[Publisher's Note] Digital Blinders, by John R. MacArthur | Harper's Magazine

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[Publisher’s Note]

Digital Blinders

“Why wait to read reports that appeared on the website of France’s leading daily the previous day?”
A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on July 6, 2020. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

At the lowest point of my COVID-19 quarantine—toward the end of May—I was paging through my laser copy of the French newspaper Le Monde, which had been delivered to my home in Manhattan the day after it was published in Paris. Why am I so devoted to the printed word? After all, during this time of social distancing, doesn’t digital news dominate our civic and cultural discourse? Why wait to read reports that appeared on the website of France’s leading daily the previous day?

I’ve long recognized the advantages of absorbing and retaining information printed on paper rather than onscreen, including news items that appear first as pixels and then in ink. My opinion is corroborated by the findings of social scientists such as Anne Mangen and Jean-Luc Velay (and I’m expecting additional evidence from a research team at Columbia University’s Teachers College). At the same time, I realize that my belief that print is superior has little chance of gaining traction given the gigantic engine of propaganda and greed that propels GAFA—Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple. These companies are set to emerge from the global lockdown more powerful than ever—one need only follow their stock prices to see what I mean—while in traditional media, there’s a pervasive sense of defeat.

But instead of laying down our arms and allowing GAFA to crush us, the owners and editors of newspapers and magazines should make the effort to read—really read—what is being published. A good example jumped out at me while I was reading the thick, stiff, stapled pages of my facsimile edition of Le Monde. (Of course, I’d prefer the lightness of newsprint.) On page 14, I came across an interview with Roula Khalaf, editor of the Financial Times. The headline announced that Khalaf “ponders the future of the print version of her newspaper.” As a longtime reader of the pink pages of the Financial Times, I was worried. Khalaf avers that journalism by telecommuting is working “better than [she] would have imagined,” and that given the health crisis and the drop in newsstand sales, “we have to accelerate [our] digital strategy.”

This is bad news. Khalaf’s line of analysis has become one of the great clichés of our time—“marketing speak”—which puts me in mind of the totalitarian engineers imagined by George Orwell in 1984. In Orwell’s novel, news and information is transmitted on telescreens, which serve simultaneously as broadcasting and surveillance devices, and unauthorized books and writing pads are banished. Nevertheless, Le Monde reports that although Khalaf has no intention of “doing away with the print edition at the moment,” she is trying to “do a better job of replicating on the screen the hierarchy of articles that exists on paper, so that the reader can better discern the difference between the formats, whether it’s a follow-up article on an ongoing story, an in-depth investigation, or an op-ed.”

Good grief! There’s currently no way to reproduce the experience of reading a printed newspaper digitally, not only because of the size of computer screens and l smartphones, but because the digital model allows publications to interrupt the text with advertising. A coherent and pleasing arrangement of articles, such as those organized on paper by human editors, isn’t possible in a space that has been invaded by the diktats of Google and Apple. No matter how thoroughly she has mastered marketing speak, Khalaf can’t circumvent GAFA, not if she wants to remain up-to-date—and keep her job.

Nevertheless, Khalaf, who is an excellent journalist, doesn’t have to read Anne Mangen’s scholarly articles to understand what an error it is for her to digitize her newspaper. Khalaf, who speaks French, may have read the Le Monde interview mentioned above onscreen. That’s a shame, because the digital format of Le Monde makes it unlikely that she came across the two stories printed on page 12 of my laser edition. The headline at the top of the printed page reads, “‘I’ve Had It’: Telecommuting and the Damage Done,” and farther down, a second headline mentions  “The Giants of Digitization, Apostles of Remote Working.” GAFA’s interest is presented as obvious. The reader learns that working remotely both “increases psychosocial risks” and “has caused employees’ motivation to plummet . . . . For many workers, telecommuting has become synonymous with high blood pressure, stress, and burnout.” On the one hand, according to an executive speaking anonymously, middle managers have excessive power. “Behind a screen, you’re in something like omnipotent mode . You aren’t necessarily aware of how it weighs on a worker’s morale to feel that he or she is always being spied on.” On the other hand, according to an employee named Yann, workers can find themselves  diminished and less effective when their business interactions are conducted entirely onscreen. “I have an older colleague who’s a little like our unofficial boss. But ever since we’ve been working remotely, I’ve been unable to communicate with him properly. I don’t know how to contact him, I don’t dare call him up. Although I’m online from eight in the morning until seven-thirty in the evening, I’ve only had to talk to him three times. He no longer sees what I’m doing, but any progress I make is in his hands.” This speaks to the alienation that accompanies being stuck in front of a screen all day, deprived of peripheral vision like a horse wearing blinders. Alone as he is, Yann can’t manage his communications with his boss, partly because he can’t manage his communications with his computer. This is not good for journalists, or for their readers.

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