Will the future eat all our cultural objects?

Twenty years from now, how different will our homes look? What cultural objects will be left? CDs have pretty much become curiosities already. DVDs are headed in the same direction.

And we’re finally getting serious about buying eBooks.

It’s easy to imagine a home in 2030 that contains no books, CDs or DVDs. In terms of cultural objects, that pretty much leaves visual art (and, I suppose, tchotchke and knickknacks), doesn’t it? What’s the future of paintings and sculpture? Science-fiction movies would have us believe that our television and walls are converging, so that any vertical surface will become a display. Will that happen? Will we just display, say, a rotating gallery of Picassos on our walls? Or maybe walls will host loops of family videos, or some future version of Facebook, so that the fall is awash in video, photos and text updates from friends and family?

I’d be more confident in that prediction if those digital picture frames had really caught on in a serious way, or if more of our fridges and bathroom mirrors already had video displays embedded in them. But, as they say, the future is always just around the corner.

In the future, will the amount of cultural detritus in a house reflect its owner’s age?

I, for one, really like how our books look in our bookcase. I’m loathe to thin them out when we move, or the bookcase gets too full. They are, as a friend says, excellent wallpaper.

Will your home still have cultural objects in it in 20 years?


  1. Actually, I was just talking about this… Looking at my mom’s scribbled notes in her English lit books was always amazing to me and added to the books … but my (imaginary) kids will be able to look at all my old emails, my old spreadsheets, my old photos, read every paper I wrote in college… and to listen to the songs I collected without the records wearing out or getting scratched or lost… Our next generation won’t have physical objects to cart around (or pawn), but they may well have a much better preserved idea of who we were and how we grew…


    1. what travis said
      i lived in libraries as a kid and love books and USED to have 4 bookshelves, but since our move all of our books in boxes and I don’t miss them. Now I don’t buy physical books unless i give one away or very rarely sell them

    2. Two thoughts:

      * Normal Humans are pretty irresponsible with their digital assets. I think they’re less likely to keep digital versions of emails or term papers than the real-world versions. In this case, digital storage is actually a lot more complicated than keeping stuff in a box.

      * It’s funny that you mentioned marginalia. How many margin notes are we going to lose because we can’t (or won’t) export margin notes out of the Kindle or iBook app or whatever we’re using in five years? It’s a small thing, but something academics bemoan with the rise of eBook readers.

  2. One thing you can always depend on is humanity’s compulsion to collect.

    Another way of looking at this is a change in what we consider to be a cultural object: the future’s cultural detritus may just be digital. Apparently the idea of a digital archaeologist is popular in modern science fiction.

    As for the preservation of digital assets, I disagree with you: I think it is far easier for people to accumulate and store digitally. While I know that I have lost physical objects over the years due to quick and drastic moves, cheap digital storage and built in redundancy makes preservation of years of email, as well as everything else, possible and practical.

    I’m enjoying your blog!

    1. On the preservation of digital assets, I think the may issues will be simply doing it, findability and format management.

      I haven’t seen any stats, but I’d guess that a minority of people do regular backups. Then if they do it’s online somewhere, or spread across a variety of hard drives and machines, and doesn’t get updated. Finally, will we be able to read eBook files and Word documents in 20 years? The history of computing suggests that we won’t be able to.

      I should also add that when Facebook faces (heh) its eventual decline, will most people pull all that valuable digital data out of it and store it somewhere? That will be a tremendous loss on a personal level.

  3. Whenever I go over to someone’s house and see a bookshelf, I always check it out to see what books they have – it tells you a lot about the person. If people stop buying books, I’ll have to snoop through their Kindles!

  4. @Darren: format management. *Precisely!* I still have some 5 1/4 floppies and tons of 3 1/2 floppies but they are inaccessible (until I buy a floppy drive). Even if I do that, there’s no guarantee that existing software will be able to read them. Mind you, the same issue happens with hardcopy (try reading the Magna Carta) but — generally speaking — that issue can be resolved.

    @Beth: bookshelves. *Precisely!* (again ). But good luck checking out the bookshelves here. Your extended absence from the conversation would be noted. And snooping through a Kindle/Kobo/etc. seems, to me, inappropriate in a way that skimming a bookshelf and casually glancing through a book does not.

  5. @Darren: Marginalia there’s a delightful piece of humour (my Google-fu is failing me) of a person who offers a service to make your books appear read. For 6d, he’d crack the spine and turn every page; for 1/ he’d make several pages dog-eared and underline occasional passages … and so on for increasing sums. (I’ve probably got the amounts wrong as well as the functions he’d perform … but you get the idea.)

  6. I have a sizable collection of books of around 100 and I must say that I would miss hold the book in my hands and the paper and the covers of a good novel. I know that I should probably move to an ebook reader and only get ebook versions of novels but it just wouldn’t feel as good as having an actual book in your hands.

  7. I had never considered it in the way you just put it, but you may very well be right on this. It’s funny just as I was on Amazon buying a few used books for my collection, I stopped and admired the Kindle once again.. I really want to get one.. But haven’t yet… It’s funny – These things can make life easier but over the years (as generations pass) it truly will change what clutters (only to some) our homes or decorates it! LOL. Great article. Thanks for sharing it.. Just a side note, I hope everyone will take a minute to visit my site and take the time to network with me soon! I will definitely be back to read more on your site!

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