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Intense Togetherness: Paper, Screens, and Reading

Screens aren’t paper: obvious, but intensely forgettable. Since I’ve found my way into a very odd class this semester—an investigation of paper as technology—I’ve been remembering this more often.

Early Sunday evening, my dad and I got lost in Allston. More than once, I subtly blamed this occurrence on my sadly un-smart phone. (“If only I had an iPhone, this never would have happened!…”) As we walked along, stepping gingerly over sidewalks covered in icy craters, I thought about the conversation we’d had earlier in the day about the special qualities of paper. Though I feel a certain fondness for paper, the list I generated was nowhere near as extensive as his, which included the following advantages:

-Can go from having a very small surface area (perfect for tucking way) to having a very large surface area (unfolded, perfect for reading.)
-Disposable, or at least easily replaceable. (Unlike the devices we casually carry around, worth hundreds or thousands of dollars each.)
-Pleasantly tactile. Also, easy to view in daylight.

Though this topic has a lot to do with the class I happen to be taking right now, it also has everything to do with a bigger question: what comes next? With the news swirling around these days—imminent death of newspapers, the impending arrival of the new Kindle model, and the constant intrigue of Digital Natives and how in the world they get their information—the showdown between screens and paper is here.

Last week, Sarah wrote about one vector of this situation—the Kindle, and the question of whether it’s convenient or too convenient. Sarah ended up concluding that the lo-fi impulse is worth following, at least on occasion. But here’s what I’m wondering: will Digital Natives twenty-plus years younger than us even have a lo-fi impulse?

One clue comes from an article by the excellent Virginia Heffernan, whom Sarah also cited. Heffernan, sitting down with her 3-year-old son to “read” an e-book via laptop, is confronted by her son’s acute awareness of the screen-paper divide. The story finished, her son remarkes that “It’s not a book…It’s more like a movie or a video.” Heffernan realizes, then, that “My immersion in the Kindle is not (to him) an example of impressive role-model literacy. It’s Mom e-mailing, or texting, or for all he knows playing video games.” The activity of “reading,” for her son, is tied to intense togetherness: something he already senses and understands. “Reading” is when you set everything else aside, remove distractions, and spend quality time in each other’s presence. Bringing a device back into the picture is more than counter-productive; it’s nonsensical.

With the advent of RSS readers and Twitter and Tumblr, I’ve found a universe of to-do lists that, at last, I can actually make progress on. When all that’s required to check something off the list is to read it, then that—that’s something I can do. And usually it is what I do, first, before anything else. The satisfaction of accomplishing something (anything) is often enough to carry me forward into whatever task comes next. Just as often, though, it’s enough to pull me under into the ocean of information that the internet harbors.

Like Sarah, I’ve been trying to take time for lo-fi. The more I try to read on paper, though, the more I find I still yearn toward the connectedness I feel on the screen. For me, as a hyperdigital college student, Twitter and Facebook are the places where my far-flung friends and I “make time for each other.” When I read a sentence that strikes me, whether on paper or on the screen, I can’t help but want to share the moment. Heffernan and her son sit on the couch together, reading picture books; I sit in my dorm room, reading about typography and catching myself reaching out to my keyboard.

Screens and paper, and the possibilities and constraints behind them, lend themselves to different architectures of experience. The information we pull in has a great deal to do with what we’re thinking; what we’re thinking has everything to do with who we are. To share that with one another seems vital; the technology that enables it, incidental.