Daniel Okrent has been in the publishing industry his whole career. He is a published author and has served as an editor for Time, Life, and the New York Times. In a 1999 lecture to students attending Columbia University’s School of Journalism, Okrent predicts, “I believe they (news papers, magazines, and books), and all forms of print are dead” (Okrent 578). A little harsh, wouldn’t you agree? But fear not, he then goes on to describe how even though the death of print is inevitable, it really doesn’t make a difference because it is the words, sentences, and paragraphs in those forms of print that are important.
Now, the majority of the reading I take in comes from online sources. I probably manage to read an average of about one book every two years. This amount is hardly anything to brag about. However, I do find myself viewing specialized topics online that I would probably have had to read a book to gain knowledge on if the online sources weren’t so easily accessible. I also subscribe to a few print magazines that I have interest in.
Looking at the literature landscape today, Okrent’s predictions on the future of the print industry seem to be eerily accurate. However, a bit of wishful thinking seems to come through in his claims that “ . . . the words and pictures and ideas and images and notions and substance that we produce is what matters – and not the vessel they arrive in” (Okrent 580). Do the vessels matter? Can quality writing and accurate information find its way through the unfiltered sewage of unchecked claims, shock bloggers, and desperately aggressive advertising?
Okrent goes on to explain his claims on the inevitable death of in two parts: Part one, in a phrase, is that we have, I believe, finally learned not to underestimate the march of technological progress. A little over thirty years ago, I saw my first electronic calculator. It was about the shape of a laptop computer, maybe three inches deep, it weighed eight or nine pounds, and it cost my father’s law firm $500 in 1967 dollars. Today you can buy calculators the size and heft of a credit card in a convenience store for two dollars.
We shouldn’t underestimate technology and how quickly it can become accessible to anyone. As of today, iPads, Kindles, and other tablets are already very popular. A fifty-some-odd year old co-worker of mine, who often asks questions regarding simple functions in Word, has a Kindle that she reads on her break every day. Take into account the rate that they are improved and made more efficient and imagine the technology that will be available 50 years from now. Imagine my generation, who grew up in the technological era, and the literacy we’ll have with the tablets of the future.
Now, imagine the generations ahead of us that will only know the digital vessels of literature. Another factor that must be taken into consideration is how much our technology is becoming disposable. Every other year a new and improv… Scratch that. A new and more appealing model comes out. Yes, a new tablet may add a few more features to your fingertips, but it is worth buying a whole new tablet for. If this topic is debatable in today’s world, imagine when the tablet of 2012 is the calculator of 1967 fifty years from now.
Try comparing that to books. You can’t have a new and improved book. While this may come across as a digression, the feeling is that this ties back into the quality of our future counterparts to books, newspapers, and magazines. In the second part of Okrent’s claim, he argues it will be cheaper to offer online subscriptions over paper subscriptions because the added cost of paper and postage will no longer be there with the digital versions. In 1998, “Time Inc. spent $1 billion dollars on paper and postage” (Okrent 580).
The savings alone will show the demise of print being the major outlet for people to read their newspapers, magazines, and books. The market has changed and will continue to change. Will these media powerhouses, and so-called “gate-keepers”, be able to keep their grip on the market with competition just being a click away? Competitors offering an inferior product with more glitz could force our current information to be watered down. Think of the future reader 50 years from now. They wish to check up on the news.
Are they going to pay a subscription fee to the Wall Street Journal or go to Yahoo. com and where political news is coupled on the same page as Eva Longoria’s revealing dress, Lin-sanity, and a story about a baseball player’s new nose job (all actual headlines on Yahoo’s homepage)? Imagine reading a book and every other page being something completely irrelevant to the book itself. “Imagine a tablet, maybe half an inch thick, shaped when held one way like an open book or magazine, when turned sideways much like a single page of a newspaper. It weighs six ounces.
It’s somewhat flexible, which makes it easy to transport. Its screen, utterly glare-free, neither flickers nor fades nor grows dull” (Okrent 579). This is a description of a tablet Okrent saw back in 1999. That doesn’t seem too far off from what’s available today. Actually, it sounds a little better. Okrent later makes a good comparison in the format in which cell phones are sold today and how tablets may be similarly sold in the future. He argues it’s less about the vessel and more about the content in which they wish to sell you on that vessel.
As cell phone companies do when offering a free phone for a two-year contract, imagine tablets being sold the same way by a major media conglomerate (Okrent 582). Imagine tablets being disposable, as cell phones are now, in the future. This type of disposability breeds a lack of quality. Think of the quality of the food being produced in the United States today. One can make the argument that the chemically ripened tomato on the cover of our textbook, representing a false sense of nutrition, is equal to the product-pushing tablets of the future representing a candy-coated handful of information.
It could be that books are to our brain as organic produce is to our stomachs. Now why would I, a computer-article-reading-non-book-lover, defend the importance of print? A lot of it has to do with my personal experiences with the Internet. The format in which Internet search engines retrieve information is not based on the quality of the writing or even the information, but almost as to who spends the most money to be the first result seen. Okrent describes newspapers as providing you a timeline, magazines a perspective, and books a lasting value (Okrent 577).
Before the Internet was the dominant form of media, it’s imaginable that one would turn to a newspaper for the daily news and a magazine for information or an opinion on a special interest. For instance, if someone wanted to read up on gardening, they would most likely purchase or subscribe to a gardening magazine. This magazine could possibly have multiple views on gardening that would satisfy their curiosity. However, if the Internet was the first choice and “tips on gardening” was searched in Google, the first result seen may be from a chemical company trying to sell their latest product rather than actual gardening techniques.
Okay, so maybe the prediction of a chemical company being the first result is a little is a little conspiracy-theory-esque, but the idea behind the statement proved to be pretty accurate. When “tips on gardening” was searched, the first result that popped up was The National Wildlife Federation. After reading a bit about the organization, you may find that you like them and may want to donate a monthly “gift” of $10. 00. Then remember how The National Wildlife Federation was found in the first place…gardening tips.
Gardening tips was the initial interest that sparked the search. While the organization did offer some tips, it’s obvious this was not the primary reason of their existence. The mere ease of today’s form of taking in the daily news and searching for information is different. The act of walking to the local market to buy a newspaper, filling out a subscription to a magazine, walking to the library to search for a book that meets the criteria you may wish to gain knowledge on is all different.
Even the act of handwriting and erasing in comparison to typing and deleting is a significant drop in the level difficulty. Okrent romanticizes the “feel of a fine binding, the smell of newly opened pages . . . ” (Okrent 578). I can’t imagine someone making the same reference to a tablet. The idea is Okrent’s feelings towards an actual book influenced his writing. The quality of writing may just be divinely intertwined with the actual love of reading an actual book.
When thinking of the future of print or the future of writing for that matter, think about how the changes in how we receive the words we read will impact how we interpret them and in turn, how future writers will write them. Whether comparing the human connection of reading a physical book or the cold feeling of staring at computer screen with blinking advertisements surrounding your content, think of how much this may affect the actual writing. Although it would be nice to think that great writing will prevail, pessimism sets in like a sports fan whose seen his championship team slowly dismantled.
I myself couldn’t get through writing this essay without checking the boxing news for Saturday’s fights or clicking the Groupon ad blinking in the right hand corner. How is our future generation, who wasn’t around when books were the only option to read literature, going to filter through the shiny Vegas strip that is digital media? “What I know to be true is that the human species is hungry for information; the quality, timeliness, and reliability of information is paramount . . . ” (Okrent 582). We may find the vessel of this information may be just as paramount 50 years from now.
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Topic: The Death of Print
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