The future is now – really, really now

By strange conjunction of media, the future came knocking rapping banging pounding on the door of my consciousness on Wednesday:

1. Borders, the nation’s second-largest bookstore chain, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy today. The company will close about 200 of its 674 Borders and Waldenbooks stores in the U.S. The reasons for the failure aren’t mysterious: Buyers have migrated to and to Barnes and Noble, which dived into new media more aggressively than Borders, which apparently wasn’t hard to do. Borders may survive, thanks to an injection of almost $500 million from investors, but it won’t be the same. Think digital. Think new media. Think the end of bookstores as we’ve known them, although I could imagine the survival of the very small, very local boutique-like stores.

Time, Feb. 21, 2011

2. My Feb. 21 issue of Time magazine arrived in the mail today. (Two old-media words in that sentence alone: magazine, mail.) The cover was a stark image of a bald human head with a wire coming out the back of the neck, a la Matrix. Cover line: “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal.*” The asterisk directs us to the small type at the bottom of the cover: “*If you believe humans and machines will become one. Welcome to the Singularity movement.”

“Singularity,” the cover story explains, is “the moment when technological change becomes so rapid and profound, it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history.” I haven’t read the entire story yet, but this “movement” promises — or threatens, depending on your point of view — to change us to the core, right down to what it means to be human. It even raises the prospect of what might be called eternal life, but not the way we find it described in the Bible or Koran.

3. Today’s “Fresh Air” program (NPR) featured Biz Stone, one of the co-founders of Twitter. (I love the name. Well, both of them: the network and the guy.) Stone joined host Terry Gross for “a wide-ranging discussion about the service, including how it was used recently in Egypt to help organize the revolution and how it has been used to spread democracy movements in other countries,” as the “Fresh Air” website says. It was a terrific, informative and, at some moments, inspiring interview.

My estimation of Twitter’s value as a social medium pretty much quadrupled,, especially listening to Stone talk about how the network has dealt with playing a major role in several major events in its five-year existence. (Five years!) But at some point during the interview, I realized in a deeply profound way that what Twitter and other social networks is doing is — pardon the cliché — the new normal.

It hit me at a gut level as never before: This is it. Unless we somehow throw ourselves back into a tech-less dark age (cf. Canticle for Leibowitz), we’re living in a new world and we’re not going back to the old one. It hasn’t been too long — less than six months — that I’ve said something like this: “Twitter is cool, and I see some good uses for it. But what’s the big deal?” I’ll never say that again.

4. Two words: Jeopardy. Watson. (In case you’re wondering: Watson, the IBM computer, easily outscored two human champions in a three-day match on the 25,000-year-old game show.)

5. And finally, in local news, WETS-FM, the public radio station for northeast Tennessee, where I live, announced it’s launching digital broadcasts in the autumn. It is probably the first radio station in this area to go digital, adding three HD channels to its existing analog broadcast. The station radically changed its format last year. It used to air a widely varied mix of NPR news and weekend programming, classical music and local “Americana” programming. Then last February it switched to all-news-and-talk during the week, with some NPR programming and Americana music on the weekends. Classical was gone. Were many listeners ticked off? You could say that. But going digital will let WETS-FM add a station just for Americana and another for jazz and classical.

Good timing for the announcement, by the way: East Tennessee State University, the station’s owner, received a $70,000 grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to install the equipment. The CPB is in Congress’ budget-cutting line of fire this year. Maybe this served as a not-so-subtle message from the station that federal funding for NPR and PBS can actually add value to the community.

6 thoughts on “The future is now – really, really now

  1. Thanks! As always, insightful and challenging 🙂 It’s nice to feel connected to East Tennessee and Milligan via this blog and other social media (Facebook, Twitter, Skype)…there are some days when I really appreciate technology and others when parts of me resist all of the change it has brought!


  2. Jim, several things here:
    Is the Johnson City Books-A-Million still there? Have you heard anything about the company’s health?

    I wish you could sit down with my colleague Wes Jamison, who has done much research on social movements and communication media–he predicts that the effects of social media in Egypt will come to naught because this much communication makes it, in a sense, so easy to vent, get stir up and act, that the young Tweeters and Facebook users have spent their energy and, believing they’ve achieved something, will not cohere as a movement long enough to see real change–that and the question of whether a Muslim culture can establish anything close to a human rights respecting democracy with all the institutions necessary to foster free elections and real change. I haven’t explained it nearly as well as he could–he wrote his diss. on a theory of social change and communication and I really don’t know what to think, but it’s a sobering consideration and perhaps a good caution against a prematurely euphoric celebration of new media as a vehicle to democracy.

  3. It will be interesting to see how all of these changes continue to transform the students we teach and the way we teach them.

  4. @Alex: The BAM is still going in Johnson City; I don’t know how the chain is faring.
    Your point is well taken: it’s too early to see how the Egyptian revolution will turn out. And to be sure, Biz Stone wasn’t taking credit for the revolution; he was careful to keep Twitter in its place. But the speed at which the protesters organized and kept fueling the actions for almost three weeks is impressive, nonetheless — and it would not have happened in the same way, or as quickly, without the social media at hand.

  5. @ Danielle, Mary and Jennifer: Thanks for your comments. I’ll put the New Yorker article on my to-read list. As for the impact on teaching: there’s a lot of concern about the affect of SMS on writing skills, and rightfully so. But maybe once the novelty wears off, we’ll see Twitter, etc., for what they are: valuable in some ways (fast, efficient communication, good for news) and not so valuable in others, like writing prose. Wishful thinking? Probably.

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