Rendered Fat Content


Paul César Helleu: Lezende vrouw in een stoel
[Woman reading in a chair]
(late 19th Century)

" … destined to replicate that one imperative."

I noticed a difference when I first encountered information presented on a screen, a mid-seventies CRT, primitive technology by today's standards. Big and bulky, it required a heads-up stance to read what I had formerly mostly absorbed in a heads-down fashion. I found that I could not retain what entered horizontally. The information seemed to slip right through me. It seemed perfectly suitable for transmitting anything that shouldn't require remembering. Indeed, those CRTs were mainly employed to present reference information, data formatted into templates where the same information was placed in the same position from case to case to case. The application seemed ideally suited to disseminating such eminently disposable information. If it needed deeper scrutiny, a screen print function allowed for a more traditional presentation.

Later, training materials began migrating to the electronic platform, baffling me.
I noticed with greater clarity how I couldn't seem to retain information presented that way. I became a fan of the relatively old-fashioned ways, and as more and more information arrived on the glowing screen, less and less of it seemed in any way germane. By the time so-called e-books arrived on the scene, I was writing on a screen, and much of the information I encountered came that way, too, though I swore that I struggled to retain very much of it so presented. I favored a laptop that I could peer down into over those huge displays requiring me to look up to read. Authentic reading occurs like meditation or reverent contemplation between my eyes and my lap. Eyes averted seem capable of absorbing information better than when eyes peer upward. Paper seems a better medium for holding complex information. Screens seem most suitable for displaying disposables.

Like most writers, I spend most of my time reading. I have lately noticed that I have been spending much more time reading from screens than paper, which has resulted in a difference. As I suggested above, I seem to retain less when reading from a screen, and not just from those screens forcing my head up into an irreverent position, but even those I hold in the palm of my hand. These glowing displays produce out-of-body experiences as if the reading was happening out there rather than in my head. The result seems more distraction than concentration, more superficial than consequential. I also find it weirdly attractive, like snacking: consumption incapable of filling me up. However much I might absorb from a screen still seems inadequate. I want, I need, more.

I spent some time reading from paper yesterday and found the experience uplifting. I felt more immersed in the effort and found myself focusing more intently than I ever seem to focus when peering into or through a screen. The book's heft seemed reassuring, as if I could assess its content's importance by its mass. Everything I read from a screen weighs precisely nothing. Its gravitas seems like nothing, too. Its significance seems just as superficial as its medium. Lose the charge or turn it off, and it disappears. It needs no shelf space to retain its content, no slip of paper to hold its place, and no index to cross-reference concepts. It holds no substance.

The history of stories started with the spoken word before migrating onto more substantial forms, then began migrating backward into ever less substantial ones. Electronic books have doubtless eased distribution, but they're clearly different from their immediate antecedent. They lost something when they gained efficiency, a cautionary story for anyone listening. Efficiency always ends up costing something that is usually never accounted for. Imagine a world where everyone has immediate access to every ounce of information ever produced by humans but where it can only be retained for a little while longer than it takes to read through it once. Access never was possession, and not even possession guarantees retention. It might be that every story was written to be forgotten, a mere distraction, never substance. It might also be that our technology is destined to replicate that one imperative. I take solace in reading paper and in savoring the longer-lingering experience I find there.

©2023 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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