Surface Tension | Lost Worlds

“One of the great losses of the Information Age is texture. Consider the pre-computer desk: a litter of papers, large and small, handwritten, printed and typed, course and fine; letters in varying hands, envelopes of various sizes bearing stamps from all over the world. Here are books, annotated and bookmarked; here is a typewriter with its ribbon and its heavy steel frame. Here are photographs and drawings, coins and banknotes, documents bearing seals and counter-signatures, pristine originals and faded carbon copies… Papers lie in piles, navigable vertically according to what has been most recently consulted; some are turned sideways-on to mark the stack.

“Now consider today’s equivalent. All is stored on the network and accessed via mouse-clicks on a clean glowing screen. Everything is the same: an image seen through glass. We touch nothing, mark nothing, smell nothing. In the new world of I.T., it is not just the desktop that is a metaphor: everything is a metaphor, where nothing yellows with age and everything is clean and new. We are become creatures of sight alone, our whole attention focused on a hundred and fifty square inches of expensive glass.

“We have lost something in the process. Not just texture. Something more. The computer makes everything retrievable; but it doesn’t retrieve everything. Only the surface. Scratch the surface and – look! – more surface. The rest is lost.”

From Michael Bywater’s excellent Lost Worlds: What Have We Lost, & Where Did it Go?

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5 responses to “Surface Tension | Lost Worlds”

  1. Oddly and ironically the advent of cyberspace ensues with the thumbprints of Descartes’ thoughts on the mind-body duality. I have not had access to Bywater’s text, but perhaps what he alludes to is parallel to the techngnosis that Erik Davis speaks of?
    Erik Davis who holds to some radical views shaped by alternate spiritual consciousness and Buddhistic traditions has written about the Cartesian traces in cyberspace and the new technologies in his various essays posted on his techgnosis site:
    “Classical AI conceives the mind as a disembodied symbolic processor manipulating representations and information in order to reason about and influence the world. Perception, sensation, and behavior are seen as inputs and outputs of an essentially logical machine, a machine whose essential activity is, to take an example fetishized by the AI community, expressed in chess. Though starkly reductive when compared to humanist or existential conceptions of consciousness, classical AI has the peculiar characteristic of reinforcing the familiar “Christian” priority of mind over matter.”

  2. Interesting stuff Phil. I’m dipping into Techgnosis at the moment, but haven’t come across the site before. Looks interesting. Link [here]

  3. Well, I don’t know about your desk, but mine could definitely be described as pre-Information Age. I think a bit of toning down of texture in this “space” (where there is absolutely none!) wouldn’t go amiss! (although I have to admit to being without a typewriter, hmmm, where could I put that?)

  4. Coincidentally, Steven Johnson has just blogged about a new desktop idea called ‘BumpTop’ which aims to create a more 3 dimensional, ‘real’ desk feel.
    Video here.
    Steven Johnson’s post – and subsequent discussion – here.