Why the newspaper has a future in the digital age
On the web, Carr says, we are being taught to memorise and think mechanistically, to shift rapidly from one thing to another, to regard Google as an external memory bank. And this is rapidly reducing us to “pancake people”, flattened out versions of our ancestors. Unless we begin to understand our new condition and deal with it, he warns, we may yet recall the period in which human understanding was defined and informed by deep, solitary and uninterrupted book-reading as an aberration of human culture.
Once again, man has created a machine, and imagined himself reflecting it. But this time the machine has the power to change his mind to exclude all possibilities that do not correspond to the new understandings. Of course, techno-fetishists will sniff and whisper “Luddite”, but there is something here we ignore at our children’s peril.
Carr insists that the internet is neither “the work of the Devil” nor, as Google might try to convince us, a godlike creation that transforms mankind’s situation unambiguously for the better. His ominous message directs us back to the word as written in the oldest books we have: to the longings that once caused men to scratch the shapes of their deepest questions on to clay slabs.
I do not share the widespread view that the newspaper industry is doomed, and that we must therefore hasten after the mob lest we be left behind. Someone observed to me recently that, had we grown up with screen technologies, without ever reading from paper, we would be delighted by the invention of the newspaper and the book.
As the Italian writer and philosopher Umberto Eco notes in This is Not the End of the Book, his recently published book-length conversation with the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière: “The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved.” You could say the same about the newspaper, which can be carried around, read at will, scrunched up to put in your pocket, resuscitated and reread, and ultimately recycled to carry tomorrow’s ephemera of the common mind.