ReelThoughts: June 20, 2009

"Let's Get Digital"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


Analog television is now dead, gone the way of the sabertooth tiger and the dodo. From a purely practical perspective, this doesn't impact me. The two television sets I use for watching TV programming are connected to cable; I haven't used an antenna since I moved to this house and, even at my previous residence, the antenna was only a back-up for those occasions when the cable went out (which, unfortunately, was more often than it should have been). Still, the cessation of analog television causes a pang. It's another reminder of how relentless technology is in its push forward. I find that, as I get older, as eager as I am for advancements, there are some outdated things I cling to steadfastly.

I wonder if I would enjoy childhood in the 2010s as much as I enjoyed it in the 1970s. Few would argue that things were simpler then. Leisure hours were filled with such antiquated activities as playing outside with friends, reading books, and gathering as a family to watch network TV. No computers, no DVDs, no video games, no cell phones, no iPODs, no on-line. I'm not going to argue the untenable position that the world would be better without those things, because only an idiot would deny they have (on balance) improved the quality of life. But something has been lost, as well.

Those who grew up in the analog era can relate to the concept of an antenna rotor. For the clueless, that's a device with a motor attached to a rooftop antenna that allows the operator to rotate the antenna so it points in different directions, permitting improved reception of close signals and creating the potential of seeing snowy signals from distant markets ("distant" meaning about 100 miles away). As a child in the New York suburbs, if the atmosphere was right, I could pull in stations from Philadelphia (in particular Channels 17 and 29), as well as a couple from Boston. When my family moved to Philadelphia, I could catch New York and sometimes Baltimore/Washington D.C. I have memories of watching Star Trek late night on New York's Channel 11 by turning the antenna to a certain position. The signal was clearer on some occasions than on others (atmospherics played a big part). I can recall the frustration of those nights when the reception was too poor to make out more than shadows in a field of speckled gray-and-white. But there were times when it was almost perfect. Such things are now artifacts of the past. The digital age has rendered them obsolete, alongside VCRs, records, and cassette tapes.

25 years ago, the concept of "copyright infringement" meant Xeroxing a page (or more than one page) from a book. Today, the connotation has changed. Books are no longer in much danger of being copied and, if they are, no one is overly concerned. Now, it's music and movies. Of course, music "piracy" has gone on for as long as there have been recording devices, but it's the perfect quality afforded by digitization that has caused the recording industry to have a collective apoplexy. Worldwide networking has exacerbated the situation. Now, instead of a second-generation cassette copy of a song dubbed from your best friend's record, it's an exact duplicate of a high-quality copy from someone in Thailand.

At some point, some legal body is going to have to address a reality: the concept of "copyright" that existed in the analog world is obsolete. Feathers will be ruffled. There will be widespread outrage. But this is far overdue. Applying out-of-date definitions in a world reshaped by technology has criminalized kids and created mass confusion. Suddenly, a 12-year old who wants to add a song to his iPOD is guilty of a federal offense. When there's a conflict between common sense and legality, something needs to be reconsidered.

I am a writer, so I'm keenly aware of the need for some sort of copyright protection. But what we have today - regulations drafted in a pre-digital world - needs to be relaxed. Punish those who violate copyrights not for simple personal enjoyment but for profit. Change the laws to decriminalize downloading for individual use while strengthening penalties for those who pirate for profit. Recognize reality. The genie is out of the bottle - it's not going back in. Box office receipts for the year's most downloaded movies have shown that a film can still make a ton of money even when clean copies of it are readily available.

The way forward is impeded, as has often been the case with progress, by those who fear the future or don't understand it. Keeping the status quo is the quickest way to cultural and societal stagnation. The United States became a world power because of its embrace of innovation. Now, as it loses its edge, its position of prominence is in danger of fading. The "can do" mentality, if not already dead, is dying. Armies of lawyers and special interest lobbyists earn huge salaries to fight against progress, arguing the case of greedy multinational corporations who have a vested interest in entrenchment. Politicians display naked cowardice by refusing to take them on and the public looks on in apathy.

The digital age has improved communication but not understanding. When I was growing up, geographical divisions were impediments to relationships. There was the telephone, but telephone calls were expensive and often not private. (Remember your little sister listening in on the other line?) Letter writing was hard work. In fourth grade, when my family relocated 100 miles from our previous home, I lost contact with all of my old friends within a year. The Internet changed that. I never would have met my wife without it - she was in Chicago via Manila and I was in New Jersey. We became electronic pen pals. Now, she lives half-a-world away from her parents, but remains in contact with them. And, even though I no longer fly (due to a mixture of irritation and safety-fueled paranoia), I have acquaintances all over the planet. Yet there are still wars and rumors of wars, largely because the ability to communicate hasn't increased the willingness of people to listen.

The digital revolution has snuck up on us like a thief in the night. The influence of technology on day-to-day living has been a gradual thing. Look back a few months, and nothing is substantially different. But look back 10, 20, or 30 years, and it's surprising to recognize how many things have changed. In 1980, we were worried about the Soviet Union peppering North America with nuclear warheads. Today, weapons of mass destruction may be the least of our problems. Computer warfare could send us back to the Stone Age more quickly than a barrage of nuclear bombs. We are vulnerable in ways we never would have dreamed possible three decades ago. Ironically, in moving forward so quickly, we have opened ourselves up to the potential of being thrown much further back. Rip away the Internet and the economy would collapse. 15 years ago, such an outage would have been a source of annoyance but not much else.

I cut my lawn and do as much of my yard work as I can manage. I could easily pay a service to perform those duties, but I like to spend a few hours each week away from the computer doing something simple and undemanding - tasks that haven't substantially changed since when I performed them for several neighbors as a teenager. Some day, no doubt, there will be pre-programmed lawn mowers that follow a program and cut the grass perfectly without human intervention. That will be progress, and we will applaud it. We will be richer for the innovation, but perhaps a little poorer as well.


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