Friday, June 3, 2011
Nothing You Can Put Your Finger On
A couple of news items in recent weeks served as a reminder of how much the everyday world is changing.
One was a New York Times story reporting that, for the first time, Amazon.com is selling more digital books than physical, dead-tree books. The article was quick to point out that Amazon is but a small share of the market and that book sales are overwhelmingly made up of actual books. Nonetheless, the arc is clear.
It was also reported, in another story on another day, that Google is working feverishly on a system to put credit cards and ATM cards in smart phones so people can make everyday purchases. If that comes to pass (and who doubts that it will?), it could mean the end not only of credit cards, but cash and wallets as well. After all, the only reason for a wallet would be to hold a driver’s license, and that will probably be replaced by something digital too.
The movement away from the tangible to the digital has occurred with breathtaking speed. Only 20 years ago, people still wrote letters. Does anyone now? I wonder from time to time how historians of this era will cope, having to dig up the e-mails of noteworthy people, rather than having actual letters. How many of today’s e-mails will be retrievable by the computers (or whatever they evolve into) of 2111. And if they are, who will have the time to go through all the daily business dreck that comprises most people’s e-mail output?
Even an old-school print guy like me has to some degree embraced the digital improvements. I probably send three or four print letters a year (it used to be nearly that many in a week), and I find myself getting irritated if someone ahead of me in the supermarket line is writing a check and slowing things down. But the really intriguing question is what the unexpected effects of technological change will be. There are always a few.
When the newspaper I worked for converted from typewriters and pencils to computers in the early 1980s, they thought they’d save money by not having to have proofreaders, since reporters and editors would be, in effect, inputting the copy, rather than having it reset by someone in the print shop. We quickly found that so many mistakes were getting through that way that we had to hire another editor (better paid than a proofreader) to give stories a second reading and fix the mistakes that were created while fixing other mistakes. We found that even the sharpest editors missed more when they were looking at a story on the computer, rather than marking up a typewritten sheet of paper with a pencil.
The replacement of hard cash by bank deposits and the provision of easy credit by banks and card companies has certainly changed the way people look at money. As the recent housing and mortgage crisis amply demonstrated, both borrowers and lenders tend to start forgetting it’s real money and begin seeing it as numbers on a spreadsheet. With all the personnel turnover in the financial industry, the personal connection, as well as the physical connection, to money borrowed and loaned has all but evaporated.
There are some good books out there about the housing and financial crash of 2008. I’m thinking of ordering the e-editions from Amazon, paying with a credit card, and reading them on the iPad I just bought.