[Originally published in The Nashville Free Press, 2009 – a few months before it folded]
The digital hype-machine claims that print culture is dying. News sites chronicle the death of newspapers. Magazines are folding, and book sales plummet by the day. I watch in horror as Web-based media proliferates like a swarm of brain-sucking Roombas.
Let’s hope this is just a phase. There are numerous benefits to print-based media that digital media can never replace.
Physical print lends itself to a type of mental self-discipline that web-culture threatens to erode. Books require—and therefore create a proclivity for—sustained attention. There is no Instant Messenger in a book. There are no hyperlinks, no media players, no video games in the next window.
Reading a book well requires you to sit down, quiet your mind, and concentrate on the text at hand for a prolonged period of time. All of the distractions endemic to a computer should be eliminated from the environment. A computer may be a handy repository of definitions and references, but so is a library. Or simply a dictionary. If one is undertaking a disciplined study of a serious subject, computers are useful—but superfluous. Books are indispensable.
The same is true of magazines and newspapers. Even if you sit before a mound of periodicals, devouring article after article, when you have finished a good one you will often pause for a moment to think about it. You may even take a walk. These moments of contemplation are essential to retention and understanding.
Compulsive link-clicking is the curse of web-browsing. Rather than a discrete series of articles in a physical publication, the internet functions like an endless scroll. It invites continual digression. We often forget the last piece of information while moving on to the next—and the next—in an incoherent whirlpool, absorbing little of relevance to our lives and hyperlinking ourselves into oblivion.
Print media provides a limitation on incoming information. In order to fully comprehend any subject matter, it is crucial to narrow it down to the finer points.
Human beings are not designed to mull over an infinite supply of data. Presented with such an abundance, the information eliminated is as important as what is retained. That is precisely the job of professional teachers, authors, journalists, and editors. Here, you have a human mind immersed in a body of knowledge, presenting—with varying degrees of skill—the most pertinent information. A search engine algorithm hardly compares.
If this sets off your egalitarian alarm bells, then you are missing the point. I am not arguing that recognized authorities should not be questioned, or that alternative sources (blogs, ‘zines, fringe press, a ranting neighbor, etc.) are inherently unsound. We are all responsible for discerning the truth ourselves, and it may come from any direction.
The editorial process is frequently plagued by the influence of advertisers, government pressure, or general misinformation. Every editor is bound to print some questionable articles or pass over a few journalistic gems. In this case, Net Neutrality creates a space for important voices that never make it to the press, and this is an invaluable feature. But these are usually exceptions, not the rule.
The web abounds with bloggers who spout off on a whim, resorting to dubious sources (if any at all). Anonymous Wikipedia contributors mangle their subject matter, cutting and pasting their way to half-baked expositions. Most of this is supplementary at best.
I have to admit, my preference for print media is also aesthetic. Imagine a world where no one reads a creased-up book in the park. Where there are no coffee-stained newspapers at the breakfast table, or magazine collections stuffed under the bed. Just glowing blue faces before the ubiquitous screens. Billions of heads seeing through one hypnotic Eye.
Electronic media may save paper, but it kills the pleasure of holding a finely-bound book in your hands, of clipping the newspaper for a scrapbook, or discovering that lost letter in a drawer, yellowed with time and rich with nostalgia. Online archives may contain the same words, but they do not carry the same meaning. The romance of history is in the faded photographs and the brittle spines, passed from hand to hand for generations. Only a computer—a vessel of information, devoid of a soul—could miss this distinction.
I am not proposing (here) that society should turn away from digital media. Only that preserving our print culture is vital to the intellectual and artistic life of America.
So go buy a book and read it under a tree. Subscribe to an excellent magazine and stack them in your garage. Peel your kids from the screen and take them to the library. Remind the new generation—and yourself—how beautiful the printed word really is.
© 2010 Joseph Allen