I received a telling little media jolt this morning in the quiet of my living room, a reminder of how the perpetual connectivity of the internet has changed our brains.
I started to read a story on the front page of the paper edition of last Sunday’s New York Times Arts & Leisure section. (There’s an archaism for you…”Leisure.” It’s something we all used to either have, or aspire to have. Now we don’t seem to be interested. But that’s another topic.)
As I began to read Michael Kimmelman’s article about an an oddball surviving relic of the Communist era in Bulgaria called the House of Humor and Satire, I reflected that because of its obscure subject I likely would not have read this particular article online, where I do most of my newsy reading in a rush; but positioned on the front page, right next to three color photos of Pee-wee Herman, the title, “Take My Bulgarian Joke Book, Please,” caught my eye.
The act of flipping to page 20, where the article continued, signified my commitment to reading it in full. And that’s when it hit me.
I’ve turned to page 20, so I’m not just scanning the “home page” now. I’ve “clicked” on something. Now “they” know that I, or at least someone, has “viewed” this page. Has, presumably, read this article. Someone will get credit for it. The editor who chose to publish it. The writer. Someone.
Except that they wouldn’t because I was reading the physical paper. I was engaging in internet-think. We know, or assume, without having to even think about it consciously, that when we click, someone’s keeping track. We may be signed in, so they actually know who we are, or we may be anonymous, but someone’s at least counting.
No one’s counting who reads a particular article in the printed paper. No one even knows that I didn’t buy this copy. I was reading someone else’s.
The strange thing is, I have a small but real feeing that I want credit. I want it known that I read this. I want it known to the publisher, the editor, the writer, that I, or at least somebody, read this. In the internet age, it seems wrong that they don’t get credit for my visit to that page—and just as wrong that I don’t get some kind of credit too, some acknowledgment, if only psychological, that I’ve joined the fleeting “community” of people-who-have-read-this. Reading it in my living room on a sheet of paper, I remain alone and unknown. Reading it online, I would have joined something.
I’ve never been a “joiner.” When it comes to creative effort and such, I tend to go my own way. But on the internet we’re all joiners. Even people who are naturally solitary have gotten used to that. And the physical paper doesn’t give it to us.
As the last generation that grew up reading on the couch and striving for “leisure” dies, printed newspapers will probably die with them, in the same generational ebb that will put an end to, say, politically significant opposition to same-sex marriage. And when newsprint does die, we will have lost a way to be alone with our thoughts and the thoughts of someone else. Is that a loss that matters? Maybe it will actually be a positive evolution. There’s something a little sad about reading in isolation and having no way to connect with fellow readers (or even the writer). And there’s something wonderful about gaining that ability.
But I sure do get tired of staring at a screen sometimes.