Jon Riding

One of the exciting things of recent years has been the growth of mobile phone technologies. Smart phones are now endemic in society, not just in the West but in the developing world where their ability to operate without expensive and difficult to maintain infrastructure (like telegraph poles) makes them a very attractive option for all and sundry. The popularity of apps like YouVersion, now up to 200,000,000 downloads, is clear evidence for how many are choosing to interact with scripture on a handheld device. United Bible Societies has responded by creating the Digital Bible Library within which it is hoped to store each new Bible translation and where potential publishers of a text may apply for a licence to publish it. All of this seems a good thing. The more widely the Bible is disseminated the more it will be read and the greater is the opportunity for the reader to encounter God in Christ through its narrative.

But a Canadian colleague has raised a question and I think it is an important one. He quotes two authorsi in the US who are asking what difference the medium might make make to the message and what changes the rise of digital texts is making to the way our brains assimilate information. I ordered copies of the books he recommended but books, not kindle editions. I have an iPad and I use it daily, mostly for FB and Twitter. It’s a communication tool, not a reading centre. The price of the books (even 2nd hand) would have had to have been a lot higher than the kindle price for me to have considered an electric option. And I am asking myself, why?

I think it is because I read with a pencil in my hand (and if the content is particularly important to me, with a notebook in front of me – I call this ‘active reading’ and I encourage my students to do it. I read: I forget; I make notes: I remember). It is a habit I picked up after first visiting the Gladstone Library at St Deiniol’s in Hawarden in the 1990s where I discovered not only William Gladstone’s vast collection of books but that each one carried annotations in his own hand. This struck me as a wise move (pace antiquarian book collectors). When I see something I’m interested in, I mark it on the page (I like books with wide margins) and add the page number and a brief note to a list I make on the back flyleaf. This list becomes in effect my index to the text. (If I have my notebook open I add an entry to my notes on the text under the relevant page number). This way I have my notes about the text alongside the text and, just as important, they are real notes, drawn by hand.

The way I write something contributes to my memory of it and helps me to recover the fulness of the initial discovery. As I write, I am recalling a fascinating week spent at the Univ. of Marrakech in 2006 and I’m going over to my study bookshelves and getting my (handwritten) commonplace book for 2006 to refresh my memory. The focus for the conference was type-setting Arabic. Two presentations have stuck in my mind ever since. The first was by a scholar from the Islamic Univ. in Cairo.ii With the aid of a calligrapher he explained how the manner in which a stroke is drawn in a classical Arabic text affects the meaning. In fact I see from my notes that the subsequent discussion concluded that it ‘effects’ the meaning. In the West we commonly assume this kind of thing, (in Arabic ‘kashida’) to be little more than a way of justifying text across a block in an artistic fashion. He challenged us to demonstrate how a computer could have the awareness to imitate a calligrapher’s understanding, expressed in his art.

The person who came closest to answering the challenge was Yannis Haralambous, then a Prof. at Brest University. He presented his work on ‘textemes’, a way of recording not just a glyph but its ‘enactment context’iii (my expression). In short, Yannis observed that the way we interact with an item in text stream is conditioned by the events prior to that encounter and by the general context we bring to the text as a whole – i.e. who we are and what we have done and seen. The calligrapher expresses all these things in a moment of creation. The printed book can only approximate this kind of encoding but does offer me the opportunity to add this kind of dynamic via my own notes on the page. When a text becomes a digital text we are changing its nature insofar as we are, necessarily, limiting the potential for this kind of interaction. One of the outcomes of the digital format is, in fact, to limit the reader’s response to what can be encoded.

Now I can hear a number voices telling me that I can make notes on an electric book reading app.. I hear you, but the examples of this I have seen don’t even approach the breadth of interaction a paper page gives me. Had I been making notes on a computing device in 2006 I wonder a) what format they might have been in, b) whether they would have survived until today as my commonplace book has and c) if they would have brought back my memories of the event so richly. (I’m looking at example glyphs drawn by the calligrapher for me in my notebook).

There is also on my study bookshelves an old UBS Gk NT (3rd ed.) which I’ve had since about 1988. It has recently been rebound for me (at a cost far in excess of the purchase of a new copy) after the duct tape that was holding the covers together finally tore through and the spine collapsed irrecoverably. Every page is covered in notes which I couldn’t bear the thought of losing (and which I am certain I shall never commit to the cloud alone). These notes are not just textual annotations, they are memories of encounters with the text and those with whom I shared those encounters. A few are in the hand of a colleague, now dead, who in fits of excitement would occasionally pick up my NT instead of his and write on it. I treasure these particularly.

Memory is not abstract but deeply connected to the physical reality which generates it and which is so often the means of its recall. The physicality of a book connects to this in a way that is, I think, more difficult for a digital text. As I flick through the pages of my NT I am, unconsciously, absorbing the wider context of a pericope enriched by my notes. It’s not just the particular reference that matters it’s how I arrive at it. For me there are connections here with Jeff Hawkins’s theory of cognition. In his book ‘On Intelligence’,iv Hawkins observed that the thing missing from so many of our cognitive models is the dimension of time. Nothing in this world exists apart from time. The physicality of a book places its text and our memories of that text into that event stream in a way which it is very hard for a digital text to emulate.

Does any of this matter? I don’t know. I feel it does but that may be just me and the way I look at the world. It matters to me that I am part of a narrative, personally, globally and cosmically. Whilst abstractions are useful ways to think about complex issues it is the daily physical encounter that, more than anything else, makes connections for me and shows me new things. How does that work with a digital text? Does the message become the medium, ephemeral and transitory on the one hand and locked within the limits of an encoding on the other? Clearly the possibilities for sharing and building common understandings are greater but what happens to the dissonant voices?

IMG_3598The medium is always, to some degree, the message. We need look no further than the incarnation for evidence of that: the ultimate inculturation but through a profoundly counter-cultural life. The digital texts we download to our phones and tablets offer us massively greater connectivity. The breadth of digital data available to us is truly breath taking and yet, at the same time, we are being drawn into a limited world bounded by shared understandings mediated by our devices, platforms and encodings. What do we stand to gain and what might we be in danger of losing?

For me physical books remain very important. They record not only the text but the process by which I continue to interact with it and so the peoples and places that have been part of that engagement. Given that my day job is to lead a research team working in computational linguistics I feel I should be a stronger of advocate for digital texts but in the end my sympathies are with St Paul, imploring Timothy to come quickly and bring not just the books but his notes as well (2 Tim 4.13). Then again, I am about to commit this article to a blog, out there on the cloud…

Jon Riding is the Director of the Sherborne Abbey Insight Programme, an Associate Lecturer in Theology at Sarum College and the leader of the United Bible Societies Glossing Technologies Project.

  • i Carr, N (2011) The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, Atlantic Books, London.
  • Carr, N (2016) The Glass Cage: Who Needs Humans Anyway, Penguin Random House, London.
  • Turkle, S (2012) Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Basic Books, New York.
  • iv Hawkins, J and Blakeslee, S (2005) On Intelligence, Times Books, New York.
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