Scattered thoughts on future words, etc.

“America has in fact transformed journalism from what it once was...into an agency for collecting, condensing and assimilating the trivialities of the entire human existence...The frantic haste with which we bolt everything we take, seconded by the eager wish of the journalist not to be a day behind his competitor, abolishes deliberation from judgment and sound digestion from our mental constitutions. We have no time to go below surfaces, and as a general thing no disposition.”

W.J. Stillman, 1891


The 3/1/10 issue of Fortune magazine contains an article by Josh Quittner entitled “The Future of Reading”, one of many speculative articles to be found nowadays about the future of the printed word versus digital media. Quittner’s main focus is on how publishers might adjust their business models to fit emergent technologies, and I’ve got no complaints about that, but along the way, there are some telling comments from both the author and some of his interviewees on the notion of information itself. For example, Quittner mentions temporarily abandoning print as a writer in the 1990s before realizing “I couldn’t do online the kind of long form journalism I wanted to do. The web is for scanning, not deep reading.” You might know from a couple of my previous ramblings that, all neat gadgetry aside, I’m suspicious of how the quick ‘n easy media might affect the content of what people are reading and writing – let alone the questions of accuracy, authority, etc. Here are a few notable quotes from the article.

Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired, revised his opinion of “reading is dead” to one that reading will prevail and evolve, but only as it becomes embedded into “screens that are full of moving subtitles in a movie, where you’re reading and watching at the same time.” This is not concentrated reading; we don’t ask our friends, “Did you read that movie?” or “Did you read that news report on Channel 6 last night?” Quittner accepts this speculation casually, while the first thing that comes to my mind is Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death, wherein Postman characterizes the divide between typographic thinking (via the permanence of texts) and the “Age of Show Business” built on televised imagery. Though written in 1985, and centered on the effect of television on society, Postman’s book has also become more applicable every year to how the web has conditioned us to accept random information without context – and without the sort of depth that “doesn’t play” in a visually based medium. When someone is expected to read and watch at the same time, guess which one will win out?

Another pressing question: “How will tablet based ads work better than the web?” Full screen ads, answers Quittner, right there in your digital magazines and other publications, which could “deliver the best of old world and new – They can have as much impact and be as relevant as the most compelling TV commercials, with the same analytics as the web.” Quittner mentions having seen “cool” interactive ads that are like “highly produced video games.” I know the relevance advertising has to the publishing business, but what relevance does any ad, however “cool,” have to reading, analyzing, and contextualizing the content of the publication? Once again, there’s no talk of what should arguably be the most compelling thing, the actual information text, and no mention of the inconvenience of having to sit through advertisements in order to get to it. Raised on television, and by now well acclimated to the commercialization of cyberspace, we expect intrusive advertising and apparently embrace it if it’s “cool” enough. My question about the electronic tablet – or whatever other new device pops up, as it surely will – is how it’s supposed to evolve (deepen, advance) the content. Instead, we hear mostly about the presentation, which would seem to tie in with a fetish for the hardware.

Presentation is important; real magazines have to maintain a balance between text and visual allure. But the prime attraction of a physical magazine (or newspaper or book), assuming it has an abstract subject, is its text, and being able to read it in a straightforward fashion. When the same info is presented on a screen, one might expect (and will almost certainly receive) a dose of extraneous visual stimulation, as if the thoughts in the article weren’t enough to keep the reader’s interest. (Online magazines are “selling attention,” says Quittner.) Put another way from a personal perspective – I’m a hard copy kind of guy. With articles of length I find online that I want to read, I almost always copy the text into a Word file so I can read it without distraction. Just the other day, I had to do this very thing with an article that was spread over ten (!!) webpages – not because the article was that long, but because the host obviously wanted me to see ten pages worth of advertisements, while the text only ran to a handful of paragraphs on each page. I’d much rather buy the same article/magazine at a proper newsstand, rather than be run through this vulgar ringer.

Back to Fortune. “Publishing companies haven’t reinvented or reimagined themselves so far” in response to these new digital developments. Professor and author Jeff Jarvis complains of the traditional publishing companies, of which he used to be a part, shoehorning “old models of content and business into this new reality.” I must ask, what is an “old model” of content? Something in-depth? Or is he referring to dead trees?

Lastly, some quotes from the sidebar article entitled “Reading is Dead! Long Live Reading!” Kurt Andersen, novelist and radio host, looks forward to “content that’s a deeper, better hybrid of audio, video, and print...and that will become the default expectation of people. Take the recent story about NBC’s talk show hosts...I want to read a complete story...but I also, at the appropriate moment when I’m reading, want to press the button and see Jay Leno making fun of himself...” Well, this is Sesame Street, isn’t it? I read the word, now somebody please show me a picture. This sort of multi-media presentation can be flashy and fun, and it might be somewhat informative, depending on the topic, but I would not say it’s deeper or better or more informative than unfettered prose, particularly when you’re looking for comprehensive analysis. Speaking of talk shows, years ago I read the book The Late Shift, which was about the whole mess of whether Leno or Letterman would succeed Carson on NBC’s Tonight Show. I remember enjoying it and getting a good feel for the principal characters and the networks’ dealings. I’m sure there were some pictures in the book, but at no point did I want or need to see more pictures, and certainly not any accompanying video. A hybrid approach would not have improved the delivery of information.

Katharine Weymouth from the Washington Post: “One of the things that I think is exciting about the presentation...Many of our readers come to the paper because they want to find out what’s on sale on Saturday at Macy’s. So that fact that you will be able to have ads on the iPad is just going to be a better user experience.” It’s not an experience I want, and I again fail to see how niftier presentation will spur any evolution of journalism – ostensibly the reason for the Post’s existence?

Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape, says that “Reading is alive and well and flowering in a way we’ve never seen before. Text is the primary format of the Internet. More and more text is flowing over Facebook every day. The written word is alive and well and thriving.” Don’t try to dunk me in idiot juice, using Facebook as an example of thriving text. Or web forums, where contempt for spelling, syntax, and even complete thoughts can reign supreme. The web by its nature trades depth for convenience, permanence for transience, often leading to a lowering of typographical standards – thus begging Neil Postman’s question, what happens to the typographical mind? More to my point, what will happen to future serious writing (and thinking) by people raised on the web’s glut of superficiality and surrounding visuals?

One result can already be felt – the absolute devolution of American political discourse in the past decade or so. Rarely do philosophy or comprehensive factual analysis rise to the top of the blogosphere or numerous television shows; instead, it’s copy-and-paste talking points, selective factoids, and juvenile stereotypes. Most political wagging I’ve encountered, either pro or amateur, spends more time slinging trivial mud at the “other side” rather than articulating the epistemology behind its own position, which in any case would reveal some severe self-contradictions on both the right and left, in my view. With all of the soundbite-sized commentary from bloggers and pundits floating around, propelled by party-conformist fury (Let’s go to the Daily Whatever website and see what we’re supposed to think or be irate about today), the result can only be a hard polarization, at least in the easily presentable media’s terms. The center does exist for many of us – in fact, many centers are possible if you disrupt the left-right axis – but that would take too much explaining for the news shows that prefer to frame everything in either Blue or Red. It’s at the point where comedians can pose as politically savvy TV commentators, their tired bromides cheered by carefully chosen studio audiences – stuff that plays so well in webclips, happily enough.

Earlier on, politicians themselves fell prey to the demands of television, which certainly set the stage for how little contextual explication we expect from our representatives and leaders. That the dumbing down of public commentary on politics would follow, via more television and the web’s welcome mat for sloganeering, is not surprising.

(And I may as well say here that anyone who claims to care about media bias and names only one news channel as an example has no real interest in media bias at all. They’re just parroting another of their party’s bullet points and are apparently blind to the other channels that quite blatantly lean in their own direction. It’s like me pretending to be a great champion against littering and raising an indignant stink about a bag of trash on the side of the highway, all the while refusing to condemn a dozen bags of trash on the other side of the road because my friends left them there. Long before the cable news shows and their partisan pundits ever existed, media bias was already a studied topic.)

So why the paranoid ranting? Simply, I don’t like the idea of blending the typographical and visual worlds, i.e., expecting long texts to compete against the sensory overload of digital media. If you’ve got a book in your hands, there is no temptation to “minimize the window” and check in on an unrelated website, nor is there a need to wait for random advertisements to disappear before you can turn a page. Neither should the author expect you to have to deal with such distractions. If we turn literature into just another thing you view on a screen, I think it threatens the experience a bit, or at least it would for me. And once news outlets, magazines, novels, etc, have all been standardized as electronic, how much will authors and editors have to adjust the text to keep the reader’s attention, which is easily swapped with a completely different application at the touch of a button? If the answer is “there won’t be any change at all,” then I’ve got nothing to fear. But as I’ve said, various electronic modes have already begun fragmenting language and shortening attention spans, and not many people seem to be complaining about it.

As a side point, notice the way in which television shows, particularly news and sports broadcasts, have adapted web conventions, like point-and-click graphics to indicate a shift to the next story, or “tabs” on the screen to let you know what’s coming next, or multiple “windows” and “links” displayed at once. On CNN, they have at least one large set where the host and fellow commentators are spread out, some in front of big LCD monitors on which they will touch and drag even more graphics into view. This bizarre and unintentionally humorous technological choreography is nothing more or less than the viewer getting to watch people using computers and home theater screens on television! One wonders how it is supposed to enrich the news being relayed. Why can’t the talking heads just sit at a desk without the audio-visual decor? I have a sub-theory that one day every screen we look at will be indistinguishable from a video game, and too bad if what we’re watching on that screen is supposed to have serious impact.

Finally, I have to give my usual disclaimer with these sorts of rants that I’m not a technophobe - perhaps just a techno-skeptic. There are many exceptions to the above notes, and the new devices du jour have unique applications that many people find useful. But nothing will replace real books and long-form reading/writing for me, and I prefer whenever possible to live in the analog or non-electric realms, enough said. There’s a good chuckle to be found in the 2009 Onion article “90% Of Waking Hours Spent Staring At Glowing Rectangles” and also much underlying truth.

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