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.