Change is coming in bits, bytes

The way we entertain and enlighten ourselves is crossing a threshold as big as the invention of the Gutenberg press and moving pictures. Two things happened this past week to prove it.

First, Netflix changed its pricing structure to push its customers toward streaming entertainment through the Internet instead of receiving DVDs by mail. And second, my mother expressed interest in the Amazon Kindle, the e-book reader.

It’s official: We are witnessing the end of physical media for personal use.

When it named the company, Netflix foresaw the future, or the name might have been Mailflix. Music is following the same path. In spite of my collection of CDs, my kids remind me of the imminent demise of physical disks with every MP3 they download.

Consider the history of recorded music. Each new technology tried to overcome drawbacks of what came before: wax cylinders, vinyl discs, 8-tracks, cassettes and CDs. At-home movies have a similar legacy of continuous disruption: film reels, magnetic tape, DVDs and dozens of now-obsolete formats in between.

We’ve seen this coming, especially when downloading music exploded in the 1990s. But what about the future of books? Suggest an electronic substitute and book lovers protest, reminding us of the feel on the fingertips, the soft click-slide sound of a page turning and that marvelous book smell, either printing-press fresh or musty with the stuff of ages. They’re right.

But as my mother is learning, there’s something attractive about 1,500 books stored on a device as thin as a Newsweek and weighing the same, variable font size for aging eyes and the ability to search for the precise moment Darton the Conqueror first acquired his deadly scimitar.

But when physical media vanishes, how will we impress our friends with our collections? Nothing says educated better than a wall of hardcovers that includes Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, even if no one’s actually read it. Nothing says eclectic like Mozart, Miles Davis and the Red Hot Chili Peppers elbowing each other on the same shelf in your living room. And nothing says trendy-fun like a coffee table with The Economist, Wired and Outside magazines.

Now, imagine walking your houseguests over to a portable hard disk and saying, “Let me tell you what I’ve got stored on that thing.”

But change is coming, so we might as well get used to it.

My mother is proof. She has always defined vacation as “a chance to catch up on my reading.” In choosing between a good book and Disneyland, that’s a no-brainer; Barnes & Noble is Disneyland.

I’m actually on the side of people who love to hold a book in their hands, and I think we will always have books. As for the vinyl record zealots, you can have all your skipping, hissing and pops. I’ll take bits and bytes any day. I won’t miss any of the dust removal, tape repair and scratch filling. I won’t miss scrubbing the DVD with dish soap while the kids holler because grape jelly on the disc interrupted Indiana Jones midwhip.

As for the flip side (hmmm, I guess that expression’s got to go, too), how about any book, song or show, anywhere at any time, always bright and clear? I’ll take that.

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