Sunday, January 23, 2005

A column worth reading

OK. I've done something bad. I've copied a column from the Globe and Mail and posted it here on my blog. Sure, I paid for it. But you haven't. So you probably shouldn't be reading it. But go ahead. Just don't tell anyone where you saw it, OK?

Seriously, I do want you to read this. I'm a newspaper junkie. I read a couple every day in paper form, and scan a whole lot more in cyberspace. And sometimes I wonder whether all this new technology is going to change the way we get our information. Of course, it already has. What I mean is I wonder whether I'm still going to be able to sit down with a coffee and a paper every morning for my morning fix.

The death of various media caused by the rise of a new challenger has been predicted many times before. TV killing off the movies. The Internet doing away with books and newspapers. TV doing away with everything. Etc. But it seems that things still continue somehow. While I've spent some time thinking about the implications of all of this, my thinking hasn't come to much. But Doug Saunders has done a lot of good thinking about it. In his column in the Globe last Saturday, he writes about just this issue. And he does it so well that I wouldn't dream of trying to summarize his views. I want you to read them for yourself.

Problem is, you can't. Not unless you happen to have a copy of Saturday's paper around. Or you could go on-line, if you had one of those fancy "Insider Access" on-line subscriptions to the Globe and Mail on-line. But I'm guessing that many of you don't, so instead of offering a link to a story that you'll have to pay for, I copied the story and pasted it in right here. Just don't tell anyone at the Globe, all right?

Who's afraid of the 400-channel universe?

By Doug Saunders
Globe and Mail, Jan 22, 2005, Page F3

LONDON -- Eight decades ago, London's newspapers and magazines were consumed with a debate about the new media.

What name, the editors asked, should we give to the adventurous pioneers who stare at this thing called television? After months of heated rhetoric, a consensus was reached: They would henceforth be known as "lookers-in."

It was an optimistic choice, as if this freaky new box were nothing more than an amusement, certainly not the sort of full-time activity that might pose a threat to reading audiences and ad revenues.

It was the lookers-in who decided to call themselves "viewers." Within a few decades, their endless viewing had given rise to a wave of media panic: The widespread belief, dating back to the Gutenberg Revolution, that a new form of media is about to overturn the world and render extinct all the old ways of seeing and thinking.

A lifetime later, I found myself sitting at lunch this week with some executives from the big public television networks in Canada and Britain. Our host politely asked them what they thought of those new cable boxes that get 400 channels.

Choking noises emerged from one corner of the table. Among those able to hold down their salad and speak, the words sounded like newspaper publishers in the 1950s looking at the share prices for Zenith and Electrohome. Or worse.

"What we are witnessing is the collapse of linear time," said Mark Starowicz, the charming, nationalistic man responsible for many of the CBC's most-watched programs.

He was referring to the fact that your teenaged daughter, in case you hadn't noticed, is no longer tied to the Canadian prime-time schedule. If she misses Charmed on Sunday night, she can flip over to Charmed on the Chicago channel an hour later, or on the Los Angeles channel two hours after that. Gone are the evenings when anyone was forced to settle for Wind At My Back.

This is not a happy development for the CBC. Not only for simple reasons of market share: For visionaries like Mr. Starowicz, at issue is the very existence of the nation-state: "When linear time no longer governs the airwaves, it puts an end to the shared national experience. People no longer have anything in common with each other."

Now that 50 per cent of TV viewing is done on tiny channels that get less than 1 per cent of the audience each, can we speak of a common national experience? Is the Internet and digital TV putting an end to our entire culture? It all sounded very familiar, this media panic, as if people had been issuing the same warning for 500 years.

I've been reading a book in the tiny field of bibliographical history that should be read far more widely. Cambridge University librarian David McKitterick's Print, Manuscript and the Search for Order may sound dry, but its implications are enormous for our understanding of media past and present.

For decades, we have spoken of the Gutenberg Revolution. The invention of the movable-type printing press, and thus the printed book, by Johann Gutenberg in 1448 was the original new-media phenomenon. It did for the old, handwritten word what the Internet has now done for books and newspapers, what TV did for movies, what digital cable is doing to TV.

Printed type, legend has it, created a whole new world. Language was no longer conveyed in the personal, fluid, elite medium of handwritten scrolls and manuscripts; the new book was uniform, reproducible, ubiquitous and popular.

Mr. McKitterick, who has spent his life among early books, knows otherwise. Gutenberg's wasn't a revolution at all. Its primary effect, one that lasted for 3½ centuries, was to create new work for manuscript copyists -- the people who created those supposedly obsolete handwritten documents. The rise of the printed book actually created the golden age of the manuscript, lasting hundreds of years -- giving it a purpose it had never had.

Handwritten manuscripts were official, rigid and reliable, while printed text -- contrary to our presumptions -- was slippery and unstable, changing from copy to copy, further removed from the intent of the writer, and widely regarded as transient and untrustworthy.

The role of the written manuscript was sharpened and defined by the published book. And the book slowly shifted, over the centuries, so that it could embrace the role of the manuscript. It was "less a revolution than an accommodation," Mr. McKitterick writes.

"To summarize: printing, and the user of the printed book, both depended on and influenced manuscripts long after the invention of printing with movable type. . . . In fact, the new can only be understood by reference to the old, and different cultures and media must inevitably exist side by side."

This is important, because the Gutenberg metaphor gets applied just about every time a new medium confronts an older one. In every case, what has occurred is not a "revolution" but something much more like what Mr. McKitterick describes -- "the development of a new idea after the excitement of its discovery always depends partly on the application of older, pre-existing ideas and practices as they in turn are tested and adapted anew."

Television did permanently destroy the movie, in box-office terms. But directors responded to TV by launching cinema's most creative and influential movements. The Internet and TV have ended the newspaper's dominance, but also made newspapers better than ever, freeing them from the staccato tones of the newswire to become literate, analytical, and artistic.

And likewise with the great dinosaurs of public television in the era of a zillion channels.

Is the CBC's unifying force really threatened by the tome-sized TV guide? The community-building power of its programming has actually risen with the number of channels on the dial: Mr. Starowicz's enormously successful nation-building events (such as his People's History series), despite his alarm, are actually a product of the multi-channel universe. The end of public TV's near-monopoly actually gave it a sense of purpose, and forced it to do away with the quiz shows and U.S. reruns that filled its supposed golden age.

Public TV can now be public TV, stodgy, worthy, patriotic and intellectual, without also having to be everything else in the world. Like those pen-wielding monks in 1500, its creators have been given purpose and meaning by the frightening new machines.

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