A Short Personal History of Digital Encroachment

In the 1980s, I lived in British Columbia, and spent a little time and quite a bit of money at a store called A&B Sound on Seymour Street in Vancouver. It was sort of a combination of Seattle’s Magnolia Hi-Fi and Tower Records, but in Canada.

While not exactly an audiophile, I had begun to accumulate a decent music collection that consisted mostly of vinyl LPs, some 8-track tapes (thank you, 1970s, as if ugly clothes weren’t enough…) and a growing assortment of cassette tapes. A&B carried lots of analog music, but by the mid-80s, they had also begun to sell a new format: the CD – or compact disc.

I had recently purchased a reasonably high quality stereo system from A&B – not an inconsequential investment for a public school teacher – basing my choice of equipment on what was necessary to play the music I already owned. I had a receiver, some bitchin’ speakers, a turntable and a dual cassette tape player because, contrary to popular belief, Napster did not invent the idea of copying music and giving it to friends… CD players were new and expensive, and, as I had no CDs, unnecessary. Ergo, I had no compelling reason to change. Until I did.

Suddenly, and I remember the week it happened, I could not buy vinyl any more. I exaggerate for effect, but it was like that. I walked into A&B Sound and the entire inventory layout had changed overnight. It was like I had come home for Christmas and my parents had moved. Cassettes had assumed primacy of place in lieu of vinyl, and there was a large and growing selection of CDs. Upstairs, in A&B’s Geek Heaven, turntables were put in the corner, like Baby in Dirty Dancing, and the sales guys were selling CD players like they knew something about the future that I didn’t. As it turns out, they did.

And so, I became a digital settler. Not a pioneer but a wagon train denizen, moving west because everyone else was. The transition wasn’t painless. It cost me a lot of money. I hung onto my vinyl vestiges for longer than I care to admit. But in the end, I reluctantly agreed to enter the Early Digital Age and became an unwitting passenger on the Bullet Train of technological change.

I watched as Sony introduced the Walkman and took the music selection monopoly away from radio stations and put it in the hands – and headphones – of peripatetic audiophiles.

I witnessed the video war between Betacam and VHS and saw VHS emerge as the temporary analog victor, but didn’t have to wait too long before the newfangled DVD performed a Digital Smackdown on both tape formats. I barely noticed the ridiculously expensive Laserdisc…

I purchased a computer program called PageMaker 1.0, and joined the DIY school yearbook movement, helping a little Seattle software company called Aldus almost single-handedly empty the professional typesetter’s tray.

I could continue this list of technological “I was there at the revolution” stories and tell about the death of the typewriter, the birth of the fax machine, the coup d’etat of the cellular telephone… but these stories are now commonplace. My daughter, a so-called Digital Native, has already, in her short life, witnessed so many technical revolutions that revolution is the new evolution. What would shock her is if things stopped changing – or simply slowed down. That would be news.

Why do I bother telling these stories at all?

Because we are all in the midst of a number of larger, more institutional, Digital Smackdowns, and there is far more at stake than the sum of components in a home stereo system.

As the Internet grabs the keys and throws open the gates of Big Entertainment, Big News and Big Advertising, one institution at a time (but really, all at once) our very livelihoods – like a Scribe in the 1500s – are at stake. Even if we aren’t part of these industries. If educators think they are immune because their jobs are somehow more noble or sacred than the commercial class (aka, the crass class), they are mistaken. Change, brought about by digital technology, will not play out the same way among various institutions, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be change. As Clay Shirky points out, “The forces are general. The results are specific.”

We are in that period of chaos between major paradigms. The period where institutions that are become institutions that were. The period where, in evolutionary terms, the adaptable survive and the dodos don’t. For us, it is the period between an analog world with rigid means of control and monetization and a digital world with fluid means of control and monetization. The big difference is speed and time: what used to take 200 years – about 10 generations – to change, now takes 40 years – about 2 generations. And if you listen to people like Ray Kurzweil, even that time-frame will shrink.

Why does it matter? Well, it’s not like we’re all gonna die. But because of the culture of high speed change in our digital world, we are likely to experience more stress, uncertainty and, probably, financial upheaval.

Back in the day, people used to die sooner, and since change took longer, natural attrition prevented a lot of “change pain.” In other words, people didn’t hang around long enough to find out how much it hurt. Now, the formula is reversed: we live longer and things change sooner. So change hurts more and it hurts more people. The old Scribe trope, “I used to make a good living doing what ‘only I’ could do. Now some schmuck’s doing it better for a fraction of the cost,” has gone broadband. Same war. More fronts, more skirmishes, more casualties.

Whatever we learn from these battles – and if we’re paying attention, we can learn a lot – it is that, in a highly democratized, digital world, our grasp of control in any arena is tenuous. Even the arena of public education. Rigid adherence to the status quo did not help Marie Antoinette. Nor will it help educators. Digital technology has effectively stolen the joystick of institutional control and put it in the hands of hackers and plebes. We can keep resisting change, insisting that the hackers and plebes eat cake, or we can embrace change and get good at it. At the very least, we should determine not lose our heads because of it.

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