20 years ago, I’d stroll down to the shops and buy things. CDs, videos, books and the like. If I wanted an album I either had to find a record shop that had it in stock or get them to order it for me. At the end of a day’s shopping I’d have a bag full of stuff to lug home, spread out on the floor and admire! “Look,” I would declare, “I have stuff! The new Pink Floyd album, that Terry Pratchett book we’d been looking for! Ravenloft goodies!”
10 years ago, I might stroll down to the shops, I might not. Depends where I was, what shops I might want to visit. If there was a book or a DVD I was looking for (video? how very quaint) I’d probably have a look in the shop, declare “I’m not paying that!” and order it online. But still, stuff would arrive. Actual, physical stuff that I could admire, lend to friends, leave in the car so I lose it when the car gets stolen (Yes, I’m looking at the gap where my Neverwhere audiobook used to be. On 2 tapes, I’ll have you know).
Now, I sometimes wonder why we even have shops. I could spend a small fortune and have nothing physical, nothing real to show for it. Want an album? Buy the download. Book? Download to Kindle app. Movie? Rent it online, buy it from iTunes. Just about the only physical thing I’ve bought recently was Borderlands 2.
Now. I’ve been watching a lot of Time Team recently, it seems to have replaced Scrapheap Challenge as the programme of choice to fill all available empty slots on More4 and Yesterday. They spend hours digging up assorted sites, finding coins, pins, combs and the like and they can deduce from all that how civilisation was at that time. 100 years from now, 500 years from now, what are they going to be able to tell about us? What are our grave goods going to reveal about society?
Some of the greatest historical knowledge comes from the writings of the period. Some of the finest literature, the most wondrous stories known to man, survived because someone wrote it down and not because it was passed on purely through word of mouth. They wrote it down on actual paper (or papyrus, bark, clay tablets, whatever). When the computers of the world suffer some massive calamity and are all wiped (or try and take over and have to be destroyed), what will that do to the writings of today? Huge chunks of history will be lost purely because we’re a digital society.
So, in a few hundred years from now when historians are trying to piece together what the 21st Century was like it could very well be a new dark ages. Says he writing this at a computer, reading books from his smartphone and listening to an album downloaded last week and not yet burned to CD.