I wonder sometimes if mine is the last generation to cling to the physical, to struggle with the reality of digital possessions. We stand on the brink; we more than any other generation have seen the old physical-media world give way before the bits and bytes and virtual spaces of the new - and may sometimes feel we don't fully belong to either one. We're just old enough to remember when LPs were something you could buy new in the store rather than a quirky anachronism, but we're young enough to remember how cool and exciting it was when first CDs and then MP3s arrived on the scene. We were the first to embrace digital formats for music and movies, but still struggle with all the changes that have taken place in our lifetimes.
This year, my younger brother used his tax return to really dive head first into modernity. Until a few months ago, they were still on dial-up, using a PC that was already somewhat long in the tooth when it was given to them four or five years ago. Now they have DSL, a laptop with HDMI out, and a basic LCD TV. When I last visited, the little gals were watching a streamed version of "Follow that Bird," and the topic of conversation for the adults turned to how media of the future might be bought and sold and stored.
I was a little taken aback and made thoughtful by the fact that digital copies were seen as more secure and enduring than the older, physical mediums. And they do have a point. I can back up my whole music collections in multiple locations, on-site and off, with no degradation. The digital copies will never get scratched or burnt or have apple juice spilled in their innards. They won't fade, crack, warp or tear. There is something to that, though I struggle with the concept of ownership of something I can't touch, can't stack on a shelf to look at or spread out on the table. I feel funny saying, "I own that album," or "I have that book," when I have no physical proof, no way to put my hand on what I possess. And while the digital is, in truth, more readily accessibly from anywhere and at any time - no worries about whether I left my notebook at home today or that CD in the car player - it still feels insubstantial, something that could be taken from my at any moment. I'm reminded of a short story I read as a teenager. (And if this rings any bells for you, let me know - I've been struggling to find it ever since!) It portrayed a future world where everyone lived essentially inside a huge machine, everyone in separate capsules, all interaction taking place through the machine, all physical needs, all entertainment desires provided for by The Machine...until the day it breaks down, and everything is lost, and no one can escape. What happens if one day we lose access to our computers and all stored on them? What happens to our books, music, movies, correspondence, if it solely exists outside the physical realm?
I suspect the younger generation doesn't feel this same lack of faith in the digital, the virtual. Perhaps I'm of the last generation that will. And in the past six months or so, I've been reminded that the solid and real can't always be depended on either. Good friends of mine lost their home and all their belongings in a house fire. It makes you think. I have several near-full novels that are strictly in paper form, and while I was of course aware that catastrophes do happen, I still was more inclined to think, "Well, at least I have hard copy, so it's not like it's going to be accidentally deleted..."
Where am I going with all this? I guess my first point is that both digital and analog have their strengths, and we shouldn't embrace just one or the other. And my second point is that I have a very hard time embracing something I can't fully grasp. I wonder if this will ever change, or if we will always feel a wistful nostalgia for the tools of past ages, things that could be held and touched and which made a real mark on the physical world. It's a hard thing to let go of.
Edit: Is it irony that I wrote the above in the notebook I'm always forgetting at home, and only then transcribed it for posting?