by Robbie White
From paper to plastic to paper again, from tape to disc to digital files, Robbie takes a thoughtful look at how technology is changing the way we consume, hopefully for the better.
The other day I picked up a paper straw at the OKC Zoo to drink a coke-flavored Icee and was transported back to my childhood when paper straws were the norm. At first the paper straw was kind of annoying because I crushed the end, and unlike the plastic version, the paper straw did not return to its original shape. I turned the straw over and was careful not to crush the drinking end again -- firmly resisting the urge to get a new straw -- and this led to pondering differences in consumption since my childhood.
Consider for a moment television and movies: I was recently telling my kids about elementary school days in the late 1970s, when we watched movies and film strips sparingly at school. We filed into the old gymnasium at Neil Armstrong Elementary School in Bettendorf, Iowa, and watched nature films projected onto a huge screen using 16mm projectors. These films were carefully cared for by our teachers who shared them with the whole district. I can’t remember being told this specifically, but I always knew the films were valuable and had to be checked out in advance.
The early ‘80s saw the advent of Laserdisc, VHS and Betamax consumer video recording and viewing formats. As a young married couple, we started accumulating VHS tapes purchased or received as gifts. We were so excited to finally own a player! I recorded my favorite shows and even catalogued a few seasons of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
Our collection of VHS cassettes was impressive by the time DVDs became readily available in the late ‘90s. We still have a collection of favorites on VHS we can’t bring ourselves to part with, but we’ve slowly replaced many titles on DVD as they become available. Admittedly, we’ve created a small nostalgic but wasteful set of movies on both formats. The ten years that passed between the purchases does not excuse the waste.
In 2008, we discovered Apple TV which allows us to build a library digitally stored and accessible from any of our authorized devices. Apple TV is not perfect but it is getting better. We can rent a movie without using any resources at all (except money and electricity) for store visits or delivery by mail. We can purchase other media this way as well. There are no discs to scratch, no magnetic tapes to deteriorate, but there are some limitations with regard to licensing agreements, sharing media with others, and decades from now when we pass away, we wonder whether our digital media will become nothing but virtual debris.
The movies we love (and hate) create a story of their own about us. My unique set of movies is a way of describing myself. For example, I liked “The Departed,” but not “The Godfather;” the Keira Knightly version of “Pride and Prejudice,” but not the ‘80s version; and I love “iCarly” and “M*A*S*H,” but not one other TV sitcom in the intervening decades has engaged my attention. Much as the books we keep and reread over years say much about us, I wish to preserve our film and video collection for our children and grandchildren, or at least the essence of it.
The same questions apply to e-books. My husband and I both have Kindle readers. We love the experience of reading on this elegant device, and appreciate the fact this digital tool allows us to control our consumption so we can again enjoy reading daily newspapers without waste or mess. I am discovering periodicals again because of Kindle. I cannot, however, loan you a magazine, but I can send an email with an article or selected text, or if really necessary, print it in the old-fashioned way.
I see new media delivery and storage devices as an improvement over the consumption of paper, but I don’t know what is involved in the production of a Kindle device. Will we discover some toxic secret (such as mercury in compact fluorescent light bulbs)? Will new technology in a few years cause us to recycle outmoded Kindles for something more cutting edge?
While none of us knows what the future holds, what each of us can do in the present is consume less of this planet’s resources by making decisions based on the best knowledge available in the present, and by doing so, contribute to a better future.