An Overwrought Historical Analogy about the Future of Writing

I have today two different pieces  essentially covering the same ground from slightly different angles. I was too attached to each to delete it and unable to figure out a way and to combine them, so you’re getting two for the price of one this 15th. The companion to this is “‘The Wire’ and the Future of Reporting“. I won’t be offended if you don’t read both.

Like no time in recent memory, the empire that has provided a comfortable existence to most writers seems near collapse. While (permitting for heretofore unprecedented agility) it may still be spared, the cracks and craters in the empire’s once grand facades are unmistakable. Like Rome before it, this is not an empire done in by another. It is rather a mix of seemingly minor causes that over time have left the empire’s negligent rulers unable to even dream of a means of saving that which crumbles.

As in the declining Rome, the barbarians on the periphery strike constant small but damaging blows to the empire. It started when Vinny the Jets fan (Oblique Elton John reference? Check!)  made a few of his fellow Jets fans a little less dependent on the local newspaper, ESPN, and Sports Illustrated for their football fix. Then the computing press was slowly marginalized by a chorus of amateurs who found each other more interesting than brands like PC Magazine and EGM. Today, some of the best magazine-length feature stories are published outside of the conventional magazine; Maciej Ceglowski’s excellent essay about how the cure to scurvy was known and lost (on Link Banana) leaps immediately to mind.

In another historical parallel, the barbarians on the periphery have led to hesitancy and poor decision-making in the seat of power. Unsure how to keep their power, they leap at every possible solution, while not exerting the effort or having the power to really execute any of them. They seek, rather than their continued relevance, their continued existence. Sacrificing what value they used to provide for the sake of getting the most out of what they have. And so once revered newsmagazines cow to base desires of reader, the purveyors of cheap and accurate information lock it away in the hopes that they can live off the small flow of people willing to pay for access.

This rough outline I’ve just embellished is unlikely to be new to anyone reading a thing I’m writing on this obscure outpost of the internet. In fact, few things more clearly demonstrate the problems of the once-great publishing empire than that anyone is reading this at all.

There was a  time not long ago, that all (beyond personal correspondence) that was read was sanctioned under the auspices of some part of the publishing empire. Now, as Clay Shirky most potently points out, we live in an age where everybody can easily write for everyone else. An age in which quite possibly the most-read thing in the world has been made exclusively by the people reading it. An independent self-sustaining enclave has no need for support from a distant empire.

And so we’ve entered the age of the doomsday prophets, who tell us these are the end times of objectivity and truth and sound reason. Many of these prophets work for the empire itself, hoping to make us see the value for the decrepit empire they control, whose passing would go unnoticed but for their regularly reminding how much we’ll miss them.

The crumbling of the publishing empire is a questionable blessing. Without any similar monolith rising to supplant it, it’s pieces will likely live for some time in a weakened state before being lost entirely. The real question is, does the passing of the print publishing empire mean the sun setting on what was good in it? Are we, to finish the historical analogy, entering the Dark Ages? Or as historians would correct us, a Medieval period, which isn’t nearly so dark as we were led to believe?

Surely, the recognizable superstructure is leaving. But the serfs (they’re meant to be writers in this thin and troubled analogy) toil on, their task little changed from the days of empire. What is to be the fate of these functionaries of the empire? Are writers to have a increasingly comfortable and independent life, or will they be crushed under the capricious will of the local knights?

It will likely be harder, in the coming age, for one to live a nice life only on the transforming of ideas into words. With so many people willing and able to be seen doing that thing, it’s unlikely to be as lucrative as it previously had the potential to be. But there’s probably still an opening for the really great ones to rise and become wealthy. And those who transform themselves into tradesmen, specializing and honing a specific ability, will probably make out OK.

But perhaps, as never existed among feudal serfs (because really, this analogy is more than a little broken), a network of reader-supported media can grow. Writers doing work better than a publisher ever got because they’re supported directly by people who want them to pursue their particular vision. Freed from what middlemen think the market will support, greater truth and beauty could prevail. And if there’s one future I get to choose, I’ll make it this one.

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