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Thursday, November 06, 2008


I spend a lot of time on my laptop. Many documents are available there, and many transactions can be performed. At the same time, I feel like there are hidden problems.
My laptop even replaces watching TV sometimes. Last night, instead of watching a DVD on my TV, I watched the Simpsons on my laptop. The difference was that I can put the screen anywhere I want. On the one hand, TV has sentimental value to me. But further, the idea of a screen that is watched for certain purposes being located in one place has its role. Its like organizing our space. What happens when we open up the possibility of continually changing spaces?
How do we live? We are creatures of habbit.
This is something I have a problem with. I tend to get myself into continually changing environments. Yet there is a good part of me that this doesn't work for. How can something grow, when its environment is always shifting? I grew up with two houses, going back and forth between my father's and mother's, transferring twice a week until high school. Each place was different, with different rules and expectations, positive and negative aspects. I trace a lot of my scattered approach to life back to a coping mechanism for this lifestyle. My parents tell me that it was what everyone was recommending at the time for divorced parents with kids. However, the opinion later changed. A topic for future research/discussion.
Back to paperless. Despite all the benefits and time that I do indeed use digital media, it scares me. There's an underlying fear that the bottom has fallen out. That Borges' image of the infinite library is at hand. At the heart of this is perhaps the requirement for new skills at maintaining ourselves and new dangers to recognize. But for myself, I try to recognize the same patterns that I see in my approach to people, research, and organizing my life in my digital/paper approach.
Here is a random document I found in my search for the term "paperless office" (a review of a study called "The Paperless Office" by Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H. R. Harper). In the conclusion of the review, this line caught my eye:
Second, the digital alternatives to paper need to be better designed. Until that happens, until paper is used as an analytical resource for the design of technologies, paper will almost certainly continue to be the medium of choice.
It just reminded me to be wary of the hidden costs of using digital media. Paper hasn't been around for ever, and our current digital technology and metaphors won't be around forever, but technology shouldn't be quite as powerful in its role as dictating what questions we ask and what kinds of collaborations we pursue.

Sorry for rambling. Let me again blame the medium. Or more precisely, this medium seems to make this kind of shallow jumping around easy to do.
Finally, let me just add, as a "direction for further research", that perhaps where digital media fall short is in their very lack of physicality. We have a lot of intuition about our three dimensional world. To quote from my undergraduate thesis (on adiabatic invariants!) "We are largely concerned with getting ourselves from here to there and moving other things from here to there." The computer desktop metaphor is just that, a metaphor, not a reality. It is still largely a two dimensional model, with links between different chunks of 2-D space. You may argue that a book is also largely two dimensional. But the links between the different pages occur truly in space. The flipping of pages and the locating of later pages deeper in the book than earlier pages, is something that screen reading does not fully replicate.
Its surprising, but I find myself having to mount a defense for our poor 3 dimensional world!!

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