Guest post: Page, Screen, Space – The Digital Imagination and the Real World

The workshop on ‘Business models, rights & ownership’ may sound specialised, but it was a gathering of professionals and students from a huge range of disciplines and all the better for it. The unifying element was the digital format, which refuses to be categorised because it is constantly evolving. It is unifying, elusive and adaptable – a shapeshifter – and because of this, it is applicable to just about any real-world problem. I’d even argue that it changes our systems of thought not just about digital, about everything. Digital technologies let us dream and experience life in a different way. Let me back that up before you think I’m overstating the case. I’m approaching the digital realm from the perspective of someone who loves creativity and the arts – and people. So despite well-grounded fears that digital technology can be isolating, I would like to argue that it can, when used well, have the opposite effect.

Since the rise of the internet, we are connected in an unprecedented way. When we become part of online communities, we are all amateurs learning from one another. We can learn instantly what governments are planning and if we don’t like it, launch a global protest in a matter of hours. We can find video tutorials on anything from writing a novel to fixing a radiator. And it’s all free. We share with one another largely out of very human motivations; to be nice, to be liked, to build a career out of something we love. (As an aside, Creative Commons is a very good thing in this context. Using it is a mark of respect for fellow creators and can allow people to confidently share work and further their careers or reputations.)

This shared space also lets us think differently. In an offline world, learning was largely segmented into designated spaces; the university, the library, meeting your erudite friends at the pub. Networking happened only in a shared physical space. To make a film, you had to find film stock, hire a camera, pay for a specialised crew etc. Now you can shoot a film on your phone or fund one for £45 and still pick up mainstream distribution. (See ‘Colin’ as proof.) So the online world has made it easier to learn, to be connected and to be creative.

And that’s just for starters. Hybrid technologies incorporated into iPads, smartphones etc are making anything possible. Let’s make a list of stuff you want to do:

  • A guided tour of Paris
  • Visit the world’s art collections
  • Publish a book
  • Make a stop motion animation
  • Create your own app
  • Become an expert in knitting/ yoga/ extreme ironing

You can do it all, for free or for just a few quid. But the crucial point is that the list above is active, not passive. You are a maker as well as a consumer. The digital world is making you more creative. And I could bang on forever about why creativity is good for us, but I’ll spare you. We all know that it makes us stronger, more alive, able to deal with difficulties, able to imagine a world different from the one that is presented to us. If we can imagine, we can imagine something better and live by our ideals. I’m not limiting this to the privileged few, either. Technology will become cheaper, spread to developing countries and change lives. Already, micro-loans in Africa are sent by mobile phones. The charity Worldreader send e-readers to schoolchildren in developing countries. These examples advocate an integrated use of technology, used to enhance what is good about being human and living in the real world.

Yet there is a strong case for believing that encroaching technologies threaten rather than enhance real world experiences. One question we discussed at the conference was ‘If e-books replace the printed word, what is the use of a library or a bookshop?’ I believe we can learn from hybrid technologies here to think about the benefits of a real world experience as opposed to digital. With GPS and mobile technologies combined for example, we can now walk through a city and learn all about its history. The world around us can be transformed whenever and wherever we choose. Let’s think about this in the context of libraries and bookshops, which have traditionally relied upon a physical product and therefore work well in a physical space. (It is worth noting here that I am citing the advantages of independent bookshops who display their books according to notions of taste, diversity and quality, not according to sponsorship deals. Because of this, I believe chain bookshops are quickly losing any advantages over online shopping.)

Both the library and the bookshop offer a communal, social space that is free at the point of access. Unlike online book browsing, the physical space is not one screen made up of a limited number of pixels and the staff have no motive to sell you one book over any other. They just want you to read and enjoy it. There will be themed displays where you can discover books outside of your usual reading habits. You can meet like-minded people in the flesh and discuss big ideas or learn about what’s happening in your community. (We all know good friendships can’t be made or maintained entirely online.) Libraries and bookshops also holds books that can’t be experienced in the same way when digitised. Original historical manuscripts. Huge, lush photography or art books. Pop-up and textured books for children. Beautiful hardbacks that you can take to the top of a mountain without worrying about battery life.

Now let’s add some digital tools to this physical experience. You’re visiting the library and you’d like to borrow a text book, but you only need one chapter and the physical book weighs a ton. Just hook up your e-reader and borrow the e-book. You liked the latest novel by that Scottish author – what else is similar and in stock for you to borrow? Perhaps the library has its own version of Anobii, where fellow library members create lists of books on a theme. Do you want to read some more reviews before you borrow it? Look it up online. Perhaps you want to read a specialised journal that’s too expensive to buy? If the library has a database, you can read the journal in the library, using a highlighter tool like Diigo that collects all your highlighted sections. You can tag and organise your research instantly and send it all to your e-reader/ email address/ cloud. The same kind of integration can happen at the bookshop by connecting readers and linking the real and digital experiences of customers.

Libraries and bookshops are beautiful things that we should defend, even for younger readers who may grow up with more e-books than paper books. That doesn’t mean we can’t change them. If libraries and bookshops come under threat by technology, they must, like everything else, adapt to survive. And that’s not a bad thing. The digital experience can connect communities, enhance learning and make life easier, packed with more discovery, creativity and joy. Bring it on.


Anna Lea is an Honorary Teaching Fellow at The University of Warwick. She teaches on the Writing Programme and works for the Digital Change programme. Website: www.annalea.net


Photo by Flickr user Thomas Guignard. Some rights reserved under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence.

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