The Future: Curiously Like The Past

     |    Thursday January 3rd, 2013

A note to the wary: no top ten list, no recap of 2012, no prognostication is contained herein. Which ought to make it very unlike a lot of stuff cluttering up the Web today, as we dust off the holidays and get back to work. And with luck, you have work to do. Look around your workplace. Looks pretty much like it did when you were last there, doesn’t it?

That was always the disappointment I felt as a kid: I’d wake up on my birthday, but nothing had really changed. Ditto staying up real late to watch the ball fall on the Times building on television. People made a lot of noise, the folks on television would exchange platitudes, but even though the number changed (and I’d be certain to forget for a few weeks running), the difference between, say, 1959 and 1960 (except for the way cars changed their design, which they did back in those days) wasn’t noticeable at all.

But of course, live long enough and stuff does change, and it’s become a cliche to talk about how change just keeps happening more and more quickly. And you wind up taking that accelerated pace for granted, and then, one day in the middle of all of this identikit year-end palaver, a couple of things almost slip by that make you think it might not be that way at all, or at the very least that some re-thinking might be in order.   The first is an article from Sunday’s Observer, which methodically lays to rest the print-is-dead folks’ arguments that the migration to devices is inevitable and just about at the tipping-point. It is, essentially, an exploitation of year-end statistics from the publishing business, but the conclusions it draws from them are anything but dry. To my astonishment, the article claims that magazine publishing — on paper — is recovering. Really? But it quotes Mediafinder, a huge (and expensive) database service, as saying that “195 print magazines were launched in 2012, as opposed to 181 in 2011, but, more significantly, only 74 titles collaps[ed] this year, compared with 142 the year before.” Of course, the vast majority of these titles are highly specialized, which is fine if you’re interested in the specialty, but maybe less interesting to those who’ve used magazines in the past as samplers of wide varieties of knowledge. The story’s UK statistics, for instance, report a 10% rise in sales of “women’s slimming magazines,” a genre the writer in me is afraid to even contemplate: imagine having to come up with stories for one of those month after month. (Anecdotal drift: I once knew a woman who was able to answer a question I’d always had: who on earth takes out a five-year subscription to Modern Bride? Wasn’t that a magazine that was useful up to The Day, after which its utility declined precipitously? No, my contact said. There were thousands of women who treated it much as one would treat Vogue, as a fashion magazine. Online, there were forums in which women reminisced about their long-gone weddings, sponsored by the magazine. A glimpse into another world for someone who’s never been a bride.)   Another statistic worth thinking about: sales of Kindles and other e-readers were up 188% in the first six months of last year. Ooh, that must mean that books are disappearing! But no. Although the article doesn’t mention it, possibly because it’s so dang obvious, the explanation is simple: you either have a Kindle or you don’t. Those numbers represent people who didn’t have them getting them. And, because of that, those numbers will decline as e-reading devices reach their saturation point. Which, the article and many of the rest of us point out, they will because paper is still the most portable, inexpensive and durable storage medium for the written word. At the moment I am, I hope, gathering material for a new book, and one of the chores ahead of me is taking several things I’ve read on my iPad and buying physical copies of those texts (called, err, books) so I can flip to the index and travel hither and yon in them conveniently, without opening another window on my computer or trying to work the Kindle software on my iPad, which isn’t always the most reliably-functioning app on the damn thing.

And, for all the good cheer that that article brought me, there was another someone had pointed me to in the Spectator, which meditated on the disappearance in print of the venerable magazine Newsweek, which died last week, aged 79. Now, I’ll admit that once I got into the habit of reading the daily paper in the 1970s, the allure of weekly newsmagazines wore off completely, since I had the illusion, at any rate, that I’d already been apprised of the major developments reported in them as they were happening, and, thus, didn’t need their help. What the article points out, and very justly so, is that what Newsweek excelled at was the kind of story where they could mobilize a small army of reporters around the world to go out and get facts, then distill them into an article of some significance. There’s a new epidemic called AIDS? Get the Nairobi office and the Adelaide office and the Buenos Aires office and the Paris office and the hundreds of stringers across the U.S. — especially in San Francisco and New Orleans and New York — and let’s get a handle on this. I don’t think that that approach has become outmoded, but I do think the means of reporting it have changed. The downside is there’s a signal-to-noise problem in the way it’s appearing these days, and there’s also the problem that the reporter-soldiers in that old method were getting nicely paid, which in these days of the fetishization of the “citizen-reporter” is less likely to happen.   The good news — and we’re back to the Observer again — is that what they call “news and foreign affairs magazines,” by which I presume they mean not only Time (which I haven’t seen in decades) but also such publications as the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, and, yes, the Spectator, are doing very well. Which means to me that some reportage is still being supported — I guess I should include the New Yorker in that list, eh? — and analysis of that reportage, too, is alive and well.   There are sectors of this business that aren’t doing at all well, of course: cultural magazines, arts magazines, have found a much happier place in cyberspace due to the ease of presenting the stuff they’re talking about — here’s an MP3 file of that song I’m discussing, a couple of pictures of the art — in an immediate fashion. But, just as there seems to be a migration back to the physical object in some parts of the musical community, it wouldn’t surprise me to see someone figure out a new twist on this, the disappearance of the once-mighty Spin notwithstanding.   So yeah, I woke up this morning and my shoes were exactly where I left them last night. This is as it should be. And all that stuff about print disappearing — was that a dream? A not-quite-nightmare dream? A threat? A warning? Who knows? We now have another year to find out. After all, the Mayans were wrong, so we’re still stuck with this universe. Darn.