Someday, Egon Will Be Right

At one point in Ghostbusters Dr. Egon Spengler remarks that “print is dead.” I the 1980s it was a funny line because it looked like premature futurism. Recently, though, Warren Buffet made a statement that could have come from Dr. Spengler, if Egon were a business bigwig. Buffet said the same thing that lots of other people have been going on about recently, that newspapers are a dying form of business, and that he would not advise investing in them.

With the ascendancy of the web, the folding of so many newspapers, and the advent of the Kindle, we are seeing a process that is steadily taking us away from the printed word and into an age of digital media. As much as people might complain about the new formats and lament the death of newsprint, I think that there are a few very real upsides to this.

The demise of print will be great for the environment.

I’m sort of surprised that no one’s talking about this. Think of newspapers: Every day, sheets and sheets of paper printed and consumed to produce something that is only useful for one day. Many of them go unsold and unread, and all of them have to be disposed of at the end of a 24 hour period. Even if they are recycled, that still expends a fair amount of energy. They still have to be gathered, transported, and rendered into raw materials, all of which takes time and money. Hopefully, future generations will find these one day use news sources to be laughably extravagant, and produce less in the way of waste than we do now.

With print dead, information will be more accessible.

Before the printing press, books were hugely expensive. Better technology made information cheaper, and therefore more people could access it. Now, the challenge is getting things such as out-of-print books and high-demand items into people’s hands. When I worked in a bookstore, I had no shortage of requests for out-of-print books. People paid stupidly huge amounts of money for things that weren’t being printed anymore. Likewise, there were tons of requests for recently popular books, and we couldn’t accommodate everyone’s demand.

Ebooks could fix that. Nothing has to go out of print, and nothing is inaccessible due to shortness of supply. There will be little reason for anything like a rare volume to exist, and as much as that might disappoint rare book collectors, it will greatly democratize information. Likewise, if news archives are all available on the web, any curious person can become their own investigative reporter or historian.

The death of print will reduce clutter.

As much as I like books, the fact remains that they can be rather troublesome as objects. You have to store them and sometimes move them from house to house. I’ve recently hauled around a few boxes of books, and as nice as they are as objects, I have to admit that I’d rather own a single, portable electronic tablet that I could read them on comfortably, rather than tons of boxes of paper. Likewise, I’m all for not having to budget old newspapers into my living space. I don’t keep phonebooks in my personal space at all, because they are bulky and troublesome objects, made redundant by electronic means. Future generations may feel the same way about print.

I’m looking forward to all of those, and, unless you have a chemical addiction to newsprint, you should as well.

We should not ask the question, then, “How can we save newspapers?” The question we should be asking is “How can we insure that reporters get paid for the services they provide?” As nice as bloggers and the like are, we still need people who dedicate their time to covering current events, and who can afford to do things like ship off to foreign countries. What is more, we need media organizations that politicians can’t afford to ignore. I’m sure that politicians would be happy to hang up on me if I called them. They cannot afford to hang up on the New York Times, though. They need to be held accountable. If information is as common as air, though, then how do these people, doing an essential job, get paid?

My conclusion right now is that reportage will become a public good. Like roads, law enforcement, and a clean environment, an active information society is something that benefits everyone, that is essential to our civilization, and that no one wants to pay for. Like most public goods, the answer might be that government will have to pick up the tab. I’m not too opitimistic about this, given that PBS is plagued by pledge drives and that the News Hour with Jim Lehrer is not exactly gripping material. However, I’m not able to come up with a better alternative at the present time. We need something like an American version of the BBC.

Print is dying, but information is more vibrant than every. Newspapers, and books as well, will go the way of the illuminated manuscript. The essence of those things, though, will remain. Romanticizing old technology, I think, can be something of a trap. As many problems as modernization may bring, we all too often forget that we live in an extraordinary age.

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