So, recently we’ve given an enormous amount of stuff (no, seriously. If we’d taken it all at once, it would have amounted to two or three large u-hauls) to the charity store (mostly Goodwill, but also ARC.)
A good 90% of this were books we no longer had need for in the age of electronic reading. (For instance, the other day, while cleaning the kitchen I remembered a joke about maps from Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. In previous times, in order to re-read it, I’d have to search all through the house — and we had books everywhere including in steamer trunks in attic — find the book, read it, then stow it away in case I’d want to read it in the future. This time I went to Gutenberg, downloaded, then side-loaded to my Kindle.) Suddenly a lot of the books I was keeping “just in case” are no longer needed. Oh, I’ll still keep the “daily life in” bookshelf, but I now regret deeply not having had the money when the company was selling all of them on CD.
The ability to dispose of half of our bookshelves (and there will probably be more winnowing before we move to a permanent house) means we can shrink our living space (and not just by getting rid of boys!) and that there will be less dust around to trigger my allergies. (One problem in the other house was my office/research library was in our bedroom, which is not a good thing, dust wise.)
It might seem a small thing (for Sarah’s) but it’s actually a huge thing. I can tell how the change is hitting people by the adds on craigslist. Until about 5 years ago, bookshelves were at a premium. Now they’re often under the “free” column.
This is something I saw before with entertainment centers, as the era of the DVD sort of slid away and people started to keep their movie library in electronic. (This is about half way through.)
But the thing is that these are just the visible and obvious signs of something, unimportant and small in themselves. However the thing itself, the change weaving itself through our society is massive and — in societal terms — so fast as to be catastrophic. That is, it will wreck societal structures faster than we can rebuild them. To an extent our crazy cakes politics, as well as the nuttiness in the world are ripples of this change.
And it seems so small. Just personal computers. Just the ability to access information about anything for any reason — at your fingertips. Just education and entertainment for the push of a button. Just instantaneous free communication around the world. (My nephew pinged me this morning to show me pictures of his cat. If you’re younger than forty, the sheer miracle of this event might elude you.)
Okay, I’ll confess I’d trade this time line wholesale for Heinlein’s juveniles’ world, even with what from the outside one can’t help thinking that flying cars and space colonies would be worth it.
But that’s not what we got. Part of it was the progressives somehow and very fast (I don’t know the mechanics behind it) turning against space in the eighties. We got talk like “we need to learn to take care of this planet first, before we go to the stars” something that made as much sense as “we’ve got to learn to take care of Europe before we go to other continents.” (Hint, we’d still be in Europe and at about that level or little better. All successful species are colonizing species. Colonize of die seems fairly normal.)
What we got instead were faster processors and smaller, one on every desk.
And at each step of the way we’ve underestimated it, even those of us who are supposed to write the future for a living. Computers, sure. Writing without having to retype the whole thing because you changed the character’s name. Or perhaps a “paperless office” — how many times did we hear that? Yeah, so ecologically sound and stuff — looks around at notes and printouts. Not happening.
But what the people in charge didn’t see coming — they couldn’t, because they had invested their lives in the status quo — was the revolution this would facilitate. The net and electronic communication/data storage reminds me of when they sent undesirables to another continent. It kept them out of trouble. And after wall, the internet ran on porn. What could a few porn-obsessed geeks do.
I remember — and no, I’m not that old — when all my colleagues said Amazon (then mostly paper books) would make no difference. How it did no more business than a bookstore in NYC. How the future was brick and mortar and of course everyone wanted to look at the book before buying it. But even then (one or two years into its existence) it was changing the way I lived. You see, I used to buy my weight in books from the history book club. There were fees and minimum purchases, and I bought a lot of it not because I needed it then, but because I might need it at a future date. (Entire bookshelves got donated. For instance, the French Revolution. Too depressing to write books set in it, and I just don’t see it at this point in my life.)
With the advent of Amazon I no longer needed to be part of a club. When a topic fascinated me, I could search, order, and have it in 2 days.
Then there was the booksearches I used to pay used bookstores to do. You know “I read this book when I was seven, here’s the title and the author, can you find it for me?” Once Amazon sold used this was no longer needed.
However, what even I missed was the revolution going on behind the scenes. For years publishers had pushed books at booksellers. The way to sell well was to have “push” and there were no surprise bestsellers. If you didn’t want a book to be a bestseller (I don’t know, but clearly they didn’t) and it reordered, you just didn’t ship/reprint.
Did Amazon ever change that, even before ebooks! We saw the chain bookstores which had swallowed indies blow up like chestnuts in a too-hot fire.
You’re saying “But this is all in publishing!” Well, I’m talking in publishing because it is my particular area of business, so I’ve seen things up close and in a detail I don’t see other fields.
And that’s the thing to remember. This technological revolution is a revolution of pebbles. Pebbles move and move, and nothing much seems to be happening, until suddenly you wake up one morning and the whole landscape has changed.
I’m still trying to get used to the change in books, and I’ve been in it from the beginning. The idea I can access books on any subject at any time, and don’t need to keep them around “just in case” is JUST sinking in.
Let alone other endeavors.
See, we’d intended to homeschool the kids. (WordPress tells me homeschool is a spelling mistake, which tells you how fast the change has been.) We’d read books by people, mostly hippies, who did it in the seventies.
So, what stopped us? Small things. First, I sold for the first time when the younger kid was 3, and needed time (however little) without the boys. Second, the boys wanted to know a lot of things I didn’t know. Which brings us to third, if we’d homeschooled the kids would be REALLY good at reading, and literature and history, but since Dan was working 16 hour days when they were little, their math would lack, and I doubt Robert would have found his true love in biology and chemistry, or that Marsh would be assembling machines on his bed (seriously, kid, how do you sleep on tools and components?)
Well, it turned out that for reasons beyond our control, we had to homeschool Marshall for 7th grade, which turned out to be seventh and eighth and would have been ninth too, if he hadn’t wanted to rejoin school and therefore not given me another month.
Marshall likes Math and at the time was fascinated with Greek and Greek Myth. None of the them played for me. (Though we did have a great time with Shakespeare.) So… I found online courses. This was (counts on fingers and toes) 9? 10? years ago. I’m sure now there are many more courses. Interactive courses that teach you stuff like languages and higher levels of science. In fact, some of my friends are taking them. (And before you say it will never replace… well, my kids took one of those too. It was unfortunately structured like the old correspondence courses. There was no live interaction. It didn’t work for them. The virtual classroom did. — I’d like to find one for art.)
If we had small kids now, I wouldn’t even consider putting them in traditional schools, when they can learn whatever they want, whenever they want. (I’m sort of enjoying that too.)
I can’t speak to the research scientists being able to communicate around the world, but I’m sure that it makes a huge difference.
And I have an ever increasing number of friends telecommuting.
Now, will all this replace in-person learning/working and interaction? No. But then the industrial revolution didn’t replace all the farmers, it just made them fewer and less important, and that in turn had repercussion in everything from real estate price to how many people can live in an area.
I keep getting the feeling that what we have now are just the rudimentary beginnings of revolution, and that from here on, it accelerates. All of it to cries of “No, no, this will never happen.” Even as it’s happening. Just like Amazon would never be a significant player in books. Just like I’d never give up my accumulated “just in case” research library.
It’s very exciting. It’s also very scary, particularly to people who made their living and their mark in the status quo.
In fact, to some extent all of us are both exhilarated and terrified by it. Again, I don’t think those of you who are less than forty even realize how fast this has been. We were talking here, days ago, about how cell phones play havoc with plotting because you can reach everyone all the time. You have no idea how different that is, how much of a change that is. It’s not just I can call my husband at any time and ask him to pick up a dozen kumquats on the way home. No. It’s stuff like the elderly being able to live alone longer. Or someone like me who has the direction sense of a direction-impaired fruit fly being able to set out on her own, and if she manages to get lost even with the GPS knowing she can call home and go “Hey, I’m at the corner of walk and don’t walk.”
And the GPS is another thing. Dan and I had “Move to a new city routine” down by our mid thirties. First, buy maps. Second, go exploring until we knew at least our neighborhood. Third, stop at phone booths to look up whatever we’re looking for like “Hardware store” or “Italian restaurant.” Now we punch it into the GPS and the city is at our fingertips, be it ever so new. (Except Chattanooga, where it was SURE a road went on through a pine forest. yea.)
The tech seems to be moving into an “individualized/personalized/of necessity chaotic” direction. One that makes control from the top and “planned” economies d*mn near impossible. More impossible than they were.
If typewriters threatened the soviet union… Yeah, dictatorship is possible, but not on the scale it once was.
The horse has left the barn. The road ahead is both exhilarating and terrifying. Kind of like driving a mountain ridge, with scarps on either side, and the passenger who are terrified of the ride trying to hit the driver over the head to make it stop.
If we survive this…
I suspect the future on the other side looks like something we can’t even imagine from where we are.
But there is a chance, just a chance, it will also foster more perosnal freedom and independence than the era of big industries, big machines and workers as an undifferentiated mass of widgets.
In the end we win, they lose. Getting there will be a little bumpy, though. Be not afraid.