Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Neophilia And Its Discontents

The end of No Depression is one thing, but this is getting ridiculous. Grant over there sent me an article yesterday about the Atlantic's new "web brand," The Current, which will crunch articles into 250-to-300-word little thingies.

If you have ADD, be warned: this post will be longer than that.

Now the Atlantic is one of America's leading magazines. According to the Wikipedia article, it was founded in 1858 by a bunch of famous writers and intellectuals and has been publishing ever since. Just what they expect to accomplish with this new venture I can't say, although they think they'll be able to attract more eyeballs and, presumably, sell more advertising. What they won't be able to do, needless to say, is explore anything they write about in any depth. And exploring things in depth has always been what they've been about.

This rush to the Web, and the parallel abandoning of print by both publishers and advertisers is a prime example of something I've chosen to call neophilia. Neophilia is probably defined as "love of the new," but I, well, I want to explore it in more depth.

Okay, look, I'm a guy, and, like a lot of guys, I like gadgets. I like new gadgets, too: I was grumpy about computers until I moved to Europe, when someone pointed me to Compuserve, whereby I could send e-mail. This meant I could also send articles to magazines and get them there in the time it took to send them, which, on dial-up with a 256k modem, was about two minutes. This revolutionized my life: I got an Apple Powerbook, and boy, was it cool. Not only did it do e-mail and word-processing, but it did a whole lot of other things, too. If Compuserve had let its customers do it back then, I could have accessed this newfangled Internet thing, and I burned to do so, but unfortunately it would be a couple of years until I could. I was, however, able to access bulletin boards, and almost found an apartment in Berlin using one. I actually did find one during that search because of the computer, though: my brother-in-law sent me an e-mail saying a guy he knew was moving out of one here, and I called the number he sent me and got the place. Just like that.

Once I finally could access the Internet, life got really interesting. There was all kinds of stuff out there, and I zipped around (as fast as one could zip with a 256k modem with Deutsche Telekom's heinous tariffs breathing down my neck the whole time) and found a lot of it. I joined the Well, and "met" a lot of interesting folks. In fact, I also met them in person (excuse me: IRL), and that was fun.

I got more gadgets, too: I fell in love with Palm Pilots, and am on my third one now. It's a great machine that has applications that allow you to figure out public transport (a great app called MetrO, which has the routes of hundreds of cities' bus, tram, and light rail lines), keep various kinds of lists, and store all your phone numbers -- and coordinate it with your computer.

There were gadgets I wanted to like, but didn't. Cell phones: I never saw the point. I now own one, and it's great for travelling, or when you're trying to coordinate things on the fly, but I keep leaving the house without it. Then there was the iPod. I'm a confirmed Apple-head, but I really don't need to convert all my records to MP3 files and carry them with me everywhere all the time. I just don't. Although now it appears that the iPod Touch may be encroaching on Palm territory (and Palm's done a terrible job of maintaining their OS), so maybe I'll use one when they figure that out -- just not for music.

Okay, so: I like gadgets. That's been established.

But, as the cases of the cell phone and iPod prove, not unless they improve some area of my life. Because it's new doesn't mean it's better. Or even that it's important. But there are those who figure that any new gadget has to be better because it's new.

Case in point: some months ago, Amazon introduced a gadget on which you could read books you'd downloaded from them. I'm not sure how it works because I took one look at it and recoiled in horror, but over on the Well, there are sufficient neophiliacs that a big fuss ensued. One guy actually said "I'm never buying a physical book again. This is it," or some such balderdash. Finally, someone who spoke neophiliac pointed out that the platform hadn't been established, and that just maybe this guy would download a bunch of books he couldn't read in ten years. Or maybe five years. Or maybe by the end of 2008. One wise old sage noted that he had to keep old computers around just to read documents he'd created in now-vanished software programs or now-vanished platforms. No means of converting them had ever appeared. (And I know what he means: all my e-mail correspondence prior to a given date is stored in Compuserve's proprietary format on a Mac OS which is no longer supported, and I have it all stored on...a ZIP disc!)

Someone who would seriously consider abandoning books for this new gadget of Amazon's -- or similar ones Sony and others are pushing -- is a neophiliac in need of intervention.

So, in my opinion, is someone who'd abandon nearly a century's worth of work on figuring out how to mechanically reproduce music so it sounded as close as humanly possible to live performance for MP3s, portablility or not. (I mean, do you really need to be entertained every moment of your waking life? Apparently some people are so shallow that they do.) Yet the neophilic rush to this new format is such that it has practically ruined the market for physical product, allowed free exchange of music files to the point where musicians are no longer able to make a living off of recordings (and don't say "make your money on the road" until you've clocked the prices at the gas station this morning), and sent the music business into a tail-spin. I'd be the last to argue that the record biz didn't deserve a shake-up, but when the little guys are falling as fast as the big guys, then something's clearly wrong.

And so is someone who'd abandon print for the Web. Sorry, but this makes absolutely no sense to me. First there are the issues of readability. I have to walk away from the computer a lot or risk my eyeballs feeling like they've been sandpapered. Some web design is absolutely awful: one of the web's best music magazines is a design horror, so bad that I rarely read it, which I feel bad about, because the guy who puts it together is really smart and has impeccable taste. I wish...well, I wish he'd edit a magazine instead. Or, better, in addition. There's the portability and durability: you can read a paper or a magazine or a book in places where you can't read the Web. On trains, for instance. We ride a lot of trains here in Europe. Or on planes. You simply don't have to worry about battery life with print. And the platform: I can, given other variables like the language it's printed in, read books printed hundreds of years ago, and so will people hundreds of years from now. Moreover, I can be sure no one's hacked the content -- at least once the thing's been published.

Then, as I mentioned last time, there's the issue of length. Some things are so complex they take a lot of time to explain, explore, or expose. You want to be able to check back, whether to verify who a given character is, go back to the beginning of an argument, check a fact or date, or whatever. That's just harder with a virtual document. And these complex arguments or expositions just don't crunch down into 250-to-300-word bites. Moreover, they're often very important, vital to understanding our world, our society, and the ideas that drive them.

This, I think, is something that's in danger of becoming, if not lost, at least far more scarce. And that's bad.

The paranoiac in me is forced to ask a question: who benefits from neophilia? And the answer comes ringing back: the gadget-mongers. And then I have to ask, why do they get to tell us what to do? Because they've made huge fortunes selling these gadgets? Does the future of music have to be dependent on iTunes? Does the future of our political discourse have to be dependent on the Web? Does the future of literature have to be dependent on what you can read on a screen? Do Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon get to set the boundaries of our intellectual life?

Does everything have to be simplified into a compressed MP3 file, a sound-bite, a 250-to-300-word idea-bite?

Because if it does, we're in a heap of trouble.

I think there will be what the economists call a "correction," but I don't see it because the horizon is obscured by neophilia. I have to rely on gut feeling, and that's always scary when so many other guts are busy digesting what's new. I worry that it won't come quickly enough to save what I do for a living, what I've done for a living for over 40 years. Is my whole career, my whole body of expertise and skill, going to be sacrificed so that someone can sell silicon? We've already seen the damage lying memes can do: John Kerry's a traitor; Barack Obama is a Muslim (and, hence, a terrorist, as everyone "knows" all Muslims are). Without rational explanation, this sort of thing can run amok, and I believe that print plays a vital role in keeping rationality alive in a way that no other medium can.

Maybe I'm a grumpy old man, resentful at the coming new age, but somehow, I don't think it's that simple. There are those who benefit from keeping people stupid, just like there are those who benefit from compressing music into MP3 files. Both are dangerous, in wildly different ways, of course.

Naturally, I have a large stake in keeping print media alive. But I'd like to gently suggest that you do, too.

* * *

It's that time of year again, and I'm off to Texas Friday morning for SXSW. I'll try to blog some of that, just as I did last year, and I'll also certainly be blogging about the food. After SXSW, I'll fly to Paris and take the train to Montpellier. If all goes as I hope, I'll be looking for apartments that graduating students will be moving out of this summer, with an eye towards moving into one of them when they leave. With luck, I'll find one, and I'll also find enough new work to pay for it. Wish me luck. I'm more in need of it now than ever.


Karl-Marx-Stra├če said...

Ed, you say you might be a grumpy old man. Regardless, the article is spot-on. The fact that I actually read your articles on the internet from beginning to end says a lot about your writing style and talent - but I still would have preferred to have read it on paper.

I don't think anyone can honestly say that it's possible to read and digest articles on a computer screen that are longer and more complicated than your average Bild or (British) Sun tittle-tattle "report" - or longer than 250 words, for that matter. At least not in the same depth that can be done if they're in front of you, black and white, on paper.

I'm not a complete Luddite (though I don't have a mobile phone, an Ipod or other MP3 player, and I would like to get rid of the internet, but I literally do actually need it for studying and work) but computer screens are just not useful for reading and concentrating on the written word. And whoever's in the business of cutting down long, thoughtful, incisive prose down to an "internet-compatible" 250 words, is in the wrong business. It's a crime.

Michael Scott said...

But Ed, no one's crunching long-form pieces into "little thingies." The little thingies will be separate from the long pieces in the magazine.

And I promise you the Atlantic is one of the Web-unsavviest magazines in existence. It certainly hasn't rushed into anything. In 1993 or so it started a website called "Atlantic Unbound," which failed, and now -- after opening up its valuable long-form archive to the Internet, for free -- it's trying a stunt to draw new readers.

Probably won't be worth much, and you're right about a general loss of quality in the digital age. But I don't think it's a death knell for the Atlantic.

Ed Ward said...

It's only a death-knell if the bean-counters notice it's drawing way more eyballs -- and ad dollars -- than either the print mag or the regular website. Which, given the Atlantic's readership, is unlikely.

lou said...

amen, brother ward. beautiful post.

Grant Alden said...

One of the obstacles ND faces online is what threatens shortly to kill us in print -- where does the money come from? While the web is theoretically democratic, in fact the way advertising seems stacked only the very biggest sites with the widest possible array of stuff to look at and wind through attract enough eyeballs to...monetize, as the jargon goes.
In print, up until recently, we could serve a small business (and consumer) community who had every reason to advertise in our pages. That community is quickly eroding. And if they can't support us in print, they can't support us online. What the tech folks seem to miss is that the costs of being in business online aren't really any different from being in print. Subscriptions/newsstand sales roughly offset the cost of producing and distributing the magazine. Functioning online eliminates those costs, but not the need to -- dare I say it -- PAY for content. And endless rounds of software and training and somebody to code the whole mess, which changes constantly. Ah, and then there's the podcast world, in which it is far from clear to me exactly who pays what for the rights to play how many seconds of a song. What's fair use? How many lawyers does one need to sort out the rules, and how quickly do they change? A small web publisher could quickly, I fear, be bankrupted by guessing wrong.
The web does not appear to make niche publishing FOR PROFIT possible. At least not in my tiny corner of the music industry. There aren't built-in advertising communities of great size to support political sites, unless they get hundreds of thousands of unique visitors, and even then the dollars are comparatively small.
This, incidentally, is why the new modality online argues for user-supplied content. The users work for free, and so what if they don't know what they're talking about?
Now, if you want to do it just for fun and are content to have a few thousand people read what you're up to (and in some ways I am, and will be), that's fine. You can do that online.
But all this seems to place the vast bulk of communication in the hands of a very small number of very large companies. And nothing about that seems safe to me.
The web does news well. It doesn't do analysis well. It won't do analysis well, particularly if the goal is to have it available to your newest portable gadget.
-- grant

Ed Ward said...

Grant's comment brings up a tangent to this whole thing that I was turning over in my mind today on the train.

If, in the future, writing stops paying, then only those who don't need to be paid for it will do it. Things like essays and criticism will continue, but only written by people who can afford to write for free.

Now, this isn't necessarily bad. I know a couple of very good, smart critics who, not to mince words, are extremely well-off. But I don't think we can count on that class producing many people like that. Nor can we count on many people who started in the working class and happened to marry wealthy women -- and some of you will know who I have in mind here -- becoming the norm.

In short, voices representing the lower middle and working classes are at risk of vanishing here. Those voices have, in the past, been a valuable part of our intellectual discourse. They also have the ability to reach out to other intellectuals from their classes and bring them around to their viewpoints or their ways of thinking in a way that a more mandarin voice can't.

This has wide-ranging implications for the future, not only of criticism and extended essays, but also of fiction and investigative journalism.

Is it worth it? And why isn't anyone talking about this, at least not where I'm seeing it?

bjb said...

In the headline, should that say "neophilia"? I totally agree with everything you said. My only quibble is that you cited Wikipedia, which has no research cred because any idiot can go into any article and dink around with it. And you don't know which articles. bjb

Ed Ward said...

Dang, thanks for catching that. It's fixed now. I'm as skeptical as the next person about Wikipedia, but I tend to think the date of the Atlantic's founding is sound, as is the list of people who founded it. In fact, I've read that same date and list elsewhere, but didn't have time to go find it. I suppose it's on their website, too, now that I think of it.

Oh, and Mike: check out who's on the cover of their new issue! Gaaaaah!

Bowleserised said...

"many people who started in the working class and happened to marry wealthy women "

Ya gonna need lesbian marriage legalised so that works for all "people".

One good thing about the web is having archives like the Atlantic's opened up. And seeing someone like Marganita Laskhi hit a whole new generation of fans who will then realise that the 1950s were not just a kitsch advertising calendar joke.

But otherwise I agree – having a wee bit of a background in intellectual property and author incomes, some aspects of the web terrify me.

Michael Scott said...

I saw that. Doom *must* be approaching. But Wikipedia is wrong; I meant to correct you earlier. The Atlantic was founded in 1857.

The Big A said...

Although I defended the Internet earlier, I'm with you on this one. I worked for AOL for a couple months in 1998 and they were pushing short, punchy news stories as the future. I resented what they were saying and didn't believe -- and still don't. I read plenty of full-length pieces on the Web, no problem.

BUT, there's an ad for English-language journos in Berlin (at Axel Springer) where they'll teach you SEO writing -- Search Engine Optimized writing. So, in addition to all the other evil you have mentioned, now, apparently, google will be setting the journalistic agenda as well.

Jonathan Zimmerman said...

Ed, as usual, you're onto something here. I feel like I should be reading "Neophilia And It's Discontents" in the Los Angeles Times Sunday magazine.

Neophilia has probably been part of human nature for ages, but the deluge of new technology and new information has probably never been as overwhelming as it feels now. Or may 'new' always seems this overwhelming. I wonder what the wandering minstrels said abut those newfangled 'books'...

Computer screens, as good as they can be for graphics, are lousy for text. Sure, you can make out the letters and the words and you can read them, but it takes a lot of brain procession power. It's inherently fatiguing. The contrast is all wrong and there just aren't enough pixels available to make nice, neat edges to the letters for your eyes scoop up and your brain processes easily.

Though the words look OK at first glance, most people are uncomfortable reading more than short snippets of computerized text. Popular web sites know this, which is why they use a maximum of graphics and a minimum of text.

Computer screens, however, are perfect for advertising -- sound, color, motion and very, very cheap per viewer.

Anyone who uses the availability of text on the Internet as an excuse to abandon text on paper is unaware of the visual processes involved in reading. Sure, we can read on a computer screen and it can be very convenient -- we all do it only to complain of headaches and eyestrain. Do you snuggle into a comfy chair with your notebook for a good read? I doubt it.

William Thirteen said...

those wacky kids with their newfangled gadgets and gizmos! pretty soon they'll be dancing and kissing before marriage! surely we are off to hell in a handbasket!

here is nicholson baker on wikipedia...

and the Economist soberly weighs in...

Olivier said...

Something that often goes out the window in these discussions of paper vs. screen (it did here) is that, while computer screen resolution is much less than that of paper, the former offer tremendous flexibility in how you display text. To wit, you have a choice of font, font size, font color, font rendering algorithm, background (color and whatnot), screen resolution, screen luminosity, screen contrast, plus the usual choices of ambient lighting and viewing distance. With print you only have the last two.

I read stuff on a screen literally from sunrise till sunset and I don't get headaches and my vision has been stable for the last 20 years. So, it may be that computer screens are hard on some people for some reason but in general I think it's exaggerated.