19 October 2009

Another Advance Obit for Newspapers

The new Harper's has an impressionistic piece by Richard Rodriguez on the "twilight of the American newspaper." He's less interested in blaming technology for successfully supplanting print media than for inexorably stripping people of that sense of place on which newspapers seemed to depend. With virtual friends all over the world, he suggests, people are less rooted and less interested in what's happening in their immediate physical environment, and without that vital interest in locality, newspapers become meaningless. As he puts it, "When a newspaper dies in America, it is not simply that a commercial enterprise has failed; a sense of place has failed." Here's a thicker excerpt:

We no longer imagine the newspaper as a city or the city as a newspaper. Whatever I may say in the rant that follows, I do not believe the decline of newspapers has been the result solely of computer technology or of the Internet. The forces working against newspapers are probably as varied and foregone as the Model-T Ford and the birth-control pill....We might say now: Newspapers will be lost because technology will force us to acquire information in new ways. In that case, who will tell us what it means to live as citizens of Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor [all cities that lost papers this year -- ed.] The truth is we no longer want to live in Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor. Our inclination has led us to invent a digital cosmopolitanism that begins and ends with "I." Careening down Geary Boulevard on the 38 bus, I can talk to my dear Auntie in Delhi or I can view snapshots of my cousin's wedding in Recife or I can listen to girl-punk from Glasgow. The cost of my cyber-urban experience is disconnection from body, from city.

Rodriguez wants people to realize that their virtual lives are some sort of second-class sham, an inferior version of a reality that they're being denied by people who want to sell them some cheap alternative. This passage is an attempt to get people's populist dander up:

You know what futurists and online-ists and cut-out-the-middle-man-ists and Davos-ists and deconstructionists of every stripe want for themselves? They want exactly what they tell you you no longer need, you pathetic, overweight, disembodied Kindle reader. They want white linen tablecloths on trestle tables in the middle of vineyards on soft blowy afternoons....They want to go shopping on Saturday afternoons on the Avenue Victor Hugo....they want to see their names in hard copy in the "New Establishment" issue of Vanity Fair....they want five-star bricks and mortar and DO NOT DISTURB signs and views of the park. And in order to reserve these things for themselves they will plug up your eyes and your ears and your mouth, and if they can figure out a way to pump episodes of The Simpsons through the darkening corridors of your brain as you expire (ADD TO SHOPPING CART) they will do it.

It's a partially comforting fantasy to believe that the vanguard of unwelcome change isn't made up of true believers but cynical con men who only believe in money; if you can show that they're nothing but hucksters who've sold the hottest fashion line to a nation of emperors, you might get the masses to renounce their new fancies and return to their old ways. At the very least, such a fantasy assures you that there are still people who think and feel as you do, even if they're your mortal enemies. But even if we call Rodriguez's suspicion speculation rather than fantasy, my hunch is that it's at best only partly true. The pod people aren't necessarily ruled by some urbane cynical sensualist. At the same time, who's actually said that we mere proles can't have or shouldn't want all the things Rodriguez writes about. I must have missed that while living through the last generation. Still, if we stick to his basic point that a growing detachment from our physical homescape is a factor in the decline of newspapers, there's room for agreement. It doesn't exactly point us toward solving the problem, if we want to save newspapers, but Rodriguez never claims that there is a solution. His is one of the best feel-bad essays I've read this year.


Anonymous said...

It's called "evolution". Everything is temporal. Somethings last millions of years. Somethings last only hundreds of years or decades. Eventually all things come go extinct or evolve into a newer form. If we look at the purpose of a newspaper - which is to impart information - we can find other things which have evolved to fill that niche better than newspapers. One of the sad things about human beings is their inability to let go of the past. I suppose when the time comes that we no longer hold onto the past, we, too, will have evolved into something better.

Samuel Wilson said...

Rodriguez says that newspapers have another, to him more important purpose of helping to define people's sense of where they live, and thus, I infer, their own identity. He'd claim that none of the new information technologies fill that niche better. But I couldn't shake the feeling while reading his essay that the newspaper itself is just a substitute for defining your city by going out in it, meeting its people, checking out its institutions, etc. His pining for print may betray some level of social alienation that also makes him uncomfortable with the too-easy interaction that comes with new information and communications technology.