Of Pencils and Pixels
December 9, 2014 8:52 AM   Subscribe

I want to read scholarly work about why doing things with "digital" tools (like word processors or MIDI music keyboards) is experienced differently from doing things with "analog" tools (like typewriters or pianos).

I've seen plenty of news articles and op-eds where artists, writers, musicians, and professionals confess that they prefer analog tools to digital tools, but I haven't been able to find scholarly work that attempts to rigorously describe or explain why.

I have read and enjoyed Nicholas Carr's two books, The Shallows and The Glass Cage. The former was largely about the cognitive effects of hypertext and the Web; the latter was specifically about the effects of automation. The latter also had a short commentary about embodied cognition, which I think might be a clue to finding more material on the subject.

I'm looking for books, papers or essays that engage with the following types of questions:

- what differences do people experience in their working/thinking processes when they use different types of tools?
- are there neuroscientific, cognitive, philosophical or other types of explanations as to why these differences are perceived?
posted by overeducated_alligator to Science & Nature (6 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Try "The Age of the Smart Machine" by Shoshanna Zuboff. I think the whole genre of workplace automation studies will have a lot for you, in fact.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 8:59 AM on December 9, 2014

I would think you'd want to look into haptic feedback too, but I'm having a hard time finding an actual academic source through the spam of technical product copy.
posted by Wretch729 at 9:50 AM on December 9, 2014

This is more of a popular source like the Nicholas Carr books, and also less focused on cognition and neuroscience and more on ideology, but Jaron Lanier talks about the problems related to MIDI as a standard for digital music in You Are Not A Gadget in a way that seems in line with your interest.
posted by raisindebt at 10:03 AM on December 9, 2014

Hmm, this is a great question! I can't offer any reading suggestions, but I can tell you anecdotally I know that feeling. Using Adobe Illustrator to fake a pencil rendering and actually using a pencil may produce a similar image but the experience is completely different. It's like there's an extra layer of 'separation' or something when using Illustrator. It's seems less immediate. I dunno, maybe it has something to do harnessing electromagnetism and how recent that is (evolutionarily speaking).

I'm curious to see what responses you get to this question.
posted by Klaxon Aoooogah at 12:07 PM on December 9, 2014

You might look through some of the studies and books referenced in this (nonacademic) overview of research on processes thought to be involved in reading (and differences in reading things in digital vs. paper form). The idea is that reading, along with other higher-level, abstract functions, is an emergent process that coopts (and is still rooted in) neural architecture that allows us to orient ourselves in the more obviously physical world. It's likely that activities that are closer to things our evolutionary ancestors did, using tools that are more clearly "to hand", involve less effort to transform (recall, elaborate) basically physical "ideas".
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:08 PM on December 9, 2014

I confess I've never actually read it, but I wonder if The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, by Walter Benjamin, might address some of the philosophical issues of your question. (Short answer: computers steal the 'aura' of the work of art, or more probably, don't allow it to be created in the first place. The essay is from 1936, so I'm sorta extrapolating here.)
posted by Bron at 8:04 PM on December 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

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