What, may I ask, has the internet done for you? How has it improved your life?
Despite the promises bordering on salvation from tech gurus, I suspect that the internet has taken more than it’s given. And it will take even more if we let it. I’m paraphrasing here, and I can’t track down who I’m paraphrasing, but: “The internet has transformed little for the better; it is essentially a high-speed post office, library, bank teller and mail-order catalog and nothing more.” And what have we given away for such riches as those? Local small businesses and the local tax revenue they provide, for one.
We’ve gotten from the internet thousands of digital “news” and media outlets, very few of which do original reporting. And we’ve sacrificed countless local, city and national newspapers along with the type of magazines that made their mark with in-depth stories and works of art in fiction, not celebrity photos. Do we need 50,000 digital publications all offering their takes on the same set of facts? Or do we just need the facts and some media with the actual reporting staffs and budgets to get them?
Instead of a handful of beautiful photojournalism magazines, we are drowning in a sea of photos. At least they’re free, although in return we’ve surrendered much of our ability to appreciate beauty. We’ve become desensitized to wildlife, landscapes and foreign locales. Some romance has been lost.
Thank God for email, although if you printed them all out, you’d have reams of it every morning depending on your profession. Again, there’s just so much of it. Why put any thought into any of it? It’s shocking to watch Ken Burns’ documentary “The Civil War,” not just because of the brutality of that conflict, but for the elegance of correspondence between the average soldier of the line and his beloved back home. The letters read in voiceover throughout the documentary are remarkable for the sentiment expressed, the language used.
“Sarah, my love for you is deathless. It seems to bind me with mighty cables, that nothing but Omnipotence can break; and yet, my love of country comes over me like a strong wind, and bears me irresistibly on with all those chains, to the battlefield. The memories of all the blissful moments I have spent with you come crowding over me, and I feel most deeply grateful to God and you, that I have enjoyed them so long. And how hard it is for me to give them up, and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our boys grow up to honorable manhood around us.”
That’s something of a higher plane. A letter then might take weeks to be delivered and at some physical cost. This was not some mere trifle. Thought and care were taken, what to put in and what to leave out, what would be of interest. What would be beautiful.
Now perhaps many sneer at that sort of everyday poetry. But I’m not inclined to believe that rhetoric was a façade. We, today, might be capable of living and feeling more beautifully if conditions allowed for, or at least did not discourage, thought — How long has it been since you last checked your smartphone? Should you check it now? Or should you wait until you’ve finished this column? Ahh, he’s off to a good start today (one hopes), let’s give him another minute or two.
For that, I thank you dear reader if you’ve stuck with me this far. And that is precisely why we have to cling to print like a drowning sailor to flotsam. Because print strips away distraction, which is primarily what the internet is made up of. All we need is a distraction-free environment in which to think, to imagine — which are really the same thing. Reading in print is like a guided meditation. It can make us think, and feel. It can begin some mysterious process in our heads by which we make linkages, connections; we have ideas and can be inspired. It can help our minds roam gracefully, and it can also sharpen our focus as we turn pages, intent on every word and nothing else. Just one thing, just for a few minutes, in a world where there are always multiple things all of the time.
In a twist of irony, it was in digital media that I began my working life as a writer — whatever that means (it’s an expression we all use without really thinking about its meaning: My Working Life. How many separate lives do we each live? My grocery-store life, my doctor’s office life, my hockey stadium life, my home life). Because most of us have different selves at different times based on different environments.
The above paragraph is something like what I think every time I read the words “my working life.” Somehow, reading and writing can take you someplace to a degree that no other medium can match: into other people’s minds. That’s something other media can’t do.
I’m not sure we could have this conversation in daily life. It would be difficult to just tell you what I’m thinking. In person, we might be strangers. Or other distractions might get in the way. Perhaps the timbre of my voice or a fly buzzing around your head. Someone in the distance. Your attention would be divided in some small way. Let alone the social barriers. There’s an anxiety in telling anyone but your closest relations exactly what you are thinking. There’s some sort of unspoken social wall that’s hard to define. Or, a polite fear of boring others prevents our sharing our inner consciousness.
The printed word turns strangers into readers, which is another way of saying fellow travelers. The printed word lowers the wall between one and many, also one and one. Because it’s always a partnership, between writer and reader, if the writer truly cares and the reader is engaged. Hold on to print.
Jay Wisniewski is an editor at the Aspen Daily News and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org