I have a weakness for those countdown shows on VH1. You know the ones I’m talking about: videos of the week, songs of the month. When I was younger, I watched countdowns to find out what was current and “cool.” Lately, I am drawn to countdowns—and their counterparts, the “greatest books/movies/people” lists—that enumerate artifacts of bygone eras. Think: 100 greatest moments of the 1990s.

In my early 20s, and I’m already wistful about the “good ol’ days.”

My nostalgia is testament to how much my generation has seen change alreadyin our lifetimes. We remember audio cassettes and VHS tapes; we remember life before cell phones and e-mail. We remember classrooms free of laptops, cars without GPS, and books before Amazon Kindle.

In fact, my generation may be the last to remember hard copies. Now, you might be thinking, why the fuss about the pre-digital age? We’re all environmentally savvy people. The move toward electronic books, mp3s, and razor-thin phones with HD video capability is saving mountains of paper and packaging.

As the editor of a print publication, I do want to be attentive to the environment and technology. At India Currents, we reproduce our content on the web; we send out online newsletters. At the same time, however, we are deeply invested in the hard copy: the print magazine, the paper experience, the value of a physical product that goes out into the world and into the (physical) hands of our readers.

You turn the glossy cover, you smell the newsprint, you imagine our staff working to design each spread, to align photo captions, to size headlines. Maybe you rip out a page of the calendar for an event listing. Maybe you earmark an article for your child to read.

There are many ways to interact with a print product. But is there vitality and necessity to the print product that goes beyond tangibility and transportability, that transcends the superficial? Do we read paper differently than we read screens? Do we turn pages differently than we scroll down? More importantly, do these amount to differences in form or quality?

In the latest issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Nicholas Carr asks what the internet is doing to our brains. “As we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world,” he writes, “it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.” Carr’s words, however pessimistic, resonate in an era in which students do Wikipedia-research and the media struggles to hold the attention of readers and viewers with shorter stories and segments.

We can only imagine how radically the technological landscape will shift in the next few decades. But we can think deeply, and we must, about the quality of our interactions with words and sounds, before we turn the page on the hard copy and risk losing more than we stand to gain.

 

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan was Editor of India Currents from July 2007-June 2009.
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