Digital archives, e-reading and what is lost?

Sitting down with a pile of recent New Yorker magazines given to me by a neighbor, eating a bowl of homemade soup, I marveled at how it felt to become engrossed in a medium that did not electronically glow or hum at me. Neither did it tempt with boosts of social-media-induced oxytocin when my interest in the author’s narrative began to waver. My mind felt calm as I fell into the developing piece. I fell happily into a zone unlike the frenetic zipping around on Twitter, or the  emotional juxtapositions on Facebook.

We have studied the brain activity of those online, those watching TV, those playing videogames….we are learning so much regarding how internet and computer use is creating changes in mental pathways. Have we studied the difference between MRIs of print-media readers vs. e-book/ blog/RSS/social a readers?

There is a perceived convenience in compiling, scanning, processing large amounts of citations and PDFs for research….but there is an experiential difference in going through printed articles, piles, folders, and books. I would argue that this experiential, emotional and intuitive difference informs and allows for differently motivated discoveries, reflections and insights.

How much is romantic projection and how much is neurologically accurate? And is there really a difference between those two? Is it a matter of platform? Would I feel differently if the manner in which I interact with the digital archive resembled that of shuffling through piles and pages? Would it be different sitting in a cafe versus sitting in front of my computer like a TV? Would it be different if I were using a touch-screen to move files into bibiliographic software? There are various impediments to my answering that question – limitations having to do with the cost of new equipment, my familiarity with certain software.

Still, is there some loss of serendipity?  Some level of intuitive control and mastery that years of working with paper publications has developed that the comparatively fickle and everchanging technologies of databases and metadata/retrieval systems has made too difficult for many to accomplish? Just when one develops a system of organization do frameworks and schema change and the world is captivated by promising new novelties. Akin to an office changing email platforms every two years, each model claiming improved usability and access…..the most productive professors may still swear by hotmail, Eudora or Pine.  The busiest administrators may still print up every email and file everything in paper stacks. Why? Because if too much went electronic, they know they would lose information. What they have and have done works, because their brain is busy with what else they have mastered.

What does this have to do with electronic reading and archives? Something occurred to me recently while organizing and backing up my files from my classes. I have electronic folders filled with PDFs. I have a account swimming in tags. Viewing these files, double-clicking to open them does not invoke the same emotional revelry that relaxed flipping through old readers or paper files does. Is this actual or merely personal?  Is this generational? As a teenager in the late 80’s and early 90’s I would go to Telegraph Ave., equipped with all the latest free weeklies (SF and East Bay Weekly, East Bay Express), the latest Sandman comic books, some article of local poetry from Zeitgeist Press, a used book or two of modern literature or philosophy. Armed with these and a notebook I would order a cappuccino at the Caffe Med, walk upstairs and I would tune out for several hour listening to post-punk on my cassette walkman.

In this manner, I would browse these printed volumes, writing down quotes, book titles, zine publishers, artists names. It was this research activity into literary, cultural and creative works that fueled my acquisition choices as a book buyer in the mid-late 90’s (before corporate culture had me packing off to graduate school).  Gen-X bohemia aside, my important point is…I did not spent the majority of that time trying to figure out how to flip my cassette over, or how to access an article in the back of a magazine or newspaper, or fretting over why I couldn’t find certain comic book issues in my bag or pile on the table. The connection and interaction with information access and recording seemed as smooth and natural as one’s own synaptic flow.   Perhaps those younger than me, the ‘digital natives’ are silently scoffing at my concerns. But I am still curious – how similar or different are these two methods of content discovery?

Fast-forward a couple years – shortly after these early 90’s, outside of library/university records the “social/research web” was limited to usenet groups. I scoured dozens, printing FAQ sheets, discographies, with some vague idea of preservation.  Fifteen years later I realize this kind of activity is what amazes me about current digital archiving practices.  But as I now find articles in printed newspapers and journals and waver between cutting them out to collect yet  “more paper” vs. the time it would take to go online to that journal to seek out the electronic copy of the piece and save the citation in (hoping that in future I could retrieve it with compatible metadata or even hope that the url still worked! )…there’s a strong chance things could become lost. I have file drawers of printed pieces from newspapers and magazines from 20-15 years ago, many of which are inaccessible online and out of print.  I am glad that I can peruse and discover articles I did not remember possessing. I also have boxes of notebooks that I wrote things down in. Obviously beside the differences in recording and retrieval there is a dramatic difference in public access. Who else beside myself can access these files or these notes?

I do not have easy answers for these inquiries other than an acknowledgment that these are challenges for both the processing of digital and traditional archives as well as challenges to cross-generational acceptance and standardization of ever changing technological methods of publishing, experiencing and preserving information.

Returning to the notion of measuring qualities of brain activity – is the activity conducted on the early days of the web, usenet groups, similar to that of surfing newsfeeds and engaging in social networking? Is there a difference between this kind of mental activity and that of reading printed material? Is zipping around a printed newspaper or magazine different than that of becoming engrossed in a novel? How is a graphic novel different? Or a video game? What does the MRI of someone reading Dostoevsky or Proust look like?

If human brain pathways are evolving – could we be losing “earlier versions” of our brains? Like languages, dialects and accents are lost…are we losing earlier pathways and structures?  Many studies argue that we are re-mapping our brains through our use of the digital.  What if these lost parts correlate with improved stress reduction or focus or things that we currently try to medicate for? Are there activities that also use these same neural zones? Painting, gardening, yoga?  Do we want to substitute a reading experience that feels like yoga or gardening with a reading experience that feels like navigating a busy freeway? Perhaps for those who enjoy the taste of adrenaline, that has its place…but before we completely switch over our means of informational input (a transition as dramatic as the printing press or discovery of electricity) it might do our mind and creative processes good to fully understand what we are gaining and what we might be sacrificing.