Hyped text in context

August 11, 1995

Simon Jenkins argues that the printed word has little to fear from the Net

One of the most common questions put to people in my profession is why is the media so obsessed with grimness? Why is our stock-in trade the seedy, the failed, the tragic, the catastrophic? In computerspeak, the default mode of journalism is gloom. (Martyn Lewis says much the same about television.) As a journalist I have no problem with this question. Bad news is what you all want to read. I believe we prefer the world out there to be coloured grim. It reassures us. The newspaper tells us that our troubles, our failures, our pettinesses are at least better, safer, easier to bear than those of our fellows.

But nowhere does this yearning for gloom apply more forcibly than in the realm of culture. Ever since Gibbon's Decline and Fall, the assumption of cultivated people has been that the barbarians are always at the gates of Rome. The abuse of the word "crisis" is not confined to headline writers. It is the standard discourse for academics, writers, and even lecture organisers. Culture is like an economy: always in crisis.

We yearn for some new threat, some new validation for the axiom of cultural degeneration. Today we have found it. After television comes the Internet. Electronics is back on the attack. The printed word is in the electric chair. The information superhighway is to render my business and yours obsolete once again. How long now, asked a headline in the Financial Times recently, "For dead trees smeared with ink"? With Internet access as a way of life, said the writer, a small but growing number of young people will begin to rely on on-line services rather than the printed paper for news. The same page announced with breathless excitement, the day of the "bespoke newspaper" has arrived: the newspaper "published for a circulation of one". The Wall Street Journal will now offer an on-screen version of itself, with only the stocks you are interested in on its news pages.

There are obvious difficulties with all this. The existing Internet hardware is, for example, fantastically inconvenient. It requires an electricity supply and a telephone line, together with the memorising of a series of access codes. Online services are also expensive.

Electronics is hitting back at this scepticism. The Knight-Ridder Media Lab in Colorado is struggling to invent an electronic system that gives me the flexibility of a newspaper. It is described as a "flat-panel newspaper", a light, portable, battery powered screen, displaying what is described as a "robust magazine-sized digital tablet". How it is fed with up-to-date information other than by a wire or a new programme disk is not clear. I have an eerie sense that these people are struggling expensively towards a solution that Gutenburg and Caxton cracked six centuries go. It is called the printed page.

So what does the written, printed word reply to this latest challenge? How can the croaking heirs of Caxton fend off yet another deadly assault from the warriors of electronics? The first thing I noticed about the Internet is encouraging. It is written. In the Microsoft Corporation, staff do not telephone each other, they are told to use email. The building is silent. Email is supplanting the telephone. The Internet, curiously, is a beneficiary of a different technological failure; that of voice synthesisation and transcription. Computers cannot find a reliable way of putting speech into print - such are the glorious vagaries of English spelling. So we are back to good old writing. Email users, according to a recent New Yorker profile, find the written word more intimate, more sincere.

This is demanding a new awareness of grammar and a vocabulary. The World Wide Web, the global marketplace, is composed of millions of words. Ninety per cent of them are in English. If the Internet becomes what its enthusiasts believe, it will signal the final supremacy of English as the world language. It will, for the most part, be grammatical English.

Past technological advances have been turned to the advantage of traditional culture. I believe the same will prove true of the Internet. Lawyers and scientists and some scholars may use it for reference. The lonely and the nutty may cruise it for amusement. Many of the activities on the Web are reminiscent of ham or CB radio clubs.

Most of the news and information services are not much different from the last over-hyped revolution, Prestel and Ceefax. I imagine the Internet will merely add to the portfolio of resources on which those of us who really need information may draw. But it will not be the biggest thing since the railway, or since radio or television.

Like the predicted death of the hardback, forecasts of doom for most forms of cultural expression neglect the tangential pleasures we get from them. A huge part of the book market is based on gifts. The selection and packaging and giving of the book as an object. It is based on the possession of a beautiful thing and its display on table or bookshelf. I enjoy handling a book as I enjoy sailing a boat, even if a speedboat would get me there faster. Books denote character, send out messages, are available to the serendipitous eye, to be picked up and put down in the interstices of the day. This is quite apart from the pleasure derived from reading them. Internet sites or CD-Rom players are not in that league.

This is helpful in seeking to explain the conundrum with which I began, the longevity of the newspaper and its resistance to technological obsolescence. Twenty years ago the machine that was to render distributed newspapers obsolete - the fax linked to a television - failed to materialise. It was too expensive, too cumbersome and above all was not wanted by its customers. They knew what producers did not, that a newspaper is about more than information. The purchase of a conventional newspaper is a complex act of choice. The buyer acquires a badge, a character and identity, a set of opinions and assumptions shared with a relatively definable group. Key to the diversity and vigour of newspapers in Britain since the war is that we have retained what American papers have lost: a variety of newspaper personalities. You are what paper you carry, a Guardian person, a Times person, a Mail person. None of that comes from the screen.

People seem to trust their chosen newspaper. They admire the freedom of the press - despite, as Stoppard wrote, hating journalists. There are two keys to this. One is the phenomenal convenience of the newspaper - light, portable, can be read anywhere, and easily disposable. It even has subsidiary uses: the famous fish wrapper. It can be attractive. Well-produced it offers pleasure to the eye, which is why newspaper and magazine design is so developed an art form. The second key to newspaper popularity is that, like a book, a newspaper is edited information. It is packaged knowledge and packaged entertainment - not raw. Of all the boasts of Internet the most absurd is that it does not edit. In a sense that is true. Most of its sites are like a newspaper's correspondence office: 95 per cent pure rubbish. But that is why Internet editing systems are all the rage. The last thing a user wants is the unedited sweepings of a hundred minds. Yet the more it edits, the more it approximates to what it proposes to supplant: the printed book or newspaper.

This mediating role between writer and reader is the essence of successful publishing. We no more want our information unedited than we want our food uncooked. Editing is what lifts raw material into wit, romance, drama, opinion, poetry, fiction. The editor of information is E. M. Forster's stone- age story teller. He is the one tribesman excused hunting, but if he fails to make them laugh or cry he is slaughtered.

Grammar, according to Chomsky and now Stephen Pinker, is embedded deep in the human genetic code. Perhaps that explains the sexual appeal of grammatical email. Throughout my life, the word written down has defeated all attempts to supplant it. Even the Internet will not conquer words in their most enduring and endearing form, the delicious smearing of ink on those glorious trees.

Simon Jenkins is former editor of The Times. This is an extract from his British Library Chadwyck-Healey Lecture, "The Death of the Written Word?". The full text is on the THES Internet Service at www://timeshigher.newsint.co.uk

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