Monday, May 31, 2010

Gadgets and Self-Selecting Communities

I'm reading more than ever now that I have this electronic reader.  Why is a book more compelling when it's blots on an electronic screen?  And why is this kind of screen more compelling than a PC or laptop?  Is it just the size, the ultra-portability, the comparatively simple, single purpose design of a device that's for reading only?  Maybe it's just the sense of control it provides, knowing you can carry thousands of books and access any of them without getting out of bed.  There is this momentum that sets in by the end of a good book which compels you to just click through to the next one without pause, and keep reading -- provided any leisure time remains. 

A friend of mine has one, too.  She lent it to her mother for the weekend and it came back loaded with three romance novels.

Interesting how the introduction of any new toy brings out a crop of blogs, web-sites, and forums devoted to the exploration of its possibilities.  We long for these communities, of course, as human beings.  In the past we were limited in choice of community to which churches we could walk to and which neighbors we ran into at the farmers' market.  Now, we hook up online with the people who play with the same gadgets we do, regardless of physical location.

We gain a great deal of specialisation and depth this way, translating it into pure pleasure with the objects of our desire.

We lose, I guess, the chance encounters, the exposure to subjects and interests that we'll never know would delight us, as well as the chance to win over converts to our own causes.  We also lose out on every channel of communication besides text.  The inflections, facial expressions, perfumes and body odors, casual flirtations and early warning signs of disapproval -- we're numb to all of those online.  Even in a three-dimensional game-space like World of Warcraft of Second Life, the most gorgeously rendered avatar can't hope to convey any of those nuances, when their inputs are merely strings of text.

But this is me merely railing against change, as usual.  My psyche requires some guilt and reservation in the face of each new pleasure. 

It's a New Englander's characteristic, I think, to be unhappy in the absence of struggle, to distrust ease, to suspect that every joy will be punished by swift and calculated misfortune.   New Englanders seek for comfort in the past, a past whose joys have expired so long ago they cannot possibly be punished by any current accounting.

Or a past whose joys have been paid for already.  "Things were better then," we say, "when we had to wrest boulders from the soil in order to plant our crops.  The work brought us exercise and enduring stone walls."  The pleasure of those harvests long paid for, we can dwell in their memory without fear of reckoning. 

To enjoy a book, today, without even the struggle of paper and printing -- it's an abundance that makes a New Englander suspicious.  Oh, we'll enjoy it, since we have to, but we'll pretend, for a long stretch, that we don't. 

Until the next thing comes along to enjoy and worry over.

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