Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A luddite repents

Well...sort of.

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?


mpclemens said...

I try to manage this by reminding myself that while digital excels at dissemination and distribution, non-digital* media excel at longevity and (to some degree) accessibility. I like to take photos of the kids and it's great to be able to instantly share them with far-flung relatives, or have my web-radio streaming from an infinite library of tunes while I work, but I also can't easily look at those baby pictures of my son that I took with the long-dead digital camera, because I don't have a reader for that memory card format any more, and I think the backups might be on a floppy... maybe. But I can look at the baby picture of my father, because the print still exists some 60+ years later. And I can enjoy my favorite songs as long as there's still someone around who can read music, or as long as I can rustle up a comb and some tissue paper.

Digital is a very public medium as a result -- distribution costs and effort are nearing zero -- and not-digital is much more private and intimate. Both have their place.

* Note that I didn't say "analog" here. It's not exactly the opposite of digital: an LP is only as accessible as the technology used to replay it. It's a matter of coding and decoding, I think, which is likely the subject of a meditative blog post of my own.

deek said...

I do agree, that appreciation of both is warranted. To me, I try to think of the experience. So, for music, whether an LP, Cassette, CD or MP3, the "ownership" is if I've heard and enjoyed it.

Same for a book. I went through a few years of studying Buddhism and removing clutter from my life. The thing that taught me is that I can be happy, very happy, with no attachments to anything...so, I try to focus on the experiences and memories that I can load up in my mind.

And oftentimes, the memories end up being better than the book, music or photograph...

The flipside of that, unfortunately, is that I like "stuff". Old stuff, really, so I seem to have a revolving gather/purge cycle:)

Little Flower Petals said...

The problem with the whole memories = ownership philosophy is that you have to actually have a memory longer than five minutes...and my internal storage is terribly limited. Hence my panic at the thought of losing anything....

mpclemens said...

And there was just a study saying that our memories are re-shaped every time we recall them: the process of recall shapes and changes our "permanent" memories, so you may not even own them.

Justin said...

Man, I must be a real weirdo. At 29 I've obviously been well-immersed in the digital and technological world and used nearly all of our generation's devices and mediums: mp3s, cell phones, MySpace and Facebook, and I'm pretty competent at both using and repairing computers. However, over the last couple of years I've been going backwards: I have no desire for digital books, I no longer own an mp3 player or even a cell phone, I left both MySpace and Facebook, I scarcely use e-mail (and really only use digital communication to be part of the blogosphere/typosphere), I only buy vinyl records unless they're not available (many current bands still put out vinyl), and I prefer writing with a typewriter or pen or pencil. So, am I rebelling against the takeover of The Machine, or do I just like the physical/mechanical/analog world too much? I guess it's a little of both.

Anyway, nice post.

OldFashionedGirl said...

There are still some of us around. I'm a teenager, and I (a) am very infrequent on Facebook and nonexistent on MySpace and Twitter, (b) draft papers for school on my typewriter, (c) have no desire for a cell phone or a computer of my own. I'm not as non-digital as some (perfectly at home online, but don't spend much time there--I haven't gotten around to posting in my blog for ages and ages), but neither am I "connected" or "wired". I'd rather have the privacy, and the invasion of the internet into our lives scares me.

Little Flower Petals said...

I have thus far resisted Twitter, and it appears MySpace is already going the way of the dinosaurs - how's that for an illustration of the transient nature of the digital / virtual?

That said, I don't think social networking sites should be dismissed and sneered at merely because they're part of popular culture. And I suppose that was part of my point. Take the good where it comes.