Thursday, February 17, 2011

further thought on creating emotional attachments to digital objects

I've already blogged that I've been thinking a lot about how the future will be without books.  A former co-worker tweeted a link to this article several days ago: The Art of Creating Emotional Attachments to Digital Objects. I've been thinking about it since. I wasn't sure, and I'm still not sure, how the topic of creating emotional attachments to digital objects relates to  the #techcomm business, but it does resonate with it. Today I noticed a link to the same article on STC's Notebook, so I guess it is a blog-worthy topic after all.

According to the writer, Dominic Basulto, summarizing the argument for or against e-books boils down to the "touch" issue:  "e-books can not be touched, bookmarked and lovingly annotated in the same way that real books can."  Digital signatures, digital "weathering", and some kind of way to display what you're reading to others do all factor into it, but his article as well as most of the discourse about books vs. e-books, leaves out one important point. Will I be able to pick up your e-book in 10 years, be able to read it, and understand what it meant to you?

There's more to the emotional attachment to books than weathering.

Let me illustrate with a family anecdote. A few years ago, my nieces (then ages 17 and 19) were searching Mom's attic for a missing tea kettle. The rest of us were sitting around the dining room table joking about how the last time I went up into the attic I found lots of old books, some of which had belonged to various of the Gills, our across the street neighbors on Warwick Rd.. They had titles like "The Boy Allies in the Balkans" and such.

The girls were up there a long time. They returned without the tea kettle, but with a pile of books. The 17-year-old, who had just returned from a semester studying in Spain, held up a book and said "I wish I'd had this book before I went." It was "All About Going Abroad with Maps and a Handy Travel Diary" by Harry A. Franck. Written on the first page was the owner's name "Mary Winifred Gill, Regis College". There was an inscription on the flyleaf "With sincere good wishes for a happy and profitable year abroad. Sept. 19, 1936." We couldn't quite make out the signature but the last name was Hogan. That book must have migrated from Warwick Road when we moved in 1964!

I explained to my niece that the book's owner was my French teacher at Regis. She was impressed and enjoyed reading about exchange rates from the 1930s and stuff. The book became an instant treasure. However, the story doesn't end there.

I wrote to my former neighbor and French teacher, now in her 90s, with the story of the book. She responded with the answer to who had given her the book and the story of how she didn't go to study abroad in her Regis student days after all. At the time all foreign study for Americans was called off because of trouble under Franco in Spain. Of course, later WWII broke out etc.

My niece was thrilled to hear the story and feel the connection to a tiny part of history.

Could that story have happened with an e-book? If somebody picks up a 2011 Kindle in the attic in 2080 (won't be me unless I discover the secret of eternal life), will they know it's a reading device? Will they be able to recharge the battery or find some other way to power it on? Will they be able to transfer the content to whatever the current reading device is in 2080?

These days, with the 2011 state of e-readers, I can't transfer some of my e-books from one e-reading app to another. I have Stanza, Bluefire, iBooks, Google Books, and the Kindle app on my iPod Touch.  Some of the formats are incompatible. And of course, Google Books are in the cloud. Which of these formats will go the way of the 8-track tape or the Betamax video? Will version 7.0 (never buy a version numbered higher than 7) of the e-reader software you're using be able to read books that you downloaded with version 2.0? Will you be able to read your Kindle content on whatever has replaced the Kindle by then? Will there be a whole new industry of converting old e-book formats to new ones the way there is for audio? These are the problems we need to be solving.

The whole emotional attachment thing in my story comes from the story, not from how weathered the book looks or from showing off to others how often I read about studying abroad. The emotional "content" here came from the human connection across generations. Digital weathering isn't going to provide that. Instead of working on ways to be able to make our digital books seem more used and weathered, we need to be working on ways of assuring that they will still be readable. Instead of working on ways of displaying what our books say about us to the anonymous masses, we need to be working on how to connect people in real life using the power of objects and their content in the context of our emotions and affect.

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