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.