A recent post by Cyclopeatron on the decline of the professional novelist has reflected many of my thoughts and fears about our changing society, which have been growing steadily over the past few years, and it has prompted me to discuss how electronic media may change, forever, the way that we read and even think. For centuries, books have been the traditional source of knowledge throughout the world, but they are being supplanted by multi-media sources and this process has occurred over a shockingly short period of time.
One of the most grievous changes, for me, is the demise of the independent book seller. I've been an avid bookstore patron my whole life, and as recently as ten years ago these stores were still abundant. My wife and I used to spend entire Saturday afternoons 'bookstore-hopping,' visiting the many independent bookstores around town, and I've spent many happy hours browsing the aisles of my favourite stores, each one catering to a slightly different specialty: we had stores that catered to children's books, to science and nature, and even general, non-specialized bookstores each had a slightly different focus that made them special. They are gone now. Every single one. Replaced by the monolithic super-bookstores, namely Chapters and McNally Robinson, and even these giants have a tough go in the current market. Chapters and McNally's branches having been closing steadily in Winnipeg until now there are just a couple left in a city of approximately 800,000 people. I now have to drive at least for at least half an hour to get to one the few remaining bookstores in town and it's seldom worth the trip. The stores are crowded and the variety of books is extremely limited - and it is this last that is so potentially damaging to the future of the publishing industry.
Because big, generic chains only stock the books most likely to sell quickly, publishers of niche books are less likely to find a retail outlet to carry their publications, and thus we are seeing a homogenization of literature; a growing culture of the 'bestseller.' Obviously this is a bad thing for the diversity of thought and creative expression.
What about the internet? While it is the greatest avenue for free expression in the history of humanity, and I'm a great fan of its potential, the very fact that anyone can effortlessly express their opinions is both a blessing and a curse. As dissemination of information is increasingly co-opted by the internet there is far less rigour in weeding out the bullshit. In a way, the internet is a cesspool of intellectual effluent - there's lots of great ideas out there, but its often difficult to distinguish them when they're floating in crap. And, yes, I do appreciate the irony of the medium I am using to publish this essay and the parallels that will inevitably be drawn.
This is not to say that everything in print is reliable - far from it - one needs to read books just as critically as information on the net, but the fact that someone has to take the trouble to write something publishable and then convince someone to actually publish it cuts out a lot of the garbage because of the effort involved. More to the point, though, I don't think people are as likely to read information on the internet critically. We've become so accustomed to having instant access to information that few people question it or evaluate the source. Case in point, a few months back, on the Troll Lord forums I took the trouble to clear up some misconceptions that people had about the word 'theory' and was told that I was an idiot who didn't know what I was talking about, evidence for which was a website that supported the poster's incorrect usage of the word. So, fourteen years of post-secondary education followed by many years as a research scientist and instructor in this very topic was trumped by the uniformed opinion of someone who created a website.
One of the greatest benefits of modern media - instant access to information - is also its greatest weakness. And here I, finally, get to the point of this post. As a society we are bombarded with 'information-lite' factoids and sound bites. The news media is especially guilty of this, but we have become such instant info junkies that we are perpetually 'connected' via wireless devices for immediate access to information at any time. Not only has this decreased our credulity, but most people don't even take the time to properly read what they are seeing, nor to express themselves fully or coherently in their writing. I predict that this will have a profound effect on the reading comprehension of future generations and their ability to express themselves.
Not only is the pace of information flow killing our literacy, but I believe that the very nature of the electronic medium is also a contributing factor. More and more, people are reading electronic documents instead of hard copy and Kindles are becoming increasingly popular for reading e-books and digital media. Even within the role playing game industry, products in PDF format are becoming increasingly common. Now, how many people are able to read digital media with a high degree of comprehension? In my profession I write, edit and review scientific papers on a frequent basis. I perform several peer reviews per month for journals and I absolutely cannot attain the same level of comprehension reading a PDF as with hard copy. When I write a manuscript, even after having read it on the screen many times, as soon as I print off a hard copy, mistakes immediately leap off the page that I had never seen before. I'm sure that I'm not the only person that has a hard time reading electronic documents.
So people in contemporary society are being hit by a double whammy in our rapidly changing literary culture: the pace of information flow, which is so fast that few people take the time to properly read things anymore, coupled with the difficulty our brains seem to have in processing information in digital format.
I fear that the pervasive influence of digital media not only affects our reading comprehension, but also the way we think, and organize and articulate those thoughts. Children who grow up in a digital environment, permanently bonded to their cell-phones at an early age, may find that their brains develop in a completely different way than those of older generations, and they may find that they process information in a completely different manner. I've noticed the effect that text-messaging has had on the younger generation; they use text-speak even when they aren't texting. Text-speak is, in my opinion, the height of intellectual laziness and there is absolutely no excuse for using it when not text-messaging. I suspect that if you fall into that sort of laziness at an early age you will never break free of it, and never be able to express thoughts in a sophisticated and articulate manner.
Consider this, then, the eulogy for my way of life. Books aren't just an information medium, they embody a sense of permanence that no pixels on a screen can ever match; you will never be able to caress the leather binding of your PDF files, nor smell the pages of a Kindle. Books are my life, and I fear that they are on their way to extinction.
This has been an unusual post for a game blog, but I felt that it was relevant because most gamers, particularly those of the old school breed, are bibliophiles as well. We came into gaming through our love of books, and many old school blogs devote a great deal of time discussing the pulp fantasy roots of our hobby. But games, too, are succumbing to the digital age. I need only nod to 4E to make this point. This is a game that WotC has deliberately designed to capitalize upon digital media. The rules are set up to become an online game, and their D&D Insider subscription promised access to a digital game table to play D&D online. I foresee a future where sitting around a game table with friends, rolling polyhedral dice, admiring beautiful, hand-painted miniatures, and smudging nacho cheese on our character sheets will be a quaint oddity of a bygone age. I sincerely hope, though, that I don't live to see it.
Welcome Back to the Labyrinth
"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."
"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."
"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"
"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"