The End of Paper and Ink

Hangover Revelations

Wet Book and Razor Blade. Flickr Creative Commons

A Saturday morning in November, the Cardiff sky an opaque grey, phone lines swaying with the wind as I forged my away across town. Head bent against the cold, my mind excavating and reforming dross in a poor apology for thought, chewing gum to avoid the acrid, ashtray taste of last night’s small hours, stopping only to avoid the pools of dirty water already perforating my broken shoes. One motivation alone, to take solace in the small comforts of a warm pub, live football, weekend paper, dirty food, idle banter and probably, finally, more beer.

At this moment, as I stalked down Woodville Road with my eyes fixed to the pavement, I experienced a moment that alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity.

Lying beneath my feet was the page of a book ripped from its spine, the jag of the tear intersecting the carefully fonted words. A few steps later lay another, and then another. And then a record, the ringed disc slightly jutting out of its sleeve, the psychedelic, tie-dye cover standing against the mercury of the paving slabs.

I looked up and saw the front garden of a terraced house piled high with what seemed to be hundreds of books and records that had been tossed out of the front door and now lay discarded and useless. I stopped amongst those that had fallen over the wall and now lay on the pavement, and surveyed this small apocalypse. Paper and print and audio-media you can touch lay redundant, casually dismissed. Yesterday’s technology, ink running, pages turning in the wind, beginning to rot in the falling rain.

As I stood absorbing this, the opening horns of Otis Redding’s A Change is Gonna Come began to play on my iPod. I’d compiled the content of my iPod randomly and was playing it on the shuffle setting, so the way this piece of serendipity came together seemed to be almost filmic in its creation, as if someone was watching me.

Originally written by Sam Cooke in 1963 and covered by any number of black artists, A Change is Gonna Come is regarded as synonymous with the civil rights movement. Indeed, it’s arguably a direct influence on Obama’s celebrated rhetoric. But, transcending the song’s socio-political significance, it is a statement about the belief in the reliability of change.

Last week’s lecture from Antony Mayfield, Head of Content and Media at iCrossings, succinctly communicated that we are in the throes of a fundamental revolution, a re-calibration that can be talked of in the same breath as the advent of the printing press and the camera. Mayfield, unlike some of his compatriots, was genuinely optimistic about the future and therefore offered a much broader perspective. A history graduate, he described how senior monks opposed the invention of printing, instead continuing to advocate the laborious process of writing out a book word for word because it provided more time for thought, recollection and investment with the subject.

When I first started this blog I sympathized with those who repelled the new technologies of the day. Now I’m reformed, a true believer. As Michael Rosenblum illustrates, the digitalisation, continued fragmentation and democratisation of our media is so inevitable, so inexorable that to try and suggest or rationalise against it is akin to trying to argue the Earth doesn’t revolve around the Sun or the BNP are a credible vote at the next election.

Regardless, we still have our fair share of illusionists and deniers and sentimentalists trying to tell us we’re on the cusp of a journalistic apocalypse. We’re not. People will still write, still be curious, still care about hard facts and the trade of information as they have done for centuries. We’re now just at the end of one format and the start of a new, wholly different frontier.

Rob Alderson’s blog make the great point that this is a process of creative disruption and within all this uncertainty there is one guiding force; Google. As Mayfield said:

“When Google first appeared, it changed everything. It made the internet work because its basic premise is to always put the user first.”

Therefore, there’s one thing we do know for definite about this new frontier; it will be completely and utterly defined by the collective conscience of the consumer. It has no choice but to be, because that’s what makes Google what it is. Bluddy ‘ell, at this rate we might be able to talk about the media as a genuine public service.

There is another side. The media industry still hasn’t worked out how to make money out of the net and, until this is resolved, this is a problem because unfortunately nothing comes for free.

For all the convenience of Web 2.0, for all its rich potential for journalism, communication and as a tool for information in a democratic hyper-reality, is it giving rise to a something-for-nothing-culture? If so, we could end up with an indiscriminate, sourceless media, obsessed with the next new platform and 24/7, up-to-the-minute breaking news whilst failing to give due notice and attention to credible voices saying significant things. The tabloidisation of our media, revolving around a blogosphere based on inference, agenda and an axe to grind cannot compare to carefully considered analysis, indisputable information and a statutory obligation to objectivity.

The sight of those books so brutally exposed to the elements was both anarchic and forlorn, a sobering illustration of the cold reality of the modern day. Print is now no more than an exercise in nostalgia, a casualty of human innovation.

We are now collectively precipitating on an uncertain, undefined path. If we’re not careful, if we fail to keep in mind the principles that journalism is built on, then this remorseless period of change could be regressive. I, for one, want to prove the illusionists and deniers and sentimentalists wrong.


One thought on “The End of Paper and Ink

  1. Tom, I can see it all so clearly. What a vivid picture you paint. You will be wasted in news writing. It is all about the feature. Don’t be so quick to dismiss the printed page though. I think a lot can be said about the tactile experience of page turning, albeit more so in magazine than newspaper. Another reason to come over to the dark side!

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