This rarely kills That outright

Whether they’re entirely conscious of it or not, technodeterminists of various stripes love to invoke The Hunchback of Notre Dame in explaining the impact of emergent media on the world around us. “This will kill that,” moans Hugo’s miserable archdeacon Claude. “The press will kill the church; printing will kill architecture.”

It’s that kill that really sells the line, and moors it in memory: so dramatic, so decisive, so brutal. And so we’re told that the telephone kills the written word, that video kills the radio star, that the recordable audio cassette kills the recording industry. U.s.w., u.s.w., u.s.w.

But radio didn’t die, not right away, just like email hasn’t (yet) killed the Postal Service and the Kindle hasn’t entirely done away with the printed book. These are entirely different kinds of propositions, serving different populations and different purposes through different apertures.

At the same time, though, you’d have to be blind not to notice the shifting of their relative fortunes in the world. How to account for these shifts more accurately, less reductively, less like a douchey futurist would?

I’m beginning to think of the set of interfaces through which we engage meaning and interact with the wider social world as a mediating stack, with distinct many-to-one, one-to-one and one-to-many layers. The precise composition of this stack is going to be different for each of us, varying widely by where we live, how much time, money and effort we can afford to spend on its composition and maintenance, and (especially) when we came of age. So where my grandmother used radio, TV, newspapers, phone calls and written letters to bind her world together, I tend to use the Web, email and IM. And – here the technology really does tell – where she didn’t have access to a one-to-many channel at all, I have WordPress, Twitter, and (in edge cases) a variety of burst-email and -SMS options available to me.

The important thing is this: the grandeur always lives at the top of the stack. Right now, it’s vested in “social media,” just as it was in blogging ten (!) years ago, in television forty years ago and in newspapers sixty years before that. What each new media technology does do is knock away one or more of the social and economic props on which the success (and ultimately, the viability) of other channels in its layer depend. With the introduction and mass adoption of anything new, those channels move further down the stack. They become less central to the production of consensus culture, more a niche proposition, almost certainly less glamorous. But if a given way of doing things offers something that no other mediating technology can – whether for reasons of exceedingly low cost, low barriers to entry, or robust simplicity – it will never disappear entirely.

What we’re seeing right now with newspapers, I think, is simply that they may be dropping off the bottom of the stack. The struts of their justification have been eroded in too many different ways, from too many different directions. Newspapers are a threefold proposition – they inform, aggregate eyeballs for the benefit of advertisers, and furnish the container in which a shared civic community can be seen to form – and each of these value propositions has now been near-fatally undermined by some other channel. The rising price of pulp and delivery fleets is merely a convenient excuse to pull the plug.

So some given That may indeed about to be killed, after all, but not by This – not, in other words, as any Hugoesque single-bullet theory would have it. It’s more like the achingly protracted death of a thousand cuts, inflicted from near as many different directions, and only because everything That could offer was already being done and done better by a swarm of other things. The distinction may appear trivial, but I believe it offers more useful insight into the process by way of which mediating technologies eventually get subducted and disappear from daily use.

9 responses to “This rarely kills That outright”

  1. kazys varnelis says :

    In general, I agree with you, my only quibble is that Hugo would also have agreed with you.

    Remember, “This will kill that” displaces the killing back and forth across 4 centuries. Written in 1831, it recounts action in 1482. So if the printed book killed the cathedral as a prime repository of knowledge, it wasn’t until Hugo’s day—and the advent of mass literacy-that this was completed.

    And certainly that was the case. Scribal culture continued on for some time and even had its defenders. My favorite story is that one of the most vocal of them, the Abbot of Sponheim, printed a book vehemently denouncing the decline of the scribal tradition.

  2. enrique ramirez says :

    Ceci tuera cela … the exceptions are always the rule. Think of the facades to Labrouste’s Bibliothèque St. Geneviève in Paris (there’s even a model of it in Avery Hall, as Kazys knows): the different inscriptions in between the pilasters provide a type of pre-Dewey organizational system … Architecture thus has not killed books. It has enshrined the book. If There is no frigate like a book, as Emily Dickinson would put it, would it follow that There is no building like a book. I wonder.

    Stacks. The language of storage. Evocations of Friedrich Kittler’s famous datum: Media determine our situation. The transformation of media hierarchies, the proverbial dropping off from the bottom of the stack. The German attorney and media theorist Cornelia Vismann suggests, would have much to say about this, namely how the destruction of newspapers, the removal of storage media “from the order of the visible” no longer matters. “Their materiality is no longer of any concern”.

    Perhaps, then, its a case of “this has never killed that”. Cela n’a jamais tué qui.

  3. Christopher Fahey says :

    AG. The douchey futurist killer.

  4. helgetenno says :

    Hi Adam, valuable thoughts.

    I tend to say that things don’t die, they find their role.

    As with the radio back in the early days of the last century, becoming the ONE big source for information and entertainment. Families gathered around it to listen to their favorite shows.

    Then the TV came, it did a far greater job at a lot of the stuff we previously thought the Radio was good at. And the TV took over a lot of these situations. But the Radio didn’t die. It stuck around in the situations where it did a better job than TV.

    The “Internet” is a bit different; it brings a whole new range of opportunities to the entertainment evening. Introducing new activities to people that TV can’t deliver. So TV gets better at doing what it does – it’s role. And the Internet will help people in the situations where they are seeking the stuff that the Internet can provide.

    New technologies will either do a better job at some of the stuff the “old” media did, or bring new ideas into our lives, new habits and desires. This doesn’t kill of old media, it’s just forced to more clearly define its role and the situations in which it is used.


  5. Michal Migurski says :

    It’s high time the word “douche” was welcomed to the temple of serious discourse.

  6. AG says :

    I aim to please. : . )

  7. mattedgar says :

    Hi Adam,
    I like the idea of the stack, with the shiny new media du jour at the top, but it makes me wonder if the channels lower down the stack are “killed” or simply expire from natural causes.
    From what I can recall, the newspaper industry was already in crisis when I began my media career in the early 90s, well before it was apparent that Inter-Net Web Sites were The Future. Like Penicillin or the 468×60 banner, the languages of editorial and advertising had lost their potency through overuse. Thus are created openings in the stack for novel channels, which we tend to rationalise as technological superior.
    Cause of death: boredom, not assassination.
    Regards, Matt

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