Today, in the U.S., all televisions are officially switching from analog to digital transmission, forever turning the page on the tradition of television signals broadcast, for free, through the air.* In many ways, this is a seamless change–most people will never even notice–but the very IDEA is one that I find intriguing.
How many ways has the digital revolution touched and changed my life? Your life?
Telephones: We went from party lines with a real, live operator connecting our calls, to rotary dials, to push button phones. Then we went cordless. Then there were car phones and really heavy, bulky briefcase phones, which were quickly supplanted by cell phones which have gotten smaller and sleeker.
Answering Machines: I remember so clearly when I was the only kid I knew whose house had an answering machine, and that was solely because my father’s business was down in our The machine recorded on magnetic tape and it only recorded messages of a certain length. If you were too wordy, too bad; you got cut off. Then there were machines that recorded the messages digitally, so that you could call home and dial in a specific code to pick up your messages. Now, most people have call waiting and voicemail and don’t even need a separate machine anymore (though, we still have ours).
Music: Golly, remember when transistor radios were cool? How about vinyl 45 singles? 8-track tape players? The ever-popular boombox? Sony Walkman? And, CDs, of course, which were going to revolutionize music forever. And, well, they did for a while, but then along came MP3s… People used to be limited to listening to (1) live musical performances, (2) personally-selected music on the stereo in the privacy of their own home, or (3) whatever the DJ chose to play over the radio (AM or FM). If you were lucky, on long family vacations, you’d be able to find a decent radio station so that everyone in the car was satisfied with the choices.
Calculators: Once, there were piles of stones to use in aid of mathematical achievements, then there was the abacus. Slates with chalk. Pencils with erasers. Automatic pencils that never needed sharpening. And then calculators. I still remember when my father brought our first one home in the early 1970s with firm admonitions to my sister and me to not touch because it was so expensive. By the time I was in high school, they were being given away as freebies by every bank, car wash, or business-type-of-your-choice.
Computers: Talk about BIG calculators. At the beginning, that was really all these machines did–massive, complicated mathematical calculations. Then they started doing other things. My father got into computers early, in the 1950s, and worked as a programmer at one of the first banks to use one and still tells those “walked barefoot in the snow to school” kinds of stories about the vast size of the computer he worked on compared to the (relatively) tiny amounts of data it recorded. My first computer didn’t have a hard drive or a color monitor, and it used those old 5.25″ floppy disks, but I was still the first of my friends to have my own computer. Next came hard drives, and color, and laser printing, and smaller, faster machines with computing power that still makes my Dad giddy from time to time.
The Internet: While having your very own computer for word processing and video games was cool, computers really got fascinating when the internet came along. Email. Chat rooms. Message boards. Wikipedia. Websites on every topic under the sun. Blogs by the thousands. Talk about an amazing resource–you can research, ask questions, confer with friends, make travel plans to meet them, and do just about anything all at the touch of a keyboard.
Television: When my parents were children, houses had radios for entertainment. Then, there was one television–big as a piece of furniture, but with a tiny screen (possibly round). With, let’s not forget, rabbit ear antennas on the top, and a dial to turn for channel selection, plus a knob for volume. Then along came color. Next, it was cable television so you didn’t need the antennas anymore, then satellite. Now, we not only have cable and satellite for clear, sharp pictures, but we also have high-definition signals for even clearer, sharper pictures. Not to mention the internet, where we can watch shows at our convenience, rather than according to when the networks want us to watch.
Television Recording: Do you remember the VCR revolution? Not only did you suddenly have a movie theater in your living room, but you could record a television program so that you wouldn’t miss it if you were out, or watching something else? Sure, philistines complained that the point of being away from the television was to miss watching things, but I remember this as being akin to magic. We could watch one thing and record something else. We could go on vacation and still not miss the season finales of our favorite shows. (Well, six of them, since the video tapes could only hold up to 6 hours of recording … and at $20 each, you didn’t have too many of them.) This lasted for years, and then there were cable boxes which limited the channel you could record to the one you were watching (bummer). Then there was Tivo and the other digital recording devices so that you could record and save shows without needing the tapes, and … with a DVD-recorder, you could burn them to DVD, too.
What’s the point of this trip down memory lane?
The absolutely amazing thing is that you can pretty much do all of these things at the same time, on the same piece of equipment.
You can watch television on your computer. You can check your email from your telephone. You can make video calls over your computer. You can calculate your tip at a restaurant on your watch. If you even wear a watch, because many people don’t because they can check the time an assortment of electronic devices within finger’s reach. All of these electronic gadgets are one bare step away from being interchangeable, allowing for a certain level of portability–and weight.
Just in my lifetime, I am astounded at how much has changed–and the digital electronics revolution has been a huge part of that. There was no such thing as cable television, personal computers, answering machines, calculators, or VCRs when I was born. So MANY things that I can’t imagine my life without simply didn’t exist. And the fact that they are all (except, apparently, electronic book readers) working together, blurring the boundaries just makes me feel excited to live in such a wonderful time.
But don’t forget–People Are Not Digital
With all this cool, new-technology hoopla, it’s sometimes easy to forget how far we’ve come, so quickly. Or to get so wound up with the freedom to be able to listen to whatever we want, whenever we want; to watch whatever we want; to call anyone from anywhere that we forget that the sense of freedom.
It’s easy to forget that it didn’t always work this way.
It’s easy to forget that we didn’t use to have so many choices.
It’s easy to forget that, while we arrange our digital lives to fit our personal needs, our NON-digital lives are still intertwined.
We need to remember that, while so many things transition to cool, fast, customizable digital technology, that we as people are, in fact, analog, and we need to work together, like the old vacuum tubes in the first computers–where, if they didn’t work together, they didn’t work at all.
So, remember this as you walk around your day, listening to music of your choice, talking to friends and business associates from the grocery store via the gadget in your pocket, checking your email while you wait on line, watching last night’s episode of Burn Notice while you ride the train.
All these choices and options at your fingertips–wondrous and convenient as they are–doesn’t make you the center of the universe, just the center of your own.
*Yes, I know that some stations are now broadcasting digital HDTV signals that you can capture with an antenna, but it’s still digital, and the people watching that way are very much in the minority, so … ignore that.