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An Old-School Plea: Don't Let the Tech Geeks Dictate Every Aspect of Our Lives


An Old-School Plea: Don't Let the Tech Geeks Dictate Every Aspect of Our Lives
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Followers of this site might be forgiven for thinking I'm a luddite straight outta the old school. After all, I've spent a fair bit of time here deconstructing the myth that print is about to disappear in our brave new digital world, and ridiculing the new-media nerds who propound such idiocy.

And it's true, I have a certain fondness for paper. It's eminently portable, mashable and disposable. It's lightweight, and yet has a certain weight and gravitas that pixels never will. When a big news event occurs - such as the election of the nation's first black president - it's newspapers that people rush out to buy as mementos, not screenshots.

As New Yorker editor David Remnick put it when speaking of his own print product:

"The New Yorker -- you roll it up, you put it in your bag. It's quite easy; it's pretty good technology."

But I'm not a luddite. I own and enjoy using my tablet computer (the awesome HP Touchpad, if you're interested). I run several websites in addition to this one, do a digitally produced weekly radio show and teach college students how to use sophisticated video editing software.

In short, I'm not an anti-tech hermit living living in a dank hidey hole somewhere, foraging for grubs for sustenance and reading scrolls by firelight.

No, my objections to the print-is-dead crowd range along two fronts. The first, and most important objection is this: print still makes money. That may sound shocking to those of you who have been listening to the tech geeks for the last few years, but it's true. Granted, print no longer has the extraordinarily high profit margins of a decade or so ago, but most newspaper publishers will tell you that the lion's share of their profits still come from display ads, the ones for department stories and car dealerships that you've seen in the pages of your local paper.

Now, is newspaper circulation and ad revenue heading south? Absolutely. And that decline is likely to continue, which is why newspaper companies are investigating alternative revenue streams, such as online ads.

But digital advertising has proven to be far less lucrative than once hoped, primarily because most web surfers ignore online ads, which means you can't make much money from running them. An increasing number of newspapers are turning instead to website paywalls as a revenue source, and these seem to show promise, as demonstrated by papers as diverse as The New York Times and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

But the problem remains, and it is this: There is no tried-and-true business model for making money from online news, certainly not one that will replace the sums generated by print. And until such a model exists, print is not likely to disappear.

My other argument is more philosophical, and it has to do with the way our culture, too often, tosses aside things of value in a restless search for the latest gadget or gizmo, only to discover, years later, that the thing discarded is sorely missed.

For instance, my generation threw out our records in favor of CDs, then realized in retrospect that CDs could never replace the warm sound of vinyl, and that old-school album covers and liner notes were art forms all on their own. It's an irony not lost on me that while I continue to listen to CDs, my 14-year-old daughter owns an iPod but also collects vinyl for those very reasons.

Likewise, as a college professor I've found myself caught up in the headlong industry-wide rush to offer more and more courses online, aided and abetted by the latest techie teaching devices. But firsthand experience has taught me that streaming video isn't the same as an in-person lecture, and a chatroom is a poor substitute for a face-to-face meeting between teacher and student.

Within academe, journalism schools in recent years have increasingly focused on tech training, and I'm not the only one who worries that this comes at the expense of more fundamental lessons that aspiring reporters must learn.

My point? Technology can be wondrous, but when we let the tech geeks dictate what we keep or discard, we invariably lose things of great value, things that perhaps didn't need updating or improving. Things that were great just as they were.

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