I've been thinking a lot lately about the invisible consequences of our smartphone/mobile/digital world. Somewhere down the road, the dematerialization of cultural artifacts will be viewed, I believe, as a major shift. Looking back from today, books are our oldest mass cultural form, then between 1880 and 2000 we got music, movies, then television into widely available portable formats. Eventually, and rapidly, all of these became digital, and fungible: 15 years ago the radio couldn't play back voicemail nor could a VCR host video games.
competition between Amazon, which won the first leg of the
e-book/e-reader race, Netflix (ditto for movies), and Apple (music) is
for extremely high stakes, but not our concern today. As the barrier to
cultural creation drops, artifacts get easier to make. Compare the
process of creating photographs in 1913, 1963, and today. Humanity has
never made -- or shared -- so many images, but how will these
increasingly ephemeral artifacts get passed down? Finding one or two
photos of my grandfather when he was a young boy was lucky and
important; in 100 years, what will my grandkids have to show for their
infancy, adolescence, and young adulthood?
decision to drop the Reader product is instructive here. At what point
do changing cloud computing business models endanger and/or support
preservation? Is there any conceivable way Facebook can keep adding
billions and billions of photo uploads in perpetuity? Given that some
kind of limits will be reached, where do our cloud-identities go when
businesses fail? As more and more variations emerge, what will be the
fate of digital personae after we die? We may well confront a paradox:
we make more images than ever before, yet in the future, we could have
less of a visual inheritance.
A whole other branch of issues
revolves around platform compatibility. Some of my written masterpieces
from the 1990s are stuck on 3 1/2" floppies for which I no longer own a
working drive. That's a hardware question. What about software
compatibility? For how long will Adobe support the PDF standard? In the
absence of such support, and the possibility that a given standard will
not be open-sourced to a community that can maintain it, we will see
further stranding of digital assets.
In such a world, what lasts?
I was pondering this question when considering graduation gifts. An
Apple device, no matter how sleek and easy to hold, will be obsolete in
five years, maybe before. Music is hard to give: for how long can we
assume most every household will be able to play a CD? The last two
computers I bought, not to mention every tablet, lack the capability.
One day I will wake up and realize, yet again, that there is another
format of information I can't access, joining the floppies, VHS, Jazz,
and Zip media boxed up, worthless, in the basement.
played a huge role in my life. Leaving grad school, the moving company
found that our books on the van outweighed the car that was also on the
truck. Many books tell a story, independent of the printed page.
Bookplates were a classy accoutrement of prior generations; inscriptions
can still be precious. But the fact remains that, apart from
university press books, most paper rots, some startlingly quickly. Books
weigh a lot and occupy substantial space. The stereotype of a
book-lined academic household is giving way to cloud-ish realities: it's
quicker to consult Google to hunt down a footnote than to drive to the
campus library or plow through the boxes in the garage, given that my
book collection currently surpasses my available wall space for shelving
it. Much as I hate to admit it, books are losing their appeal for me as
gifts, especially "special" ones. The good news is that books'
operating system is now stable, and is likely to remain so.
return to the question, what lasts in a digital world? Paper is a mixed
blessing, but Moleskine has made a very profitable global luxury brand
out of blank books (if you are a fan of the Italian-made gems, check out
this fascinating article related to the company's upcoming IPO).
Pens continue to satisfy; alongside the European classics, several
Kickstarter businesses growing out of the cult following that has
emerged around the 0.3 mm Pilot Hi-Tec C are fascinating to track. I
don't watch people in their 20s and 30s closely enough to know whether
pens are being replaced in the preparation of grocery lists, birthday
cards, or journals, but sense they are not. (From "Dear Diary" to "Dear
Evernote"?) Relating pens to a broader category, tools can be truly
lasting gifts, the antithesis of digital ephemera. Specifically, bladed
tools seem to hold some deep appeal: knives, kitchen or otherwise, and
chisels/planes strike me as heirlooms more than, say, striking tools
("here son, a titanium framing hammer as your graduation present"),
mechanics' tools, or even saws. In the grooming arena, shaving razors,
and those lovely badger brushes, seem to continue the theme. Scissors,
whether run with or standing still, don't hold the same appeal, but I
don't write as a quilter or scrapbooker, for whom such tools might
indeed be long-lived, essential, and personal.
Ah yes, say some
women friends, you're so much of a guy, always missing the point:
jewelry has struck a nerve for millennia. Gold, precious stones, and
other articles of adornment appeal deeply to many women from many
cultures. To this I say: true, but "little jewelry" is an oxymoron in my
experience. Finding something well-made, lasting, and appealing for the
same price as a Swiss Army knife or decent "graduation" pen has been
difficult for me. There's also the strong sentimentality: giving jewelry
to the babysitter graduating from high school feels a little too
personal. Tools have a safety zone that rings do not. In both cases,
however, the appeal relates to hands: things that people before us
touched, treasured, and took care of mean so much more than something
shiny and new -- unless we can imagine the new present enduring across
The essential role of blades in our species'
survival speaks to some deep parts of the psyche located, I suspect, far
removed from the dopamine pumps so capably triggered by multitasking,
texting, tweeting, and online grazing. To the question of "what lasts in
a digital age?" the answer, I submit, is simple: tools that fit the
hand of the user. Or gold.