Cultural past of the digital age

[As ever you can read this on the BBC News Website, and I get a good critical kicking from The Black Project for being old, nostalgic and feeble…]

Last weekend I had the enormous privilege of seeing the 70mm print of Stanley Kubrick’s film of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ at the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge.

Watching ‘2001’ on a small screen diminishes its artistry and the film can sometimes seen boring and even dull, but on the big screen with proper sound and an audience it remains a challenging, stimulating experience.

The 70mm print, with each frame twice as wide as the normal 35mm film usually projected in cinemas, gives a visual clarity that really does have to be seen to be believed, and remains superior to even the highest-resolution digital displays.

But the print of ‘2001’, made for the film’s re-release in the eponymous year, is already degrading, as film does. And since it costs £25,000 to make each print it is unlikely that the studio will bother with another when digital projection of a flawless version stored on a hard drive is so much cheaper and simpler.

So this was probably our last chance to see the film in the format its director intended, and I’ll admit to a feeling of nostalgia about it.

Danny Boyle made ’28 Days Later’ on digital video, taking advantage of the medium to give a particular look to the finished product, but Kubrick, Roeg and the other great directors of the twentieth century made their work on film, and transferring it to digital inevitably changes it.

This year’s Cambridge Film Festival, where I’m helping out with the website, is largely print-based but there are more DVDs than last year, and next year it will be even more digital

Of course we will adapt, as we always do. There will be a market for old-fashioned formats, as there is for vinyl albums, and in fifty years time there may even be a comeback for the ‘chemical film’ movement, making prints from old negatives.

Film is not the only analogue medium that is changing as we look. Later this week I’m taking part in a discussion on the future of the book, organised by the New Writing Partnership as part of a series of literary events.

I suspect I’m there as the technology evangelist, in the hope that I will speak out for a future of screen-based literature or damn the printed book as a primitive form of information distribution soon to be consigned to the landfill of history. I fear they will be disappointed, since I love and cherish books in all their many forms and formats, whether literary novels or technical manuals.

And while I can see reasons why some types of book, like directories or manuals, will move to the screen simply because they can be used more efficiently and updated more easily, I don’t see the novel going digital any time soon.

I had a concrete experience of the value of the book recently when I was asked to appear on BBC World television to discuss the usefulness of the internet with Andrew Keen.
Keen’s book, ‘The Cult of the Amateur’, is stirring up a storm online as he criticises bloggers, remix artists, social network sites, file sharing and almost every other aspect of today’s online world.

I don’t think it’s a good book, and he needs to learn that throwing lots of anecdotes about the bad side of the web into a book doesn’t actually make an argument.

I know this because I read the printed book, and didn’t just scan it on a screen. I bought a copy from my local bookstore and then read through it in a way that works extremely well for a printed book, using page headings and the physical feedback that comes from knowing how many pages are ahead to guide me.

You can’t do the same online, or rather you can’t do it as efficiently.

Although we may want books, we may not be able to afford them. Books are published by companies that rely on the profits from some bestsellers to support the less popular, perhaps using the money from sales to schools and libraries to sustain a fiction list, or money from directories to keep things afloat, and this ecosystem is falling apart.

Newspapers are losing classified advertising to online services like Craigslist and as a result find it harder to stay profitable as businesses, and publishers are facing their own problems. Parents buy fewer encyclopaedias because information is available online, and schools buy fewer books of all types because children are encouraged to look to the web.

It’s also possible that there will simply be fewer books to publish. At the moment people aspire to write novels at least in part because it is possible to write a book sitting at the kitchen table, with pen and paper, in the gaps between working at a job or raising children. Making a film or developing a computer game, both alternative ways of expressing oneself, were simply too hard, complicated and expensive.

That is no longer the case. My daughter returned from a school trip to Poland not with a collection of photos but with four hours of video, and she cut it into a twenty-minute movie over a weekend, using the tools that come provided with every Mac laptop. My son writes scripts, not stories, and has plans to enact them using computer-generated machinima.

We are living at a time of great change, and in this revolutionary period it is simply not possible to treat any one aspect of life in isolation. The future of books is inevitably tied up with the wider questions of cultural expression, the structure of our daily lives and of course the shape of the market.

But in the end, whatever technology may offer us, we will make our decisions as humans, living in the physical world, with aesthetic considerations sometimes trumping the hard-edged practical ones. I still write with a Mont Blanc fountain pen, a gift from my children that –as my daughter pointed out at the time – cost more than a PDA. It does less, but means much more.

I suspect the same will apply to the book in years to come, and we will continue to choose them for reasons that defy the market but reinforce what it means to be human.

Bill’s Links

Cambridge Film Festival:
70mm film:
Andrew Keen
Lessig slams Keen:
New Writing Worlds:

One Reply to “Cultural past of the digital age”

  1. Back to your main point about viewing certain films in 70mm. No one could every convince me that Apocalypse Now in 70mm Dolby stereo is not the only true way to view that movie.

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