October 15, 2003

Persistent Paper

Yesterday Lileks related his encounter with an early 1990s CD version of Art Spiegelman's "Maus" done in HyperCard (an Apple hypertext program that I remember using on my old Mac Classic to organize term paper notes):

This Maus CD is something else, though. It hails from the early 90s, when CD-ROMs! promised to revolutionize the way we used computers. Thanks to computers, we would soon be experiencing . . . MULTIMEDIA! Which mean pictures and text and sound, all coming at you at once! Over six hundred megabytes of information - it staggered the mind. Why, that was 30 hard drives on a single platter! Think what you could do!

Remember, at this point "cyberspace" was still just a really cool consensual hallucination in William Gibson's Sprawl-based science fiction dystopia.

And as Lileks points out, no one wanted to read a "fancy-shmancy" book on their computer anyway and the concept died out. But this CD was apparently well-done despite the limitations inherent in the medium:

This Maus CD has some interesting features; you can see the rough sketches of the drawings (not very helpful, since Spiegelman's finished drawings still look rather rough; we're not talking Herge here.) Best of all: excerpts of the interviews with his father, the words that formed the basis of the story. The old man sounds exactly like you think he'd sound. It's a perfect example of what might have made the format work. . . .

But it didn't work, which leads to the gem of an observation that Lileks almost always embeds somewhere in his articles:

. . . in ten years I doubt my computer will run Hypercard. And that book on the shelf will still work the moment I boot it up - er, open it to the beginning.

When I read that, I immediately recalled Glenn's interview with Neal Stephenson last week, particularly this exchange:

TCS: I understand that you did all the writing on the Baroque Cycle books by hand, using a fountain pen. Did that make a difference?

NS: Absolutely. The key difference is that it's slower. It's like when you're writing, there's a kind of buffer in your head where the next sentence sits while you're outputting the last one. As long as it's still in your head, it's easy to manipulate that next sentence, or even to reject it. Once it's out, well. . . When you're using a high-speed output method there's less of that. In my opinion, the first draft quality winds up being higher with a pen. It's easier to edit -- to scratch out a word is easier than backspacing over it. What this enables me to do is to get words down in a way that's closer to the final version. And it's more stable: no hard-drive crashes, accidentally deleted files, and so on. Paper's a really advanced technology. That was brought home to me by working on this, when I read a lot of documents from that era, which were put down on really good, acid-free paper. They're all pretty much as good as they were the day they were made 300 or 350 years ago. This is not going to be true of today's electronic media in 300 years. There's a lesson there. (Emphasis added)

There appears to be a proto-meme working its way to the surface here. I know my wife has been making similar observations for the last year or so. Important emails, ones that would have been letters in a bygone era, she now prints (not sure if the paper is acid-free, but problems related to high acid content may be overstated and the remedies prescribed for it more extreme than the problem itself).

Paper persists.

Posted by JohnL at October 15, 2003 10:15 PM
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