by Ari Armstrong
The following article originally appeared at Boulder Weekly on April 27, 2006.
TV is so 20th century. For the first time in my life, my residence contains no television. It's not that I'm anti-technology -- quite the opposite. Nor do I think TV poisons our minds, hopelessly biases the news, turns our brains to mush, or offers no good programming. Television is a tool. Like any tool, it can be used wisely or abused.
On broadcast, PBS provides some good commentary and documentaries. The main broadcast stations also provide some quality news and entertainment. For example, my wife and I have enjoyed Veronica Mars. And of course cable offers all sorts of quality programming for news, education, and fiction. SciFi's new Battlestar Galactica is another favorite.
But that's just it. We didn't have cable. We didn't have a fancy recording system to track and store shows for future viewing. We watched Mars and Battlestar on the computer's DVD drive. The local broadcast news stations also offer web pages with written and video content. I can watch many television shows commercial-free and on my own schedule, if I wait for Netflix to ship the DVD to my mail box.
Of course, Battlestar and several other shows are also available almost immediately through iTunes for $1.99 per show. To date, the only video we've purchased is Thriller, and the resolution is adequate but noticeably lower than that of standard DVDs. (Michael helpfully informs us that "this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult." You can imagine my relief.)
Internet speeds have increased dramatically. When I was in high school, I bought a 300-baud modem for my Commodore 128. As in, 128 kilobytes of random access memory, twice the capacity of the puny 64! By way of comparison, our Mac has two gigabytes of RAM. Back then, I strung telephone cable from my bedroom to the kitchen phone. You could call into local computer centers, but such centers weren't connected, and if you wanted to call a server out of state you had to pay long-distance rates.
A few years ago I got a "28.8" modem, which means 28,800 bits per second. Soon that was derisively called "dial-up." Last year we got DSL (a "digital subscriber line"), which Qwest claims is "up to 26 times faster than 56Kbps dial-up." (For what it's worth, Comcast claims to offer service that's "up to 100x faster than 56K dial-up.")
However, as fast as the Internet has become, another jump is needed to make possible widespread use of on-demand downloads of TV show and movies -- along with the sort of virtual-reality connections envisioned by Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash.
One technology that has lasted is electromagnetic media. I remember that, when I first used a computer in grade school, we stored software code on regular cassette tapes. You had to push "record" and everything. But as ridiculously simplistic as that technology now seems, local StorageTek still uses the same basic technology to make advanced tape storage drives. The advantage of tape is its large surface area. For example, while our hard drive holds more than 200 gigs of data, StorageTek offers one tape drive that holds 500 gigs, and the company also sells "tape libraries."
Of course, electromagnetic hard drives have become the most common data storage device, now appearing in music players and even video cameras, as well as in computers. Floppies came and went. The compact disc and related DVD, the main alternative to hard drives and tapes, store data when a laser literally "burns" pits into a thin metal plate. Thus, as Wikipedia suggests, the CD is the technological heir of the vinyl recording.
However, increased use of the Internet to transfer data may eventually make CD technology obsolete, or at least resigned to backing up data. So the hard drive remains the primary storage device -- so far. What all the stable storage technologies have in common is that they use two-dimensional surfaces. Data on tape is accessible only as the tape is rewound. Perhaps the next data revolution will allow fast, tight data packing within some three-dimensional medium.
So computer power is about data manipulation, and data must be transferred and stored. When Internet transfers and storage devices advance, the world's going to change dramatically, again.
My grandmother tells me about the family's very first television set, just a few decades ago. For most families it replaced the radio as the central connection to the outside world. Many early home computers in the '80s were appendages to television; they used the TV screen to display information. Then computers moved out and got their own screens. Now, television is growing old and moving in with the computer.
And it is just amazing that I am using the same machine plugged into the wall with a slender cord to write and submit a column, listen to a song I downloaded for small fee, and instantly access libraries of information. What a tribute to the human mind.
By the way, I got rid of the TV to make room for more paper-and-glue books, made possible by 15th-century technology. What might people with the freedom to use their minds achieve in the next 500 years?