In Defense of…the Real?

By Jin-yeong Yi

Lin Kristensen - Timeless Books

One might wonder why I, who prefers fantasy to reality, would write an article like this one. Well, I haven’t changed my fundamental position. I still prefer dreams over waking reality. But as long as I’m going to be in waking reality, I will continue to prefer, strictly within the context of waking reality proper, the real thing over its substitutes. This includes physical media as opposed to their electronic counterparts, which is the subject of this article.

I’ll start off with the issues of security that are inherent to the computer and the Internet. I’m not speaking of government conspiracies, but rather stability. Think of all the roles that your computer takes today. If you’re like me, you use your computer not only for research, communication, shopping, etc. on the Internet and creating and editing documents, but also for listening to music, watching movies and TV shows, and playing video games. That sleek, glowing box in front of you fulfills the functions that were, at various points in history, the exclusive or near-exclusive domain of other devices: CD players, television sets, typewriters, pen and paper. In other words, things have become centralized, meaning that most if not all of your eggs are in one of two baskets: your hard drive or the Internet itself. Never mind the occasional power outage or system failure: what will you do if computers and the Internet become things of the past, and nothing will be there to replace them? It is tempting to assume that technological progress will continue ad infinitum, but a long descent (to use John Michael Greer’s term) into a post-technoindustrial future doesn’t seem all that implausible, either. But that’s a topic for another discussion.

For the time being, it can be said that something resembling the transhumanist dream of immortality (via “mind uploading”) has already been realized for music and the printed word. Unlike paper books, CDs, and letters; e-books, MP3s, and e-mail do not fall apart because they do not possess physical vessels of their own. For all intents and purposes, they are eternal. The only question is whether the same thing can be said for the foundations upon which their existence depends.

The electronic medium has a lot going for it. I think few would deny that. It never gets dirty or worn, and, in theory, could last forever. Unlike its counterparts in bookshelves and cabinets, it takes up zero physical space and generally entails minimum hassle to retrieve, making it possible to fit an entire library’s worth of texts, music, etc. into a device that is no bigger than your average paperback. And let’s not forget all the natural resources that could be saved. And yet, under all that convenience, efficiency, and practicality, something is missing: tangibility.

Whether the idealists among us acknowledge it or not, it would seem that the material (notice that I’m using the word here in a loose sense) is every bit as valuable for us humans as the immaterial. How many people would, for example, be content with photographs, videos, audio recordings, or holograms of their loved ones rather than those people themselves in the flesh?

I feel that the same principle applies to inanimate objects. You can hold an e-book reader or an MP3 player in your hands, and even insert your own notes into the data, but the medium as a whole cannot respond or change to your touch. It’s almost like holding a miniature museum in your hands: you can see the book or the record and X-ray it and examine the contents, but you can’t actually feel the piece because it’s safely ensconced behind a wall of glass, forever beyond your reach.

But real books and real records? They’re capable of having a real history under your possession: fingerprints, notes, marks, and yes, wear and tear. Given enough time, a new–or, for that matter, used–book or record will have been shaped by your touch, bearing the unique marks of your ownership. These facts give collection a meaning apart from and beyond mere accumulation.

Those of us who, in the age of advanced modern technology, choose the physical over the electronic lose much, but in return gain (or retain) something that is arguably indispensable. In exchange for convenience, they get character. In exchange for practicality, they get personality. Not a bad trade-off, if you ask me.

This is not to say that I disdain or despise the electronic medium. In the contrary, I think it provides an invaluable contrast–it can help us to appreciate and rediscover that which it was meant to replace.