Media Shock (Artistic Licence, 19/8 Business Post)

One of the most fun things about science fiction — in books and in movies — is getting to see writers attempt to predict the future. Flying skateboards in Back to the Future; fingernails that changed colour when touched in Total Recall, the 1990 version; fridges that change to become writeable screens in the new Total Recall, which premiered in Dublin on Tuesday. Such acts are delicate brushstrokes across the sky — illustrations of new ways of being. Watching such films; reading such books, you marvel at the writers’ capacity for invention, and wonder how much of their art will become true creations in time (I’m still waiting hopefully on the hoverboards).
But in the midst of all that, you also wish someone, somewhere, might have predicted the existence of a thing called the internet. Because then, at least, people in the media and creative arts might have had a shot at preparing for the upheaval to come. Across the spectrum — in radio, print and television — every management team has a `plan’ in place to `cope’ with the internet. Every model is being explored: subscription; limited access; all-you-can-eat access. But no one — with the possible exception of the Daily Mail and its sidebar of shame — has figured out how to stop the internet cannibalising its produce, like a rabid, frothing dog with snapping jaws.
In the most recent Irish readership figures, a total of 59 per cent of people (2,118,000) read a Sunday newspaper — a figure that represented a stark decline of 8 per cent compared to the previous year. In the United States, newspaper circulation in the first half of the year has dropped even further, by almost 10 per cent. Quoting a publisher on the collapse, the New York Times said, “When the aeroplane suddenly drops 10,000 feet and it doesn’t crash, you still end up with your heart in your stomach. Those are very, very bad numbers.” And this is far from the first year of the plummet.
It seems funny now, to think I used to just feel sorry for the musicians. In Tower Records, where I had lunch with a music journalist friend recently, he noted gloomily that there were more people in the coffee shop area than the rest of the entire store. It wasn’t just the paid-for CDs that seemed antique. I felt like an old souvenir from the past too. Who needs a critic or radio broadcaster to sort out the wheat from the chaff, after all, when any interested party can go online and make up their own minds? People can download music, get films, even read whole novels for free on the net. Thinking on it, this little dinosaur wanted to curl up next to the old format CDs and have a little sniffle.
So far, optimism has been key to media predictions for years to come. The presumption is that the freefall must stop. Why? Because it has to, right? But are we just victims of our own positivism? In Total Recall, there’s a scene in which Colin Farrell as Quaid, strapped into his seat, reads a book as his train travels right through the earth’s core. When zero gravity hits, the book spins out of Quaid’s hands. The look of that book — floating in space — felt to me like the media in its current state. We have hit zero gravity, and everyone is grabbing onto anything for support. But we haven’t been shot out the other side yet. So we don’t know where we’re going to fall. We just know that we’re falling.

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