Despite a decade-or-so age gap, my 25-year-old friend Adam and I share a surprising number of technological touchstones. He’s a part-time DJ who only plays vinyl 45s and owns (and actually uses!) a typewriter. Adam’s predilection for analog media might sound anachronistic, or even sadly unhip, but his anti-digital tendencies actually put him on the cutting edge of a contemporary subculture.
Adam is part of a small but growing number of artists and culture mavens who have begun expressing their frustrations with the digitization of everything. The fancy term for music, books and photographs being converted into zeros and ones is “dematerialization.” And for anyone who has lost a hard drive’s worth of photos or MP3s the limitations of a world where art and culture are no longer anchored to a physical object are clear.
In December of 2010, I began researching the emerging shift toward rematerialization during my residency at the Canadian Film Centre Media Lab. I discovered a company that prints posters of your Tumblr followers and another that can publish a book of your favourite Tweets.
The end result of this research was a group project called txt2hold.ca, an interactive experience that takes any text message forwarded to our system and incorporates it into a unique paper sculpture. Or, to be more precise, an origami pyramid that’s colour coded according to the emotional content of the text, thanks to the assistance of a sentiment analyzer called Lymbix.
Since then, I’ve seen numerous rematerialization projects, including BERG’s upcoming Little Printer and a hacked telegraph called Tworsekey that can send Tweets via Morse code.
The 21st century will not be predominantly Amish, however. Instead, I think the future will be a messy hybrid of digital and physical. Novelist William Gibson famously observed that the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. The past, meanwhile, remains everywhere, which is why so many people are getting “physidigital” by jamming USB drives into old cassette tapes, to name one of many examples.
Even Adam, alongside his typewriter, owns an Android phone that allows him to remotely download and launch a torrent file on his home computer. He might be technologically eccentric, but that doesn’t mean he’s crazy enough to abandon all modern conveniences.