The texture, sound and smell of the digital world – a tribute to @littlehigh

In season 1, episode 8, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer “I, Robot, You Jane”, Giles, the librarian comments to Jenny Calendar, the computer science teacher that what he doesn’t like about computers is the smell.

“What do you mean, computers don’t smell”

she says. Giles replies

“Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower or a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell… musty and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer is… it has no texture, no context. It’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then the getting of knowledge should be tangible. It should be, um… smelly.”

I first met Paul Reynolds of McGovern Online (or @littlehigh as he became known on Flickr, Twitter and other social networks), at the National Digital Forum conference in 2007. The NDF is a “a coalition of museums, archives, art galleries, libraries and government departments working together to enhance electronic access to New Zealand’s culture and heritage”, something which I learned was very dear to Paul’s heart.

I had seen Paul on TV once or twice before, and admired his insightful and engaging style. We bumped into each other once or twice a year at conferences, or walking along Lambton Quay. I regularly listened to podcasts of his ‘Virtual World’ discussions with Jim Mora on Radio New Zealand.

Many of us in the Internet, open government, and open data space spent much of our formative years in the digital world. Playing video games as kids and teenagers, hacking on early home computers, and reading cyberpunk novels. The digital world had colour, and sound, but it was garish, tinny, maybe even a bit sterile.

What I loved about Paul Reynolds was the way he brought texture and richness to the digital world. He had a unique way of connecting the beautiful, tactile, physical, and even musty nature of art galleries, museums, and libraries with the expression of knowledge in digital environments. He seemed to understand the innately human aspects of both, and bridge them in a way no one else could.

He understood the relationship between content, people, and place in the physical world, and effortlessly applied that understanding to technology, the web, and social media. He did so in a way that was wry, amusing, and both pragmatic and visionary. He explained new things in ways that were easy to understand, often simultaneously with the excitement of a 7 year old boy, and the wisdom of a 70 year old man.

Paul, with your beautiful lilting accent, your expansive mind, and your love for literature, art, culture and technology, you gave the digital world texture, smell and sound. You shall be missed.

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Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in a world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it.
Muhammad Ali