Becoming Digital

It is received wisdom that the world has become digital.

Leaving aside that I now qualify for concessions at some venues, is this true? Is it really an age thing, and only the young will truly ‘be’ digital? Why do we still in many homes live in some mix of analogue and digital existence? Have we really become digital or are we only part way through a long transition? What, if anything, is holding us back? (I will leave for another essay the issue of what is happening in the workplace or enterprise: in this essay I am only concerned what impinges on home life).

It is certainly the case that Nicholas Negroponte’s vision of the future “Being Digital” published in 1995, when he was Director of the MIT Media Lab (and where he remains as Chairman, no doubt, with colleagues predicting new futures), provided an excellent checklist for inventions and innovations in the digital arena, and what he characterized as the transition from atoms (eg. Books) to bits (eg. e-books), as the irreducible medium for the transmission of information and entertainment. [In the following I will insert the occasional quote from the book.]

Smart TVs

When walking through Heathrow Airport recently I saw a toddler in arms, and as they passed a display screen a little hand reached out pointing at the screen, and tried to swipe it! It amazed me.

“… personal computers almost never have your finger meet the display, which is quite startling when you consider that the human finger is a pointing device you do not have to pick up, and we have ten of them.” (p. 132)

Clearly the touch-screen generation is emerging (although the child was disappointed to discover it failed to respond … it was just a TV monitor!). [The quotation above is similar to the Steve Jobs one, included in Walter Isaacson’s biography of him, (p. 309) “God gave us ten styluses”, which he uttered in relation to the stylus bearing Apple Newton, on his return to the firm in 1997. But of course Jobs had been dreaming of touch-screen products for many years, and it is incredible that the first iPad was released only 5 years ago, and the iPhone just three years earlier than that].

Negroponte predicted the convergence of the PC and the TV, but why has it taken me until the closing days of 2014 to acquire a “Smart TV”? It is a complex matter.

One thing is that I like to get the full value from the stuff I buy and the 7 years old Sony workstation and Bravia monitor (with its inbuilt tuner) meant we could view TV terrestrial and internet catch-up services like BBC iPlayer from the same set of kit, while also using it as a media station for photos and music, with some nice Bose speakers attached. But this is a setup that comes at a price, in ways that are more than simply financial.

The cost of setting up a fully fledged PC (which is mostly intended for entertainment) is high, whereas the Smart TV encapsulates the required processing power for you at a fraction of the cost. Why do we need a geek to watch a film? No reason at all. It really should be plug and view. And this also avoids all those irritating invitations to upgrade this or that software; to rerun virus checks; and battle with bloat-ware like Internet Explorer; etc.).  Not to mention that when we picked it up I could literally lift the Smart TV box with my little finger. This is therefore not only about the TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) but also the TIO (Total Irritation of Ownership). [The old Sony PC setup lives on in my new Study, where I will now use its power to greater effect, spending more time curating my vast photo collection, and writing blogs like this]

Sometimes the market is not quite ready for an idea, and it takes time to educate people about the options. The convergence of so many elements, including internet services, Full HD, large LED screens, and much more, when coupled with people’s poor experiences of high TCO and TIO mean that they like me are ready to make the move when thinking about a new “TV”. In my case triggered by the thought of moving the media station to my new office, and thinking “Do I REALLY want another PC to drive a TV monitor?”.

eBooks

On a recent long trip, my wife and I succumbed to getting a Kindle, allowing us to take a small library of novels with us for the journey and avoid falling foul of weight limitations on our flights. The Kindle is great technology because it does neither more nor less than one needs, which is a high contrast means of reading text, optimized for easy-on-the-eye reading as close as possible to what we know and love in a physical book. Power consumption is low, so battery life is long, because it does not try to do too much.

Does this stop us buying books? Well no. Even novels are still acquired in physical form sometimes because I suppose we are of an age where we still like the feel of a book in our hands.

But there are other reasons, that mean that even were we to wean ourselves off the physical novel, with it’s exclusively textual content, other books would not be so easily rendered in compelling electronic form due to their richer content.

Quite often the digital forms of richer media books are poorly produced, being often merely flat PDF renditions of the original. One of the books we downloaded for our trip was a Rough Guide to Australia and frankly it was a poor experience on a Kindle and no substitute for the physical product.

It recalls for me the inertia and lack of imagination of music companies who failed to see the potential in digital forms, seeing only threats not possibilities, which then saw them overhauled by file-sharing and ultimately ‘products’ such as iTunes and Spotify. In a sense, the problems and possibilities are worse for books because at least with books, it should not have taken much imagination to see where publishers could have provided different forms of ‘added value’, and so transform their role in a new digital landscape.

For example, when a real effort is made to truly exploit the possibilities of the digital medium – its interactivity, visual effects, hyperlinking, etc. – then a compelling product is possible that goes far beyond mere text and static visuals. Richard Dawkin’s “The Magic of Reality” for the iPad is an electronic marvel (a book made App), including the artistry of Dave McKean.

It brings the content to life, with wonderful text, touch-screen navigation, graphics and interactive elements. It clearly required a major investment in terms of the art and graphical work to render the great biologists ideas and vision into this new form. It could never have been achieved on a Kindle. It was able to shine on an iPad.

This is the next kind of digital book that really does exploit the possibilities of the medium, and should be the future of electronic books, if more publishers had the imagination to exploit the platform in this way.

The concept of personalization is also a great idea that only the digital world can bring to reality. This has already happening in news to a greater or lesser extent, as Negroponte predicted:

“There is another way to look at a newspaper, and that is as an interface to news. Instead of reading what other people thinks is news and what other people justify as worthy of the space it takes, being digital will change the economic model of news selections, make your interests play a bigger role, and, in fact, use pieces from the cutting-room floor that did not make the cut from popular demand.” (p. 153)

However, the physical forms live on, or takes a long time to die.

I used to buy The Independent, but now, for reasons partly concerned with content but also the user experience, I have moved to The Guardian tablet product: but we still get a physical ‘paper’ on Sunday, because it is somehow part of the whole sprawling business of boiled eggs, toast and coffee: an indulgence like superior marmalade.

Some physical forms will remain for more persistent reasons.

When we recently went to an exhibition of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photography in Paris, we came away the coffee table sized book of the exhibition measuring 30cm x 25cm x 5cm. This book is an event in itself, to be handled and experienced at the coffee table, not peered at through some cold screen.

And what of my old copy of P.A.M Dirac’s “The Principles of Quantum Mechanics” in it’s wonderfully produced Oxford Monograph form, where even the paper has a unique oily smell? I received this for my 21st birthday from my mother in 1974, and it is inscribed by her. For me, it is irreplaceable, in whatever form you might offer to me.

We will never completely sideline physical / analogue products, but for books at least we may see them being pushed towards two extremes. On the one hand, the pulp fiction Print-On-Demand low cost product, or on the other hand, the high impact, high cost product like the coffee table art book.

Our senses of sight, smell, taste, touch & hearing are analogue and so we have a innate bias towards analogue. That is why the iPad is so much more natural for a child learning to interact with technology than a traditional PC.

The producers of digital products must work hard to really overcome the hurdles that digital production often faces to match the intimacy and warmth of the physical, analogue forms. But when they do, they can create stunning results.

We are for sure ‘Becoming Digital’, but the journey is far from over and there is still much to learn to make the transition complete, whatever that might mean.

eAlbums

I remember 10 years ago making the shift to digital photography. The trigger this time was a big birthday/ holiday for my wife, and the thought of upgrading my camera, from Canon SLR to Canon SLR, but now a metal bodied just-about-affordable digital one. I had flirted with digital but it had been very expensive to get even close to the quality of analogue (film). But in 2005 I found that the technology had crossed that threshold of affordable quality.

In making the transition to digital I had long ago lost the time or appetite for the darkroom, and the Gamer enlarger has been in the loft now for more than 20 years. But even without substituting the chemicals with Photoshop, there is a lot to think about in the move to digital:

How will one organize and index one’s photos?

And, the big question for me, how will one avoid simply substituting the large box of photos and negatives that never quite found time to be curated and nurtured into Albums, with a ‘digital’ box, with JPEG and RAW files that never quite get around to being curated and nurtured into Albums?

When my wife and I returned from the holiday of a life-time in Tanzania, and I had some 3000 shots (high resolution JPEGs), including a sequence of a Leopard on the bough of a tree which I waited an hour to take: the few fleeting moments as it rose from its slumbers, stretched and then disappeared into the grasses of the Serengeti.

How could I turn this huge collection into a Christmas present for my wife worthy of the experience?

  • Well, I first decided on how to thematically organize the album … Our Journey, Enter the Big 5, The Cats, …
  • Then I sifted and selected the photos I would include in the album, before printing these 150 photos that survived the cull in different sizes and aspect ratios.
  • These were then pasted into the album, leaving plenty of space for narrative, commentary, and the odd witty aside.
  • This whole process took 3 whole days. A work of love and a little art I like to think.

Could that really be done purely digitally?

Now I know and can concede that much of this analogue work could now be done using some on-line ‘create your album’ service (of which there are many), even perhaps creating a look and feel that tries to emulate the warmth and intimacy of the old fashioned album.

There is a ‘but’,  because even if we have digitized the process to that extent, people still want the physical album as the end product sent to their home.

Why?

Surely we could have a digital display cycling through the album and avoiding the need for a physical artefact entirely? Why do we, in Negroponte’s language, need atoms when we can have bits instead?

Part of this is cultural. Handing around an album at Christmas rather than clicking a display on the device on the wall is still something that commands greater intimacy. But even supposing we clear that cultural and emotional hurdle there remains another more fundamental one.

Will this iconic album be around in 50 or 100 years time, like the albums we see from our grandparents, cared for as a family heirloom? Now, while many people now – knowingly or otherwise – are storing their digital photos on the cloud, and this number is growing exponentially, how many would trust cloud services to act as custodians of the family’s (digital) heirlooms?

I would suggest that few would today. So, what needs to happen next to take us from ‘Becoming Digital’ to fully digital, at least when it comes to our family photos and videos?

Google or Facebook are not the answer as they do not understand the fundamental need, that there may actually be stuff I do not want shared by default with every person I come into contact with – and I am obliged to understand increasingly complex and poorly thought-out access controls to ensure confidentiality – and if I slip up, it is my fault.

I am prepared to pay for professional services that respect my need to ensure confidentiality and copyright by default, and sharing is controlled precisely only when and with whom I want to, through choices simply and clearly made.

Clearly the Googles and Facebooks of this world do not offer a philosophy or business model to provide such a platform, because we have entered into a pact with these social media giants: we get to use their platforms for free if and only if we are prepared to share intimate detail of our lives, so we can be monetized, through a network of associated Apps and services that make recommendations to us. They are marketing engines offering to be our friend!

That is the choice we are forced to make if we want to stay in touch with our distant family networks.

So what is the alternative?

Well, we need a whole lot of stuff that goes beyond devices and platforms, and is nothing like social media. Imagine that the National Archives in a country like the UK joined forces with a respected audit firm (like PwC) and legal firm (like Linklaters) to institute a kind of ‘digital repository accreditation and archiving service’ that acted in support of commercial providers, and was funded by its own statutory services.

The goal would be to set legally enshrined standards for the accreditation, auditing and care of digital artefacts in all forms, in perpetuity, acting as the trusted archive of last resort. Added value services could be developed including rich descriptive meta-data, collection management, etc., to enable commercial providers to create a market that goes far beyond mere storage, but was not dependent on the long-term viability of any commercial entity.

This combined enterprise would provide that extra level of confidence customers fundamentally need.

Now that would be interesting!

As this example illustrates, the process of ‘Becoming Digital’ is so much more than the latest device, or App, or other gizmo, or even content production process (as we saw with eBooks).

It requires something that satisfies those less easy to define emotional, cultural and legal requirements, that would make it truly possible for my grandchildren to enjoy visual and textual heirlooms in a purely digital form that are secure and confidential, in perpetuity.

Conclusion

“Being Digital” was a seminal and visionary book and it is no wonder that the incomparable Douglas Adams in his review comments included on the cover said:

“… Nicholas Negroponte writes about the future with the authority of someone who has spent a great deal of time there.”

Now we are nearing 20 years into that future, it is interesting to see how things are playing out and how much of his vision has come to pass, and how much more there is to do.

What is most evident to me, from a personal perspective at least, is that ‘Becoming Digital’ in all its forms is a rocky and personal path, with lots of hurdles and distractions on the way, and an awkward marriage between analogue and digital, between atoms and bits, that looks set to continue for a long while yet … at least in this household.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2014.

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Filed under Digital Media, eBooks, Essay, Photography, TV

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