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Everyone's a Critic

The Observer's culture blog

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Today one of my best friends was diagnosed to be dying of a new and irreversible disease. A hundred or so cases have been diagnosed. But this malady appears to be sweeping across the land with deadly vengeance.

I try to imagine what I'm losing here, what a twenty-year friendship has meant to me. My friend introduced me to everything about Ann Arbor, from politics, sports, restaurants, entertainment to street fairs and those letters to the editor. My dying friend is the Ann Arbor News, one of my windows to the world.

You see, the paper can be with you while you're baby sitting, while you're on a plane, train, or bus. Even while sitting on a park bench, it is a companion. The newspaper is your partner while waiting for your cancelled flight to be rescheduled, during lunch break, or your last communion with the world, late in the evening. It helps us train puppies to confine certain activities to designated areas. It serves as a drop cloth when painting your study. Its last breath can be to start a fire in the fireplace or at the campsite, functional even in death, this friend of mine.

The News mirrors the place where we live. It instills a sense of community, a sense of village, of belonging to something other than a 'burb endlessly and homogeneously sprawling to the far horizons. Our News is part of the soul and spirit of Ann Arbor. Our city will be diminished by the death of this institution. What will be our new window to the world, and what are the implications?

The answer is: The internet.

Please understand that I use computers extensively and the Internet less frequently. Computers have some applications that work. But let us have some perspective here. Not enough people have given thought to the technical, societal, or dangerous implications of going to the tube for anything except office data processing, micromanaging, excessive e mails, sour jokes, games and other trivia. Understand that the computer revolution has done so little for us that we are now the least analytical, most controllable, dumbest emerging generation to call themselves Americans. (Not you or me, of course, but everybody else.)

First, picture the senior citizens on fixed incomes. Many of them have been holdouts against the home computer and Internet invasion, the presumed societal force without which civilization could not even have arisen, let alone function. Some senior citizens cannot afford them or will not afford them, especially with the lack of financial opportunities of late. If they do buy into this medium, they will join the millions who feel less connected, more lonely as a result of all the browsing, texting, blogging, e-mailing, and generally rummaging through the dung heap of lowered expectations. The seniors will get mindless chitchat from their grandkids, spam, and major abuse from pop up messages that attack like sharks.

At this point, we will have (and already have) young people who do no read and older people who will have the joy of reading stolen from them by technology. Did democratic statistics just take a major hit?

The whole "paperless" / computer society is mostly a sham. In the workforce, almost no one is "computing." They are word processing, packaging and reshuffling ideas with spell-check, grammar-check, and clearly, next there will be "idea-check." then we can stop thinking altogether, but our submissions will be flawlessly spelled. So we have a device with a name, "computer," that belies its principal function. How good can it get after that?

Try setting your laptop on your lap - it's the one place on God's earth where you can neither balance the thing or operate it comfortably. This is the second misuse of a functional description. It is not a Laptop!

At times your computer tries to go artificially intelligent, with a mind of its own. It then retreats into its silicone frontal lobes and pouts, blaming Norton Antivirus for the whole thing. Then you have to make nice, using carefully scripted commands, and a few expletives trying to get this machine to function, while frantically calling co-workers, friends and Comcast for Help. Think if your car ever treated you that way, or your home theater! Imagine the elders messing around with that machine, or even me! One hundred dollars per hour will bring the Geek Squad to their rescue. Elders, and the rest of us, will not have the learning curve of the Geek Squad guys, who are at least 8 years old, and not older than 10, and have 30 years experience in front of the tube. Also, it may be that initially there is no charge for access to the Internet newspaper, but there is a law of economics that says, "That day will come."

Far beyond the loss of a friend lies an abyss whose bottom or distant shore are too deep or too far to see or even conceptualize. The newspapers lend de-centralization and local or regional input to the news. The Ann Arbor News staff is comprised of many of our neighbors, the journalists are people we know. There is a fundamental accountability to this decentralization. Do you think that in time these journalists will be replaced with more and more syndicated writers? By more and more news mills with their own agenda? That in time, I predict, the Internet will collapse the complexity of all those websites into fewer and more powerful entities, owned by increasingly fewer corporations. What safeguards are there on the spam infested internet that will guard and transmit accurate information? Do you think the government will keep its mitts off the Internet?

Who will be the Grand Editor in this brave new world? The internet is powerful now and will become more so beyond our comprehension. Like the citizens in Orwell's Animal Farm, we may be squinting into that blurry screen some day, trying to remember what life was like when we heard the fading echo: "EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT!! ANN ARBOR NEWS GOES BELLY UP! EXTRA, EXTRA!"

Footnote: A last thought: You read the book 1984. Behold, the interactive screen is here, today! Does it make any sense to turn the major instrument of democracy, the free press, over to this bleary eyed, flickering Cyclops, controlled and programmed by unknown and unseen operatives? We will have another "where is the outrage over that?" episode up ahead, without the outrage. Every tool, every weapon, every process that has ever been invented and developed has found its way at times to benefit mankind - and always has found its way to its most nightmarish application.

Let us plan a funeral wake, a party, or a birthday party for the loss of a friend. With some simple ceremony with a few thoughtful readings. C'mon ye citizens of our fair city. Surely our old friend deserves a fitting memorial. Let's get the word out! Extra! Extra!

Posted by John Hilton at 10:06 a.m. | 1 comment Bookmark and Share

1 comment:

Old Mike said...

First: mostly as a cred establishment. I am a townie of 43 years. For most of those years I have had the A2 News landing somewhere near my front porch. Over the last ten years I pretty much stopped paying attention to the News. A. The Observer had a better event calendar. B. The internet consistently beat the news by at least 24 hours for current events. C. The news routinely hid or ignored significant problems in A2 community and government to focus on making everybody feel good. So taking into account faster, free, more accurate, easier access availability of news and events it is no wonder newspapers are dying like flies. PS: What in the world makes journalists think losing a journalist job is somehow more significant than an auto line worker losing his/hers?

August 26, 2009, 10:05 a.m.

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