Digitisation & experiential crossing

Image taken from The City on the Edge of Forever, Star Trek, Episode 28, Season 1

“The barriers between reality and fiction are softer than we think; a bit like a frozen lake. Hundreds of people can walk across it, but then one evening a thin spot develops and someone falls through; the hole is frozen over by the following morning.” | Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair

In my PhD research I examined in a little detail the phenomenology of learning spaces, the places within which we experience our artefacts and how they impact on our acquisition of information.

When the geographer Edward Relph discussed the phenomenology of space he understood that, for a human to have a “full” experience, a place must operate on several different levels, and that “individual and group meanings [are] created through one’s experiences and intentions in regard to that space” [Key Texts in Human Geography, Hubbard, Kitchin & Valentine].

Picture your favourite reading place. It may be a comfy armchair next to a roaring fire. It might be the hallowed hush of a library. We walk into that space with an expectation that we will learn something. If we read something away from our favourite reading nook, do we have the same experience? Do we intake information in the same way?

We could argue that our expectations as to what the perfect reading space is must be fulfilled in order for us to understand and to create meaning.

This would consequently have an impact on digitised artefacts, in that we have an expectation that the spaces within which we access cultural items must and should be awe-inspiring, grand, and valuable in some way. It is also, perhaps, one of the reasons that a physical artefact is valued over the quieter, perhaps more introspective encounter we have when we view something that is digitised. It does not provide, for some, the accepted physical setting, or have the same meaning attached to it that the physical item does. We construct the world around us subjectively, and thus things have to adhere to the rules as we understand them to be.

In a recent articleThe Guardian discussed the idea of experiential crossing. Apparently, “a fifth of readers report characters from novels cropping up in their daily lives, hearing their voices even after putting books aside” [The Guardian, Fictional characters make ‘experiential crossings’ into real life, study finds“]. I find that absolutely fascinating. Does that mean that the power of the reading experience transcends the way we construct our learning spaces?

“Participants (n = 1566) completed measures of reading imagery, inner speech, and hallucination-proneness, including 413 participants who provided detailed free-text descriptions of their reading experiences. Hierarchical regression analysis indicated that reading imagery was related to phenomenological characteristics of inner speech and proneness to hallucination-like experiences.” | Alderson-Day, Bernini & Fernyhough, Uncharted features and dynamics of reading: Voices, characters, and crossing of experiences

The study also suggested that there were tactile or olfactory experiences amongst a small proportion of the participants: feeling a character’s whisper against one’s skin. Ultimately the report determined that “quasiperceptual events [occurred] across a variety of sensory modalities: personified, intentionally and cognitively rich agents; and characters that both triggered and echoed previous experiences and extra-textual connections”.

That’s a fantastically academic way of saying that the reading experience for some participants reached out from the usual phenomenological space we exist in when we read, and created an intuitive-experiential moment, one that is emotionally driven.

Seymour Epstein said that we process information in two ways: analytical-rational, and intuitive-experiential. Reading is probably usually the latter. I think that this is what the digital lacks; that emotional connection, that moment of transcendence beyond the rational into the experiential. Voices are always attempting to reach us from the text – the digital, being analytical-rational, muffles those attempts at conversation.

Perhaps, if we replicate the experiential domain in the digital, enough that we experience those artefacts in the same way as we might in a museum, or in the reading rooms of a national library, then the emotions we feel when accessing a digital manuscript will one day be akin to the reading of vellum and ink.