April 29, 2009 in Opinion

Leonard Pitts Jr.: World changes before our eyes

Leonard Pitts Jr.
 

Our subject today: the end of the physical world.

Which is, yes, a tad hyperbolic, but it contains a nugget of truth. Bear with me.

Last week, I fell into conversation with a fellow named Bud and shared something that has been rattling around my head for a while now: a sense that, as intellectual properties become ever more digitized, we are seeing the disappearance of, well … “things.” Physical artifacts that once were as much a part of every day as ketchup stains on your tie are now disappearing inside hard drives.

Bud, a musician, knew exactly what I meant. He used to play with a band. Now he has a band, if he so desires, inside his keyboard.

But it’s not just live music. It’s recorded music. I have a huge collection of CDs and vinyl albums that these days is used mainly for decor; when I want tunes, I turn to my iPod.

And it’s photography. We used to have these things called snapshots, but no longer. Photos are digitized now.

And it’s books, where you can instantly, cheaply download that novel or biography right to your reading device.

And it is, of course, newspapers. Enough said.

Nor is it only the artifacts themselves we lose. We also lose the factories that used to make them, the trucks that used to ship them, the vendors that used to sell them. I want to write a column about this, I told Bud, but I’m not sure how to frame it. If I lament the change, isn’t that a bit like lamenting seasons and tides? Isn’t it futile? Time marches, whether you lament it or not.

But I find I can’t celebrate it, either. So I suppose I am here simply to bear witness for the world that now passes, a world where, when you bought or made something, you received for your effort some tangible, physical evidence of what you did. Now you just get an electronic tone telling you the transfer is complete.

Which is, granted, easier and more convenient and if you are twenty-something, you may wonder what’s the fuss, because this is all you’ve ever known. If, however, you are old enough to remember the old world, you may be like me: constantly marveling at the wonders of the new, yet also left vaguely uneasy by the ease of it. Like you were cheating the universe or putting one over on God.

I think that’s how my sister felt the other day when she called and asked me to tape a song and mail it to her. I told her she was showing her age. She asked what I meant. I told her to check her e-mail; the song was already there.

Linda was amazed. Next time I’m in town, I’m to show her how I did that.

As it happens, I saw two movies over the weekend: “The Soloist” and “State of Play,” one about a fictional reporter who uncovers a scandal, the other about a real reporter who befriended a mentally ill homeless man. Both films send their heroes out to seek truth, scraping against the hard realities of the real world, shoe leather on concrete, cars rushing past, people right up in your face. And both feature loving, almost sensual shots of the physical product those efforts produce: newspapers.

Fittingly enough, I started work Monday and found the intraoffice message board full of farewell notes from colleagues caught in the last layoff.

“All my best to everyone …”

“Keep the faith …”

“I walk to the parking lot in tears …”

Farewell to co-workers. Farewell to a world that was.

Let me leave you with this: I saw a story in the paper a few days ago which said toymakers expect to have on store shelves “this Christmas” new devices that will allow users to move objects telekinetically, i.e., by concentrating on them.

It made me smile for the rude awakening that awaits the twentysomethings. The old world passes, the new world is born, but the “next” world lies ever in wait. Time marches. And soon enough it will be their turn to bear witness in wonder and in loss.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His e-mail address is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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