STAFF NEWS & ANALYSIS
The Gutenberg Parenthesis … Fashionable Nonsense?
By Staff News & Analysis - July 15, 2011

Digital first: what it means for journalism … Journalists have roles to play in collaborating with and organising communities – and the article is just part of the mix … The article is no longer the atomic unit of news. It's not dead. I didn't kill it. But in the age of online – of "digital first," as the Guardian defined its strategy this month – we should reconsider the article and its place. No longer do the means of production and distribution of media necessitate boxing the world into neat, squared-off spaces published once a day and well after the fact. Freed of print's strictures, we are finding many new and sometimes better ways to gather and share information. – UK Guardian

Dominant Social Theme: Journalism is so passé.

Free-Market Analysis: Last week, a Daily Bell editorial by Anthony Wile examined an article by The Economist magazine entitled, Wishful Thinking: Why The Economist Wants Social Media to Replace Blogs. The Economist article proposed that mass media was fading and that citizen journalism – enhanced by social media – was taking over. It seemed to us a somewhat suspect idea, a kind of dominant social theme aimed at de-emphasizing reporting in an era where so many power-elite themes have come under attack. Now we have discovered the underlying academic work supporting this sort of thinking.

The theme that is garnering considerable attention is called the "Gutenberg Parenthesis." A recent article in the UK Guardian by reporter Jeff Jarvis explored the meaning of this Parenthesis. He has written a book called Public Parts, and in doing research for it had stumbled upon academic analysis from the University of Southern Denmark that proposed, "What they magnificently call the Gutenberg parenthesis." Here's how Jarvis summarizes it:

At the start of the parenthesis and before print, information and knowledge were passed around orally and copied by scribes, remixed in the process. Inside the parenthesis, in five centuries dominated by text, our information like our world-views became concrete and serial, with beginnings and ends. Or, as Marshall McLuhan wrote: "The line, the continuum – this sentence is a prime example – became the organising principle of life." Today, on this side of the parenthesis, we are returning to a process orientation as media become malleable and remixed. This, the Danes say, affects our cognition of our world.

When people talk fondly of newspapers and books they aren't praising just their physical form: the feel and smell, the portability and tangibility. Printed text has boundaries and limits; it is a product of scarcity. Print feels finite, digital infinite. But print is also limiting while digital is freeing. In the transition, abundance is unsettling.

This discussion over the fate of the article has direct relevance to those wanting to shift to digital first. Going digital does not mean merely putting articles online before the presses roll, as then print still rules the process. No – digital first means the net must drive all decisions: how news is covered, in what form, by whom, and when. It dictates that when journalists know something, they are prepared to share it with their public. They may share what they know before their knowledge is complete so the public can help fill in blanks.

Jarvis believes that the Internet is "resetting" the journalistic relationship and that in the future, news organizations shall function as "open platforms." The platform may include "curating people and their information, providing applications and tools, gathering data, organising effort, educating participants … and writing articles." The age of mainstream media, in other words, is over – a perspective the Economist magazine presented as well.

Approvingly, Jarvis quotes John Paton, chief executive of the American newspaper company Journal Register, who has as his modern motto, "digital first, print last." Patton doesn't believe print is dead, but does believe that a digital strategy must determine both news process and business strategy. Print will only continue so long as it justifies its expense and asserts its value.

In reading this sort of an analysis (admittedly from the left-wing Guardian) one is struck again by the eagerness to discard a methodology of communication that is thousands of years old. About 10 years ago, it was fashionable to suggest that the Internet would "revolutionize" communication. There was, for a while, a good deal of breast-beating over this, mostly from journalists employed at major publications.

In the meantime, there have been SOME changes in the way the news is delivered. Blogs and forums have blossomed on the 'Net. But for the most part the FORM hasn't changed. Books and articles remain with us for very good reasons. Both types of communication have beginning, middles and ends. They have problems they present and solutions they offer. Human beings are biologically programmed along these lines. Primates are problem solving creatures. We want to examine an obstacle and find a way around it.

Ask someone if he or she wishes to read mounds of open-ended information or a cogent analysis that summarizes the issue. Most may opt for the latter, time being a limiting and most precious resource. Articles and books are ways of organizing information that conform to instinctual human preferences. That's why they were invented in the first place. They're not going away.

Of course, plenty of people would LIKE them to go away. That's the real reason for all this hoopla. The Anglosphere power elite in particular, that continually hones its ambitions for a new world order, would like nothing more than to turn the entire Internet into a vast wasteland of celebrity commentary leavened with sports trivia. Having mistakenly mid-wifed the Internet via DARPA, they now seek to dumb it down.

Jarvis cites Andy Carvin of National Public Radio as an example of a post-Internet media maven. He is a "social strategist who has been tweeting and retweeting news from the Arab Spring, up to 1,300 times in a day. He adds journalistic value: finding witnesses who are on the ground and tapping into their networks; vetting facts and debunking rumours; assigning users to translate videos; adding context – but writing no articles."

But here is our question: Would you rather read 1,300 tweets and watch disparate videos or, pressed for time, would you prefer a cogent article reporting on the action and providing a summary of what it means? Articles and books provide us with a frame of reference, a way of understanding what is at stake quickly and efficiently. Additional information is wonderful, but only after one understands the initial issue.

This is, in fact, why the subject matter at open forums usually have an article or book excerpt around which commentary is built. It is difficult to offer additional commentary when there is no substantive issue laid out; it is hard to offer a summation when the information is lacking to begin with.

Jarvis uses the Texas Tribune as an example of his new paradigm. Here, he writes, a majority of traffic goes not to articles but to searchable databases where "readers-cum-users dig up facts." This process mimics the "the architecture of the Internet: end-to-end, witness-to-world, without a central gatekeeper."

Jarvis is not only enamored of this process, he points out that is immensely useful. Carvin, we are told used his "crowd" to unmask the jailed Syrian lesbian blogger Amina as an American man. "Twitter," he tweeted, "is the best tool in the world for debunking rumours and hoaxes."

Or maybe not. Maybe the whole thing was a US intelligence operation gone wrong. We've written about the Amina story as well. It so happened that individual behind Amina placed her (his) story online at the site of ANOTHER blogger who was ALSO a man happening to be posing as a lesbian. And the material that the male/lesbian Amina shared with the other male/lesbian was then rebroadcast to further websites and thence made its way to sympathetic mainstream media outlets.

What Jarvis thinks was an expose was perhaps a coverup. The Amina story, if properly probed, seems to reveal a juvenile American intelligence concoction; it is apparently the work of young US intelligence operatives who were tasked with presenting Syria as a backwards and repressive place. For these young men, presenting false lesbian blogs was likely both an intelligence gimmick and an elaborate practical joke – one that turned sour when Amina was "abducted" by Syrian authorities causing an international outcry that unraveled the entire operation.

We note (as predicted) that the entire episode has apparently been squelched. No lawsuits; no further commentary. US military ops has surely taken care of lingering ramifications. Both "lesbians" are likely free to generate other propaganda as necessary. You can see the article here: Gay Ops of American Intel?.

This is a good example, then, of citizen journalism. According to Jarvis, the fake lesbian Amina was revealed as a result of citizens' use of technology. According to us (and some other alternative media sources to be sure), the Texas Tribune's intrepid "citizen journalists" may only have discovered half the story at best.

Is Jarvis confusing the medium with the message? The Internet's main utility is that it has allowed those WITH communicative and investigative skills the opportunity to bypass the elite's "gatekeepers" and reach a wider audience. But Jarvis seems to believe the Internet will REPLACE such people.

Jarvis provides us with another example, that of Postmedia, a Canadian newspaper company that used articles as a secondary source or information. The company had reporters on campaign buses feed Twitter and Tumblr and post photos and videos. Later on, a rewrite man turned the material into articles.

Of course, we are sure that neither the initial information nor the follow-up articles dealt with fundamental issues of Western polity and economics. Chances are those "tweeters" involved did not question the validity of environmental concerns, the utility of taxation, the real reasons for price inflation, etc. In other words, the flood of digital information provided no deeper insights. Quantity did not generate quality. It merely reinforced the status quo.

What we may have here is another dominant social theme – a kind of elite-sponsored promotion that seeks to trivialize what is most powerful about the Internet, and thus to confuse people about its worth. They are, in fact, battling the 'Net now on every level and creating diversions about its real strengths is simply another attack.

After Thoughts

From our point of view, the real value of the 'Net is its ability broadcast voices that would as yet be unheard and provide a platform for likeminded individuals who wish to amplify or otherwise add little-known information and insights to what is being discussed. Ironically, it is pretty much an updated print model, enhanced by digital resources. Nothing much changes. The Gutenberg parenthesis is, perhaps, an academic concept, not a real one.

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