media, social media, online media, mass media, digital media, broadcast media, print media, multimedia … however you chose to slice and dice it, whatever you choose to call your preferred methods of interacting with the world, this is where we are now — part of some amorphous lump, a ‘media’ that includes all of the above and more.
Labels have become unhelpful and have promoted a cultural blindness that permits us to assume what happens online is different, is somehow unconnected to our ‘real world’. This has allowed us to to disconnect ourselves from the implications of technological change in all sorts of ways — be it copyright, defamation, child pornography, bullying, privacy, the realities of a capitalist media and publishing marketplace, or more positive collaborative and creative models. Fostering the pretence that there is an unreal online world that somehow doesn’t count as much as some notional ‘real world’ has made us slow to realise and deal with the realities of change.
The idea ‘what goes online stays online’ is as an invalid a way of warding off the consequence of action as the footballers’ ‘what goes on tour, stays on tour’ ever was.
Online actions have real world consequences and just as importantly real world actions have online consequences. The publican at the Annandale pub posts images on Facebook to catch thieves, while Jill Meagher’s murder sparks a waterfall of Twitter and Facebook responses as well as a march attended by thousands. Alan Jones’ comments about Julia Gillard invoke an online petition aimed at his advertisers which, in turn, is reported extensively in all kinds of media.
In a world where every newspaper has a digital channel and ‘old media’ provides huge swathes of digital content, where advertising and art have melded, where the social is the political, where books are published simultaneously online, in print, in audio and as film, the only real value in trying to unpick differences between online/off line is to attempt to chart new ways forward that deal effectively with current realities.
So sensitive analysis such as Matt Rubenstein’s 2012 Calibre prize winning essay Body and Soul: Copyright law and enforcement in the age of the electronic book in the Sept 2012 issue of Australian Book Review may lead us to new conflict free models of dealing with book piracy.
Online collaborative models with multiple authors and creators may lead us back closer to oral traditions, or to Japanese and Chinese narrative models such as kishōtenketsu that don’t rely on conflict, or they may lead us on to somewhere else instead.
The realities of changed markets, new publishing models and an ever present media are already with us. Already ‘new media’ feels as dated a concept as modernism, or even post-modernism. Where do we go next? Post new-media? Where this so-called ‘new world’ won’t lead us is to somewhere unreal. For the book will continue to be as real as it always has been, as real as the device that holds it, the brain that conceives it and the one who reads it.