It was with a heavy heart that I read about the demise of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I’ve long held some affection for the tomes. The look. The feel. The ability to provide me with reports for school before I understood the concept of plagiarism. I suppose this was the inevitable outcome, what with the Wikipedia giving me my learnings nowadays, but I cannot help but feel like we’re losing an important piece of our past. The disappearance of tangible things in favor of digital items isn’t a new trend, but it’s going to take some getting used to this new reality.
The fact of the matter is that our future is going to look pretty sparse. Like Star Trek. You ever notice how they never had any crap in their rooms? Welcome to tomorrow.
First, they came for my CDs, and I said nothing. Then they came for my video games, and I said nothing. Then they came for my books, and I still said nothing. Then they came for me. And I entered the singularity and thrived in an infinite continuum. I also probably said nothing (though I imagine I signed something).
Initially, I believed certain digital adaptations wouldn’t catch on, that the tangible form of particular varieties of media would be considered innately more valuable than their digital counterparts. Books were an excellent example of this. There’s something I truly love about the smell of a new book, the feel of flipping pages or the sense of satisfaction you feel when you read the last line. I possess numerous bookshelves devoted to past conquests, and I revisit them often. I feel at home among books.
Yet this fond feeling is no match for convenience. With digital comes the ability to immediately access new content, to bookmark, cross-reference and share without obstacle. I can carry my entire library with me, load it to the cloud and push it down to another device with nary a care in the world. The fact that reading on a tablet is a less enjoyable experience seems to matter very little.
And so it will go with many things I expect. Looking around my room, there is very little I suspect won’t be fully digital (or otherwise combined into a more streamlined presentation) in the near future. Printer? Not necessary. Console? Probably end up streaming soon enough. DVDs? Lol, gg bro. PC? Gonna be in the cloud.
I think the ultimate resolution will be a few pieces of furniture and a large wall screen. I almost said remote control, but then I realized that a descendent of the Kinect will take care of that. That future feels empty to me. What are people going to interact with? The wall screen? The time I spend with my wife in front of the TV is some of the least entertaining moments of our day. Maybe we’ll start collecting art, but the wall screen could probably take care of that for us. Perhaps a retro culture will spring up, where people collect purposefully antiquated technologies and place them around the household as conversation pieces. It worked for vinyl.
The Ones We Leave Behind
Beyond the form, it’s pretty clear that the content itself is going to change. Encylopaedia Britannica isn’t dying because people don’t want information, it’s dying because the content it provides is decreasing in value. Content is increasingly a crowd-sourced entity, given birth by the hive mind of the interwebs. Professionals simply don’t have a monopoly on content creation.
It’s apparent everywhere you look. Journalists now compete with uncredentialed bloggers (tee-hee). Television shows fight for eyeballs with YouTube videos depicting stuff on cats. Books and magazines die a slow death to bite size consumables like Reddit. Here, too, we make a sacrifice. We give up on sophisticated fare in favor of convenient content targeting our niche of the moment. We don’t seek the best content, merely the easiest to access.
Digital means a removal of barriers to access. This creates a frenetic rate of consumption, as people hop between content with very little effort made toward understanding of what they’re viewing. They focus on the headlines and then they’re off to the next page and the next and the next. Reddit traffic is a good example of this, people idly click, spending a few seconds before moving on to the next thing.
In the olden days, folks were probably more willing to invest time into understanding the content (actually reading things) because content was so much more difficult to come by. If you only have a newspaper and a few books, odds are you’ll take the time to read them. Without this impetus, the quality of discourse is cheapened. Information is distilled and shared, but rarely understood. Memes and catch phrases rule the day. Interactions have noticeably cheapened on an intellectual level, but at least they’ve filled the gap with humor. Alas, this all comes at a price.
And so they came for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. And we said nothing.
JM: I remember once wanting that 129-pound object. And knowing that 4,000 copies of the last edition are buried in a warehouse somewhere, where top men are working on them no doubt, has the predictable effect of activating my rare-item hunting instincts. But I resist. I really don’t want it, stuff is indeed on the decline. Certainly the digital revolution is a key factor in this trend. But I think there’s something else, deeper, heretofore artificially suppressed by American machine consumer identity programming, that it awakens. More thoughts on that shortly.
SF: I would give anything to be a top man. Sigh.