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The view from Elmwood Avenue

2011 February 4

I regard it as a safe assumption that, in 2011, very few people will be unaware that there is a sort of “new media” bringing change to our society’s commerce in ideas and information. (And of course I must suppose that, among those reading these words, this concept will be familiar to each and every last individual.)

The transformations taking place in publishing, and their many causes, effects and broader implications, are collectively so enormous in scope as to make the whole difficult to even comprehend, let alone analyze or discuss in any adequate fashion.

It has occurred to me, however, that my own living room offers an interesting, tiny little window through which to regard and consider the whole changing landscape of life in the face of rapidly evolving media.

This is a simple schematic floor plan of my living room.

Me living room

And this is the same space if all of the stored information moved to some invisible, electronic “cloud” and the paper and plastic storage media, and associated packaging, shelving, etc., were to vanish.

Living room of teh future?

That would create rather a lot of space, wouldn’t it? And, of course, the effect would be even more dramatic in three dimensions, which would recognize that a few of those meta-storage units (shelves) extend some way up the wall; their disappearance would leave quite a void indeed.

Trivial it may seem and trivial, by itself, it may be, but I think the obvious question is an interesting one: what happens as a result of this?

A few years ago, I was contemplating the nature of my accumulated stuff, either in preparation for a move or idly considering the possibility. And it struck me just how much of my stuff is stored information, all of which, or at any rate all of which in terms of core content, can now be virtualized and stored on a small device I can carry around in a pocket. (Or, for that matter, potentially upload to an intangible “cloud.”)

That seems pretty remarkable. The economist Paul Krugman has recently written a bit about how relatively small the impact of recent decades’ technological change has actually been, in terms of daily lives, compared with the early part of the 20th century. He points to the fact that a 21st century kitchen is not really that different from one of 50 years ago, whereas both are remarkably different from a kitchen of 50 years before that.

I find this a thoughtful and persuasive perspective. But to whatever extent one can judge the impact of technological change by how it transforms our day to day household surroundings, it seems that the impact of networked computers has the potential to prove at least as big as that of industrial mass production and mass electrification. In the big picture, I’m pretty certain that the answer to “what happens as a result of all this stuff disappearing” is rather more complicated than some more wall art and a couple of large houseplants.

In 1978, the year I was born, the Apple ][ was already around and very early computer networks were up and running, but the vast majority of life’s activities probably still followed the patterns of a pre-computer world. It seems probable that, if we grant another four or five decades for me to kick around, my lifetime will witness a more dramatic and impactful transformation of media and publishing than in the previous five centuries.

I feel like I’m at an odd point straddling the new and old, too, not quite fitting into either one. On the one hand, I love print media, much of my work involves print media, I love being surrounded by print media and physical media generally and I feel sad at imagining its disappearance. (Take the floor plan of your local library and apply the same filtering I applied to my living room, and think about that for a second.)

On the other hand, I was using one of those Apple ][s just a few years after I learned to read; navigating the virtual spaces generated by its globally-networked descendants is second nature to me; and much of my entertainment and nearly all of my work depends on accessing and manipulating electronic media. (Hearing of recent blackouts resulting from the Groundhog Day Blizzard, I wondered just how long it’s been since the typical office worker, assuming he or she had a window at least, could do some sort of productive activity at work without electricity.)

Perhaps no other example of this massive, rapid change and my own curious place in the middle of it gives me pause more than my relationship with the newspaper. As I’ve noted before, I love reading, I love print, and I grew up with newspapers; one even provided my first professional experience as a designer. And yet, the idea of getting my current events news from a paper document has become absolutely foreign to me.

(Just today I got a call from the Plain Dealer trying to tempt me with a trial subscription and afterward I thought, “where would I even read a newspaper?” Most people probably read the paper at the table, over breakfast; I don’t eat breakfast at the table. I eat in front of a computer, while reading fresh online news from several different “papers.”)

And I think about this, and then about the “new young people” just starting to form their own habits as independent adults, or just learning to read, or who aren’t even born yet but will reach my present age during my working life (given the current outlook for my “retirement”) and I wonder about what will seem absolutely foreign, or second nature, to them and what kind of world that’s going to make.

It’s a bit frightening when I think about it, really. I suspect that anyone who can consider this kind of tremendous change, and the upheaval it will inevitably create, without feeling at least a little bit worried is whistling past the graveyard, to be perfectly frank.

The author Alan Moore once described his hermit-like ways, with self-deprecating exaggeration, saying something like “the other end of the living room is a foreign country, where they have strange customs;” sitting in my own living room and regarding the future it appears that he may not have suspected the half of it.

2 Responses
  1. February 4, 2011

    Actually, there’s probably a couple of tweaks you still need to make to your updated floorplan…
    1) Your TV is way too thick. Couple inches deep at most, and hung on the wall.
    2) It won’t be a TV. It’ll be some kind of touch-screen that will interface with The CloudTM and will be decidedly more interactive than your TV is now.

    Of course, the switch generally won’t be that dramatic. People already have lots of stuff accumulated and aren’t going to just chuck it all for the new whizbangshinything. They’ll GET the whizbangshinything, of course; they just won’t throw out their books and video tapes and whatever just yet.

  2. Matt permalink
    February 5, 2011

    Admittedly not; I’m not planning to digitize my own stuff any time soon, certainly. Though the transition may not need to be entirely generational. In terms of music at least, I suspect that more than a few people have digitized their physical collections and then dispensed with the CDs and cases. At present this is a lot more difficult with DVDs and printed media…

    And actually the TV is a narrow rectangle as of several months ago. It still sits on a CRT-sized TV stand, though. And by leaving that larger square, I had more room to fit the letters “TV” of course. 😉

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