Forget about digital heirlooms

September 5, 2008

One of the more notable problems with digital artifacts, besides their ephemeral and intangible nature, is that they tend to lack character. They are produced by machines and they are readily reproducible by other machines without marginal additional effort. They lack the individuality and imperfection that comes from something that was manufactured not as we come to think of it now, but in the original sense of the word — to be made (factured) by hand. Even as something as simple as a handwritten note on a scrap piece of paper has more character than anything made by machine.

At the Experience Music Project in Seattle, there is a Jimi Hendrix exhibit. And in this exhibit there are large posters of the lyrics to a few of Hendrix’s songs, blown-up photographs of scrawled handwritten notes Hendrix made on spare bits of hotel stationery from wherever he happened to be staying at the time. To see the lyrics, in Hendrix’s own handwriting, on stationery that places that single creative moment in both in geographical and chronological space … well that’s something that could just never happen if Hendrix had typed those same lyrics into the notepad application on his laptop computer. All the preserved emotion and individuality and character and authenticity of the scrawling Hendrix handwriting would have been lost. The creases in the paper, the subtle stains of age and even the contextual markers of the stationery logo and address — those would’ve been lost as well. In fact, a great deal of the visceral emotional power of the entire exhibit would have been completely and utterly … absent.

One could ask: What would Jimi Hendrix have become had he been born in the 1992 instead of 1942? How would his music have changed if aided by digital tools? These are, however, meaningless questions. People are creations of their environments, and Hendrix was who he was because of when he was.

A more appropriate question may be: How does creativity change when more and more of it is facilitated by machine? What happens when something as simple as song lyrics are typed out and stored in a digital file instead of handwritten on a physical sheet of paper? When the emotion conveyed by the irregular strokes of a pen is replaced by the uniform neatness of the Helvetica font, what changes? The answer can only be: everything.

In the realm of creative expression one thing is apparent: Tools are tools, and all of them have inherent limitations, even machines. The personal computer is limiting not only because of its regimented, digital nature, but also because of its sedentary interaction pattern. Humans beings are embodied creatures, and sedentism is rarely conducive to creativity. Creativity comes not just from the mind acting through the fingers, but from the whole being. And creativity should be preserved in media that maintains the full fidelity of what that embodied experience is all about. Or — at the very least — more of that fidelity.

Note: The irony that all of this is being published in digital is not lost on me.