Thursday, September 20, 2007

Buffy and the Digital Era

When exploring ideas that surround Digital History, I can’t help but think back to one of the original episodes of the popular television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The episode “I Robot...You Jane” aired in mid 1997, and is about an ancient demon who is let loose onto the internet through the digitizing of old books. He then proceeds to gain access to the infinite amounts of information and resources that the World Wide Web has to offer him.

I know that by using the words “vampire slayer” and “demon” I may have lost readers already, but this show highlights very real fears that a lot of people still share today. No one can deny the existence of demons on the internet, such as the hundreds of viruses that are created and unleashed on our computers each day. Furthermore, this episode summarizes two extreme opinions held with regard to technology. The high school Librarian, Rupert Giles, argues against people becoming slaves to technology and proclaims his preference for books. The stereotypical computer nerd Fritz ominously responds, “The printed page is obsolete, information isn’t bound up anymore, it’s an entity, the only reality is virtual, if you are not jacked in you're not alive.” [i]

Watching this episode ten years after it was originally aired, I still find myself conflicted between both of these responses to the digital era. I am concerned about the idea of replacing bound books with digitized copies. Reading for me is more than a mere mental exercise; it is a physical, tactile experience that involves turning, highlighting, and writing notes in the margins of each page. Giles would very much agree with me, as in this same episode he notes the power of the sense of smell that is evoked through the “smelly” experience of reading old books.

That being said, there are many aspects of technology that I have completely embraced. It is because of the invention of DVDs that I am able to watch long past episodes of Buffy whenever I please. I also feel as if my iPod, cell phone, and laptop have become extensions of my body. More importantly, however, is that fact that as an Historian I cannot imagine attempting to study history without the aid of search engines and online databases. There are many journal articles and resources that I never would have read or had easy access to had they not been digitized.

In conclusion, I have decided that similarly to Giles, I am not ready to give up the tactile experience of reading bound books; I truly hope that Libraries never cease to fill their shelves with these wonderfully smelly things, if for nothing else but to leave something tangible for future generations to hold in their hands. I am, however, prepared to continue to open my mind to all that technology has to offer me. After all, my books and computer have been living and working together in perfect harmony on my desk for years.

[i] “I Robot...You Jane,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season One, dir. Stephen Posey, 6 hours, Mutant Enemy Inc., 1997, DVD.


William J. Turkel said...

You might be interested in reading Vernor Vinge's excellent Rainbow's End. A particularly heinous form of book digitization plays an important role in the story.

Ryan said...

Pffffttt.... tssst... books... pffftttt....