It was New Year’s Eve 1999, and no one needed to tell me that new media technology was changing my life. I had a good first-hand indication of that by simply looking around my university office and noting what a strange place to spend the year’s best party night.
I was in Memphis at the time and, instead of joining the revelers down on Beale Street, I was nursing my computer through the dawn of Y2K and the cyber-War-of-the-Worlds invaders that could be poised to strike its hard drive.
What a waste of time.
No invaders struck that night; not even the building’s cleaning crew who were probably down on Beale Street enjoying B.B. King.
What did I know, though, on this first night of what was to be the decade when virtual reality changed our daily — and nightly — rituals.
I wasn’t the only one wasting that night away, though. People a lot smarter than me thought something huge and scary would happen this night, and a lot of people were pullilng overtime to nurse their computer systems through the night.
Even the White House had spent some $50 million of our tax dollars to set up a crisis room called the Y2K Center, just to be on the safe side. Our money might better have been spent on a project like the federal Office of Education once rolled out when it spent $220,000 for a “curriculum package” to show college students how to watch television.
Our foresight seldom matches our hindsight, however, and while we misjudged the Y2K threat, we just flat didn’t see other media tech changes coming. How’s this for a partial list of just three changes we’ve witnessed in this first decade alone, and of how these inventions have altered our lives:
Take Me to Your Tweeter. While some of us were getting our toes wet in the virtual world of relationships that chatrooms and online dating sites offered by 1999, we were only like the Pilgrims standing on the easternmost shore of a vast, unexplored continent. Up ahead were the vistas to be opened up by trail guides to be called MySpace (launched in 2003), Facebook (2004), and Twitter (2006). Individually, and together, these three sites have given new meaning to the late Marshall McLuhan’s provocatative observation from the 1970s that human beings go outside to be alone and stay inside to be with others. McLuhan was thinking about the amount of time Americans spend with television, but he realized that the “others” weren’t necessarily real flesh-and-blood people you could reach out and touch. We’ll return to this concept in detail in future posts.
The Sound of Music. The culture of the Internet is not only openness but also immediate satisfaction: There is so much we can get (often for free) almost the minute we recognize our desire for it. I’m thinking music here, and I’m remembering the frustration of losing albums, tapes, and CD’s containing favorite songs of earlier times. I’m also thinking about the challenge of searching for those songs in old record stores and the utter joy of stumbling across them when I least expected it. That frustration — as well as that joy — are a part of an age where music downloads over the Web didn’t exist.
It was before Shawn Fanning and Napster; before Limewire, Kazaa, I-Tunes, and Bearshare, and YouTube. Apple would invent its first I-pod in 2001, other manufacturers would develop myraid other Mp3 players, and today we have our favorite music when and where we want it. For music-lovers like me, that’s a definite improvement. But I do miss those unexpected finds in the corner record bins of those vintage record stores.
It’s a Small, Small World. As 2000 dawned, most of America was still using desktop computers. Laptops like IBM’s Thinkpad were out there, but they were expensive and the learning curve hadn’t permeated the country like it soon would. Before the decade was over, we had not only switched largely from desktops to laptops, but we had also downsized from laptops to hand-held computer/phone/PDAs like BlackBerrys and the iPhone. Now the Net goes with us, and we can pull it out of our pocket virtually anytime we like. Wi-Fi has enabled that, freeing us from the Ethernet cable and that archaic phone cord that I was still looping from room to room in my dial-up days as late as 2004. All this mobility means we can now isolate ourselves from real people anywhere we are. I suppose the ultiamte tech-savy date today has a guy and a girl sitting across a table from each other at the Cheesecake Factory, mute to each other but tweeting another soulmate via their Blackberry or iPhone.
I’m not sure what Marshall McLuhan would make of that. Would this be a virtual date or a real one?