We sure do. Allow me take younger readers on a journey back to prehistoric times.
If I had a question about the world, first I’d ask my parents.
“Do Volkswagen Beetles have higher insurance rates than other cars because their engines are in the back instead of the front? Are they more dangerous in a crash?”
Or: “Why do cats always get under the sheets when you’re making up the bed?”
Or: “If you accidentally swallow an ice cube, how long does it take to melt?”
To the latter question my father answered, “Seven years.” (Now you know where I got my mean streak.) But usually the answer was: I don’t know.
So if I was curious enough — or had to write a book report — I’d go to the library and look at reference books. But where to begin?
There was the unwieldy Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. My hands hurt at just the thought of lugging those fat reference books around. You’d look up a subject, write down some numbers and take them to the librarian. She’d go get some dog-eared copy of Newsweek or National Geographic or Consumer Reports or whatever. You had to take notes, because these “rare” magazines could not leave the room.
As an adult I found another method of satisfying my curiosity. I’d ask my dentist every six months to ask his clients, and in six months maybe he’d have an answer for me.
Like where did “three sheets to the wind” come from? What does it mean?
My dentist was no help, but one day while stuffing envelopes for a local politician, I asked the old-timer across from me if he knew anything about those three sheets.
Sure, he said. “A ship pilot is supposed to watch the sails and keep them tied down,” he said. “There’s also one sheet to the wind and two sheets to the wind. Three sheets would mean he’s so drunk he’s about to pass out.”
Today there are websites devoted to the evolution of language. The whole nine yards? Comes from football. Little does the lover know that when he pledges to stay for the whole nine yards, he’s confessing he’ll try and fail.
As a fiction writer and occasional journalist, I was quick to grasp the value of computers. Retyping 15 pages every time one removed or added a paragraph was the bane of every writer’s existence.
I got my first Apple in the mid-1980s. By the early 1990s, I was online. Prodigy, Delphi and then America Online, back when they charged by the hour. I ran up horrendous bills.
There were online poetry workshops and strange message boards like alt.adjective.noun.verb.verb.verb. Contributors would post psuedo haiku written in geek-speak.
Fast forward 15 years. I can watch an educational film I haven’t seen since sixth grade. I can watch a sick, twisted low-budget horror flick and bonus interviews with the surprisingly friendly, well-adjusted director and his supportive parents. I can watch Seven Samurai with ongoing commentary by Akira Kurosawa scholars.
Technology has turned us all into film students. And writers. And collectors of tiki mugs and TV lamps (which provided ambient light and allegedly protected viewers from blindness, according to tvlamps.net). There are online communities for just about anything and everything.
The iPod age has been hard on musicians. To be noticed they must now compete not just with contemporaries, but with every artist who’s ever recorded. Think you can you beat out Hank Williams and Muddy Waters? Good luck.
On the other hand, singer/songwriters have gained new audiences. In 2006 I attended a Whole Wheat Radio house concert featuring Diane Zeigler and Brooks Williams via a chat room, live podcast, real-time photos and a virtual tip jar in Talkeetna, Alaska. By email I’d requested a song by Zeigler. She said One Who Got Away was an old song, and quite sad. But if it was up to her, concerts would be “one sad song after another.” She sang it.
Through YouTube I’ve discovered total unknowns.
In January I posted a tribute to Audrey Hepburn, embedding video covers of “Moon River” from all over the world. Months later I got a message. A singer in Taiwan had collaborated with a pianist in Italy and they wanted to know if their version of “Moon River” could be included.
Researching my tribute to the late Kyu Sakamoto led to the discovery of a teacher in Iceland who’d covered Sakamoto’s 1960s hit Sukiyaki. The next thing you know he’d joined facebook and I was teasing him about his five flags post. (After the 25-things tsunami last month, now facebookers are posting five countries, books, movies, albums, etc.)
Too similar in shape and color, I wrote. Obviously his childhood was dominated by orderly, right-angled Lego bricks.
No, he wrote, as a little boy in East Germany he played with the Soviet imitation “which were actually painted matchboxes, but with almost the same affect on me.”
How else — without great trouble and expense — could such a conversation take place if not for the Internet? We’ve begun a whole new way of relating to foreign lands.
Another friend posted he was “skyping for world peace.” How? I asked. “You just do it,” he replied.
As for the effect of the Internet on politics, whole books are no doubt being written. The Obama campaign speaks for itself.
But all this progress comes at a price. We gained a lot, but we also lost when we moved away from the tactile world of wood, glass, metal, paper and wax to electronic pulses.
When I was little, my big sister and I would roam the streets, alleys and storm sewers of our Dallas suburb. Then we’d wander away from our own street’s chain-linked yards and concrete driveways and trespass on the lawns of neighbors who had storybook landscapes with ponds, creeks and weeping willows. My mother had no idea where we were, and we made sure we kept it that way.
My mother rang a copper cow bell to call us home for dinner. We ate, and then back outside we’d go. We made up our own games. After seeing The Great Escape, we took our flashlight and played Prison Camp until the streetlights came on and we had to go inside.
We had few toys or organized activities, but to us that didn’t matter. We had freedom.
Now it seems everyone — kids and adults — have infinite toys and choices. Why read your hometown paper when you can read The New York Times?
But why wade through The New York Times when you can just set up a google alert?
That’s the problem. Google doesn’t write the stories. Reporters in El Paso and Baghdad wrote them.
As newspapers one by one bite the dust, the question arises: Who will pay reporters? What if no one pays? Are we entering an age in which press releases pass for news?
Some would argue the decline of journalism began long before the Internet was invented. I remember my father canceling our subscription to the Dallas Times Herald. He held up a photograph — four columns across — of a daschund riding a skateboard. On the front page. Above the fold.
“And they call this a newspaper!” he bellowed.
What will journalism of the future look like? That’s anyone’s guess. Two experts, Clay Shirky and Steven Berlin Johnson, believe we’re in the middle of a media revolution [continued on Newspapers: All Over But the Cryin’].
They say it ain’t gonna be pretty. I’m sure the thousands of laid-off reporters and editors would agree.
[Ed. note/disclosure: After 32 years at The Kansas City Star, my husband Robert Trussell was cut to part time, effective April 1, 2009.]