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.
One of my first stops during Social Media Week was the tweet2hold interactive installation. Its creators, Toronto media collective The Brototypes, used a combination of technology, graphic design and paper to turn tweets into origami birds. The emotional character of the tweet determined the size, shape and colour of each bird.
It’s definitely cool to see – a seemingly endless stream of tweets transformed into a flock of origami birds. But there was more to it than folded paper. There was something about these birds that made me curious about the message they carried. The fact that someone bothered to take a tweet, put it to paper and make it into something permanent means it must be important, right?
I had the opportunity to chat with Dylan Reibling of The Brototypes as he folded birds. Ironically enough, we ended up discussing the perks of paper. Citing Yoko Ono’s wish trees as inspiration, he told me how tweet2hold was meant to be a physical manifestation of digital data. A fan of the tangible, he questioned society’s rush to dematerialize everything… I couldn’t help but agree with him – a hand-written card will beat a text or a tweet any day.
There’s no doubt that the medium has a definite impact on the message. Scroll through HootSuite and it’s only a matter of time until your eyes glaze over. It’s not because everyone you follow is boring – well it could be – but more so the information overload. Everything becomes noise, the attention-worthy bits of information get lost in cyberspace amidst a bunch of what I ate for dinner tweets. Digital information is great and all, but there is something undeniably appealing about an object you can hold in your hands.
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