The Culture of Impermanence

Books, records, photos. Tangible things. They are disappearing. Kids growing up now don’t even know what a negative looks like. What will happen to our libraries when everything is digital?

As I write this blog post, I am aware that it is only going out in bits and bytes and could with a single key stroke disappear in an instant. Back in the day, 20 years ago, if you wrote something, it was permanent for at least the amount of time it took to disintegrate or be destroyed by you on your own time line. A book could be passed on to your friend, or checked out from a library to read and return. With Kindles and their clones, the book could simply disappear. Will they still be referred to as books? Digilit? Will the library survive? Will the poor be shut out of the reading world? Will all books have to be downloaded to a digital tool? Will it take some sort of energy just to read a book?

As more and more newspapers and magazines go digital, will it become cost prohibitive to publish and the magazine disappear, too? Will the differences between high end publications on a really nice stock and the tabloid printed on newsprint be erased? What of tearing out photos and those perfume inserts? Will Mom and Dad read their morning news on a tablet at the breakfast table?

On the one hand, the computer age did promise a paperless society. In futuristic sci-fi movies there were always computer screens everywhere, and it all seemed very clean and tidy. But now that we are living that future, already there have been some significant losses. I loved album art. The cover of a CD is about 14% of the size of a record album and the art you can see on your iPod is even smaller. Yes, I know that artists always find places to display their talents, but the album art was and the book covers are extensions of the art they wrap. And while they will still be made, viewing them on a tiny screen is an entirely different experience.

And there is the sharing part. When you had an album, a CD, a book, a magazine and you wanted to share it with your friends, no one told you that you couldn’t. Not any more. The new paradigm is you pay more and you can’t share. And should you have a problem with your computer, tablet, iPod, etc. and lose your digital copy, you can just pay again.

For photographs it is a whole other set of issues. We have so many ways to take a photo and so more and more digital images are floating around, but fewer and fewer are getting printed. We upload them to Facebook, show them to our friends on our cell phones’ tiny screens, post one or two from time to time to our families, but mostly they live and die on our computers or phones. I have several friends who have no idea how to get them off the phone and onto their computers, so when the phone is full, they get trashed.

And the most serious problem to me is that we do not have any permanent way to save our digital information. Every few years a new medium comes along and we copy everything over, but there is always the chance that some of it won’t be there, will be lost in translation. I have a box full of floppy disks with information that I might want, but no way to access it. I also have a few other disk formats that only lasted a moment. And I have tons of photo CDs and DVDs and know that some of them may not be playable. I bought an external disk to copy things on and have an off site backup of some of my documents, but I miss having negatives. My old photography is preserved in a dozen or so binders full of proof sheets with negatives and several boxes full of old family prints. I can look at them any time I want without having to boot up a computer and search through a file structure or a binder of CDs. They are different sizes, different kinds of paper and different color qualities and touching them really does make a difference.

I know it sounds like I am a total Luddite, but I’m not. I like my computer and my digital camera and I am happy that we are saving trees by putting literature on a tablet, but I am lamenting the death of permanence. And I worry that by having everything brought to the same weight by virtue of impermanence, the concept of importance will disappear.

Maybe the digital age is the great equalizer. All things made of bits and bytes are equal and the people can decide. Of course, even online right now, there are sites that get it right and those who don’t. The best rise to the top. But qualities that differentiated the best are being tossed aside. And formats are disappearing. There is a difference between reading something in Vogue and in Teen Beat. And the layout of a page in one of the artier magazines was a thing to behold. But now everything is the same computer screen size with a scroll bar. Or even smaller for the cell phone screen. The beauty of the whole page is lost. I have no doubt that since we are still in the early years of the digital age, the art that is lost from the printed page has not had time to migrate into cyberspace. It feels like certain kinds of tangible beauty are slipping away and I guess I am more than just a little impatient for the digital renaissance.

But the Buddha’s last words were: All conditioned things are impermanent. Strive on with diligence.

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2 Comments

Filed under Art, Musings

2 responses to “The Culture of Impermanence

  1. Pingback: Two Places At Once, And Nowhere At All « red

  2. I have really missed your posts! This has been to much impermanence for me!

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