The blessing and curse of the digital age

posted by Jeff | Sunday, September 17, 2017, 8:59 PM | comments: 0

In the same day, I happened to encounter two things that got me thinking about "the digital age," in the broader sense. The first was an article in the New York Times about Amish adoption of technology. Then, as I was flying solo for the evening while Diana was working, I decided to watch Dave Grohl's Sound City documentary again. The former talks about the desire in the Amish culture to not allow the information age to short circuit their values, while the latter (in addition to some excellent music history) talks a bit about how the digital revolution was not great for the world of music. As someone who graduated from high school in 2001 and college in 2005, my coming of age story is very much coupled to this computerized revolution, and it's at the foundation of my professional success.

The Radio & Television department of Ashland University routinely held a PBS-style auction to raise money. The department had a few dozen students at any given time, but even with our lab fees, we certainly couldn't afford a ton of equipment without some extra help. The big ticket auction items ranged from big stuff like a Geo Metro car (selling for around $9k in 1992), to a computer around $1,500 (which my dad won, actually), to a ton of minor items donated. It was the last auction they ever did, sadly, but it pushed the department into the digital age in several important ways. We scored a digital "still store," a computer that served still images for use in broadcast. Prior to that, we showed still images on slides projected into a video camera. We also built a multi-track audio studio from that, 8 analog tracks on 1/2" tape, but a year later we adopted a digital audio system that stored audio on a hard drive. I think we stored our "A" and "B" rotation on that machine, in addition to a variety of stabs and ID's. It was a precursor to totally automated radio, which by the time I started working in Cleveland radio in 1995, was nearly a thing.

The Internet had been around for years by that point, but the commercialization of it was just starting to blossom. In 1994, a senior in college, I remember drinking a bottle of Zima with "http://www.zima.com" on the back of the label. After a lot of messing around on my advisor's computer to get the World Wide Web to work, I saw my first commercial Web site. I could not have dreamed at the time that this thing I was looking at would be where I would base my professional life.

In the years that followed, I would start to see the gradual transition of video to a digital medium. In the three years that I worked in government television, I started with analog S-VHS video tape, and by the time I left three years later, I was recording on digital tape and editing with a computer. A year or two after that, I was even able to do that in my home, which is not something I imagined while still in college.

In 1998, I started publishing content on the Internet, a hobby that continues to this day, and one that at times paid my mortgage during times of unemployment. A new opportunity that was unimaginable even a year or two earlier merged.

When I transitioned out of the broadcast world into the Internet world, I recall an encounter that seemed entirely inconsequential at the time. A guy I didn't work with directly had showed me something called iTunes on his Mac, and a device called an iPod in 2001. My vision of the usefulness of this arrangement was incredibly limited, in part because committing my collection of CD's to computers would have been cost prohibitive at the time. In fact, for the next six or seven years, even when I purchased music digitally, I would still burn it all to CD's.

Meanwhile, just as you didn't need a video editing suite with thousands of dollars of equipment to make video, you certainly didn't need much more than a home computer to record music. Indeed, the democratization of creation was occurring. No one would understand this more than me, when in 2005 I started recording a podcast that would eventually be listened to by thousands of people.

In 2007, the iPhone was introduced, and while smart phones were already a thing, it would lay the groundwork to transform our culture to make it more connected... and maybe too connected.

The Amish story in the NYT and the Sound City story have a common thread: A lack of constraint, enabled by technology, makes it easier to be less human. The Amish are able to maintain a level of interconnectedness in their community. Musicians in Sound City were forced to rely on creativity because tech couldn't help them "perfect" their recordings.

Let's be honest, this does sound a little "get off my lawn"-ish, or crusty curmudgeon. Nothing is more annoying than a "back in my day" story. I think life has benefitted greatly from the advancement of technology, but novelty can certainly influence how we look at its use. For example, we know that furniture made by machines is efficient and makes it less expensive. However, we appreciate and understand the value of something made by hand, to the extent that we'll pay more for it in terms of money or our own time.

The thing that I've learned is that there is a certain advantage to knowing something before and after a particular technological advancement. For example, I learned to edit video on tape, before it was possible (or economical, at least) to do it with a computer. The constraint of having to think more deeply about how you were going to cut a show, to plan it out, made for better results. I was able to take those skills to the computerized world, but the tools still enabled a new creativity by allowing for more experimentation.

Ultimately, I think our ability to treat technology as a tool is the thing that separates the blessings from curses. There's nothing wrong with using these networked supercomputers in our pockets if it means we're learning, improving our lives and the lives of others, enjoying the benefits of automation and connectivity. When we use the same tool to isolate ourselves from the world in front of us, that's not good. It's OK to embrace technology provided you don't lose context.

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