I don’t want this to sound like one of those ‘I remember when it was all fields round here’ rants, but I do think our modern society is in danger of losing something precious. There’s nothing wrong with the digital world in itself. There’s nothing wrong with a virtual world for entertainment, escapism or even education. The trouble for me is when it starts to dominate every aspect of life. We are losing the tangible world. Yes, that smelly, dusty, world of touching things. We take our five senses for granted and they don’t have as much fun these days.
Take down a book from a shelf in an old second hand bookshop and open a page. Ah, that glorious smell, equal to any rare orchid. Pull out a vinyl from its sleeve and listen to the click of the needle when you put it in the groove. Move characters round and roll the dice on a shiny new board game.
Ok, so we can store six trillion books or whatever on the Kindle and streaming music is easy and we can select the individual tracks we want and so on. We have gained. Of course we have. But we are losing something too. We have even seen the Borders and HMV chains crash. Almost three in four independent record stores have shut their doors over the previous decade. High streets up and down the land are in decline. They were already competing against out of town retail parks before the internet came along. However, certain independent bookshops and record shops still thrive, probably because they offer something different that the online transaction can’t replicate. Staff get to know their customers and it’s an opportunity for shared interests and experiences. Independent video stores will have to offer that same personal interaction to survive against the onslaught of DVDs by post and movies through streaming.
Now, I must declare my hypocrisy. I shop from Amazon. I buy from iTunes. Hell, I’ve even got my own eBook for sale. I’m just as much to blame for the closure of shops as anyone. I’m just as much to blame for our dislocation from reality. Kids growing up today are totally dependent on what they see on a screen. I’m not advocating some sepia-tinged vision of rosy-cheeked children playing with mud pies all day, but come on. If it isn’t on a screen, it doesn’t exist. Six year olds have mobile phones, their TV in the bedroom stops them from getting to sleep and they’re allowed to play their hand-held games at the dinner table. At the dinner table, don’t you know! Digital versions now exist for classic board games, such as Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit and Cluedo.
What warped sense of reality are we living in that we come home to a virtual fireplace displayed on the TV? Mmmm, feel the cosy warmth from those virtual flames. No time to look after a pet because you’re sitting in front of a computer all day? No sweat; just order a wall mounted virtual aquarium or adopt a virtual version of your pet of choice. Your online dog, cat or turtle is waiting for you to bond with it and have lots of virtual fun!
I see a future. Record shops, bookshops…in fact, any shops are a rarity, like quaint olden days museum pieces preserved for the ‘nerds’. The physical world is the domain of social anthropologists. We don’t touch anything. We don’t have to. We don’t even need keyboards anymore; we just talk to our computers and phones and all our devices to get them to work. We work with our screens, socialise with our screens, shop with our screens and play with our screens. In the comfort of our homes, we virtually warm ourselves in front of our virtual fire and we express our sentimental side by seeing to the needs of our virtual pets. Perhaps we’ll have a virtual partner. We can turn him / her off if they annoy us.
I am in the last bookshop on Earth and I’m clutching the very last copy of a first edition David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. I can smell that heavenly, musty smell. I can feel the pages that a craftsman lovingly put together. I read the words of the world’s greatest storyteller as he intended the words to be read. But the book turns into an electronic reader and it feels cold and hard in my hands. The weight of lost bookshops and libraries weighs heavily on me and I sink to my knees. Later that day, I relax in the comfort of my living room and turn on my wall display. Selecting from the menu, I tell the device to display the virtual bookshop.
Alas, it will come to pass. We can’t put the genie back in the lamp. The American poet, Elizabeth Bishop, wrote, “the art of losing isn’t hard to master”. Oh, yes. We do it so well.