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Digital world has feet on ground

T S Eliot's typewriter
T S Eliot's typewriter doesn't 'remember' its owner

We need atoms as well as bits, says Bill Thompson

I once got told off by the manager of the BBC's Heritage Collections for publishing a photograph of Alistair Cooke's typewriter in its display case on the second floor lobby of Bush House, home of the World Service.

It seemed that photography on BBC premises was not approved of, so I removed the image from Flickr.

I didn't want the people in charge of such things to stop exhibiting interesting artefacts because they were scared we might take photographs of them.

Fortunately things seem to have got a lot more relaxed since 2006, as the stream of BBC-related photos and videos on the world's many social networks demonstrates.

Cooke's typewriter fascinated me because it seemed to bring me close to the journalist himself, whose work I had long admired. It's long gone from the lobby, but I was reminded of it earlier this month when I saw another important typewriter, one owned and used by T S Eliot during his years working at Faber & Faber.

Few authors still use typewriters, and I have to admit to wallowing in nostalgia when I came across this particular item of literary memorabilia on display as part of In a Bloomsbury Square, the British Library's celebration of Faber's 80th anniversary.

Today books are largely written on the keyboards of laptop or desktop computers, and the typewriter belongs to a vanished age - despite the valiant efforts of my 18-year-old daughter who still writes essays on hers.

I was made vividly aware of how much things have changed last week during a visit to Melbourne, where I am speaking at a conference on the role of libraries in the networked world.

The Library's head of learning, Andrew Hiskens, gave me a tour around the collection at the State Library of Victoria, and it was a treat - here a volume from the Medici library, there a hand-written edition of Boethius in a script that looked like a modern font, while next to the illuminated manuscripts sits one of Caxton's earliest printed volumes.

Then we came across a display case containing the iBook G4 laptop on which Peter Carey wrote 'The True History of the Kelly Gang', sitting beside a marked up manuscript and editions of the book it was used to write.

More than words

On first glance, the laptop and the typewriter are just two different ways of putting words in order, but there is a fundamental difference: the laptop remembers.

The typewriter has no memory of the poems and letters written on it, while the laptop can be persuaded to recall the book it was used to create, and it may be the only place from which early drafts and abandoned versions can be conjured back into existence.

Bill Thompson
On first glance the laptop and the typewriter are just two different ways of putting words in order, but there is a fundamental difference: the laptop remembers.
Bill Thompson

Eliot's typewriter and Carey's laptop exist on the two sides of a gulf as wide as that between the hand-written copy of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy and the early example of Caxton's printing that share space in the Victorian library; the gulf between the pre-computer world and the world we know today.

It is a world we are still building, and although we can make out some of its boundaries the final shape is far from certain. But it is not a "digital" world, and I think it's time we corrected the misapprehension that it might be.

We are not abandoning the physical or planning to give up our organic bodies and sublime into a mysterious form of conscious energy like the advanced species in Iain M Banks' Culture novels. We remain resolutely physical, and we remain reliant on old-fashioned analogue systems like eyes, ears and brains.

Digital content remains dependent on the physical world too, since data has to be stored somewhere, and some machine built of atoms is needed to process it. The digital world is really a hybrid world, one where analogue and digital co-exist, where the physical and the virtual come together in a mutually dependent relationship.

Those of us living in developed countries already inhabit a world in which most of the information we deal with, most of the time, is either created, manipulated or distributed as bits and relies on networks and computers for its existence or availability.

The change to this way of doing things is, as the long-time commentator on network culture Glyn Moody puts it, not just a once in a generation shift - it is a once in a civilisation shift. So it is no wonder that we feel dislocated by what is happening or that we are uncertain about the future. The last time our species tried to change things on this scale we invented agriculture.



Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet. He is currently working with the BBC on its archive project.



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