The Future is an Empty Room

by Michael Antman

28 May 2009


We Will Be Assimilated. Resistance is Futile.

We Will Be Assimilated. Resistance is Futile.

Borg-like, technology takes one galactic quadrant after another until one day you look up and the merciless metallic hordes are gathered on the horizon, waiting to strike.

At some level, the question of whether digitization is adding to or subtracting from our culture’s sum total of diversity is absurd: The Internet and other digital worlds cut through previously unbreachable barriers of space and time, store infinite amounts of information, retrieve that information instantaneously, slice and dice it in myriad ways that satisfy our most idiosyncratic interests, provide access to virtually any object or idea ever conceived by the human mind, preserve fragile documents from the past, display global culture in all of its richness and diversity, and help us connect in a truly democratic mind-meld and near the speed of light with virtually anyone else on the planet seated behind a screen of their own.

Put it another way: Digitization allows us not only to replicate what we once experienced only in print or analogue form, but also gives us an almost miraculous array of advantages that are immeasurably beyond analogue’s grasp (such as, to take one small example, the ability to instantly access, search, link to and from, store, and comment on stories in an online newspaper). 

But there is a gargantuan difference between what we are now capable of experiencing and what we actually experience – and a similarly vast gulf between the stunningly rapid growth in sophistication of digital technology and the painfully sad degeneration of our digitized arts and culture. 

I am not referring here only to the relatively trivial contrast between the surgical sterility of the screen and of the rooms where we soon will live, when compared to the texture and the plentitude of a physical environment cluttered with books and magazines and records. Indeed, the growing poverty of our visual environment would almost be acceptable if the “content” (what a detestable word!) delivered by all those screens were concomitantly richer. 

But it is not. It is correspondingly poorer. The effect of digital technologies (and here I’m not referring solely to the Internet) on the quality of our arts has been disastrous, blenderizing and pureeing the original, the authentic, and the indigenous into a kind of flavorless digital slurry. 

How is this possible?  How can a technology that not only faithfully replicates the analogue, but also improves on it in countless ways, at the same time be so blandly destructive? 

Consider music.  For years, the commercial wisdom has been that digitization not only replicates the original, it also makes it better.  But in actuality, it makes it “better”.  The bright, shiny sound of CDs was temporarily “better” than LPs – until people started to tire of the brittle cases and brittle tone.  MP3s, with their incredible storage capacity and convenience, are similarly “better” than CDs, and, at the same time, with their tinny sound, much worse.  (Playing MP3s on expensive stereo systems helps, in the sense that it gets us back to pretty much where we were with LPs to begin with.)

In short, the newness of each technological advance dazzles us into believing that music sounds better than before when in fact it is inferior.  At the risk of stating the obvious, actual music is, and always has been, analogue.  Whereas digitally reproduced music, like a teleported object, has been subjected to a process of dematerialization and rematerialization and thus is a reconstituted simulacrum of the original, often with a few bits missing. 

Eventually, of course, the sound of MP3s will become genuinely better, but the music itself is another matter.  To cite only one example of its deleterious effect on creativity, consider how infinitely easier it is with digital tools to make mash-ups, smash-ups, samples, compilations, re-mixes, re-edits, parodies, and pastiches.

All of them interesting, and a great deal of fun.  And all of them an inferior form of creativity. 

One more example, out of what could be dozens:  The eerie sameness of contemporary music within each acknowledged genre, as automatic pitch correction and incredibly sophisticated sound-mixing creates soulless music with a perfect and unearthly sheen. 

To be sure, literary culture is an entirely different matter than music, given that the issues of digital degradation and recombination are vastly less problematic when the end result is merely words on a page.

While neither of the two e-readers I’ve tried out, the Kindle and the Sony Reader, are as miraculous a feat of engineering as the I-Phone, nonetheless they are beautiful pieces of technology, and reading any given page on one of these devices isn’t much different from reading the same page in a printed book. 

I’ll buy one or the other of these devices at some point in the next year, simply because the magnetic force they exert is irresistible.  In an ideal world, my shiny new Kindle, and whatever more-advanced Kindle inevitably succeeds it, would sit on the coffee table for decades to come, right next to a stack of glossy magazines and beautiful hardcovers and glossy paperbacks. 

Unfortunately, in the “real” (which is to say, unreal and digital) world, we don’t have the luxury of decades.  It’s very soon going to be either e-readers or printed books, and it almost certainly won’t be the books that survive.

The essential problem is that there is no compromising with digital technology, no appeasement that ever succeeds.  Borg-like, technology takes one galactic quadrant after another until one day you look up and the merciless metallic hordes are gathered on the horizon, waiting to strike.  LPs co-existed with CDs for, oh, about fifteen minutes, and CDs will continue to co-exist with MP3s for another five minutes or so.  (The fact that CDs are themselves digital is irrelevant; in every case, digitization eventually reduces itself to a non-tangible manifestation.)

After that, all will be assimilated.  We’ll be all digital, all the time.

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