Ain’t Our Technology Wonderful?

Some say that the digital age has changed everything. It’s a new world, and nothing is the same as before. But they are wrong.

People in the IT world are inclined to think that the advent of digital technology was a complete break with the world that came before it, and that the computer and internet have so completely changed the world that nothing is the same as before. But that was said about the invention of movable type, the steam engine and trains, automobiles, airplanes, the telegraph, telephone, radio, and television, antibiotics, the atom bomb, and so on. For good or bad, each of these changed the world, but they did not break with the old one to begin a new one.

IT people are inclined to think that
nothing is the same since the internet.

Nor are computers and the internet the end of the line. Before the internet, only a few visionaries had an inkling that we might have something like it. Now we have it, and past technologies can seem quaint. No one so far has imagined what will come along to make the internet the technology of the past. But it will happen. The steam engine was revolutionary, but its widespread use ended after about 180 years. With today’s accelerated pace of change, a period of three or four decades will probably bring the internet age to a close. Note that many new inventions eclipse the old technology, but they don’t always retire it. We still have radio, and telephones.

As for me, my computer has been invaluable, what I needed all along. When the personal computer became available, I jumped on it. I basically do three things with my computer: write text, including this blog, compose and arrange music, and communicate via email. I lived in an age when none of these was available, and believe me, the mechanics of these tasks are much, much easier.

There will be a post-internet, post-computer world.

Generating text, rearranging it, adding to it, subtracting from it—my computer makes them all vastly easier. Imagine what a pain it was to correct a mistake when you were making two carbon copies on a typewriter. And you had to look up in a dictionary any word whose spelling you weren’t sure of. Much the same sort of benefits pertain to writing music at the computer. The notes can be copied and pasted, whole or part of the music can be easily transposed. Even altering rehearsal letters—which were tedious to do by hand because they all had to be changed—has become a snap.

But, you know, I have yet to write a masterpiece in either field, or even something that will make a slight dent in history. And William Faulkner, Wolfgang Mozart, and everyone else who wrote masterpieces did it completely without benefit of the digitorium. The quality of a work is not determined by the technology used to make it.

But I have little interest in other gadgetry, and I don’t want to carry gadgets around with me, let alone be distracted by what’s on them. All of the millions spent on advertising for the Next Big Thing are wasted on me, because I see clearly that the Next Big Thing—isn’t.

The quality of a work is not determined
by the technology used to make it.

I bought a tablet reader, and read a few books on it. Then I put it away—although if I were in college, I would rather carry around my tablet than twenty-five pounds of thick textbooks. But printed books are a mature technology that can never become obsolete, no matter how long they sit on my bookshelf. Do you still have those masterpieces you wrote on five-inch floppies with WordStar and that operating system—what was it called? What do you suppose the chances are you will be able to recover those priceless works? The digital gadgetry we so admire today will be utterly obsolete in less than ten years. Computer tablets bought for college will be obsolete before graduation. But the books will still be there.

People, almost always young people, have come to think of the computer and the internet as things that can create. But they cannot. They can be wonderful assistants, but creating is not the same as cutting and pasting from a Bing reference. You still have to do your own thinking, and original thought is still just as difficult as ever. But now much of the tedium that comes with creating is a thing of the past.

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