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OP-ED | Technology, News, and Nostalgia

by Barth Keck | Sep 3, 2013 1:00am
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Posted to: Business, Media Matters, Opinion

A recent camping trip got me thinking about newspapers, and not just because I had to go several days without my morning paper. After waking up one brisk morning, I began crumpling old newspapers to start a fire.

“What will I use to start fires once newspapers disappear?” I wondered.

I wasn’t so much concerned about starting future fires as I was with the changes society will encounter once traditional newspapers die.

Jeffrey I. Cole of the USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future predicts only four major dailies will survive in print: The New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal.

It’s a sobering thought for a newspaper junkie like me, but it’s also an important reality to ponder because every new technology, no matter how wonderful, comes at a cost.

“Anyone who has studied the history of technology knows that technological change is always a Faustian bargain,” wrote Neil Postman in his 1993 book Technopoly. “Technology giveth and technology taketh away, and not always in equal measure. A new technology sometimes creates more than it destroys. Sometimes, it destroys more than it creates. But it is never one-sided.”

Newspapers, obviously, are being replaced with websites like this one. The timeliness, interactivity, and convenience of CTNewsJunkie are undeniable. But clicking through news websites is not like reading a traditional newspaper, which requires thumbing manually through sections and scanning entire pages. Articles you might never encounter on specialized news websites can grab your eye as you view each individually printed page.

The process, in short, makes reading a print newspaper inherently different than eyeing a website. It’s not better or worse, necessarily — it’s just different. Consequently, we lose something as life is increasingly digitized.

John Elliott, owner of Branford Rare Books, is a collector of “ephemera.”

“Literally defined as a short-lived thing, from the Greek word for mayfly, it is, said Elliott, ‘raw, unedited history — the purest kind.’”

Elliott finds particular pleasure in uncovering items originally owned by the “99 percent of the people who lived centuries ago,” including maps, atlases, and portraits. For him, “the enduring appeal of collecting is in the great finds, the near misses and, not least, the human element.”

Elliott dislikes the current world of computers and e-mail because it bypasses original artifacts: “What will our 99 percent leave behind?” he wonders.

Lucinda Rosenfeld thinks similarly about photographs. She explains how she amassed “a hard drive filled with hundreds if not thousands of (digital) photo files that I lacked the energy to go through.”

The situation proved especially keen following the death of her father when Rosenfeld’s mother “got out her old albums from the 1970s and early ’80s — fat, crepitating affairs with gilded vinyl covers in turquoise and maroon, featuring page after page of fading Kodak snapshots of the family that she and my dad had raised together.”

Rosenfeld explains how digital photography, for all of its benefits, still represents a “loss” that entails “quality and permanence. Printed images are crisper than pixelated ones. They are also tangible: material objects that can be grasped, pasted, or leaned against a dresser mirror. Digital images have a distant, once-removed quality.”

What’s more, digital photos “have become too plentiful. And at the same time — as more and more pictures are taken on smartphones, ‘shared’ on social media if at all, then lost to the cacophony of the digital universe — meaningful images become too scarce.”

Digital photos are another example of how technology “increases the available supply of information,” according to Postman.

“As the supply is increased, control mechanisms are strained. Additional control mechanisms are needed to cope with new information. When additional control mechanisms are themselves technical, they in turn further increase the supply of information. When the supply of information is no longer controllable, a general breakdown in psychic tranquility and social purpose occurs.”

Postman’s prescient observation 20 years ago accurately describes the current situation with newspapers: As they are replaced with websites, the volume of news isn’t diminishing, but the news consumers’ sense of control is.

Don’t get me wrong. I accept the new reality of news in the 21st century, and I habitually turn to sources like CTNewsJunkie for my news.

But I still favor real newspapers. For me, there’s a quality connected with many of life’s physical entities that technology is erasing — a quality that far transcends the challenge of starting campfires once old newspapers are nowhere to be found.

Barth Keck is an English teacher who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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