On the decreasingly few occasions when I'm not pounding on this poor abused keyboard, reading or dreamily staring into space (creating), I work at our local Public Radio station. I've done this work, off and on, for the past thirty years or so, working as volunteer programmer, operations manager, program director, volunteer coordinator, and lately as administrative assistant/operations manager.
Some of you may remember radio. It was those sounds that came out of the curvy plastic box on top of the refrigerator; from the four-foot high, exquisitely polished wooden furniture piece with a couple of dozen bakelite buttons and knobs in the living room; or over the tinny speaker on top of the dash in your parent's car. I used to lay awake at night and listen to the sounds of the Universe coming through the twelve-inch speaker on my Philco AM-FM-Shortwave Radio in my bedroom. I fell asleep to radio preachers from Texas, high energy DJs from Mexico, the hiss and crackle of static on the short-wave bands, ship-to-shore Morse Code, and the music of far off countries fading in and out of the swirl of electronic ether. It was magical! I listened to radio drama, adventure serials, eclectic mixtures of stream of consciousness (or unconsciousness) music programs, complete with the hiss and pop of well used vinyl. (Here's a a test: how many grooves are on each side of a 33 1/3 rpm record album?)
This week I discovered I don't work for a radio station anymore; I work for a "content provider." This bloodless descriptive is just one example of a basic philosophical change occurring throughout our society, a change that is unbidden, uncontrolled and unstoppable. We are becoming an "On-Demand" society.
Here's how you listen to radio: when you want to listen to a specific radio program, you look up the schedule for the station, find out when the program is airing, make sure you are by a radio at the appointed time, turn the radio on and listen to the program. You enjoy the program in fullness as it comes through the speaker(s), and, when its finished, you retain fond memories (or not) of its contents. Period. That's it. The program is off into the ephemeral radio waves never to be heard again (unless you recorded it on a tape recorder).
In the new "On-Demand" world, you don't have to plan anything. Everything is available anytime and anywhere you want. Want to hear Ravi Shankar play the sitar? Download it on your computer, transfer it to your iPod and take it with you to the beach. Missed yesterday's call-in talk show? Go online, listen to the archived program, submit your comments on the accompanying blog. Don't like the programming on your local listener-supported community radio station? No problem! Go online and listen to any of hundreds of different "content providers" all over the world! Subscribe to podcasts and have your favorite programs from East Rubberball, Ontario, Lille, France and Sitka, Alaska waiting for you on your computer whenever you want to hear them! Burn them to a CD and share them with your friends. Make yourself a content provider and podcast your favorite music to anyone in the world who wants to listen, both of them, anytime they want to!
Wow! And this is not just radio. On-Demand applies to any and every form of print, visual and audio expression. Virtually any content is available on-demand, in any format, to be downloaded, transferred to a portable electronic device and watched, listened to or read anytime, anywhere, over and over. Content is no longer limited by space and time.
Think of young people growing up now to whom on-demand is normal. No waiting for a phone call, just whip out your cell phone and make a connection. No need to look at a map for directions. Call on your cell phone and they'll talk you in, just like an airplane landing on an aircraft carrier. No need to plan ahead, everything is instantly connectable for events on the run. Your TeeVee and radio programs wait for you on your computer at 10 PM or 2 AM. Food is delivered to your door, movies are ordered online and appear in your mailbox, school assignments are a simple download off the web.
Think of that: no need to plan ahead. No need to consider the consequences of your actions. No need to think of raw materials running out, waste piling up in landfills, air and water becoming toxic. Why worry? Everything is provided whenever and wherever you need it! Everything is on-demand!
What is the cost of the On-Demand Society? Community.
In a society in which every bit of information is exactly equal to every other bit of information, there is nothing special about the bit of information that originates in your immediate surroundings or that relates specifically to your household, neighborhood, community or bioregion. On-demand radio will be the death of community supported radio. Why should anyone support their local community radio station when they can, just as easily, listen to content provided by a hundred other radio stations all across the globe any time they want?
When community encompasses 6 billion people throughout the world, there is no community. Community is local. Community is relevant. Community exists in real time, that is, sidereal time, sun time, Earth time, seasonal time, geologic time. When attention is dispersed among a myriad of competing messages, those messages that are most pertinent at the local level are lost.
What is the cost of the On-Demand Society? Connectiveness.
When everything appears on demand, anytime, anyplace, there is no connection to its origin or appreciation of the cost of its production. We don't see the immense technocratic infrastructure necessary to allow a 13 year-old to whip out a cell phone and call her friend in the classroom next door. We don't see the huge investment in digital transmission, satellite distribution, computer storage, wifi broadcasting and computer construction and distribution necessary for podcasting and on-demand "content providing." Nor do we see the incredible, mind-boggling destruction of the planet on which our individual, on-demand lives depend. It's invisible, out of sight and certainly out of mind.
What is the price of a cell phone call? Gorillas killed for meat and trophies in Africa, smog-filled skies over the Grand Canyon, a Navajo child dying of cancer caused by breathing uranium dust.
Even worse, a society dominated by dedication to instant gratification and fulfillment of on-demand demands, is a society ignorant of the the far more subtle and long term natural cycles of resource production and waste absorption that operate in the real real world, outside of human societal concentration. The global climate change currently devouring the natural world that sustains human society is a direct result of the inability of humans to perceive complex, long-term natural cycles, and the inability of human society to react to long-term change until it reaches crisis proportions.
On-demand technology is driving human society rapidly over the looming precipice. Fortunately, in the process, we are irretrievably consuming the very resources that allow such a technology to exist, so that, after the inevitable short stop at the bottom of the fall, there will be insufficient resources available to recreate, in any conceivable time period, the destructive society we experience today.
This is it. Enjoy it while it lasts. The ride will be fast and exciting, the end abrupt and ineluctable. The future is less, not more.
In this there is satisfaction and contentment enough.