New not always better


A man named Walter Sear died last week. Sear was a New York audio engineer who decried the move to digital recording. Digital recordings don't sound as rich as analog recordings. Sear's insistence on using vintage equipment attracted an array of musical artists to his studio, including Norah Jones, Wynton Marsalis and U2.

Listening to music on an iPod is similarly inferior. Although the small, portable players represent the epitome of convenience, they use compressed music files that pale in comparison to the sound produced on CD, vinyl or tape. Some of the sounds in a compressed recording are eliminated entirely, while others are distorted.

New isn't always improved.

This issue has generated even more chatter in the book world. What's wrong, bibliophiles ask, with the printed book that it must be replaced by an electronic reading device such as Amazon's Kindle or Apple's iPad?

The short answer: nothing. I own a Kindle, but I don't use it very often. Nothing against the device, but I just don't have any complaints about my printed books. One of mankind's greatest inventions, they're portable, durable, aesthetically pleasing and easy to use. I might embrace the e-reader if it did some things better than a printed book does, but so far I haven't found any.

Which brings us to the Internet, that game-changing innovation of the modern age. It's a big deal, no doubt about it. Some cool stuff going on. But I'm compelled to pose the question that few seem to utter: How has the Internet improved our lives?

A common answer: quick access to information. It's true. We have all kinds of data at our fingertips today that would have required more time-consuming research to obtain in the pre-Internet era. But what exactly has this rapid recall of facts improved?

Consider the news business, my field of endeavor for 22 years. Today, it's a 24/7 enterprise. We're always on deadline now, dishing out news tidbits as fast as humanly and technologically possible.

The conventional wisdom holds that this steady spew is an improvement over the archaic ways of the past. You now can get news on your phone! But what exactly is improved by this innovation? Call me old-fashioned but I don't recall a lot of complaints back when -- not so very long ago -- the news was delivered primarily by the morning newspaper and the evening newscasts. Were people getting less interesting and trustworthy information under that system?

A prominent questioner of the Internet's value is Nicholas Carr, author of a now-famous 2008 article for The Atlantic magazine titled, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Carr contended that the bells, whistles and links that make up the web are "remapping the neural circuitry" in our brains, making it difficult to do the "deep reading" that once fueled the exercise of serious thought.

At the recent Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, Carr said the book has been at the center of the culture for hundreds of years. It taught man, he said, to pay attention and concentrate, not our strong suits in more primitive times.

But the Internet is now pushing the book out of the cultural center, and our native distractedness is on the rise once more. Carr's fear is that "shallow thinking" is taking the place of the contemplation and reflection that many of us could achieve in the past.

Another frequently heard argument in favor of the Internet: Social networks such as Facebook are bringing people together. Well, maybe. I'm linked with almost 500 people on Facebook. A handful are actual friends. Many are professional colleagues and acquaintances. Some I know from high school and college. Quite a few I don't really know at all.

Facebook can be a kick, and it's sporadically informative and useful. But consider the question objectively: Was "social networking" not happening before the advent of Facebook? Hardly. Long before Facebook, people wrote letters, placed telephone calls, visited one another's homes, gathered for public and private events. We social-networked the heck out of life.

I was heartened by a joke that actress Betty White delivered on last weekend's "Saturday Night Live." White, who is 88, was an unlikely "SNL" guest host, but she was offered the spot after half a million Facebookers joined a campaign for her to get the job.

In her opening monologue, White thanked her supporters but then quipped, "I didn't know what Facebook was. Now that I do know what it is, I have to say, it sounds like a huge waste of time."

A disclosure: I'm on Facebook most every day, along with Twitter and many websites. The Internet has become part of my life -- and especially of my day job. I'm working every day on projects to enhance our company's digital presence.

But I can't shed a pesky strain of codger skepticism coursing through me -- a persistent feeling that many of these digital trends and gadgets aren't necessarily making our lives better. A lot of them remind me of short-lived fads such as sea monkeys and "The Macarena."

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is the Review-Journal's director of community publications. His column appears Friday.

 

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