December 26, 2009

Living in the Digital Multimedia Domain...

Our urban world has become this freaky, converged, digital bubble.

As a post-boomer, I was born long enough ago that analogue, mass broadcast and print media were the dominant ways through which information was received. You listened to the radio every morning at breakfast, you read one newspaper on weekends, you read an occasional book, and you watched TV every night. We had 13 or so TV channels. Interacting with this information went as far as turning the page, or changing the channel. If you were very brave or opinionated, you might write a letter to the Editor.

Everyone probably watched, listened and read the same information as their neighbours, and getting access to some special information, like something historical or non-mainstream, meant physically travelling to the local library and going through the card catalogue and searching little code numbers on the spines of books until your neck was sore. (Microfiches were cool though - like using a history microscope.)

Multimedia, if you could call it that, started coming into my life between 1973 and 1975, when my classroom had a Radio Shack TRS-80 microcomputer, and those workstations with audio cassette players for listening comprehension. It wasn't all that far removed from the Disney audio-slidestrips you could buy back then: "When Tinkerbell rings her bell, go to the next slide! *Bing*" and then you dutifully pull the little cardboard strip one slot to the right and wait for the lady on the tape to start telling you the story for that slide.

Now, 30 years later, if you live in any remotely-urbanized area, you probably have Internet access and cellphone coverage. Most people have little telephones in their pocket that have 1,000,000 times more computing power than that TRS-80. Mobility and access to information and communication wherever and whenever you want it, seems to be the defining characteristic of the current generation. Kids in their tweens have access to and are in almost constant contact with friends and family in a way that, mentally and psychologically, makes them more socially integrated and less physically present than their parents must ever have been. Global village, and global tribalism, I guess. Media and information-wise, we've changed from the mass, cookie-cutter approach, to the individualistic, a la carte menu. I find the number of TV channels available for a digital subscriber to be bewildering.

As a curious kid, I used to ask myself questions about my life or my world. Occasionally, I'd read a book to seek an answer, but most often, I'd watch a TV show. TV made us consumers of images and sounds. It changed us from page turners to channel flippers, and as a race, it probably trained us to absorb information in multiple different modes, like pictures AND sound AND text.

The next step was interactivity. Video games and other multimedia presentations showed us how immersive an interactive experience could be. We now live in an era where cinema and interactive games are becoming more and more integrated. Video games look like 3D animated action movies, and big-budget action movies possess sequences that make for good video games.

To me, the Internet, and Google in particular, is the most significant reference tool that has entered popular life in the past 20 years. Where would I be now if I wanted to research something for my next novel? There's no way in hell I could ever find the time to go down to the library and dig through some stacks or whatever. But, I can pull out my Palm Pre, enter some keywords into Google and email the results back to my Desktop PC at home. Google has replaced the Librarian, and Wikipedia has replaced the Encyclopedia Britannica. Convenience and instant access have surmounted the authority of institutionalized experts. And, it's freaky how quickly and easily I accepted Wikipedia as a reliable source of facts.

So, is it ironic that I'd use modern wireless networking and Internet-based research tools to create an old-fashioned paperback novel? Are printed books dead? Will people continue to read once they start seeing books that can read to them, or show them a video, or act out the scenes in high-res 3D? Although for years now, I've received my daily news text on my smartphone (and have read a few novels in PDF or eReader formats), I think that I'm still in the transitional phase of print. Nothing seems to legitimize the written word like a physical book, a good ol' paperback novel. I don't know anyone who owns a Kindle eBook reader, but maybe it's just a matter of time.

No comments: