Print icons deluged by digital tsunami

One of the global stalwarts of quality journalism, Newsweek magazine, is about to become virtual. After eighty years as a hold-in-your-hand publication, it will commence a digital-only future in the New Year (2013).

Many young digital aficionados will not even know the name of this once-great digest of global news and events. They don’t trawl newsstands, desperately seeking sources of analysis and commentary upon which to build knowledge and, perhaps, wisdom.

Who can blame them when they hold in the palm of their hand, digital assistants capable of delivering more data, more quickly and more comprehensively than older generations could even conceive? No, it’s a brave, new world in which the assimilation of information is transforming society.

Today’s younger generations are inveterate multi-taskers whose capacity – addiction? – to processing data from  several channels at once is clear evidence that their neural pathways have developed in a very different manner  to those of their forebears.

At face value, one could say they have a glittering future ahead of them. After all, they have near-instantaneous access to more data than any other humans in history. But there are some disturbing potholes along their path to enlightenment. As print media succumb to the financial impossibility of competing with the economics of digital delivery, several substantial changes will occur.

Social media, for example, are bastardising erudition. Twitter is a barbarian at the gate of knowledge. Reducing messaging to 140 characters may seem like harmless fun but there are more serious consequences. There is no place for serious analysis or even in-depth coverage of any topic without repeated and intrusive gaps as signals bounce around and between electronic networks.

The digital era will mean a vastly abbreviated period in which news remains news. Speed is of the essence and currency is now measured seconds. Almost gone are the days in which one could purchase a quality newspaper on, say, a Tuesday and save it till Saturday to read some in-depth articles for which you didn’t currently have time. Sure, once we transition to digital news while older coverage will remain retrievable through search functionality. But the will to explore it will largely be surrendered by readers addicted to knowing the absolute latest, no matter how trivial that might frequently be.

In an era in which celebrity has suborned credibility, how are to define ‘experts’? It sounds so facile but the issue is real and serious. Today, anyone (just like me) can offer opinions on any topic imaginable and appear credible. But how are we to judge the validity of opinions expressed? If we like them, we are susceptible to accepting them but we have no real way of knowing for sure. In the old days, media hierarchies would do the job for us. Copy would rarely be accepted from someone who was not deemed to be credible in their field nor would those without demonstrable qualifications or experience be quoted in articles.

And perhaps the most pernicious influence is that the deluge of information washing over us threatens that most basic and essential element of understanding: reflection. Making time to actually stop and think is a dying habit for current generations. With it goes the formation of personal opinions which leads to the formation of personal values. Adopting opinions or attitudes expressed by others is, as with so much of news media trends today, simply an abbreviation. Of itself, it is certainly not heinous but, as a cumulative force, it undermines our capacity for critical thought. And that is always dangerous.

Those who protest change are often labelled Luddites. But the inexorable decline in standards of popular journalism and reportage may presage a seismic shift in society’s collective capability. Soon we may well mourn the passing of the getting of wisdom. But it will already be too late.