v.21 #3 Little Red Herrings

We’re All Me-ists Now
by Mark Y. Herring
(Dean of Library Services, Dacus Library, Winthrop University) herringm@winthrop.edu

In a widely and rightly reviled movie, Wall Street, Michael Douglas plays a sinister character by the name of Gordon Gekko. The movie is hardly subtle (get it? Gecko, evil, lizard-like? This was before the Geico commercials made them lovable) and is silly in the extreme. But in one particularly ham-fisted scene, the reptilian Gecko proclaims to a bunch of servile wannabes that “Greed is Good.” The scene is supposed to send theatergoers running from the movie screaming, and if shown following the current economic meltdown, might well end in a melee. Madoff notwithstanding, today’s culture is worse. As I contemplate the “Decade of Greed” as the eighties is called, I find myself longing wistfully for them if today’s “Digital Me Decade” is the replacement.

How can that possibly be, you ask? The rapid and furious demise of so many national newspapers set me to thinking about all of this (or as some of you are muttering, set me off). One by one, some of this country’s greatest newspapers are going the way of all flesh, or the way of all pulp, or whatever you want to call it: they’re going the way of the dustbin, and I for one am crying in my beer (actually it’s a glass of Chateau Lafite Rothschild, but beer, not wine, made the metaphor). We’re losing, and have lost, vast numbers of newspapers, and we’re all going to be the worse for it. What’s replacing them is what some blithely refer to as “a different medium, the Web” but what Nicholas Negroponte has more accurately called the “Daily Me.” Th Daily Me is a series of RSS feeds (perhaps that first “s” stands for “stupid” and not “simple”) that literally “feed” our biases. We’re all me-ists now.

I find the loss of papers and their ersatz digital replacements very troubling and began digging about for research when I ran across Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times’ op-ed, “The Daily Me” (March 19, 2009). Kristof and I are on the same page. Newspapers are dying, reporters are losing their jobs, and we, the public, are losing something very valuable: balance, thought, mental challenge. In place of all that, we’re getting a confirmation of our most brittle myopias.

You can read Kristof’s op-ed, so I won’t repeat it here. What I suspected and feared, Kristof confirmed. People who surf the Web for news are really looking for something with which they agree, not something to stretch their minds or cause them to reconsider long held and possibly erroneous views. It’s hard to avoid if you read a newspaper. Whether you’re conservative, liberal, Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Independent, apolitical, religious, atheist or what-have-you, you’re going to be confronted with a different view in a good newspaper.

Please note the modifier. I know only too well that newspapers across the country ride their own ideological hobbyhorses. But even in the most slanted of them, you’re going to find something that makes you pause and think again. In today’s sound bite, eye-byte, twitting [sic] world, that’s about all we can hope for. And it isn’t a bad thing, either. It’s never too late to reconsider your views, whatever they are, if only to be confirmed that you’re holding them in the brightest possible illumination of mind that you can. Owen Barfield, an Inkling and a close friend of C. S. Lewis, contended that once you think you have all the faith-belief stuff down pat and are pretty certain of where you stand and what you think, that’s a good time to throw it all away and start over again. This is not a bad view for the most tightly held of ideals. It’s fine if you end right back there, and chances are you will if it’s one of life’s verities. But human frailty and endless penchant for error can never be underestimated.

We don’t like to be, or have our views, undermined. In fact, we avoid it at all cost. But on the Web, it’s all we do (Kristof calls this, ironically enough, “truth-seeking”). In fact, on the Web it’s all we can do because the search engines, all of them, look for materials the way we structure the searches: according to our prejudices.

I believe it was Blake who said “opposition is true friendship.” I’ve always thought that, even while I’ve been ready to tear into an opponent who held a view antipodean to my own. My fear is that with the loss of all these newspapers (and if newspapers are gone, will magazines soon follow?) we’ll all lose any chance to challenge ourselves. We’ll fall into our hidebound intellectual silos and never be able to get out again, nor will we want to. Once there, we’ll think the world is all about us, agrees with us, holds the  ame opinions as we do. Where else will you get the chance to be intellectually challenged on what you hold dear if not in a daily read that isn’t about you? You’ll not likely find it at your favorite bar, your workplace, your church or civic group because we choose those things precisely because they make us feel  omfortable. With the loss of newspapers, what’s left to challenge us? And this doesn’t begin to touch the loss of truly investigative reporting that uncovers something important, like a Madoff or a Monica.

It’s not just the loss of newspapers, that I worry about losing. It’s the loss of really engaged, daily reading.  Hardly anyone does that any more. We all read in bits and pieces. In starts and stops. In snatches and grabs. On the Internet. And for most of us, being able to really concentrate for hours on end is slowly slipping away with each page refresh. Try this the next time you’re around a teenager, Hand out The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times. But get ready to run. If caught, you’ll probably be arrested for child abuse.

I’m not saying that people do not read on the Web. Those who always have are now reading and will likely continue to do so. But even these folks, I fear, will read more and more only those things with which they  agree if our only medium is the Web. If we think securing the peace in the Middle East is hard, wait a decade and try to find it in your own neighborhood,  assuming anyone there is talking to anyone else. Kristof calls newspaper reading a “daily workout” as if at the gym. And he’s right. The trouble is that failing to do it is like letting that treadmill become a wardrobe. Pretty soon, you get short of breath and there’s only one thing worse:

Being short of thought.

If there’s any bailout money left, newspapers might be a good place to start. I’ve gotten more out of them than I ever did GM. I know Gordon Gekko was a terrible stereotype, and I really don’t favor greed. But I do favor one thing that sounds a bit like his famous line:

Read. Read is Good.

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