A recent post from Mr Subjective at the AEROSTICH blog: you can visit and subscribe to the full collection of good articles here
|Here’s an excerpt from an emotional essay about the recent ending of some good special interest outdoor magazines. Not the print motorcycle titles we all knew and have recently lost, but almost the exact same scenario:|
“…And what’s left is too often shit. I don’t mean Bike, Powder, Snowboarder, or Surfer, I mean junk shows like Men’s Journal. Is this really what you want from your outdoor media—a firehose of pandering, listicles, lowest-common denominator pap, and nakedly commercial gear roundups designed to get you to click on affiliate links? Magazines like Men’s Journal exist only to enrich their CEOs and shareholders; rather than enrich the culture they purport to serve; they treat it as a commodity from which to scrape their profits.”
He’s a better writer than I. Here’s the entire wonderful essay.
My sadness is not only for the decline of specialty magazines as viable businesses, including most of the popular motorcycle titles which I grew up enjoying*, but with the broader decline of print in all its forms: daily newspapers, monthly magazines and books. The main reason I am concerned about this has to do with the disappearance of useful contexts, which for me has always been of value.
Search algorithms provide a lot of information incredibly conveniently, but almost no useful context. This narrow perfection is precisely what makes them so great, though at the same time something is lost. When you hold a physical magazine, newspaper or book, even a so-so one, the words you are directly reading moment-by-moment are surrounded by other elements which have little to do with whatever is being conveyed by the words your attention is directed at decoding. The physical proximity of all the other stories and advertisements in that newspaper or magazine, and of all the other pages of any book, are inseparable. This makes it obvious that whatever you are focusing directly on is only a small part of something larger and broader.
Search algorithms give you (for example) fantastic information about every kind of pencil eraser in .2 seconds, but usually provide little else. In contrast, any printed office or school supply catalog (even a lousy one) probably presented their range of pencil erasers within a broader context. This inferentially taught the reader something important about pencil erasers: How they fit within the world of schools or offices. The very best online webzines and media websites do this, but imperfectly. The search algorithms we use countless times a week (everyday) do it barely at all.
When I was a kid hiding motorcycle magazines between the pages of oversize social studies and civics textbooks during 7th grade study hall periods I learned a lot more about motorcycling than just the focus of my immediate interest at that time: small displacement street-legal dirt bikes. By providing inescapable tangential context, print motorcycle magazines did a lot more for me — and for tens of thousands of other young riders — than any search algorithm today ever can. Those print magazines helped me begin to identify myself as a motorcyclist, as someone apart from the mainstream. I was becoming something more than another kid wanting to move from a bicycle to a street legal dirt bike.
This same is effect is at work in realms covered by the newspapers, non-motorcycle magazines and all the printed books I grew up reading. Until recently almost everything one read came with physical context, and even if I wasn’t paying conscious attention to it, I always absorbed something important from its presence. You cannot watch a pretty sunset and be in awe of it without the inescapable context provided by an unmoving horizon. Physical context is important.
Context is difficult to achieve on a screen when scrolling and searching. It’s more like looking at whatever the specific subject is through a telescope, but backwards. You get a kind of tunnel-vision view of everything. The philosopher Marshall McLuhan once (famously) wrote: “The medium is the message.” and I sure believe this is true. Communications technology itself can be as impactful on meaning as whatever information is objectively presented. Digital is not categorically better or worse than print though. They are essentially complementary.
This essay would be incomplete if I didn’t mention two other (maybe obvious?) things about physical print: 1.) Print can be durable and energy-efficient if the ink and paper are engineered to be long-term stable. Acid-free parchment, etc. One can easily read five-hundred-year-old bound bibles, and many of those recovered scrolls which are ten times as ancient. There are text files in my computer which are completely unreadable by any kind of easily obtainable software after only twenty-five years. 2.) Anyone who asserts that using physical trees and inks places a heavier overall environmental load on our planet than does the ultra-precise processing and management of elements and electrons is full of baloney.
We humans are generally comfort-seekers who don’t (or won’t) change our thinking or behavior unless there is a gun directly at our heads. But when this does happen, we are also extremely good at thinking clearly and working together. So maybe at some future time print may come back. In my view this would probably benefit the planet and our still-evolving human social contract. Regardless, we should not throw our search algorithms under the bus in some kind of either-or formulation. Search algorithms and print are, at the end of the day (and again) complementary.
|* Two personal stories about print magazines:Once on jury duty I was selected to be a juror. The attorneys involved asked each potential juror questions to discern any hidden bias which would be unfavorable to their trial goal. I was asked what magazines I read regularly and started reciting the titles. After I was finished, I was rejected as a juror possibly because I’d admitted to reading too many magazines.Once, during a big snowstorm that occurred here years before the internet existed, I was driving around late at night and it seemed like there was a chance everyone could be snowed in the following day so I stopped at a C store to pick up some magazines just in case. (This was also before cable TV…) After browsing the rack, I laid a thick stack on the counter and as the clerk started totaling them, he started talking: “Oh, Road & Track. I read that.” And then “Oh, Dirt Bike. I read that.” He continued this way, magazine after magazine, and seemed rather smug about it. A few moments later they were all bagged and paid for and there wasn’t anything to say so I thanked him, picked up the bag and headed for my car. The little store was empty except for the two of us. Halfway out the door and standing there with snow blowing in, I looked back over my shoulder and said with a smile: “I think I read more magazines than anyone I know, but I don’t know very many people because I read so many magazines.”. Then the I stepped outside smiling from ear to ear as I got into my car. That moment was: A) the most perfect spontaneous circumlocution I’d spoken, ever, and B) 100% True. Print magazines are great. Especially motorcycle magazines.– |
Mr. Subjective, 10-2020