I had used my personal stand-alone computer to write my PhD, and a mainframe computer to look up books available through the library without having to walk the 200 metres to the university library.
It wasn’t until the first computer ‘browser’ – Netscape – was available in the early 1990s that I felt some little sense of the freedom that connecting individual computers to other computers might give. I was now working in north Queensland. Feeling somewhat free, but puzzled by what I could do, I typed in ‘Townsville’ and hit the enter button. What appeared after a second or two was a document about Townsville, listing the population and a few other demographic variables. I quickly noticed it was a CIA document. Intrigued, but somewhat scared, I kept reading about the fact that Townsville was defined as a ‘military town’ and the airport was classified by the CIA as a military airport. I stopped reading, closed the document, and wondered what would happen next. I deduced it was simply a publicly available document, but it left an indelible mark on my memory and conscience.
In the meantime, like many academics, I continued to buy and read books, photocopy and read journal articles. But I also started reading written material on my computer. However, in my mind I regarded it as inferior to the written word on the bounded page because of the peer review attached to scholarly journals and long history associated with books and publishing.
In 2007, the smart phone became part of our life. Then tablets came along and they had bigger screens. More and more, apparently, ‘we’ started reading more from devices and our smart phones at the expense of books and desktop computers.
As more content was available online the reading experience changed. The Guardian, for example, developed the form of the ‘long read’. Colleagues who were reluctant online readers, noted that they started reading lengthy articles directly on their computers, without the need to print.
As the newly appointed Digital Publications editor, I assisted in the research to update the TASA website. I found that about 85% of people use the smart phone or tablet as their primary means of checking emails, navigating social media and even reading news content. Accordingly, web developers and web apps have reversed the conventional method of focusing initially on computer-based websites and now start with smart phones and tablets, when developing web-based online experiences. Scrolling down a device now seems like second nature.
Over a decade ago, I was trying to develop online lectures because of the poor quality of video conferencing between university campuses. Back in 2007, a week after the iPhone appeared, a student asked if it were possible to listen and watch lectures through his iPhone while he was bussing to and from campus. It took a few days, but I was able to convert my online lectures into a format that were suitable for smart phones.
I have always felt a sense of unease about the demise of the physical book. Having been schooled on the printed page, and having a healthy collection, I loved the tactile nature of books as well as their smell. However, as Mak (2007: 5) notes; “The page’s rectangular shape and vertical format, for instance, are so familiar to us that we cease to see them as artificial.” Devouring books such as Edward Tufte’s Beautiful Evidence as well as coffee table books on design, architecture and art, it is easy to be absorbed into the hegemony of the bounded page.
Even within the bounded page – whether it be paper or electronic – there are now some alternatives worth considering. Recently, the Journal of Marketing Management (Rokka, Hietanen and Brownlie, 2018) devoted an issue to the use of videography in social research. Most of the journal articles follow the conventional format of academic articles in scholarly journals. But, they also supplement the written word with approximately 20-minute videos which complement the written word. In one instance (Dixon and Shankar, 2018), the article consists of an Abstract and links to a 20-minute video where the author talks about how young women favour the flatform shoe over the stiletto. The ensuing discussion is about the role of feminism or postfeminism amidst the cultural symbols of consumer capitalism. The visuals, combined with the narrative of the author, marks it as different from a written text-only format.
The sign of things to come? An Abstract, photo and links to video.
Another notable example was the ill-fated ABC Radio National magazine entitled ‘White Paper’. This magazine embraced an upmarket aesthetic similar to expensive fashion or travel magazines of the 1990s. The articles often developed or responded to existing Radio National audio programs. The app allowed for embedded video footage and/or hyperlinks, images and tables. I remember considering the proprietary app to give my burgeoning online lectures some visual panache. At approximately $1000 per ‘episode’ I decided it was not worth asking my Faculty to fund the project. Instead, I kept developing my own style by using and modifying different apps. In the days of dial-up, and living in regional Queensland, the size of the file was of over-riding concern.
Where digital disruption moves in the near future is uncertain. Stoicheff and Taylor (2014: 4) note: “Now ‘text’ can be released from the strictly alphabetical to include the pictorial, acoustic, and cinematic. Its components can be readily copied, edited, and modified; its information is easily sent, received, and searched; it can circumvent the rituals of publication and be instantaneously available for wide access.” This leaves considerable space for the sociologist to imagine new ways of communicating and storytelling within research, teaching and policy implementation.
Hopefully, our sociological imaginations will be cultivated as we proceed through the era of digital disruption. Hopefully, the magic of the written word will still shine through, in new forms which enhance our understanding and extend our knowledge. The new TASA website will allow greater interaction and self-organisation, especially within the thematic groups. I look forward to hearing about possible future projects from TASA members.
Dixon, S-M., and Shankar, A. (2018) Footwear with feeling: a cultural approach to product development, Journal of Marketing Management, 34:5-6, 536-537.
Mak, B. (2007) How the page matters. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Rokka, J, Hietanen, J. and Brownlie, D. (2018) Screening marketing: videography and the expanding horizons of filmic research, Journal of Marketing Management, 34:5-6, 421-431.
Stoicheff, P., and Taylor, A. (2004) Introduction: Architectures, ideologies, and materials of the page. The future of the page (pp. 3-25) Toronto: University of Toronto Press.