I am, against my better judgment, reading the New York Times.
It’s not that I object to rising left-wing hysteria—I’m just as cozy in my own fleece-lined echo chamber as the next gal. Too cozy, really, considering the wealth of more enriching experiences available to me if my time were not being shop-vac’d so efficiently. There are broken things to fix, art to make, food to cook, fellow creatures who might be feeling neglected while I try to sort out market trends, international intrigue, and scandal.
I’ve tried to correct this by going cold turkey from Feedly and Facebook, spurning news site bookmarks in favor of the more virtuously engaged Goodreads and Cambridge Buddhist Centre Thought of the Day. I even considered disabling Google Most Visited, but hesitated lest the next person looking over my shoulder conclude that I am attempting to conceal some shameful predilection.
And yet here I am, at nytimes.
I resolutely scroll past the top stories. I know for sure that these will be toxic. There will be a photo of some smug, sneering, or superior face and, gazing into those eyes, I will struggle to subdue hatred in the manner suggested so often by my Buddhist advisors.
I pause, instead, at a Farhad Manjoo piece called, “Welcome to the Post-Text Future.” This seems encouraging, given my predicament. “The internet was born in text. Now, video and audio are ascendant,” the teaser asserts. “Writing is being left behind, and [of course] everything will be different.”
Now, personally, I thrive on change: I am a chronic rearranger of furniture. This is the very definition of “progressive,” is it not? When faced with adversity, I nurture the hope that everything will be different. And now, Mr. Manjoo is going to tell me when, and how much.
But when I click, the screen is filled with a John Yuyi image of a young person with short bangs, a sprinkling of blemishes, Yuyi’s signature temporary tattoos, and slightly puffy grey eyes that shift left and right as if reading a very, very short piece of text. Like a one-second Boomerang video, there’s no forward thrust in this movie, it doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. The eyes don’t display emotion or move down the page before snapping back to the top. I imagine s/he is reading and re-reading the single word, “Goodbye.”
And for a moment, I think that’s it. Mr. Manjoo, a former writer for Slate and Wall Street Journal, has forfeited the game to Ms. Yuyi. Maybe this is some sort of protest? “You think GIFs are news, do you? Well, troll this, goldfish!” But then I notice the narrow grey block of scroll bar.
I am a little disappointed to find that my first impression is wrong. Rather than the writers’ version of a silent parade, Mr. Manjoo and his colleagues give us over 4,500 words of text about the death of text. I remember that this author also wrote a book about living in a post-facts world, in which he undoubtedly supported his thesis with many hundreds of facts.
We are accustomed to white-robed prophets and their signs: The End of Books is Near, The End of Libraries is Near, and now, The End of Text is Near. The schools stopped teaching cursive, the president stopped reading intelligence briefings, and literacy was fossilized.
If this does happen, the visitor to the label-free museum of the future will be left to decide for herself whether that specimen evokes more of the tragic pathos of the ichthyosaur giving birth or the “glad that’s gone” relief of the 6-foot-long millipede Arthropleura. But one thing is already certain: the fossil of literacy, for all its pearly, gem-encrusted beauty, will be one of natural history’s smallest relics.
It has only been since the 1960s that world literacy has risen to more than half the population. As recently as 1800, OECD and UNESCO estimate, it was much less than 15%. The span of time since the invention of the internet, the printing press, the reed stylus of the Mesopotamian scribes—this is a tiny dot on the timeline of the universe. Recalling this comforts me, somehow.
Like the oil reserves, Windows 7 and Kiribati, there is some chance text will not actually disappear entirely in my own lifetime. I think I can expect to always see my screen cluttered with the 85 golden keywords—cure, improve, get rid of—that researchers say drive people to keep reading. I expect that “Read More” links disguising the depth of rabbit holes will proliferate throughout the news media, and that link-filled blog posts of all sorts will entice the undisciplined to open wide the internet’s taps, until readers drown in the flood of words.
Scrolling past Manjoo & Co.’s 4,500 words, I return to John Yuyi’s illustrations. Her models flex, roll eyes, touch earlobe. Do the images prompt insight, reflection, understanding? Or do they just provide a quiet space, however brief, when I am not thinking at all?