There’s No Going Back Now: Coming to Terms with the Digital Age

I used to lament, quite often in fact, that I had “missed the boat,” that my hopes of becoming a print journalist had been dashed by the monstrous ascension of the internet. All I saw were dwindling newspaper subscriptions and sales, articles about how journalists were losing their jobs because their work didn’t generate enough page views, especially compared to their colleagues on the celebrity gossip beat, and other disquieting omens and ill tidings. As someone who enjoyed the tactile experience of reading a newspaper and who would often set aside an hour or so every day to do so (which is easy to do when one takes public transportation), the internet seemed destined to pervert everything I loved about journalism, from how a journalist selects a story to how they approach the writing of their article to how this article is then read — sensationalism and gossip would be promoted over political and investigative journalism, disintegrating attention spans would render even a 500-word article “too long,” bloggers willing to work for next to nothing would be hired over even the most promising journalism students, and so on. The already frail structure underlying my dreams was easily crushed under the relentless forward march of the Digital Age and I found myself becoming rather jaded and cynical.

Whitney Rhodes, now of the Cranford Patch, a “hyperlocal”-style media outlet based out of Cranford, New Jersey, was one of the first to show me how the internet, while obviously changing the face of journalism, could act as a medium of rebirth for journalism and not only serve as its destroyer. She created Connect2Mason, a George Mason University campus and community-focused new media website, and brought me aboard as Convergence Director. It was my responsibility to reach out to other student media outlets to help add depth to our news stories — instead of just a photograph or two, we started creating entire photo galleries and video archives for a piece; quotes were augmented with the actual audio from interviews, sometimes played over a photo slideshow; similar stories covered by the campus radio station were embedded into the articles, giving the story multiple perspectives and the reader multiple options. While I was far from an electronic journalism convert, working with Whitney, whose passion and drive were infectious, did begin to dispel the dark clouds that I had allowed to settle on the horizon.

My focus, however, changed from journalism to English literature in the wake of Whitney’s graduation, and once again the specter of the internet lingered over the future of authorship and publication, be it in the fields of fiction, non-fiction, or academic writing. As The Atlantic notes in its piece “Book Publishing in the Digital Age: A Reality Check,” “The Internet tsunami that has swept through the newspaper and magazine industries, transforming the landscape and leaving debris everywhere, has at last arrived at book publishers.” The introduction of Amazon’s Kindle and now Apple’s iPad has greatly changed the face of publishing. As Max McGuinness writes in “Can the Author Survive the Internet?”, e-book sales increased “by 176% in the last year.” While I do not have the figures at hand, I am quite sure that the sale of print books has not increased by such a number, if at all.

As a literature student, e-books are almost completely useless to me, if only because I need pagination for citations. Beyond that, the medium in its present format does little better than replace the printed page with words on a screen. Yes, you can look up words on Kindle’s dictionary, but it’s really not that much more convenient than going to a laptop or pulling out one’s iPhone to look up words from a printed source. When e-books begin to explore their full potential, becoming more like an electronic version of a Norton Critical Edition of a work — complete with supplementary texts, critical essays, and related short stories; author biographies; photographs and perhaps even video; interviews; accounts of how the work was composed and critically received; early drafts of the work and the changes that occurred during the revision process, and so on — I can see myself becoming a champion for them. At the moment, I’m perfectly content ordering used print copies from Amazon or ABE Books and utilizing libraries, sources like JSTOR, and the internet to supplement my reading and knowledge of the text and its author.

The Open Education article “The Future of Books (and Authors) in the Digital Age” explores many of the possibilities for future e-books, including many of the potential issues and benefits facing those exploring multi-platform publishing. As Thomas (the author does not provide a surname) quickly points out, quoting Tim O’Reilly to add weight to his claim, many see “the idea of putting a book on an electronic device as analogous to ‘pointing a camera at a stage play, and calling it a movie.'” Thomas however develops this idea, claiming that O’Reilly may be right now, but, as both of them suggest in their respective articles, today’s films are very different from the products of early cinema, and a similar development will most likely befall the e-book publishing industry.

Continuing, and easily besting, the theme I’ve begun to layout in this piece, Dr. Mark Sample’s “Loud, Crowded, and Out of Control: A New Model for Scholarly Publishing” demonstrates how the internet may well serve as the best medium for scholarly publishing and debate, and these benefits could easily extend beyond academia:

“In an odd turn of events, it’s the affordances of the digital world that may help us renew our presence and involvement in the analog world. We have the means now to write in ways scholars could only ever dream about. So, write to be heard, write to be written back to, write to readers who are living bodies with voices of their own. Write to the crowd and let the crowd write back. Write publicly and publicly write. Write.”

While Dr. Sample’s idea that we should “write to be heard, write to be written back to” is sure to frighten or put off many — Max McGuinness notes that “[James Woods of the London Review of Books] said he finds looking through readers’ comments on blogs to be akin to a descent into Hades” — it is difficult to not find something reassuringly hopeful in the idea of using the internet as a more transparent and open forum where ideas can be discussed by many and not only a select few. Unfortunately, the concept of expertise will almost certainly creep in, as it often does in debates, with some having their voices ridiculed or criticized because of their lack of experience in one field or another, but this is no reason to abandon hope.

In reality, there is no point looking back now — the internet has changed everything. But these changes do not have to be for the worse. Electronic journalism, e-books, and online academic discourse are all in their relative infancies, and it seems premature to dismiss them as we have not yet seen their full potential, especially in a digital world that Apple and others are changing at a frantic pace. Many saw no real benefit of early computers over typewriters at the time, an idea that seems almost laughable now, but it suggests at the place we may end up at in the coming years.

While I still retain some fears over the changes that are happening, I see no harm in harboring some hopes, even lofty ones. This is the world we live in — spending my time finding reasons it is riddled with terrible and dangerous faults due to the meddlesome internet is now far less appealing than attempting to play some small part in how things develop.

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