The End of Everything
May 21, 2012 10:17 AM, By Jason Bovberg
We’re seeing the end of films, TV, music, books, games, and photography as we once knew them. Is that a good or bad thing in the connected home?
My brother-in-law called me last night with a tech dilemma. He and my sister had recently purchased their first HDTV, and they were very excited to start enjoying their movies and games in an all-new display. They proudly unpackaged the sleek flatscreen, turned it around, and found that the display had no RCA inputs for their VCR. How would they enjoy their movie collection, which they had amassed for years?
No, this is not a column about upgrading from VHS. Most of us abandoned the format years ago and are already on to smaller and better things. But as I chided my brother-in-law and talked to him about workarounds to his problem (which actually surprised me a bit—is it that difficult for a manufacturer to go ahead an provide the low-tech RCA input for the slow adopters?), it occurred to me that here is just one more place where we’re filling our lives with new technology and leaving behind an all-too-recent past. Often, because of the eagerness with which we’re embracing these new things, the items we once filled our lives with are becoming a part of history (sometimes against our will). And that wouldn’t be much of a big deal, except that everything seems to be evolving at once!
Sure, we’ve seen technological innovations come and go, pushing aside antiquated formats. Our generation positively excels at that. Heck, I’m a child of the 1980s, so I’m well versed in running out to my local consumer-electronics store to immediately embrace smaller, sleeker, better-performing ways of enjoying my media (even if it means rebuying collections over and over again). I remember the sense of total involvement I felt during the evolution of home video—trying out little canisters of 8mm film, being unhappy with both the VHS and Beta tape formats, grudgingly accepting the first widescreen VHS tapes into my home (no more pan-and-scan monstrosities), getting excited about laser discs but hating those huge multi-disc platters, and enthusiastically welcoming DVDs and later HD DVDs and Blu-ray discs into the world.
But now streaming video is hulking over the connected home like, well, the Hulk, and in many ways it’s emblematic of a tsunami of technological advances engendered by the computer age. We’re at a time when our love for convenience and “fast food” tech consumption is changing the very landscape of our lives—in a huge way! Everything is converging, swirling into an ether that’s humming with the digital drone of bits and bytes. And I sometimes fear that we’re losing a bit of our souls in the process. That swirling digital hum sometimes sounds like a flushing … well, you know.
First, there’s print. In “Are Tablets the Future of Magazines?”, I talked about magazines as the killer app for the rising flood of tablet devices on the market, but it’s really books that have been catapulted into an abrupt digital future. With the meteoric rise of e-readers such as the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook, and the cataclysmic demise of Borders, we’re looking at a very real, very looming horizon in which 90 percent a book buying is online/digital, and those of us who value physical copies of novels are a rapidly dwindling minority. (In a bit of irony, this new reality has created a situation in which independent booksellers, not long ago squashed by the big-box bookstores, are poised for a comeback, catering to the passionate niche crowd.)
And although magazines and newspapers haven’t yet seen the same kind of mass acceptance into the digital realm, it’s only a matter of time. Maps, phone books, classified advertisements, and mail—they’ve all made an effortless switch to digital, and things such as coupons have exploded into the same arena in a multitude of formats and opportunities. Such is the promise for news and magazines. It’s a whole new interactive realm in the “print” world.
I’ve already talked about AV—not only here but in previous columns, such as “Will Blu-ray Be the Last Physical Medium in Home Theater?” and “What Happened to the Music?”. As much as the crotchety tech-conservative inside me likes to think that there will always be a market for physical manifestations of my favorite audiovisual art forms—film and music—the rest of the world thinks otherwise. Those media are very much destined to go the way that personal photography has already gone: divorced from all physical manifestations of the past, contained on a hard drive, backed up in the cloud. Streamed down at a moment’s notice when we need it.
But perhaps there’s no more potent symbol of this new reality than the cell phone. Last year, my family finally abandoned our landline in favor of cell phones for all. We ditched our tether to the house and can now enjoy instant, convenient communications, in many forms, from anywhere. That’s the common thread, isn’t it? Dropping the tether. Words are no longer tethered to the page; music is no longer tethered to its delivery mechanism, whether vinyl or tape or disc; video is no longer tethered to its media, and photography is no longer tethered to film. Even our computing is no longer tethered to the PC! We’re playing and working on a variety of devices, wirelessly and quickly, and with fewer and fewer tech roadblocks.
True to popular notions today, my brother-in-law is already adjusting to a new reality that probably no longer includes his VCR or any physical media. Why—he wondered—should he even consider another tape or disk format? Why not just start streaming and not look back? Dive in fully! He’s coming to this decision a lot more quickly than I thought he would. In fact, a lot of people are.
Has there ever been a technological evolution that feels as momentous as this one, happening all around us, in so may incarnations? It’s a bit dizzying. Do people grasp the implications of it? Often, I think it’s moving too fast and that we’re inevitably losing something vital as it happens, but sometimes—like right now, at the end of this column—I start to feel the existential freedom that might come with it. Our ideal as human beings should be to own fewer objects right? To declutter our lives. To be less materialistic. Rather than this being the end of everything, perhaps it is the beginning of everything?
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