Thursday, March 28, 2013

THE INTERBLOB

By Mark Gabrish Conlan • for East County Magazine, www.eastcountymagazine.org
 
I recently started a new job in downtown San Diego, and that means for the last three weeks I’ve been witnessing the slow death of an old friend. No, I don’t mean a human being. I’m referring to the huge building in front of Horton Plaza that used to house San Diego’s outlet of the long-defunct Planet Hollywood restaurant chain and, more importantly to my point of view, the Sam Goody’s record, video, electronics and entertainment store. It’s being torn down to make way for a so-called “expansion” of Horton Plaza Park that, judging from the artists’ renderings of what it’s supposed to look like, is a typical San Diego public project: spectacularly ugly, offering no continuity with the original park and looking more like an industrial park’s patio than a community gathering center. But that’s another story.
No, the topic today is why Sam Goody’s had to die — and as someone who literally spent thousands of dollars there over the years, I feel like I’m entitled to mourn its passing. It’s the same phenomenon that killed Sam Goody’s most direct competitors, Tower Records and Wherehouse. It’s what killed the Borders bookstore chain and has put Barnes and Noble on its last legs — after those operations themselves ran over hundreds of independent bookstore owners and put them out of business. It’s a phenomenon that’s running roughshod over our culture, our economics and our daily lives, driving us apart from each other and forcing us to relate electronically instead of physically.
It’s the Internet — or, as I’m increasingly calling this malevolent side of it, the Interblob. This isn’t to say there aren’t a lot of positive aspects to the Internet. For one thing, it’s enabled voices that can’t or won’t find their way in print, on radio or to TV a way to get themselves heard. It’s created outlets for media content, including the ones you’re reading this on, that would otherwise not exist. And purely from a practical point of view, the Internet has been of invaluable help to me as a fact-checker. Details in an article I used to have to spend hours in a library coming through books and periodicals to nail down are now available to me online within minutes. It’s made me a more accurate, and therefore a better, journalist.
But, like the Blob in the 1958 sci-fi camp-classic film — a huge piece of protoplasmic jelly from outer space that devoured everything in its path and grew to massive proportions — the Internet has devoured virtually every competing source of information, entertainment or culture. And that’s not all. It’s transformed such basic functions of modern life as the search for a job or the pursuit of a relationship. It’s remolding us all into widgets in an increasingly computerized world in which it’s not altogether clear whether the machines are serving us or we are serving them.
Though virtually no science-fiction writer in the pre-Internet era imagined anything like it — if they wrote about computers at all, it was usually about bigger and better mainframes than the ones from the 1950’s and 1960’s — the Interblob is absorbing more and more aspects of human life. Seemingly nothing in its path is safe — not only bookstores and record stores but newspapers, magazines, even the post office.
Want to look in the newspaper and see what’s on television tonight? Too bad. A month ago the Los Angeles Times announced that they’re discontinuing their prime-time TV listings and put in one of those all-too-familiar snippy notices saying that from then on that information would only be available — you guessed it — on their Web site. This was around the same time the Hollywood trade paper Daily Variety announced it was discontinuing its print publication completely and thenceforth would only be available — gag me — online via the Interblob.
Want to look at a newspaper at all? Too bad. Thanks to the Interblob, newspaper publishers are shrinking their print editions and charging more money for less content. They’re trying to get people to pay for online content but they’re having difficulty finding a way to do that in a manner that’s both fair to consumers and lucrative enough to sustain the expense of news-gathering. Most “news” on the Interblob vampirically sucks the blood out of mainstream media content and merely offers a gloss of opinion or “spin.”
Indeed, the Interblob is so extensively remodeling the rules of journalism that within a decade or two it will essentially cease to be a profession. With the demise of big print newspapers and the dumbing-down of broadcast news in the YouTube era, newsrooms around the country are being dismantled. Professional reporters are being replaced by Internet “stringers” who are paid pittances — when they are paid at all — for tiny stories. Reporters are being turned into digital sweatshop workers being given piece rates for how many “posts” they can get up by ever-quicker deadlines.
In May 2012, according to an article by Ryan Chittum in the March/April 2013 Columbia Journalism Review, the New Orleans Times-Picayune cut its frequency from daily to three times a week — making New Orleans the first major U.S. city, but no doubt not the last, not to have a daily paper at all. The paper’s owner, Advance Publications, laid off half the newsroom staff and replaced the fired reporters with “younger digital natives who could be paid much less … They would be told to write search-engine-optimized posts for the Web multiple times a day, and not to worry about print deadlines.” Under the lash of a corporate manager who had decided that print was dying and the Interblob was the future, they pulled this on a paper whose long-form multi-part investigative reports had earned it national acclaim — and in a city where up to one-third of the population is too poor to have Internet access at all.
Want to buy books at a bookstore? Tough luck. Want to buy CD’s or LP’s at a record store? Too bad. Want the thrill of browsing and discovering an item you didn’t know existed but absolutely fascinates you when you hold it in your hand, and buying it in that spectacular rush of knowing that your life will no longer be complete until you’ve read or listened to it? Forget it. Under the rule of the Interblob, browsing has been replaced by so-called “customized recommendations,” items Web sites offer you based on predictable patterns from what you’ve bought there before. The opportunity for the unexpected discovery has been replaced by an electromechanical feedback loop that circumscribes your taste and timidly sends you where you’ve already gone hundreds of times before.
Indeed, under the Interblob even the opportunity actually to hold a book or a recording in your hand is rapidly vanishing. Audio CD’s are being replaced by “downloads” and books are becoming “e-books” read on that pestilence of devices with cutesy-poo names: Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes and Noble’s Nook, Sony’s Libria (later the Reader) and Apple’s iPad. Amazon’s Web site claims that they now sell more books as Kindle files than they do as actual ink-on-paper books — as if that’s something to be proud of. What’s more, when you “buy” an e-book you don’t actually own it; you merely get a license to use it for as long as the company allows you to. Early Kindle users found that out the hard way when copies of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 suddenly disappeared from their devices due to a squabble between Amazon and Orwell’s print publishers. With the usual tone-deafness of modern corporations, nobody at Amazon gave a thought as to how it would look when their faceless authoritarian bureaucracy pulled their customers’ access to two famous books exposing the vicious, arbitrary power of faceless authoritarian bureaucracies.
Want to go to the library and read books the old-fashioned way without having to pay for them? Don’t hold your breath. Even though the new San Diego Public Library downtown was sold largely on the promise that thousands of books currently locked away in storage would at last be visible on the shelves and available for checkout, more recently the people running the library have said they’re just going to throw out a lot of those books rather than take the trouble to move them. Why? Once again, the Interblob: people running libraries these days see them primarily as places for people to access the Internet. The Interblob is also destroying the postal service; thanks at least partly due to the shift by corporate marketers from junk paper mail to junk e-mail, their volume has dropped so much that they’re canceling Saturday mail deliveries. Not Saturday package deliveries, though — not when those who still order stuff from Amazon and its competitors in tangible paper form rather than as e-book files are waiting for their deliveries. The United States Postal Service is charging more and more for less and less service — and we’ve all seen how well that worked for the newspaper industry.
But the Interblob isn’t stopping its carnivorous activities just on the cultural front. You want a job? Good luck finding one in the old-fashioned ways like state employment development postings and classified ads. Today not only are the job openings themselves advertised online, you need to send your résumé out online as well and hope the computers don’t screen you out even before it’s seen by a human being. You want a date? Bars and social organizations are cutting back or going out of business as that sort of human interaction, too, gets taken over by the Interblob. People can flirt with each other for months or even years online before they actually meet — go “FTF” (face-to-face), in the modern lingo — and because it’s so easy to edit or fake a computer profile, complete with a photo that’s either ancient, someone else’s or heavily Photoshopped, Interblob dating is even riskier than old-fashioned dating in terms of being lied to, ripped off or otherwise used.
The Interblob isn’t just killing old-fashioned ideals of journalism and culture; it’s also contributing to the ever-greater social stratification of the U.S. and the world. Many areas of the U.S. don’t have Internet access at all. Others don’t have broadband, which as the Internet progresses technically is virtually essential. Thanks to America’s long tradition of turning new media technologies over to private corporations who exploit their customers for maximum profits from minimal service, the nation which invented the Internet has a lower percentage of its population online than virtually every other developed country in the world. Even South Korea has a higher percentage of broadband users in its population than we do.
By now the swollen power of corporations and the super-rich in the U.S. is so great, and so far beyond effective political or social challenge, that virtually every new development in technological or social interaction is going to make the rich even richer and everyone else even poorer. The Interblob is no exception. So much of your ability to access the Internet is dependent on your financial status — whether you have the money for a state-of-the-art connection and a computer to do it justice — that the Interblob is creating a society of information-haves and information-have-nots. If you’re too poor to afford your own computer and broadband connection, once again, tough: you’re relegated to whatever jobs you can find and apply for in your grudgingly doled-out 15 minutes online at a public library.
As the Interblob kills professional journalism and replaces it with so-called “citizen bloggers” — volunteers and poorly paid pieceworkers grabbing whatever little tidbits of information they can and lacking either the skills or the budgets to pry information out of the powers that be that don’t want you to know what they’re up to — we’ll become even more socially stratified. Instead of a time when cheap newspapers and free radio and TV enabled even relatively poor citizens to be well informed about what was going on around them, in the future of the Interblob your ability to follow the political, economic and social events that shape your lives will be directly determined by your income. America’s rising trend towards inequality of income and opportunity predates the Internet — real wages have been declining steadily for 40 years — but as the Internet morphs into the Interblob, it’s only going to get worse.
And if it’s bad now, it’ll only get worse later on. How will future historians and biographers assess our age? When he did his classic documentary The Civil War Ken Burns had paper letters and photographs to draw on to give his film visual interest and bring the drama of the war home in an incredibly intimate way. A future Ken Burns trying to do a similar reconstruction of the 21st century will literally have nothing. The e-mails, text messages, tweets and blog posts of our time will have long since disappeared into evanescence. So will the digital photos we’re all so industriously shooting with our smartphones. Computerized media are so impermanent that even movie studios, which are increasingly shooting their films with digital equipment, still transfer the final results to film so they can be archived. And the technologies to play computer movies, recordings or books change so rapidly files only two to five years old become useless. The Interblob is destroying the very idea of culture as something permanent. E-products are usable only as long as the corporations that ultimately own them allow you to use them, and when they’re used up they literally vanish, disappearing into digital ether at the stroke of a key — either from you or the corporation that decides you’ve had them long enough.
What can you do about the Interblob? About the only thing is personal resistance. Vote with your pocketbook; find that corner bookstore that’s held on through the rise and fall of Barnes and Noble and Borders, or the independent record store that’s survived the decimation of Tower, Wherehouse and Goody’s, and patronize it. You might not be able to get the latest best-sellers but you’ll still find fascinating stuff to read and listen to. Keep and maintain subscriptions to the paper editions of your favorite newspapers and magazines. Socialize with real people in coffeehouses and bars instead of evanescent presences in the digital world. When you encounter one of those hateful “voicemail” systems— whose inventor, I think, deserves to rot in the nastiest and most painful circle of hell — use whatever shrinking options are left to insist on speaking to an actual human being. You’re not going to be able to stop the Interblob, but like the Luddites and the original French saboteurs — workers who threw their wooden shoes (sabots) into the machines to protest the automation that was destroying their jobs — you can at least slow it down a little.
As the Sam Goody’s building on Broadway between Third and Fourth becomes an historical memory, I’ll cling to the nostalgia of all the fascinating music I bought there. Things you wouldn’t expect in a mass-market record store, like a long-lost 1953 recording of Verdi’s Aïda with John Barbirolli conducting and Maria Callas in the title role. Love, Gloom, Cash, Love, the last recording of the woefully neglected and underrated jazz pianist Herbie Nichols. Yoko Ono’s album Blueprint for a Sunrise. An overwhelming performance of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung from the 1951 Bayreuth festival. A two-CD collection called From Gershwin’s Time that was exactly what its title said: historical recordings of George Gershwin’s music made when he was still alive. Maybe I would have found these things browsing online, but I didn’t. I bought real, physical, tangible copies and gave the money for them to an in-the-flesh sales clerk I could talk to, often getting surprising insights about what I’d just purchased.
As the Interblob consumes all other forms of human interactions, the opportunities for much of what makes life worth living — from the chance to advance yourself career-wise to the experience of unusual or unfamiliar culture — will either shrink or simply disappear. We’re being told that all this is “inevitable,” that it’s the price of technological change and we’ll be better off when we’ve eliminated all those pesky old remnants of pre-Interblob culture like books, CD’s, newspapers and coffeehouses. But permit me to disagree and to long for the days when companies paid people to answer their phones instead of having machines do it, when you could read the news of the day on paper instead of having to log on to a computer and absorb it online, and when a book was a book was a book, and once you knew how to read, a book 10, 50, 100, 200 or even 500 years old was as accessible and as permanent as one published yesterday.

NOTE: Since this column was written, the Los Angeles Times has restored a listing of prime-time TV programs to their print edition — but it’s only half a page instead of a full page now.