The internet has changed our understanding of information and communication forever. What do we lose in the face of the digital era and where lies the future of scientific knowledge?
No matter what your goal is, digital solutions always seem to be the most efficient and cost-effective answer. No other channel gives us quicker access to information. Social media provides the most convenient way to network. Smartphones allow for an unrestricted access to images, videos, words, and services – at all times, with minimal effort.
The false promise of the digital
It seems like the internet and our smartphones leave nothing to be desired. Yet we rarely talk about the price we’re paying for all this comfort. That’s probably because most of us aren’t even aware of it.
Given all the obvious advantages that digital technology offers it’s hardly surprising that people spend more and more time glued to their smartphones. The search for new information and the desire for unlimited communication keep users engaged with their phones. They also blur the lines between curiosity, dependency and addiction. Many of the expectations we have towards the digital world – reliable contacts, the ultimate discovery, more likes and notifications – seem to be disappointed in the end.
It would be too easy to claim that digital natives can no longer experience the physical world. According to this argument, virtual phenomena are only a surrogate of the real world. But the real problem does not lie with physical tangibility.
The real problem is this: The digital and the internet cannot provide any real experiences. An experience is a moment that we want to dwell upon. An experience is an end in itself. But the internet and the digital are only means to some other end. That’s why the internet, despite making information and communication so easily accessible, does not allow us to participate in any experiences. And this is where the analog comes into play.
Enlightenment and the analogue experience
The analog invites us – or even forces us – to experience and to pause and think. As opposed to the digital, the analog is not a mere copy or a representation. To accept the digital and its implications as an end in itself, on the other hand, would dissolve all experience in favor of endless loops of pointless interaction. That’s the price we pay for digital media. And it’s a price that is rarely included in cost-benefit analyses.
The analog can interrupt the endless loop of the digital, but only if analog phenomena remain our goal. The internet can lead us there. Think of the sciences and libraries as an example. The key experience of science is enlightenment. Enlightenment is a moment that we want to dwell upon. Enlightenment is curated in words that are made available to us in books and journals. These books remain in libraries while science advances.
In the case of scientific knowledge, the internet initiates and leads us towards new insights and discoveries that are then made available to us as publications in libraries. Knowledge, manifested in publications, consequently, stands for an inherently analogue experience – an experience that could be jeopardized if we continue to focus on the digital in the area of science and the production of knowledge.
Director, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin,
University Library, Germany