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The Digital Dark Age

October 19, 2011

My son updated his status with “Anthropologists in 2,000 years are gonna be pretty pissed about how we store information today.” True, but I think we’ll feel the effects before that.

When I was growing up, I not only read the magazines my parents subscribed to and the books on their shelves, but also consumed old magazines and books that I found at my grandparents’ houses. My view of the world in the 60’s and 70’s was expanded by taking in the cultural records of a previous generation, including those my parents read as children. Whether it was Readers Digest from the 30s or the Jerry Todd series of books from the 20s that idealized small-town America for me (and apparently for Ronald Reagan). Having access to cross-generational source material deepened my perspectives at the same time I was learning about the world around me from more contemporary magazines.

Such as Mad Magazine.

Much of what I learned about popular culture, including faraway places such as Madison Avenue, suburbia, teenage-hood, adulthood, came from the pages of Mad Magazine. I each eagerly awaited each issue, as well as the paperback books that anthologized Mad going back to the 50s.  Even now as I design and build prototypes, I still reflect on articles like the one from 1963, “If Kids Designed Their Own Christmas Toys” by Al Jaffee.

If Kids Designed Their Christmas Toys - Mad Magazine

When my kids were growing up in the 90s, they dug into my old Mad books the same way I dived into them when I was their age, and the same way I dug into the magazines at grandma’s house. My poor kids were showing up at school with all sorts of pop cultural references from the 60s; they assumed everyone knew what potrzebie was. I think they’re better off for it.

Which brings me around to the Digital Dark Age my son mentions, and though it is usually applied to the more distant future when historians won’t be able to read my floppy disk I think the effects are closer at hand. Will my (theoretical) grandkids come to my house and expect to see what their parents were reading as kids? Some of that remains. But when all reading is streamed from the iCloud onto an iPad, whom do we trust to keep it around for my kids’ kids to read? Where will that transgenerational culture fix occur? Kids are already having trouble with the old media. I’m sure lots of material will get scanned in for perpetuity by Google, et al, over time, but will the serendipity of discovery in grandma’s attic still be as intensely rewarding?

Lots of people lament the closing of newspapers, magazines, bookstores for all the immediate, personal feelings people have about the their love of the tangible media of books, magazines, newsprint. And others are concerned about the far future. But I say watch out for the intermediate-term effects of this Digital Twilight.

Meanwhile, my son is starting a new series of paintings inspired by the HyperCard stacks he grew up with from the early 90s. After all, even this digital anthropologist has a hard time opening AppleWorks files from 2010, let alone fossilized HyperCard stacks from 1987. But with the help of some oil paints and canvass, future art historians may know what we once clicked.

Cross-posted from AP42 blog “…and Everything”

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