The Tangible vs. Digital Dimensions of Thought & Experience

By John Artenstein, Quinnipiac University

In the last decades, a new form of consciousness has taken contemporary thinking and life by storm. It is a curious, adept, and seemingly limitless realm of thought; a nuanced space of being – an intangible dimension: Digital thinking. With the rise of the Internet and its methods of gathering information and social networking, its users have experienced – mostly without their own awareness – drastic cultural and physical changes in thought and behavior, and there’s little evidence to suggest improvement.

But what, if anything, are the differences between the tangible experiences of feeling, touching, holding and communicating with objects or people and the intangible experience of digitally connecting and communicating?  Is there more merit in either? I will be forward: Despite honest attempts to remain unbiased, I remain, proudly, a carbon-based tangible being, and passionate about the effects of the physical element of life that only a few seem to maintain time for.

Learning to Experience the World

The experience of physically interacting has a direct relationship with the process of learning for developing children. Contact with tangible tools throughout development is paramount, but there is another element of this process that should not go unmentioned. If we accept that physical contact is an essential part of learning and development, then the experiences we have with everything related to that learning process are also affected by this tangibility. That is, if we learn to read from a book, it is all but a stretch to suggest that we will read more fluently, with more understanding, and more comfortably from books in the future, because the process of learning was enforced by the sensual, tangible experience of holding a book, and smelling and grasping its pages.

Whether a similar experience with e-readers and smartphones teaching children to read might, in the same way, encourage their capacity for digital reading, there is no such sensual or tangible experience because – and this is a key separation of each tool – the electronic devices most often have various uses.

Harold and the Purple Crayon

Come on, it’s ‘Harold and the Purple Crayon’. That’s some childhood right there.

The “analog” variety of this phenomenon would include a bookshelf or even a library full of books, each with its own texture, width, height, age, wear, and historical context in the reader’s life. To this day, I keep a full bookshelf in my room of all of the works I read as a young boy: The House of the Scorpion, The Whipping Boy, On My Honor, or even Harold and the Purple Crayon proudly hold their places.  This isn’t just because I have every intention of sharing the experience of reading them with my own children years from now, but because of their sentimental value. I would feel less whole without those books; not just for what they taught me at a more impressionable age, but for what it means now that they inhabit the same living space that I do.

There is no physical connection with digital works. Download all the same books on a Kindle? Yes, maybe we could. We would have the content of them all right in our hands at any moment. But they would all be the same. The works are not made to be expressive, innate, distinct experiences to read. We go about the same process when reading each of them. The tangible element of holding each becomes a uniform experience. It might even be argued that this similarity could make murky the synaptic uptake of the content in each work. I, for one, cannot imagine reading The Carrot Seed in any format besides its hard-cover form – dark brown and yellow-colored exterior, wide and tall as a Britannica, thin as a poster board –  and hope to garner from it the same feelings. The uniformity of the industrial age has finally, inevitably, reached its slippery fingers into the seams of expression.

Unrestricting the World; Closing Ourselves Off

The processes involved in Internet life are deliberately quick, aiming to be ever quicker at dispersing information totally and conveniently.  Unfortunately, we lose out on the virtues and indirect benefits of patience as a result. For example, when we open a Google search , we already know what we are searching for, and have inherently closed our minds to other things so that our focus is wholly devoted to the one bit of information we need

It would take a great deal of Google searches to match everything learned from reading just one book – or even watching a single documentary. It may sound like the pining of an old-school thinker or a bitter old man, but this process of learning and thinking genuinely runs the risk of depleting this generation’s capacity for patiently reading, understanding, and learning in comparison to those before us. We will simply be less aware of the seemingly trivial information that collectively makes a person more culturally and intellectually interesting. Ultimatelywe will not learn anything beyond simple movements and functions as thoughts will be totally outsourced to the Internet.

In Conversation, Out of Conversation

Without a doubt, real world, tangible discussions are better. They are more expanded and more conclusive. That’s because they are multi-dimensional. Online you might open a new “chat” window with a friend. As an example, a month into my freshman year of college I did so with my best friend. We had a friendly, informative exchange . However, every element of our friendship aside from information was absent. We did not get to smile as we approached; we did not get to hug each other as we met; we had to do without all subtle body language, and most importantly, we did not get to experience the feeling of being in each other’s presence.

Fig28-10_ampullae_of_LorenziniNot only is the tone affected, but the value of the content is diminished. Most users of social media are able to ascertain that text messaging, Twitter, Facebook, etc are unable to include the more obvious elements of communicating: excitement, genuineness, subtle mannerism, and so on. But the sheer being with somebody often goes without notice. There is an electricity, an emotion, an epitaph of feeling (for sharks it’s called the Ampullae of Lorenzini) indented on each moment inhabited by two sentient creatures to communicate together. The digital world simply lacks this capacity. Content is included, but there is no emotion or electricity. And I want my electricity. I want my Ampulae to feel the other fish in my school thinking, speaking, and being.

Understanding the “Dimensions”

What about the intangible social elements? Take Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg’s titan of modern communication affords its users the ability to post information about their current goings-on via words, pictures, videos, et cetera, and then respond, share, and “like” them. Does digital communication have its benefits? Absolutely. I am an avid user (I’ll be sharing this very article soon after it’s published).  But even given its usefulness, we have to analyze the drawbacks to the social experience of social media compared to the tangible social experience of standing next to somebody or sitting at the same table, anticipating and understanding their whole being – which cannot be done in “One-Dimensional Digital Space“. Why “One-Dimensional”? Because this is communication at its most unsophisticated: without nuance, tone, reaction, or depth.Telephones prove this theory, acting as a middle ground. The same information included in text messages or Facebook comments or “tweets” is included in the content of a phone conversation, with the added dimension of the speaker’s voice. But they still are not standing next to you. And so this, too, is lesser. We could call this, “Two-Dimensional Communication.” Content remains, with an added application of audible emotion.

The experience of being with somebody is almost entirely improved by the elements missing from technologically-dependent discussion. Had my greeting to my friend, Ben, included a hug or a handshake, smiles and other facial gestures during the conversation, and most importantly, the togetherness that affects living things so subtly that we cannot yet address it scientifically, it would have been appropriately dubbed “Three-Dimensional Communication.”

The tangible experiences of sociality and physical involvement in the realm we inhabit cannot be substituted. Our learning, thinking, feeling, and being depend almost exclusively on the tangible. Our capacities for emotional understanding and multi-dimensional feeling and communication depend entirely on our tangible, expressive experiences with other living things, namely other people. Of the great human sufferings, I am convinced that a continued and worsening dependence on and acceptance of the digital encroachment on tangible being will ultimately prove to be our demise.

John Artenstein (Quinnipiac University)
John ArtenstienJohn is an undergraduate at Quinnipiac University, studying English, Philosophy, and Acting. He is an essayist, actor, poet, debater, songwriter and a recording artist. He is a co-author (under a pen name) of the short story collections Campfire Tales: The Most Terrifying Stories Ever Told and has appeared on the stage and on film in a number of roles. His career spans from Los Angeles to New York and from south Florida to Connecticut, where he is currently writing essays on faith, the digital revolution, and the human experience, as well as the music for his latest CD of original works.

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