This is the age of Kindle, cloud storage, and the app-for-everything. We’ve said goodbye to personal libraries and printed books, to cabinets and accordion files, to calculators and accounting ledgers. But is our understanding of the world—and even our sense of self— diminished as we lose our paper trail? The Berkeley artist Ann Arnold recently joined me in considering the advantages of the analog life. Here are our a few of our observations about old-fashioned ways of storing and accessing information.
Where We Read
In the course of two cross-country moves, I have jettisoned some three thousand books, all of them well worn, well-loved, and well used. Now there are a few shiny jackets on my shelves, all competing for attention like a bunch of brassy chorus girls. This is not my idea of a proper library and so I am gladly taking other people’s castoffs and am now on my way to accumulating a few hundred—many of them in piles by Dewey decimal category, on my office floor.
Ann has a reading room in the depths of her house that resembles a cool, undersea environment–and it is a joy to visit. Her bookshelves, like kelp forests, teem with all manner of intellectual life. A library table is covered in reference volumes that resemble coral reefs. There are books on literature, philosophy, history, religion, anthropology and cooking. These dark shelves, lining an entire floor, contain the currents of thought that shaped Western culture. Here one recalls the pleasures of the personal library—and the act of reading becomes not some faddish affair with the mayfly Kindle, but what it was meant to be all along. A deep, delicious dive.
How We Store Knowledge
In the 1940s, the French novelist Henri Bosco viewed the filing cabinet as an extension of the human brain, a vault filled with a lifetime of accumulated memories and accomplishments:
Here…was something that was reliable, that could be counted on. You saw what you were looking at and you touched what you were touching. Its proportions were what they should be, everything about it had been designed and calculated by a meticulous mind for purposes of utility. And what a marvelous tool! It replaced everything, memory as well as intelligence. In this well-fitted cube, there was not an iota of haziness or shiftiness. Once you had put something in it…you could find it again in the twinkle of an eye…. Forty-eight drawers! Enough to hold an entire well-classified world of positive knowledge.
Bosco sees the cabinet as cranium—a way of organizing knowledge into various categories. The filing cabinet was the forerunner of the computer—a way of storing great mounds of data. But the first models looked more like dressers with an abundance of drawers.
The library card catalog and the filing cabinet were the origins of the expression, “having information at your fingertips.” And both ensured that information was embodied. With a paper trail, ideas were our physical companions. A testament to the examined life.
Today we take our filing cabinets to the dump and store our information in the Cloud. A computer app now keeps track of my spending, and each impulse—a purchase at the clothier or the grocery store—is recorded in the Cyber Book of Life. I shudder at this permanent record of my personal indulgence. As I tackle this year’s tax returns, my over-spending falls into two categories: the sins of vanity (that face cream priced at $50 an ounce) and sloth (all those Ubers I took when I might have walked). When we enter the realm of religion, the imagination creates its own visuals.
In the Cloud, there was no absolution. In fact, my sins were oddly multiplied. An accounting app deducted all my expenses from a bank account I had closed six months ago, leaving me with a negative balance of $25,383.42. I tried for weeks to correct this error. Yet while religion offers many opportunities for penance, there is no way to atone for a corrupted file. In dismay, I clutch my pencil with its kneadable eraser, telling this White Knight how much I have missed him and how sorry I am that I have strayed.
Here are a few questions to ponder before you dump these physical helpers:
What do we lose as we toss out the stash of work-related articles, the stacks of reference books, the cabinets full of rigorous research, the piles of faded diaries and journals?
How will our stories be told by anthropologists or biographers, without these handwritten documents? Why are we trading our penmanship with its peculiar loops and flourishes for the cold sans-serif of texting and email? How will future generations feel that frisson of intimacy? The sense that they are discovering something new about us?
Stay tuned for more meditations on physical objects as an extension of our creativity. How tangible things reflect the soul—and somehow give us an extended life.