COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | STAN SEWITCH

Something gained, something lost

When telephones snapped their tether a couple of decades ago and went wireless, we were able to travel freely around our house or office while conversing. We gained freedom of movement. We also often lost our phones, because we would put them down wherever we were when the call was over, and forgot where that was.

When phones moved from the home or office to the car, we again gained freedom of movement, increased productivity in what were previously “lost” hours in transit, and were freed from the confinement of having to conduct business calls on the road from pay phones.

We also lost the break in mental concentration that driving between meetings or to and from work used to allow. We can’t crank up the tunes or just daydream on the freeway. The car is now just an extension of the office.

Right now, print media is dwindling at a rapid pace, with newspapers and magazines the most threatened forms. San Diego’s Daily Transcript will pass into history after almost 130 years this fall. The number of pages has been steadily shrinking for all publishers of venerable institutions.

I say “venerable” because they do deserve veneration. Our country was the first to establish freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The word “press” refers to the machine that pressed ink onto paper, forming the words that were previously prohibited under governance structures that felt threatened by the expression of opposing ideas.

Now we are witness to the extinction process of the printing press and the vanishing of physical media for news.

What do we gain? What do we lose?

The history of free speech and the press is not entirely a noble one. It was learned early on that the pen is mightier than the sword, and that it is not always wielded by people of good and honest intentions.

William Randolph Hearst built an influential empire in the golden age of newspapers. His tactics were focused and self-serving, and came in the form of swaying public opinion for or against public figures, politicians and business leaders.

That tradition of biased reporting continues today at Fox News, MSNBC, CNN and so on. Every organ of communication has its editorial bias and its financial imperatives.

With the transition to a communication environment where the barrier to entry into the news business is nonexistent, we gain egalitarianism in our free speech. We gain transparency and the ability to broaden our news sources far beyond what was possible in the 20th century.

The chances of the public being enduringly deceived or herded into a particular mindset are much lower today. The Internet has blown wide open the access to mass communication.

With the broadening of media channels and the expansion of participants, we gain transparency at a quicker pace, but we lose the trust in any given medium or author that can only come from a more intimate and enduring relationship with the purveyors of information. Walter Cronkite comes to mind.

Cronkite was believed and trusted because he was an active part of the news process. He chose the stories, evaluated the validity of information and made the decisions as to what he presented to the public each evening.

Today’s television anchors, radio commentators and news authors receive instructions and scripts to read from. Bloggers and self-proclaimed experts anoint themselves as qualified to opine; their veracity is seldom questioned by the audiences whose opinions get validated by whatever the writers or speakers proclaim.

We choose the news sources that match most closely with what we already believe. There is therefore no longer a teachable moment between news source and news consumer.

With the fragmentation and digitization of what we will probably continue to call the press, we gain transparency and choice. We lose quality control and expertise on the subjects forming the basis of the reporting.

We also lose the pleasure of holding the physical embodiment of one of our most important freedoms. Communication is multisensory. When we remove the physical aspect of that communication, we decrease the impact of the experience, the odds of remembering the content.

We lose the ability to quickly return to the information for a second, third or fourth review, without dependence upon electricity or equipment.

It’s a one-way street, I know. Decades from now, I fully expect some other writer to pause for a moment of reverence for a dying form of communication. When the World Wide Web is replaced with wireless cranial implants that communicate directly with our senses, the gains and losses will be tallied once more.


Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He serves as the vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company and can be reached at sewitch1@cox.net.

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