Feel Like Committing Cultural Suicide? We Have an App for That.
Unfortunately, these issues are exceedingly difficult to talk about in a public forum, thanks to “the Watson Effect”. Many years ago, the chairman of IBM, Thomas Watson, infamously opined that “there is a world market for maybe five computers.” As spectacularly wrong predictions go, you couldn’t do much better than that. And ever since, people have been terrified, when talking about technology, of appearing similarly foolish to future generations – even though the sum total of foolishness is probably equally divided between the advocates (yes, there really were once websites that sold you only socks, or pet food, online) and the skeptics.
But there’s a huge, and perhaps understandable, difference between the two groups. The advocates, as they must, speak up, or what’s the point of being an advocate? A visionary without a voice is nothing at all. But the skeptics, though they also must speak, too often do not. Thus, in the wake of every loud new product announcement, there is little left but an echoing silence, even as the successive waves of these new devices are burying parts of our cultural heritage alive.
Another part of what makes it so hard to speak up in defense of print media is that digitization has all the bases covered. In the case of newspapers, for example, it’s easy to see that “the market has spoken” because advertisers are indeed pulling out of print so definitively in favor of less-expensive and more-targeted advertising on the Internet, and because enterprises such as Google and Yahoo have been so phenomenally successful, even as century-old print franchises slide into insolvency.
But the same time, digital media is able to adopt the stance of the rebel, employing creative guerilla tactics against the monolithic and arrogant “mainstream media.” (The fact that the mainstream media has indeed been arrogant doesn’t help a bit, and it’s also true that the majority of online publications have to scramble to collect enough ad revenue to pay the bills.) It’s a neat trick: Digital media entrepreneurs somehow have become the fat and happy capitalists and the rebels with the weird sideburns all at once.
Add to this the fact that some who question certain aspects of digitization’s relentless advance are likely to be branded, unthinkingly, as a Luddite (not that there aren’t some actual Luddites out there) and it’s a wonder that anyone says anything at all.
Lately, even as lovers of the traditional book bury their noses in the latest volume while the world shifts around them, the proponents of new technology have been bellowing more loudly than ever. It reminds me, a bit, of those scenes in old black and white movies where an excitable farmer is seen shouting into his wall-mounted crank telephone. Why is he shouting? Because he thinks he has to “help” his voice go those long distances to that farm on the other side of the county.
Up until a year or two ago, everyone seemed to be shouting into their cell phones as well, until they realized, almost all at the same time, that the person at the other end of the line can hear you just as well when you murmur, or speak in a normal tone of voice. There are far fewer arguments on our commuter trains these days as a result.
Digitization is still, I suspect, in the shouting stage, that point where people are infatuated and intimidated by the newness of the technology without really understanding its long-term effect on our society and culture, nor how impactful it can be at normal volumes.
What do I consider to be a “normal volume”? I consider it to be a cultural conversation in which print and digital both participate, and in which the value of each is readily acknowledged, even as the shortcomings of each are frankly discussed.
It means embracing digitization for its manifold wonders and miracles, while gently pointing out that it can contribute in some cases to a culture that is ersatz, freeze-dried, over-engineered, deracinated, overly perfected, and cloned.
It means using your e-reader for perusing, say, business books and heavy textbooks and frequently updated technical journals. It means taking it along on lengthy trips, and using it in low-light conditions. Actually, it means using it for whatever the hell you want to use it for – as long as you continue to keep in mind what it is that makes books so wonderful to hold and to read, and distribute your dollars accordingly.
Flannery O’Connor? There’s a sleek and beautiful Library of America edition for her. Saul Bellow looks best in an Everyman’s Library edition—you know, the ones with the cool satin bookmarks. Elmore Leonard? He’s perfect in a real, live paperback. That oversized book of Matisse cut-outs? It just ain’t the same on the pages of an e-book.
Ideally, it shouldn’t be difficult at all for the digital and paper worlds to co-exist. Consider, for example, what the publisher of my first novel ENC Press, is doing (Cherry Whip , 2004). ENC is employing all of the resources of the online world to build its nascent business – Twitter, discussion boards, online-only ordering that bypasses the sclerotic old distribution systems, Facebook fan pages – but, at the end of the day, delivering an actual, tangible, three-dimensional book to your actual, tangible front door.
So can print and digital indeed co-exist? Honestly, though the odds are against it happening, I think it is in the interests of our civilization to give it a try.
To say, finally, “the book stops here.”
In a recent episode of House, a middle-aged-man and his daughter are diagnosed by the irascible Doctor House with anhedonia, or the inability to experience pleasure, after he notes that their house is empty of decorations and books.
I thought that diagnosis was spot on. I consider the clutter created by books and records and magazines and newspapers – but books in particular – as being very much in the same category as the clutter created by children, pets, plants, food, photographs, and art, which is to say: Not clutter at all, but signs of pleasure and happiness and life.
Or, as Robert Louis Stevenson put it, in a verse I remember vividly from my childhood, “The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”
I encountered this little poem in a hardcover book, originally published before my birth, titled Poems of Early Childhood, as part of a series called Childcraft. All of the volumes in the series had bright, bumpy orange covers with engraved illustrations, and, in our family at least, yellowing pages with purplish jelly stains. My parents read these wonderful books to me, and I had the good sense to rescue some of them from my childhood home, so that now I read the same poems to my own daughter.
I expect her to save these books for her children, too, even if they need to be re-stitched and re-bound. The prospect that she might, instead, choose to read to them from a smooth screen, in a barren room without bookshelves or board games, is deeply saddening.
But there’s no reason why this prospect should ever come to pass. At the level of individual choice, I hope and perhaps unreasonably suspect that we will not in effect go backwards by uncritically and unfailingly choosing the two-dimensional over the three-dimensional every time and for every purpose. Let us, instead, be capable of acknowledging technology for both its benefits and its failings, while continuing to wholeheartedly embrace a part of our culture that has brought light and delight into our lives for the past 500 years – the printed book.