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Month: November 2011

What does it mean to have a library?

Unsurprisingly, a lot of my friends have been talking about the dismantling of the People’s Library at Occupy Wall Street, and it’s got me thinking about why the protesters set up the library and why people care so much that it’s gone. And why tiny towns have libraries, and why universities are judged on their libraries, and why tweed-coated English gentlemen built private libraries far larger than they could read through in a lifetime.

For lending libraries, of course there’s an economic benefit to the community that comes from sharing books. And I imagine that this was a core benefit to the People’s Library, too. It’s easy to see how the protesters would have wanted to carry out simple acts of sharing with all who were in want.

I think there’s also a nice metaphor of cultural exchange that happens with lending libraries. Ideally, more than one person will have read each book, and that means that those people will have experiences in common to discuss and build upon.

I think a library, any kind of library, is also a statement about belonging and longevity. “We are here,” they help us say, “and we plan to be here for a while.” And it’s not just belonging and longevity, but also a statement about progress. “We know things,” they help us say, “and we will continue to learn new things and add those things to this collection.”

I have been having a hard time feeling outrage about the dismantling of the People’s Library, but maybe it is in part because I have been thinking of it as a collection of books in a tent. Maybe it was more than that.

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Leaving this mortal coil

Google has been rolling out redesigns of its major web services, like Gmail and Google Reader, and like a docile citizen of the Internet, I’ve been waiting for my eyes to adjust and for my hands to quit directing the mouse to places where buttons used to be. It’ll happen. Sooner or later.

What I find fascinating is that the design changes that keep catching my eyes off guard seem to be more than updates to look and feel. They seem to embody a shifting focus or philosophy on Google’s part.

The new designs seem just enough divorced from any 3D metaphors to leave me feeling unanchored. I no longer look through digital windows or at pages on a digital desk. There aren’t enough edges for those things to exist any more, and what edges there are on the page are flat and insubstantial enough that my eye can’t interpret them as edges. They’re just lines. Even suggestions of the existence of friction (like the bumpy edges of messages that you could “grab” to drag) are gone.

What’s left is a denial of the physical. We’re not in Kansas any more. We’re not even “navigating” the digital world any more. Little by little, Google has stopped shipping information down to our world. Little by little, Google has started asking us to give up on gravity and friction and join it in the ever-shifting, edgeless, 2D existence of the digital cloud.

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