I was preparing to review an essay today, and I was wondering to myself: “Should I read it on the computer or go ahead and print it out? I think I’ll print it out.” Then I thought: “Why print it out and waste paper? What explains my preference for a hard copy of the essay?”
And the answer suddenly came to me: while I by no means have a photographic memory, I do process and remember writing on a page in a way that is spatially related to the layout of the paper itself. For instance, if I underline a quote in a book that sticks out to me—for either positive or negative reasons—I can remember long after where on the page that quote is. So if I’m thumbing through a 300 page book looking for “that one cool quote I liked,” I’ll specifically look, for instance, on the bottom quarter of the left hand page.
My mind remembers the text through a grid I project onto it. I think my mind divides the book into left page and right page, and each page into quarters. It is probably for this reason that when I print out a Word document, I’ll scale it down so there are two pages on each sheet—that way the left-right grid remains for my brain to anchor to.
I’m not sure if this is making much sense, but in any case, here’s the point: if I scroll through a Word document on a computer, I lose the ability to spatially anchor my memory onto the grid. There are no left and right pages, and I can’t locate a sentence at the “top” or “bottom” of a page because all of the sentences move up and down as I scroll. Because my memory works spatially, I think I have a harder time remembering things I read on the computer.
I’m sure this could be connected to something Levi-Strauss, Mary Douglas, Rodney Needham, or J.Z. Smith has said about the intelligibility and classification of our social world through bodily relations, but I have to get to that essay now …