Goodbye book, hello storied object

Hamish Hill Albert Park Log Book (50 130 80 Elm (cut down December 1994 slabbed January 1995)+ Memorabilia (collected over fifty years 1949-1999) Finish;  Feast Watson - Fine Buffing Oil) (photographed by Terence Bogue)
Hamish Hill Albert Park Log Book (50 130 80 Elm (cut down December 1994 slabbed January 1995)+ Memorabilia (collected over fifty years 1949-1999) Finish; Feast Watson - Fine Buffing Oil) (photographed by Terence Bogue)

On the one hand information, on the other hand a book

Technology continues to sustain the idea of progress. Almost every year brings a new device that promises to transform our world. Many proclaim 2010 as the year of the e-book. New competing platforms are emerging this year to provide us with a paperless reading experience. In many of them, such as the Amazon Kindle, the purchased texts are not even stored permanently in the device, but are instead stored in the ‘cloud’ accessible on many different platforms. On your computer, you can open a story you’ve just been reading in your Kindle and it ‘remembers’ the last page you read.

Naturally, there has been much debate about the merits of this new medium. A common concern regards the feel of the e-book – Could you imagine curling up in bed with it? But the e-book raises a more profound question about how we engage with ideas. Even when mass-produced, a printed book is still a material object, and thus subject to all life’s vicissitudes—being roughly handled, yellowing with age or being lent to a friend. Is the meaning of a text reduced when it no longer depends on its material embodiment?

Just before her death in 2004, the novelist Susan Sontag reflected on the place of stories in our time. Her core concern was the way modernity homogenises our world. The future of modernity , she writes, is that ‘there is only one culture, that what lies beyond borders everywhere is – or one day will be – just more of the same, with everyone on the planet feeding at the same trough of standardized entertainments and fantasies of eros and violence manufactured in the United States, Japan, whatever…’[i] For Sontag, the best way to give meaning to our world rested as always on the imagination of the novelist.

But now you can download that novelist’s response to modernity in your e-book, will it have the same personal connection?

As Sontag recognised, we float in a sea of stories. Daily news appears like endless waves in an ocean of tragedies and trivia. From big and small screens flow captivating dramas and amusing diversions. Pools of local gossip gather around cafés.

But do many of these claim us personally? As the infosphere expands, it seems that our own immediate world gets smaller and smaller, relatively speaking. Yet we need stories to enliven the sense of shared experience with family, friends, citizens. We need to swim.

It’s hard to imagine a life without the stories that accompany it. For François Lyotard,[ii] this begins with birth – ‘The human child is already positioned as the referent in the story recounted by those around him, in relation to which he will inevitably chart his course.’ As stories become more remote, how do we then make them real again?

Like lightning conductors, material objects play a critical role in earthing stories. Quests for the unique object, such as the Holy Grail, are predicated on a singular thing. Individual objects such as the Olympic Torch create stories in their wake as they touch various links in a human chain. And souvenirs brought back from a holiday provide props for travel stories.

The future of stories may well rest in things rather than physical books. As stories rise up into the clouds, we can develop new ways of bringing them down to earth. We are beginning to see products now being designed so they can generate stories. The most common of these is the doll, such as the beaded bride doll sold by Oxfam as the Little Traveller. Each doll comes with a passport and you are encouraged to send photos featuring the doll in exotic locations.

We may be looking at a future where there are two worlds of stories – the ‘cloud’ above of entertainment that we access through multiple interfaces and the storied objects below that claim us individually as custodians of a shared material world. Can we connect these two worlds? Can the cloud provide a way of constituting a community of things?

Craft naturally lends itself to creating storied objects. Made by hand, each object travels with the story of its origin. There is potential to develop the stories that will help these objects find a place in modern life. Finding ways of attaching stories to crafted objects as they travel along the supply chain is one of the great design challenges in our time.

Platforms like Facebook have been dizzyingly successful connecting us to a multitude of ‘friends’ around the world. But if we have a finite amount of care to go around, are we diluting our real friendships with infinite online connections? Will new storied objects develop as a hard currency to recover over-leveraged friendships?

Sure, every picture tells a story. But it takes a thing to make one.

[i] Susan Sontag At the Same Time Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007

[ii] François Lyotard The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984, p. 15