[Online or Offline?] Part I: Residue of the Past

I really enjoy the YouTube videos hosted by Mike Rugnetta on the PBS Idea Channel. The videos almost always leave me thinking. PBS Idea Channel + Angela

This recent video on the online/offline distinction was right up my alley and even had a few blog inspiring moments.

Residue of the Past

In the video, Mike discusses the squishy way that we talk about the Internet and digital behaviors and how our vocabulary smacks of the past. His point is that the language we use to talk about the internet is confusing and misleading, making our understanding of the online/offline distinction equally as confusing and misleading, especially when viewed in relation to the vast difference between today’s Internet and its early ancestors.

I generally agree; however, I feel that this argument glosses over the complex ways that words are used and change over time and across contexts. The Internet – and technology in general – have residuals from the past and the tangible world that impact the ways we use these technologies in powerful and profound ways. However, I the vocabulary is not the heart of the phenomenon. Instead it is the narrative about what digital information that this vocabulary signifies that leads to these complex view of the offline/online distinction.

The Folder

Perceptions of Digital ContentThe folder is a digital tool based on a past, tangible tool. The use of digital folders dates back to early user interfaces for home computing, beginning with the Apple Lisa in the early 1980s (source), and were intended to make it easier for users to understand the organization of digital space. The folder has since become a cornerstone of most operating systems and is the basis for how most people understand digital information. What makes the folder powerful isn’t the word “folder.” It is the underlying concept that digital information should be stored in static concrete folders and contained in files which makes the folder narrative powerful.

When users learn computing by associating digital data with tangible tools the flexibility and creativity that could be associated with digital data is truncated. When the user believes that data must be stored in a document and that singular document must be stored in single folder on a single drive on a single computer, the power of digital data is lost.

Digital data, when unleashed from these tangible forms, has the ability to be visualized (see music and networks), stored (see semantic web and Evernote), and experienced (see chrome experiments) in novel ways. However, the growth of liberated data is hindered by the powerful narrative of folders. Developers and designers can dream of a world of computing where data is liberated from tangible world residues; however, technology is not simply a one way system of communication. New technologies are only as good as the users’ ability to translate the interface and data into meaningful information.

Things Change (a.k.a. the Prezi Story)

The online/offline distinction for most users then is the difference between using the digital tool or its tangible counterpart. Reading a webpage? Online. Reading a page in a book? Offline. However, this understanding falls apart as new generations of technology users stretch the meanings of the digital tools to mean something more than their tangible counterparts.

PowerPoint is quite literally a slideshow. Sure, you can add some garish animations and you can embed videos and audio. However, PowerPoint is still restricted to the linear slide-click-slide-click-slide format of a tangible slide carousel. When PowerPoint was developed, slides were fresh in the memories of its users and it was pitched as a replacement for a host of tangible tools, including slide projectors and overhead transparencies. However, as new users come along who were born multiple decades after the invention of the carousel slide projector (1961) and just missed the heyday of overhead projectors in the 1980s and 1990s, the perception of PowerPoint has shifted from a digital version of a tangible tool to an outdated digital tool that can be improved in creative, innovative ways, unconnected from the original tangible form.

Prezi is a presentation tool that is quite removed from the linear slide format and is generally seen as an upgraded alternative to PowerPoint. It gives the user an empty surface to place digital information and then present that information by zooming and panning to show more or less of the canvas. The Prezi below demonstrates this well. It can move forward and backward like a linear slideshow, however, by re-conceptualizing the presentation’s container the information can now be processed with more depth and context. Additionally, Prezis add elements of live collaboration and sharing that are far beyond the behaviors associated with tangible slideshows.

As the digital tools and spaces expand beyond being replicates of tangible tools and the meanings of the words we use to describe them change to encompass this expansion, the  residue of the past and the tangible world will become less distinguishable. As this distinction is obscured, the distinction between online and offline will likewise become more difficult to locate.

  • When you are presenting a Prezi online to people far away via the Internet, are you online?
  • When you are presenting a Prezi to a classroom of students in person, are you online?
  • When you use a Prezi’s canvas to brainstorm and organize discussion with those in-person students each logged in and making contributions, are you online?When you are on a hike in the woods and someone watches your Prezi and interacts with your thoughts and ideas, are you online?

I agree with Mike, yes to all of the above. But then what does online mean? It might just say more about us and our fascination with online and offline than it does about the actual lived experience of using digital tools.

1 Comment

  • Carey says:

    My only thought when watching the video was the strong cultural bias and, “Of course there’s an off-line- just go ask that question to a Bedouin in the middle of the desert, or a recluse who has never bought a cell phone or computer or anything..” Perhaps obvious, my point is that this perspective is very industrialized. I would argue a spectrum and offer a less extreme example: I work with a migrant population in Denver, CO who often does not have access to the internet at home, nor a computer at all. They may occasionally have a cell phone, but certainly not a data plan (or even a phone that supports a data plan), most don’t have bank accounts or IDs.. So yes, I’m sure they must dip in and out of our technocratic world as they interact with others who are “online,” but are largely disconnected (in many senses of that word).

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