Jonathan Harris on the Creative Review Blog

by Andy Polaine on December 31, 2008

in General

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I seem to have been writing about Jonathan Harris rather a lot recently. Following the piece on Flash on the Beach I wrote in Creative Review in November, an interview I did with Harris has just been published on the Creative Review blog.

He had some interesting things to say about the nature of software and blogging in terms of human experience – surprising, perhaps, given his use of both of those technologies in We Feel Fine. We were discussing the nature of blogging and its lack of emotional context on the micro level and I felt that the snippets of blog posts in We Feel Fine reminded me of the beauty of found objects and notes that are usually removed from their context. Harris replied:

“The reason why that touches is you is because micro is beautifully done. A found object is powerful because you found it in the gutter. If you saw a digital representation of the picture with the text in 12pt Times New Roman it wouldn’t have the same nostalgia, it would be like a blog post.”

Whilst I was at my parents over Christmas, I dug through all my old photos and I know it was a very different feeling from browsing my Lightroom archive. I wonder what kind of experience it will be for my grandchildren, or whether I will have generated so much digital data that they won’t even bother.

It is an issue that really hasn’t been dealt with much, but is going to be a future headache and/or interaction and user experience challenge. It is an issue much like wondering what will happen to my online presences in the event of my death. For some reason I have been thinking about this quite a bit recently – I have some ideas for potential solutions, but they would need funding and security expertise that I don’t have, should anyone out there be interested in taking this further.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Brendan Dawes December 31, 2008 at 10:43 am

This is something that I too have been concerned with for a long time, and have indeed written about to some extent in my book, Analog In, Digital Out. It’s one of the reasons mN created http://www.biscuit-tin.com to try and recreate the joy of chancing on something. Of course it’s never the same as finding something in a gutter, or on a train or whatever.

The other way to look at it though is to try and put yourself in the disposable mindset of this generation. Do they actually care about such things? What does this say about society? Do they just live for the now?

2 Karl DD December 31, 2008 at 2:26 pm

Interesting comments. I am not so sure the lack of ‘physicality’ is an issue.
We can get very strong feelings from say, the smell of an ex-girlfriends perfume, or a long forgotten pop song.

There will no doubt be nostalgia one day for low-resolution you tube videos…

3 Andy Polaine December 31, 2008 at 8:55 pm

Bren – The thing is, though, that the ‘disposable mindset’ generation will grow older too. Every teenage generation believes they won’t get old or hopes they “die before they get old”. But I think as soon as children enter your life in some shape or form or your own parents/grandparents die, then this stuff becomes important. The problem is that if nobody worries about it now, it will be potentially too late by the time that moment comes. I already have masses of stuff on old back-up CDs that I can no longer view because of old formats, etc.

Karl – I think the physicality does make a difference, but as Harris was saying, it’s not just because of the physicality alone, but that the physical world adds so much to the micro context automatically (like smell, which is also physical)

4 Karl DD January 8, 2009 at 2:26 pm

I think Brendan makes a very good point about when things go digital we lose much exposure to chance. This is not to say we never chance upon things in the digital world, but rather it happens in a much more sequential fashion – think hyper links, RSS, and Wikipedia browsing.

Sites like StumbleUpon / Pandora are good, but as Andy has mentioned before it is a difficult thing to balance between everything seeming quite similar and things being too far from your interests.

It is pretty difficult to generalise about ‘this generation’ but certainly for young people in Japan they are habitual about keeping track of memories. It is quite common for young people to store special emails on their phones from the first time their boy/girlfriend told them ‘I love you’. Another example is early sticker photo machines that had low quality ink resulting in fading photos of those special moments – breaking sentimental hearts within a year.

5 Jonathan January 26, 2009 at 12:03 am

I think designers get too hung up on physicality and nostalgia. I remember talking to one guy who lamented that students couldn’t get up close to classic posters and touch them and smell them.
Er, okay.

Personally I like the smell and touch and feel of books and can’t read long documents online. But my students can. I realise I’m becoming “old” by lamenting the things that are disappearing.

I miss the smell of a TV set as it warms up, and the wait for the picture to appear. I miss the ads in the cinema for the Indian Take-Away “just around the corner from this theatre” that were clearly stock ads with a different voice over on the last slide. I miss the teleprompter on the Saturday sports results than mean Doctor Who was coming on in fifteen minutes. And I miss… well, I could go on.

The question of what happens if your hard drive crashes and all your photos disappear is one that often comes up. It’s a real, practical, issue as opposed to a nostalgic one. Backing up is the answer.
But really, think about it. My nan had a lot of old photos in a box. When she died they were taken by an aunt. Who doubtless put them in a cupboard somewhere. They’ve never been seen since. Lost forever. Being printed didn’t make them any more permanent than digital photos. In fact, being stored alongside the negatives was worse – most photos I take, and that my friends take, now exist on hard drives, Facebook and Flickr. They’re tagged and shared and copied.
If my computer blew up tomorrow, my photos would still exist.

We’re nostalgic for the exercise of sitting around looking through photos. Doing it digitally feels different, and we hark back to the nostalgia.
But kids will feel the same way in 20 years time when they tell their own children how they used to huddle round a computer screen and double click on folders to see the photos inside, and that all this holographic multi-touch stuff just isn’t the same.

6 Andy Polaine January 26, 2009 at 11:59 am

I think you’re right and that’s why I find Jonathan Harris’s work interesting though, because he’s not just saying “old photos are great because of their physicality”, he’s trying to work out how (and if) those elements and feelings can translate into interactive digital media work.

I have no doubt that our children will have nostalgia for current technologies just as many of us are nostalgic for the 4-bit pixel days of yore. The issue about dying, though, is one of access to all that online presence. Somehow I suspect it’s all going to be cleaned away like it is when you pack up an old person’s house when they die and junk half of their stuff. But I also suspect there is going to be some kind of indelible online residue. I shall achieve immortality in Google’s caches at least…

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