Cultural Memories in the Digital World

A book is much more than a collection of information. It is also a physical object, and this materiality plays an important role in shaping the way we relate to literature. Think of how the pages of your favorite story feel between your fingers, and the way its spine creases as you immerse yourself further and further in the plot. The weight of a thick novel reflects the depth of its story, an illustrated cover helps to seed your imagination, while the font in which the text is printed might convey a certain emotional tone. Perhaps you like to record your own thoughts in the white margins of a book’s pages; perhaps you prefer to leave those edges clean and allow the story to stand on its own. Either way, the materiality of a book shapes our relationship to its content; it becomes a physical souvenir of our engagement with a story.

So what happens, then, as our media and the culture they convey move increasingly into the digital world? How does the emergence of e-books change the way we experience a story?

These questions were the subject of a brief talk by publisher and technologist James Bridle, broadcast recently on BBC Radio’s Four Thought. Bridle suggests that the digitization and globalization of our cultural world not only transforms the nature of our cultural artifacts; it changes us, as well.

People are changed by these encounters with the network as much as our cultural objects are. That’s fundamentally important. Even though we’ve always been connected [to the world] in all these ways, the visibility of that connection that the network brings, is deeply strange. You can reach out across space, and you can reach out across time, as well; the network has this extraordinary flattening effect on time, so things that look distant are just as accessible to us as things that are near. And you can see this process happening in the ways that we write, in the ways that we read, and the things that it’s doing to the texts themselves.

Whereas it was the physicality of a book that brought its narrative to life in our experience, it is now the instantaneousness and interactivity of information that facilitate our connection to a story. But while this necessarily changes the way we engage with cultural artifacts, Bridle suggests that this need not entail a loss of value. Our collective cultural memory is not in the process of disappearing; it is simply being transformed – embodied no longer by physical objects, but rather by the process of sharing.

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