From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

November 30, 2007*: To hold in our hands

I've confessed, probably many more times than merit counting, to a rather close relationship with physical objects. The clutter on my desk should make that ... well, if not crystal clear, at least obvious. Agonizing over making the decision to throw away even the most insignificant of objects is further proof. But that doesn't mean that in my daily life I haven't made a substantial move toward becoming overwhelmingly digital. Though even as I write this there are stacks of paper all around me, our home doesn't have a functional printer. This is primarily due to the fact that I long ago stopped feeling the need for a print-out version of anything. My adoption of just about everything digital has actually become the source of an ongoing family feud. I alluded to this two months ago in a rare act of hanging dirty laundry in public. The gist of the matter is that though I'm certainly capable of sitting down on the sofa with Hila and thumbing through a photo album, I'm also more than comfortable viewing photos on the computer screen. Tzippi, on the other hand, is convinced that a "real" photograph is something you can hold in your hands and stick into an album.

I suppose I can understand her. She is, after all, the mother, and assumes that at least one of her roles is the transmission of tradition. We may not sit around the fire and tell stories like our ancestors, but we certainly continue to transmit our culture - partially via the schools, partially on the street corner, often around the dinner table, and also on the sofa - turning the pages of family photo albums. We point out family members our children may not remember (or even met), explaining who they are. We instill "memories" of family events that they never attended, and much more. I have no doubt that we can do this around the computer screen as well, but I can't really argue with Tzippi who feels that this doesn't have the same value, and that it doesn't contribute to bonding as much as sitting together.

Technical solutions exist that permit us to be digital and still sit on the sofa. We can, for instance, purchase coffee table photo viewers, or digital picture frames. We can upload our photos to these and then hold them in our laps and browse through the photos in much the same way we view an album today. I haven't yet tried out any of these, but I trust that they include various skimming functions that permit us to see perhaps twenty photos at once, and then choose which we want to see in a lager photo, moving backward or forward in the "album" once we've found a sequence we'd like to view. As promising as these may be, however, my guess is that they have very quickly become a niche market for the very simple reason that the newest generation of iPods and their imitators offers pretty much the same thing, along with numerous additional possibilities. And yet iPods and the like are very clearly "personal" systems while it would seem that digital picture frames attempt to answer a need for group viewing, something that an iPod not only doesn't try to do - it almost denies the need for it. They're part of an ongoing march toward the personalization of experience. When we were in public places yet covered our ears with earphones and listened to what we wanted to hear, something significant may have been happening, but it was also something that people quite readily accepted. The jury is still out on this one, but I get the feeling that the personalization of photograph viewing (which might appear to be considerably more personal to begin with) may not be meeting the same degree of acceptance that personalized music did.

Although on the one hand the digitization of photographs may be contributing to the personalization of memory, on another it's causing a redefinition of the social sofa upon which we sit to view those photos. Only a few years back email was the primary conduit for the transmission of photos, and receiving them was basically like receiving a package that we unwrapped - by ourselves. It wasn't particularly different from receiving the traditional holiday greeting card that included a review of the preceding year, along with an up-to-date photo of the family sending it. Today, sites like Flickr and Picasaweb have redefined the sharing experience. Rather than something being sent us, we're invited to partake in the uploaded photos. We may still be acting as individuals, but when we view the uploaded photos we're defining ourselves as part of a group. Some people find this new reality confusing and undesirable, while others can immediately identify how it might be useful to them. I often sit with a 75 year old woman whom I help learn to use her computer and the internet. She's got lots of things she wants to share with her children and grandchildren, but they visit only rarely. So when she adds a photo to her Picasaweb album and lets her children and grandchildren know about this, it's almost like sitting on the sofa with them. There may be value in viewing photographs alone, but it's clear that she would prefer to do so with others, and uploading an album (and sometimes even getting responses to the photos there) has proven itself to be very satisfying. When we weren't spread out around the world this need didn't present itself. Now that we are, we realize that rather than atomizing relationships, the a-synchronous viewing of photos actually strengthens them.

The continually broadening sense of comfort that we feel toward digitality doesn't, of course, divorce us from the physical world. There's no reason to assume that the two realms should be mutually exclusive, or that the digital should overtake (or overwhelm) the physical. We read both on screen and on paper, and in this particular case, it would appear that our attachment to paper is one of expedience - we simply don't yet have digital books which we can comfortably curl up in bed with to read. But will the same thing be true about photographs? Will handheld digital devices - devices that today are readily available - make viewing printed photographs only a choice of expedience, or is our ability to handle a photograph an essential quality of our appreciation of it? Is there some particular quality of memory that demands a physical attachment to something? "Virtual" environments are gaining in popularity. Do visitors to these environments feel a need for "physical" objects in order to feel at home in them? Do residents of Second Life collect virtual physical mementos that they can hold in their virtual hands? Would being able to do this create for them a greater sense of belonging, or of self? I'm still far from answering these questions, but in the meantime, Tzippi received a large envelope of printed photographs, and, as expected, promptly started arranging them in albums, and sat down contentedly on the sofa with Hila to view them. I see nothing wrong with that.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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