While reading a of James Gleick’s The Information last semester for a course, one part struck me particularly hard. In discussing the transition from mailing letters and utilizing various messengers to the rise of the telegraph, Gleick points out that “a message had seemed to be a physical object. That was always an illusion; now people needed consciously to divorce their conception of the message from the paper on which it was written.” This reconceptualization of what constitutes a “message” has made me think about what we consider such communication to be today.
In our modern society, the most popular and common form of communication is text messaging via cell phones, especially among the younger generations. However, there is an argument often voiced by the older generation that a text message cannot replace face-to-face communication or handwritten letters. Evidence frequently cited to bolster this argument includes the brevity, increased frequency, lack of proper grammar, and the more casual writing style used when texting. Yet I would counter this argument by emphasizing that change does not necessarily equate to degradation, though the rise of texting certainly comes with its own set of issues. Of course, face-to-face communication is an incredibly valuable aspect of a relationship, but that is not to say that it is the only way people should stay in touch with one another. For instance, without the help of the advanced communication technology we have today, people would not be able to maintain such close relationships with family members and friends who live far away. Moreover, news of current events would no longer be “current,” for it would take much longer to alert nations overseas of what was going on in another country. No matter one’s opinion on the subject, it’s clear that our fast-paced culture rooted in instant gratification could not adequately function at this point without the existence of immediate communication with anyone, at any time, and in almost any place.
Moreover, I think the core of this argument reveals even more interesting and thought-provoking questions: How much of an impact does the medium of communication have on what we are actually trying to communicate? Does it impact the sender, the receiver, or both parties? The materiality and physicality of language is something that we often forget about in our digital culture, but it is actually all around us. Perhaps it would be beneficial to reevaluate Gleick’s remark about the tangibility of messages: though we cannot physically hold language in our hands, this does not mean that it lacks all forms of materiality.
In terms of the bookish community, I think it’s particularly interesting to think about how materiality affects our interpretation and perception of what we read. Most contentiously: Does the format through which we consume a story impact our thoughts about it? Will my opinion of a book change if I listen to the audio book version instead of reading a paper copy or even in ebook form?
What do you think? How important is materiality or format when it comes to reading or even communicating in general? Do you feel as though you perceive books differently depending on the format in which you consume them? Let me know in the comments section below!