Apple's iPad Meets Hamlet's Blackberry: History Teaches That 'Long-Established Media Technologies, When Faced with the Prospect of Commercial Extinction, Counter with Their Own Dialectic.'

By Cobus, Peter | Nieman Reports, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Apple's iPad Meets Hamlet's Blackberry: History Teaches That 'Long-Established Media Technologies, When Faced with the Prospect of Commercial Extinction, Counter with Their Own Dialectic.'


Cobus, Peter, Nieman Reports


"E-paper has entered the market, but not yet in a big way. No technology is yet sufficiently paper-like to grab the huge latent market widely recognized to be there.... This is a lot like the early days of television development, when everyone knew what was needed but getting the technology right was tough."

--Nicholas K. Sheridon, who developed a forerunner to e-paper, from a 2007 interview.

In 2006, National Journal media critic William Powers wrote "Hamlet's Blackberry: Why Paper is Eternal," an essay--recently expanded to book length and scheduled to be published in June by Harper--that compellingly argues print's invincibility as the medium of choice for long-format narrative consumption--whether in book, magazine or broadsheet format.

The timing of his book's release couldn't be better: Industrywide buzz surrounding the launch of Apple's iPad has triggered--for newsprint-based organizations--the kind of vexatious bouts of self-examination one might expect of a melancholy Dane.

So now it's time to bring up the house lights. Any illuminating history of print says perseverance, not pulp, is its most distinctive trait; even a cursory review reveals the consistency with which long-established media technologies, when faced with the prospect of commercial extinction, counter with their own dialectic. Despite the iPad's digital sophistication--and the assuredness that more sophisticated tools will surely follow--history is a good guide in reminding us that what is happening in the digital realm cannot be the death knell for all of print media.

Reinvention

When people assumed talkies heralded the death of theater, motion pictures and stage found ways to coexist, albeit within a reconfigured marketplace; plays were adapted to film and vice versa, and stage and screen performers found ways to reinvent themselves in relation to new technological developments. When Betamax arrived on the market, it surely meant the death of the cineplex. But this was not to be as Hollywood rose to the challenge by creating films of greater aural and visual sophistication and made the big-screen experience something newly distinct from home viewing. (The business bonus was that cinema flops could stanch financial hemorrhaging by going straight to VHS or DVD.)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

But if old media's tenacity isn't persuasive, consider how print materials insist on their own presence. A newspaper delivered in the morning remains on the kitchen table while errands get run, when we return home, its open pages are an unsuspecting reminder of our intention, prodding us to finish what we started before the day ends. Unlike words we receive digitally, words on paper--or, to paraphrase Powers, the electronic data that our absurdly futuristic-looking copiers and printers spray across their surface--evade the out-of-sight, out-of-mind gauziness that is the perpetual present of the constantly updated homepage. And, at the risk of intellectualizing, I'd suggest hard copy periodicals maintain a kind of residual fixedness that seems to resonate, however subtly, with that of our own physical vessel--the human body. …

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