Noah’s Archives: What’s the Difference?

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , Voice

When Steve Heller asked me to do this column, I demurred. “Online? I don’t know what I’d write about,” I said.

“Has that ever been a problem in writing for the Journal?”

“It’s never been a problem in writing for anything until now,” I admitted. “But this feels different.”

“Then write about the difference,” he said.

Easy for him to say. I don’t know what the difference is, or even that there really is one. I have dictated an entire book by phoning it into a tape recorder at a corporate word processing station. But since it came out in print, readers had no way of knowing (and perhaps no reason for caring) that it hadn’t been done with a quill. Is producing junk mail any different from producing spam? I don’t know, I’m a stranger here myself.

But not as much a stranger as I once was. Years ago Ivan Chermayeff and I agreed to investigate the prospect of developing a website for the International Design Conference in Aspen. As we left the room Ivan turned to me and said, “Ralph, do we know what a website is?”

Now I do. The online design magazine Core77 has been interrogating me by email for a piece they’re doing on the new edition of By Design, a book I wrote more than 20 years ago. The writer, Allan Chochinov, asks such probing and, frankly, flattering questions that I find myself wishing the article were going to be published. Of course it is going to be published, I understand that. But I still equate publishing with printing, just as I equate writing with preparing a manuscript, and reading with holding a book in your lap. One of the last-ditch arguments against seeing the computer as a vehicle for the written word was that you could not sit lazily under a tree with an apple and an Apple. Now you can. (If you can’t find a tree, there’s a wi-fi-equipped Starbucks, which are more abundant than oaks and in no danger of extinction, although in certain venues that has been proposed.) And so can everyone else. Maybe that’s the difference.

Well, we’ve all been warned about the danger of getting what you wish for. In the days when all the hip salons were promoting razorcuts, I went to an Albanian barber who scorned the trend. “Marika,” I asked her, “Why don’t you use a razor like everyone else?”

“I can’t use an instrument that cuts only one way,” she said disdainfully.

I didn’t know quite what that meant, but it resonated, a term that came into vogue at the same time razorcuts did, but, unlike them, has not had the decency to go away. Print is an instrument that cuts only one way. Ignoring this constraint, editors used to claim they wanted a dialogue with the reader. Maybe they did, but a monologue was all they achieved. Readers could, in a sense, talk back with letters to the editor, but from such a broad divide in time and space that the feedback never got fed back. The decision to print what they wrote or to respond privately instead of printing it, or to just ignore it, was the editor’s alone. The invention of the Op Ed page has changed none of this, although the invention of email has quickened and multiplied the responses.

Today, however, we have at last a medium that cuts both ways, and it turns out to be in some ways a pain in the ass. Once they have access to communications technology, anyone can say anything to everyone. Blogging becomes clogging. Witness the attack on Amazon’s practice of providing anonymous book reviews that give prospective buyers no way of knowing whether a hostile review is coming from the author’s spurned lover or a laudatory one is coming from the author himself.

Whoever it comes from, what appears online tends to stay around. So does print, but not as efficiently. Electronic storage saves space and electronic retrieval saves time. When rummaging through my mind won’t yield the information I need, I used to look in books. But even if I have the right book, it is easier to ask Google than to find it on the shelf. Easier, but faintly troubling. With print, the words are intact, even if I can’t find them. But where are these words when I’m not looking at them? They are in the computer’s memory, which is in every respect superior to my own, and getting suspiciously bigger and better all the time.

In a radio broadcast Andrei Codrescu speculated on where all the additional memory is coming from. I’m not sure he named the suspects, but I will. From the fact that computer memory is increasing in direct proportion to the rate at which human memory is decreasing, Codrescu deduced a conspiracy between IBM and Greyhound to rob unwitting passengers of 16 megabytes of RAM with each revolution of a bus’s wheels.

I have avoided buses ever since I heard that, but my own memory is still being ripped off daily. Maybe there is a similar cabal made up of Intel and Honda dealers.

The web accelerates the production of ephemera, then uses its prodigious memory to archive it; so the name of this column is not a wholly gratuitous pun. While I was writing it, my grandson was born. His name is Noah. However skillful he may become in carpentry and navigation, I doubt that Anyone will ever command him to build an ark. Still, in the world he will grow up in, online and off, could an archive be as effective?

About the Author:

Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt and is the recipient of the 2011 AIGA Medal.