It’s the 21st century and by now we are supposed to be living in space, driving our flying cars, and, at the very least, teleporting as fast as Captain Kirk can say, “Beam me up, Scotty!” No, it is not the future science fiction once promised.
As we settle solidly into this new century, the most sci-fi part of our lives was just a footnote to the great dreamers of the past. The future appears to be earthbound but it has taken a virtual turn, if only for our “stuff.”
Look in any of those holiday catalogs in the recycle bin and you can find new devices among the masses with the buzzword “digital conversion.” These products turn your records into MP3s, your books into electronic paper, and your pictures into a slideshow. This month the jewel of the entertainment kingdom, the television, will join the digital revolution.
On February 17, TV stations across the country will each push a button, and the analog signal we have come to love will go dark. If you can’t remember why TV is going DTV, it’s all about creating more space to handle the need for wireless networks. It has taken a Herculean effort to get everyone on board. Those with cable or satellite boxes are pretty much covered, but with a third of Houston yet to discover cable, this could be a Y2K-type of situation come mid-February.
We may not be taking over the solar system as fast as the Starship Enterprise, but when it comes to staking claims in the virtual realm, we have no problem planting flags. Digital makeovers are the latest trend. Every store from Hammacher Schlemmer to Bed Bath & Beyond is trying to sell you something to convert old slides, records, cds, tapes, and just about anything in your entertainment closet to a computer file. With enough memory, our whole lives can fit nicely on a hard drive.
The revolution is spreading. It may have been video that killed the radio star, but it seems it will be digital that kills the video store. Blockbuster’s move to join Netflix by going online meant you could skip a trip to the local video palace and just wait by the mailbox. Netflix fired the next shot across the bow by getting in bed with TiVo, but now subscribers of both services can have movies streamed straight to their DVR boxes. Unless Blu-ray technology can save it, look for your DVD player to be the next electronic device headed for the motherboard in the sky.
Even bookworms are finding themselves in a tractor beam, seduced by the pull of the electronic book. In the last year, Sony’s Reader and Amazon’s Kindle are making it easier to switch paper for plastic. While e-books have been around as long as the iPod, it wasn’t until these two devices hit the market with their book-like qualities that people began to take notice. At the moment, the two seem to be in a Blu-ray vs. HD death match to see which format will come out on top.
Anyone with a stray Beta tape in the nostalgia closet knows how important winning that fight can be to getting everyone on board.
The truth is that in the future we live in we can hold a library of books in our hands, a music store in our pocket, and a lifetime of pictures in a frame. And yet, even with this new, smaller version of our world we can’t let go of the things we love. Radio wasn’t killed by video, we still have albums despite the ease of MP3s, and the wave of new libraries built in this city seems to say books are here to stay. Maybe it is our love of these tangible things that keeps us earthbound.
The new frontier may be virtual, but having things around that we can touch keeps us human. It may mean none of us will feel the dust of Mars under our feet, or have to deal with inter-air collision insurance, but it is a future that still makes room for our past. Embracing the two is man’s biggest step of all.
Editor’s Note: For more information on television’s digital conversion go to www.dtv.gov.