December 06, 2010

We love the comfort of the familiar morning newspaper. We may curse its inconvenience or its temporary isolating qualities when it is spread out halfway across the breakfast table, but to those of us who grew up with it, the routine is as well-worn and familiar as a pair of old shoes.

Who would even consider casting it aside? The backlighting of most computer screens is extremely wearing on the eyes, the text on cellphone screens is microscopically tiny.

But set all that aside. These are not permanent reasons to prefer one type of information transfer over another. Daily comfort rituals change. Technology evolves. The technology of LED and Kindle is already doing much to remove computer screen backlight and make the light contrast easier on the eye.

At the same time we ourselves are adapting to the technology. Increasingly we take it for granted that the right size in which to read news should be the size of a telephone screen: something to which we have perhaps been pre-conditioned by the bottom headline newsfeed of the news cable networks. We would rather shorten our information feed to correspond to the cellphoned Twitter than strain our eyes trying to decipher anything of any length.

The coming generation can't even conceive that information might come in any other form. Just as those born after the 1940s cannot conceive of a world without radio and those born after the 1970s cannot conceive of a world without cable television, those born into the new millennium take the Internet and electronic news for granted. We are endlessly psychologically adaptable that way.

We find it difficult even to conceive that we might lose anything thereby. Who could lose, now that the world is at our fingertips?

Yet we do lose. And we are so very adaptable and so very willing to forget what has gone before, most of us not living in the transition years will never even realise what we have lost.

*** In depth analysis ***

Electronic news does not lend itself to in depth analysis. If it is to survive, the printed page has no choice in the matter. Competition from 24/7 cable news feeds and now from the Internet has forced major printed newspapers and printed weekly magazines to compete almost entirely on the basis of in depth analysis.

As with televised cable news before it, electronic news delivery prioritises speed and efficiency over substance: an attitude which has been fully transposed to the reader. Short attention spans are now the norm. If the substance of an electronic news feed cannot be fully summarised within 140 characters, most readers find it not worth reading.

How can what is going on in the world ever be adequately summarised in just a few short paragraphs, let alone a Twitter feed? How can it possibly be understood? Yet we know that in electronic journalism, it must be: for anything below the fold is much less likely to be read. There are always alternatives on the Internet. If a reader runs into something too complex to try and digest in the few in-between moments devoted to the quick update, there will always be something shorter and faster and easier to read. On the Internet, it is easier than ever to "channel change" away from unwanted depth.

Yet in depth analysis of current events also costs money. In a world where removing cost from processes is an ongoing initiative, in depth analysis may not even be desirable. In depth analysis keeps the reader on a very few pages for long periods of time. Far more ROI-desirable is the rapid clicking through multiple pages: translating into visit depth and far, far more viewed advertisements, and correspondingly increasing the odds that at least one of those advertisements will become a click-through and perhaps a sale. Rapid, efficient turnover of content and constant new gimmicks and eye candy to pull the reader from page to page and especially advertisement to advertisement will always trump quality of content in the capitalist electronic universe.

Print media does not have this limitation. Whether readers read a single page or the entire publication in detail, they are still counted into its circulation. A newspaper does not have to encourage the reader to flip flip flip through its pages in order to maintain its advertisement revenue: it only needs the reader to be hooked by a single one of its articles. That single article could suddenly double or even triple circulation as new readers rush to check it out.

Still, even newspapers are succumbing to the combined pressure of high in-depth costs and the short attention span: and subscribing to information feeds that give exactly the same short, concise information to news networks of all shapes and sizes.

This pattern is not unique to electronic news and the printed newspaper. Every age has had its version of the same pattern: from manuscripts to printed books to weeklys, dailys, and now the electronic age. Every time new technology has speeded up the release of information, the in depth quality of that information has been been diluted correspondingly.

*** Pixels are fragile ***

Physical newspapers and magazines have a permanence which electronics at every level have yet to embrace. Pixels get lost or purged or glitched or outright deleted on a regular basis. Early electronic information was lost to the recycling of tapes, even such worldshaking historical data as the original feed for the Apollo 11 moon landing. Modern electronic information is lost to constant technological change and to sheer volume. With every hardware and software upgrade, vast amounts of information are permanently lost.

Although the vast majority of newspapers are tossed or (hopefully) recycled, hundreds of copies of major newpapers are preserved in living rooms, attics, libraries, even the newspaper office itself. Even if one of these storage locations were to suffer a catastrophic event, it is very likely that copies will still survive elsewhere.

Paper news media lend themselves to clipping, scrapbooking, archiving. Cellphones and iPads don't even print hardcopies. They are not meant to.

Our journalistic heritage is vanishing at our fingertips. History is eroding as quickly as as the next new electronic edition. On-line news is impermanent by its very nature. As newsfeeds are updated, old articles are pulled, so quickly that readers may never have seen them and -- barring actually thinking about the news process -- have no reason even to suspect their existence.

*** Medical issues ***

The flip side of electronic news media has always been a technology which could receive it and download it to consumers as quickly as it can be churned out. The personal computer age opened the door, the Internet turned the key: but at that time relatively few of us lived on-line to the point where instant feeds made any sense. If we wanted instant and sometimes graphic news 24/7 and did not care particularly about its quality or depth, CNN taught us to turn on the television.

The personal digital assistant changed all that. The Blackberry first brought the Internet world into a jacket pocket, but its early possibilities were still limited mostly to e-mail communication. Everything really started to change when the increasing popularity of WiFi wiring made it easier and more convenient to hook into the Internet than to seek out a television. Now, with the cellphone revolution, the Internet lives at nearly everyone's fingertips, no matter where they happen to be.

We don't know exactly what this barrage of constantly linked-in electronics is doing to our health -- but some early warning signs should cause us to pay close heed.

In the January 2011 issue of the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, a new study has found that something about cellphones in themselves is linked with behavioural problems in children much too young to use them themselves. Even pregnant mothers who use cellphones frequently are much more likely to give birth to a child with a behavioural problem. This finding is independent of other complicating factors which could have been linked with high cellphone use such as maternal inattention or the amount of time spent with the child. A family history of behavioural problems was checked and ruled out as contributing to the cellphone-behavioural problems link.

Even the different type of eye focus required by computer screens permanently alters the shape of the eye, resulting in a rising incidence of myopia and quite probably a future parallel rise in the rate of chronic glaucoma (since the existing structures for siphoning off excess fluid in the eye is blocked by the elongated shape). In some teenage populations, the incidence of myopia is already as high as 80%.

Most of these effects have never been studied before. Governments have previously rejected any restrictions on technology expansion on the basis that no negative evidence had ever been found -- yet does this really mean anything if the issue has never been studied? No negative evidence found does not mean the same as that a negative effect does not exist. Our children are the guinea pigs.

Quite independent from any material or radiative factor is the psychological impact of a constant barrage of news headlines, for the most part received without context and without further explanation of any kind. With all these constant graphic headlines at our fingertips: how much can the human factor still mean to us? How much will it mean to our children, who have grown up with the knowledge that where human contact is not face-to-face, they can always turn the cellphone off? Where we don't personally know the people involved, how many domestic or foreign deaths does it take before we care?

Or will it all be lost in time to the ability to quickly flip the channel away from unwanted content?

*** A look forward ***

Yet for all this, electronic versions of daily news are here to stay. From a business perspective, electronic news is simply cheaper to produce and has a higher return on investment. From a reader perspective, electronic news is more convenient and far-reaching -- at least in theory -- than ever before.

Nor there any objective reason why electronic news should be rejected out of hand. If there is a fundamental fault in any of what has been said before, it lies not in the medium itself but in our willingness to have our expectations shaped by early limitations of the medium. Electronic media can be responsible, can preserve history, can cover an event with just as much detail and context as any printed newspaper. The potential of electronic media is vast. But it can also be just as narrow and limiting as any printed page -- more so, because we delude ourselves that the wider access and instant public feedback inherently mean that it is not.

Even the technology to make that news safely accessible can come into being if there exists the public will to do it. Safety standards were virtually unheard of at the turn of the previous century, yet today few products are released without them. Yet no product can be made subject to safety standards where the will does not exist. Common sense and public education should have eradicated smoking years ago: yet here it remains, just as strong as ever.

As with all things, the future direction of electronic news and the printed page is entirely in our hands. It is up to us to decide whether we will choose to proceed with wisdom.

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