The holidays just past made me reflect on the digital revolution. It’s hard for us to see it whole because we find ourselves in the heart of that revolution, but I believe those historians are right who say this one will be more disruptive, significant and impactful than even the Gutenberg Revolution of 1436-1455.
Our COVID Odyssey
It started on Christmas Eve. My daughter is studying early modern history at a British university. She dared not come home to the Great Plains for the holidays because we were afraid that she would not be allowed to return to England, given Europe’s deep concerns about America’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thank goodness for FaceTime. We actually ate our Christmas dinners simultaneously 4,132 miles apart. We opened gifts on our live video stream — something I regarded as “never gonna happen, and if it happened, who could ever afford a five-minute call” back when Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968. We whooped it up together in virtual solidarity on New Year’s Eve. Two miniature bottles of champagne bubbled over simultaneously, pixel by pixel. Our mediated reunion was not fully satisfying, of course, but it was the least unsatisfying solution to a forced separation of parent and child.
I remember calling home to North Dakota when I spent Christmas in Britain thirty years ago, standing in a dank red English phone box that smelled of urine and vomit, plugging ten pence coins again and again into the slot, to hear my parents, grandparents and sister at the other end of the world, all lined up by my stern father to take no more than twenty seconds each, the audio quality broken by what appeared to be cosmic interference, and a two-second delay as if I were calling from the back side of the moon. I burst into tears when I hung up and slunk back to my digs a quarter mile away.
Fond Memories of a Low-Tech World
And yet I have a very powerful and very fond memory of that low-tech world. When I cleaned out my mother’s house not long ago, I found in the attic a box of all the letters I ever sent to my parents. I was unaware that they had saved them. Before I recognized what was in the box, I nearly threw them into the dumpster in my zeal to clear the house in which she had lived sixty years of all the accumulated detritus on three floors, including the gloomiest basement imaginable. Will my daughter thirty years from now remember our FaceTime Christmas in 2020?
Uncertain, and I’m tempted to say unlikely. When she learned about my discovery of the correspondence, my daughter said, “You need to digitize them right away to make sure they don’t disappear somewhere down the road.” But my question is, does digitizing them make them more secure or less? I have a garage full of old computers where whole swaths of my adulthood are marooned. By any practical measure, whatever is in them — and I have very little idea — is gone forever, unrecoverable, even at whatever exorbitant price that would require. What do you do with the 5 1/4 -inch disk on which you wrote your master’s thesis?
Feeling nostalgic, I suggested to my daughter that we try, each on our own continent, to listen to the King’s College Choir’s Christmas annual concert. All we had to do was find out when it would be streamed live on the Internet.
My father was an Anglophile although he had never been to Britain and not much out of the American Midwest. He used to find out in the newspaper, the Minneapolis Tribune, when the concert could be heard live in the United States. He would bring a battery-powered (c-cell) portable radio into our living room, take his accustomed spot around the fireplace, and try to tune in the faraway signal. This was not easy. When he found it we would all listen in rapt silence to the magnificent voices emanating from a late medieval chapel in Cambridge, England. The fidelity was never very good, but it felt like magic that we could be snug on the Great Plains of America listening to this ethereal music happening live, at that moment, on the other side of the planet. The signal would drift and fade out at times almost to nothing, and cosmic shrieks and purrs distorted the boys’ pure and innocent voices. But we were at full — and strained — attention.
King’s College Choir, Cambridge, England (Photo: Kevin Leighton)
Is It Live or is it Memorex?
Because of the pandemic, King’s College recorded this year’s concert in advance for fear that an outbreak at the last minute would force cancelation of the event, which has been broadcast live on the BBC since 1928, when radio was in its early adolescence. When I went to the website to determine when my child and I needed to be ready to listen, I found an invitation to push “Play” whenever it suited us, now, tomorrow, next week Tuesday. My immediate reaction was a melancholy sensation of deflation. Nevertheless we tried to listen simultaneously by texting “now” to each other and then providing concert status updates to make sure we were in sync.
The music was exquisite — infinitely better fidelity than on my father’s AM portable radio with a two-inch speaker. But the experience was diminished. There was none of the magic of radio, no sense in which we had to work a bit to tune it in for maximum signal, none of the immediacy and the uncertainty of the live event. Something was lost. I tried to explain it to my daughter, and she understood, but there was a faint whiff of “my, how these Boomers go on about things” in her response. Culture on demand is her only reality. She has never known what it was to wait all year for the annual springtime television broadcast of The Wizard of Oz, and if you missed it, tough luck, see you next year maybe.
When I was a child, we didn’t have enough income to afford the Encyclopedia Britannica. We had a generic encyclopedia at first and eventually graduated to the World Book. We bought the World Book Almanac every spring at the grocery store. When I got married in 1986, my wife and I gave each other the Britannica as our wedding gift to each other. It cost a fortune. Now I have half a dozen sets of print encyclopedias, including the magnificent Eleventh Edition of Britannica on onionskin, but I seldom consult them, because for ready information there are many fine encyclopedias online, including, of course, Wikipedia. The 2007 Britannica contained approximately 70,000 articles, depending on how you count. Wikipedia, now just twenty years old, offers 6,239,455 articles (and counting) in English alone, for a total so far of 3.7 billion words.
There is virtually no subject for which you cannot find a Wikipedia entry, and though the quality of the articles is uneven, most studies have shown that Wikipedia compares well in accuracy and scope with its rivals, including the online Britannica, with its impressive, but now “mere” 120,000 entries.
When we had questions or curiosities in my youth, my father would say, “Shall we go look it up in the encyclopedia?” Someone would go find the right volume and we’d turn with alphabetical anticipation to the right page where, as often as not, there was no entry on the subject in question. Then someone would take that volume back to the bookcase, find the index, and try that. It might be that there was a brief reference to the subject in an article on medieval architecture or Chinese history, and we’d have to be content with whatever was available in an advanced Gutenberg universe.
There’s a Reason ‘Google’ Became a Verb
Today, when I write, I just leave an XX for any fact I don’t have ready in mind, and when I get to about ten of them, I take a break to look them all up in easy succession, and — needless to say — correcting the thing I am writing just requires a deft mouse motion, a highlight and delete maneuver, and then the keying in of the correct information. I do not need to adjust the typewriter platen to permit me to type in the correction between lines and over the XX in the original typescript. When I was in college, every essay assignment ended after midnight with a sigh. Once I had finished the danged thing, I had to type it up and correct all the typing errors with either a bruising eraser or with newfangled white correction tape. This took several tedious hours. Now, I can track down a dozen facts in ten minutes; it would have taken days, or weeks, to find them before the Internet, and then they would have had to be incorporated into the draft typescript.
We have come a long, long way.
It’s impossible today to ascertain just how many complete books are available online, but it numbers in the tens of millions. The time is coming when virtually every book ever printed will be available online, and free, not to mention searchable! I spent two years making an exhaustive index of the 160 sermons of the English poet and preacher John Donne (1572-1631). A few months ago, I was delighted (and appalled) to discover that Brigham Young University has a complete online (and searchable) edition of the sermons.
Recently, I wanted to find a passage about God’s purposes for us and our incapacity, thanks to original sin, to take life seriously. It would have taken me days to find that passage using my comprehensive index. I would almost certainly have given up before I found it. I remembered that there was a mention of an ignis fatuus (swamp fire) in the sermon, so I typed that in at the BYU site and, voila, there it was in all of its Renaissance prose magnificence. Nobody can decry such tools as this. We live in a breathtaking new era and we are, it seems clear, only in the incunabula of this digital revolution. A friend of mine has the complete works of Steinbeck on his Kindle, every word Steinbeck ever wrote ready to be searched in one immense word file.
Perhaps it is OK if the snail-mail epistle is lost to the immediacy of our twenty-first-century electronic access to everything. A live text may be better than a three-week-old postcard or letter. Perhaps it was silly to wait months and then change our Sunday plans to make sure we were in front of the old tube-type television to watch the annual airing of The Wizard of Oz. I can watch it now on demand, either in a low-tech version or digitally remastered, with enough ancillary materials (websites, documentary films, YouTube parodies, actor reminiscences, tributes to Judy Garland, discussions of the special effects available in 1939, debates about the use of “little people,” etc.) to overwhelm me with knowledge and entertainment.
Vinyl and the Meaning of Our Youth
Just one more instance of the double edge of the digital revolution.
Everyone has a song or an album that we associate with the moment when we woke up into the perplexing universe of very early adulthood — a miasma of romantic and sexual longing, an awareness that adults are fallible and disappointing, a sense that there is so much more out there than we have knowledge of or access to that it hurts and thrills at the same time, a sudden awareness of “childhood’s end.”
For me that moment came in the fall of 1969 when the Beatles’ Abbey Road was released. I bought the LP the moment it appeared in my backwater on the northern Great Plains. We had a gigantic console stereo system the size of a thin refrigerator. It was in the living room where not much in our house was lived, so I had the listening room essentially to myself. I remember lying on my back on the golden-green plush carpet in that room listening to Abbey Road again and again and again. It stirred me and spoke to me and moved me and awakened me in ways that would be hard to articulate, but it was the first music that captured my soul in a kind of private and exclusive way — a kind of hidden intimacy with something that had no expression in a dusty cattle town in the heart of America.
I have been to Abbey Road three times in St. John’s Wood in London, most recently in 2019 with my daughter, who understood and did not see this as the Boomer’s Memorial Tour of Britain. She senses the importance of the Beatles not just to her father but to the second half of the twentieth century in America and the world. She suggested we visit the site and she insisted that we take the usual photo of the two of us walking across the road on the zebra stripes.
The author walking across Abbey Road in St. John’s Wood, London. (Photo courtesy of Clay Jenkinson)
Sometime around 1985 I packed up all my LPs in my mother’s attic and bought CDs of all the music I still loved, including, of course, the complete works of the Beatles. CDs have many obvious advantages over LPs and that 200-pound console stereo that confined me to my parents’ living room through all the thickness of adolescence. My friends who are music experts and LP snobs assure me that the fullness of Abbey Road can only be experienced on a turntable with a crystal needle (and I don’t doubt them — much), but that is not what is lost to me in playing my CD of Abbey Road or simply turning to my playlist in the cloud. The CD version starts on the wrong side of the “album.” That changes everything. You can skip ahead without having to move the delicate needle over the easily scratched surface of the LP. Nor do I have to get up off the carpet or out of my chair to walk over to the stereo, lift the plastic cover, pull up the needle, turn the album over, set the needle down gently and precisely, replace the cover, and return to my listening perch. Much is gained. Something is lost. The turning of the LP was part of the ritual, part of the significance of the experience. It’s hard to explain, and I am all too aware that this may only be senescence and Boomerism talking.
Are We Cheating at Life?
We live in the best of times. We live in some interesting ways in a diminished time. Everything is available. Ubiquity and everything-on-demand sometimes diminish and deprioritize. Where everything is accessible, value can sometimes erode.
My daughter just submitted a chapter of her dissertation to her academic supervisor. She was only able to make progress in the midst of a global health crisis thanks to the digital revolution, which has queued up almost infinite online resources to anyone doing research on early modern England, including an online edition of a twenty-volume Victorian print edition of records of the Queen’s Privy Council that would be exceedingly tedious to use even if she had access to the great university library, one of the best in the world. When she had pushed send on an essay that would have taken her two full days to type, with exceedingly complicated footnotes, I asked her what she would do next. “Well, dad, read the articles from which I cheat-accessed the passages I needed by using the search function. I need to understand the arguments of the articles, and I feel that I took the easy way in pulling out just those parts that pertain to my dissertation subject.”
You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson's views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour, and the new Governing podcast, The Future in Context.