I listen to a podcast called Fourcast. It is all about the future that always makes me think. In the most recent episode they predicted the death of network TV and alluded to the impending death of record companies. Just a few days before listening to that, I read an article by Stephen King in Entertainment Weekly. In this article he bemoans the death of [music] radio, physical books, good movies, and network TV. At the end of the article he says that his fear is that the replacements for these things is low-quality and that quality versions of all these things are going to disappear. I have hard similar arguments over the years, and the purpose of this post is to offer my disagreement. Last week I asked you to help me make a list of important things you believe are going to die because of technology. Our list included office equipment which is not really a surprise because tech has always moved office equipment pretty quickly. Video stores and banks were on the list. They are also not surprising because the services offered by those buildings can be done cheaper over the internet. (Ultimately, the disks through the mail business is doomed as well. It will be replaced by streaming movies over the web.) The list also included old-style phones and wrist watches. I doubt if anyone is overly concerned about those things, because we have the technology in place to replace them.
Then there's this item; last week I read this article about the death of cursive writing. I personally haven’t written anything other than my signature in cursive since the 9th grade. And this is another thing that technology has made needless. Penmanship doesn’t matter when we type everything.
These things are not that frightening by themselves, but for many people, the cumulative effect of so many changes seems both scary and wrong. I think this is what scares Stephen King, though he expresses his fear a bit differently. In his words "right now there are no adequate replacements for the quality that looks to be on the way out." So let's consider his fear. Do we need to worry that the quality of the media is going to degrade because there’s no money in the new media options and all the skilled people will do something else?
My answer is a strong NO.
Books aren’t going anywhere. Quality authors will always be widely read and they will make good money for their craft. Books made of paper will fade, and the digital copies we all buy will cost less. Publishing companies may even disappear. (I believe their death is certain unless they change their archaic and draconian DRM concepts.) If publishing companies disappear what will replace them? One possibility is that there will be freelance editors to edit for the freelance authors. The good ones will be in demand and will earn a good living. The bad ones will find a new job. The same will be true for authors. A second possibility is some sort of collective or trade group that carries out these duties but has the authors in mind rather than the bottom line of the publishing companies. I’m not trying to predict the future, but I will say with certainty that the way things are is not the way things will be. (Do you think Plato would have written the Trial of Socrates if he had to negotiate his advance.)
The same can be said for each of these media formats. Quality will rise and people who are talented will earn a good living. In fact, I think I can make the argument that whenever network television dies, the overall quality of that media will rise. I am completely certain that music isn’t going to disappear, but I’m also certain that musicians will not earn their income in the same way that they do now.
An inability to imagine the future becomes fear of the future. So much of the hand wringing and fear bears this out. I do not pretend to know how all these things will be replaced in the future. But I am certain that my great grandparents couldn’t have imagined what movies or television would become. (And that they would be appalled at how much we spend each month on entertainment) I am also certain that media isn’t going anywhere. In fact, as technology makes our work easier we will probably spend even more time consuming media.
One last thought that I didn’t know how to connect. I believe that the media we consume will be high-quality. Ask a Ninja, Homestar Runner, and Chad Vader are well-known, funny, widely watched and higher quality than Accidentally on Purpose.
Tomorrow…the one impending change that I cannot envision a replacement for.