The Midnight of Print Culture

By Doug Mann

First published in The Toronto Star, July 7, 2013.

Being an obsessive cinephile, prior to seeing Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight I checked out some comments online. This film, like its predecessors Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, is in essence a long deep conversation between an American named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and une francaise named Celine (Julie Delpy) on life, love and the meaning of human existence. Watching it requires attention and patience.

There was a radical split between those who loved the film and those who hated it. The latter gave it one or two stars out of 10, repeatedly attacking it as “boring,” in one case describing how they left after 15 minutes and demanded a refund. Its champions gave it ratings of 7-10, calling it “intelligent,” “courageous” and “cerebral.”

This split is symbolic of a profound cultural shift. On the surface, we are approaching the midnight of traditional print media as a driving force in western culture. For one thing, it’s clear that students — whose “job” it is, after all, to read — more and more have to be coerced to do so. The Boston Globe reported back in 2007 that about 40 per cent of college freshmen don’t read for pleasure, with half of Americans aged 18-24 following suit.

Since then, students read even less. Pay attention to any bus or cafeteria near a college or university: almost everyone who looks like a student (and older folks to boot) are lost in an audio-visual mindscape provided by smart phones and iPods. Even as recently as 10 years ago, these same students could still be seen reading newspapers, magazines, sometimes even books in public.

My own chequered teaching career has, by sheer fluke, coincided with the rise of digital networks to cultural prominence. While in the early days of the web 1.0 one still had a reasonable expectation that core course readings would be read, now I assign complex texts like a Druid priest waving a branch of oak, performing a religious rite that started to lose its meaning roughly around the time Mark Zuckerberg gave up on his career as a Harvard undergraduate.

Despite this seeming decline of print, some critics point to the phenomenal success of popular literature over the last decade or so. Yet what are the bestsellers they single out? For the most part, they are “young adult” titles like Harry Potter and the Twilight series. Suzanne Collins can tell a whacking good tale, but Katniss Everdeen is no Raskolnikov, however salutary a heroine she is for 14-year-old girls.

There are obvious parallels in film and TV. The biggest movies over the last decade feature comic book heroes, romantic vampires, besotted pirates and teenage magicians. North American audiences seek out worlds of childlike fantasy.

The midnight of print is also approaching in the newspaper industry. In 2010, the Guardian reported the shuttering of 166 American newspapers in the previous two years. Though this decline has slowed of late, print journalism has been called “America’s fastest-shrinking industry” due to slumping circulations and declining ad revenues, which are now lower (in inflation-adjusted dollars) than in 1950. Free online reading is only partly to blame.

Yet the midnight of print is only a symptom of a more sinister cultural darkening brought about by digital media. This is a decline of the complex narrative as the centre of public life, the midnight of depth meaning.

We’ve witnessed less and less interest in three phenomena since Time Berners-Lee first uploaded his first few lines of HTML code onto the nascent net: complex arguments in theoretical thinking, extended adult narratives in fiction, and long serious conversations in everyday life. Academic and geek culture are only partial exceptions to this rule, preserves where complex narratives, like pandas and California condors, survive as endangered species.

Boredom is the chief psychological sign of the rejection of the complex narrative.

Over the last 15 years, digital networks have steadily chipped away at the boredom threshold to the point now where 10 minutes away from such networks seems like an eternity to the digital native. Our mental hardware is being reprogrammed to reject the long conversation, the complex story, the arcane argument. Instead we have Twitter, texting and TV sound bytes.

Midnight is upon us. The Cheshire cats of complexity are fading away, being replaced by popup ads and Facebook likes. Goodbye Jesse. Au revoir Celine.

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