Posted by: thewearyprofessor | April 12, 2012

The World on My Nightstand

Like me, I suspect many of you are relics of the pre-download age adapting as well as possible to the frenetic digital onslaught. We have actual physical media in our homes and cars. We own CDs, DVDs, and—might as well own up to it—a few of us actually have VHS tapes, audio cassettes and the odd LP record (or hundreds) boxed in our closets and/or attics.

All of these items are on the technological equivalent of the Endangered Species List, and physical books may be the next media to go the way of the dodo. Yes, printed books are becoming extinct. How did civilization get to a point where I can say that?

Right now, as I sit here rather quaintly scribbling on actual paper with a bona fide pen, beside me sits a nightstand overflowing with the usual items. There are a few objects that might have been on bedside stands in the 1950s—a lamp, a tissue box, and a bottle of water—and a small collection of gadgets that would be indistinguishable from magic to residents of that time:

An e-reader holding approximately 1300 books (admittedly most of them Gutenberg Project freebies); a tablet computer that allows me to access thousands of movies and TV episodes (along with e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, the entire World Wide Web, etc.); an MP3 player containing roughly 1000 albums worth of audio (music and spoken word); and a mobile phone that not only allows me to communicate with just about anyone in the civilized world, but also acts as an alarm clock, calculator and calendar.

It’s no exaggeration to claim I can access the vast majority of not only all recorded human knowledge and achievement, but also—provided I have diligence and a valid credit card—information about almost anyone’s activities. All of civilization is accessible from my nightstand.Nightstand

Read War and Peace? Done! (Okay, I’m lying. But I will. Someday. Really. Okay, maybe.)

Tweet nonsense to the Leader of the Free World? Roger that.

See a photo of my aunt’s dead parakeet from 1962? Checkmark!

This seems unreal, the stuff of science fiction. Not even believable science fiction, but the drug-induced late 60s variety. Twenty years ago we would sooner have believed we could own George Jetson’s robot maid and Samsonite carry-on car than access the world from our bedside tables in 2012.

This is all beyond humanity’s collective wildest dreams.

So how did it happen?

Incremental baby steps and giant leaps. Need and inspiration begat technology (wars hot and cold plus the space race) and here we are living in a world inconceivable to the average children who watched The Mickey Mouse Club and The Lone Ranger during their first runs.

This is amazing, and also frankly very scary. Once you have the world on your nightstand, what’s left?

Only the things which remain private.

Freedom of access can rapidly become a restriction of action. With unsleeping eyes all around, ears attuned to the smallest chatter, and the relentless sifting and hunger for data, where do we find the privacy to be our true selves (whoever they are)? Where do we find the solitude and isolation of mind to contemplate, to meditate, to pray? How do we convince ourselves to turn off the endless dialogue without fear of missing anything?

How can we act in private with the world at our bedside?

For that matter, do we even desire privacy, or has that changed?

While I think about that, let me type this up for my blog.

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