The Journey’s End on the Information Superhighway

Well, I finally did it. I downloaded Spotify, the seemingly mythical music service that was only recently brought to the United States. Browsing through every song I’ve ever enjoyed, I can’t help but think back to an old job I had in a CD shop near the Jersey shore; the smell of the ocean nearby, sand trailed in by customers. I loved the culture around it—the characters stopping in and raving about a newfound band, chatting with regulars, people trying to make me play their CDs.

Sadly, I can’t help but think that with the rise of digital services bringing all content to our fingertips, shops are shuttering their windows and locking their doors. That old CD shop at the shore closed its doors long ago, but even now, bookstores and video shops seem to be going out of business everywhere I look. They’re being replaced with cold buildings filled with computer servers and soulless warehouses striped with towering shelves above concrete floors.

This is the age of Netflix and digital books, of home theaters and cloud computing, but with the instant gratification we’re becoming used to, what we’re losing are those timeless moments that were once the bread and butter of life—that road between ourselves and our destination, that place of calm and contemplation, of conversation and adventure between where we are and where we’re heading.

You can still hear people reminisce about the old roads before the interstates went up. Small shops and private theme parks traced routes on the way to popular tourist spots, and the journey was often as important as the destination. The winding roads gave a tour of Americana, and people would often opt for the scenic route. Yet just like today’s music and video stores, the old mom-and-pop shops slowly went out of business, giving way to the traffic jams on long, wide roads with only visages of what was still visible from the highway.

In his book, “On the Road with Charles Kuralt,” late journalist Charles Kuralt wrote , “Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything. From the interstate, America is all steel guardrails and plastic signs, and every place looks and feels and sounds and smells like every other place.”

William Least Heat-Moon stated a bit more plainly in his book, “Blue Highways: A Journey into America,” that “Life doesn’t happen along the interstates.”

It’s that journey that Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters chased during the ‘60s, that place we go to just for the walk, and that bookstore café where we can just sit and ponder. But just like the fading roads at the dawn of the interstate, shops are beginning to disappear with the rise of the information superhighway.

Don’t get me wrong, I love digital content as much as the next guy—with a hefty collection of e-books on my Kindle, music on my phone, and close to a thousand websites on my RSS reader. But thinking back, it’s all those simple joys I remember from childhood—walking with friends to Blockbuster, skateboarding to the video game shop to pick up the latest title, hanging out in the bookstore. Thinking of my own daughter, I wonder if she’ll know any of this, or whether they’ll just be old man’s tales of how the world used to be.

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