GELFAND’S WORLD--It’s been twenty years since we had a decade with a proper name. Since the year 2000 we’ve had “the oughts” and then the pretty much illegible teens.
But in a mere four weeks, we will enter the twenties, a decade which we can bite into name-wise. It will be a real decade with a real name, like the roaring twenties, as they were remembered a century ago. It will be the centennial of an age of flappers and big band swing and – closer to reality – the aftermath of the Great War, what we now refer to as World War I.
In this final month, it’s appropriate to think back on the twenty - teens, just as we will think back on the year 2019 during the final week of the year. We might also profitably think back on the major trends, rather than just obsess on our immediate political disasters.
Polarization in Truth as well as Politics
It’s hard to imagine an era of stronger polarization than the one we have just gone through. Maybe the Civil War era, but at least back then, the sides were well defined – you were either for slavery or against it, you were for the dissolution of the Union or against it – and there weren’t a lot of factual issues to debate. The pro-slavery side tried to conger up some pseudo-facts to defend slavery, but both sides understood that abolition was the question, and the answer would only come in one way, through war.
Today’s polarization shares some features in common with those days, but in many ways it’s a different kind. It’s a polarization in which the factual basis of everything has been put at odds. On the one side, we realize with fair certainty that Russia intervened to deny Hillary Clinton the presidency. On the other side, a fanciful conspiracy in which Ukraine is blamed for the same behavior is proclaimed by congressmen during a televised hearing.
We’ve come to recognize that the right wing has developed into a massive propaganda instrument that cares not a bit for truth, much less what is moral. It inverts morality to such an extent that cabinet officers are proclaiming that Trump is the Chosen One.
The descent of polarization?
Like a stock market that seems like it will never fall, our polarization has continued to maintain itself. But like former bull markets, it may be that polarization is due for its own reversal. This prediction is iffy, and is based merely on the fact that nothing goes up forever. But something as simple as a new recession could be the stimulus. We’ll see.
Which leads, however irregularly, to the following major trend . . .
The Present and Future of Print Media
Freedom of the press is so important to our people that we enshrined it in the Bill of Rights. But just like the “arms” described in the second amendment, the “press” described in the first amendment is undergoing major transitions.
Even a decade ago, people were agonizing over whether we would still have print newspapers by the middle of the century. The future is not at all clear on this, but something has been happening that goes against the death-prophecies we were hearing in 2010. What we’ve been seeing is the loss of a lot of small papers and the consolidation of others in parallel with the desperate survival of the biggies. The Orange County Weekly folded just hours ago, and the locals such as the Daily Breeze and the Long Beach Press Telegram have become thinner and thinner.
Meanwhile, the biggest of the big city dailies have mostly held on. We still have a Los Angeles Times, and we still read stories that originate in Chicago, Houston, New York, and Boston. What’s not happening is any kind of maintenance, much less strengthening, of the once-robust news culture manned by thousands of shoe leather reporters.
The news business used to be nourished by classified ads, but with the internet and craigslist, that income source began to fail. Big city newspapers still hang on by selling full page ads to auto dealers and by grabbing onto some internet revenue, but as everybody knows, internet revenue isn’t the same as charging thousands of people for two-line ads offering used cars and furniture -- filling out a full section in the daily newspaper. Remember when there were twenty or thirty pages of classified ads in a separate section every day?
In the old days, advertising revenue kept multiple newspapers afloat in the same city. Not so much anymore.
The teens have shown a loss of a lot of small magazines and a dramatic price increase in the survivors. Still, there are a lot of print magazines still in existence, as a visit to your local Barnes and Noble will show. Another curious symptom of something – not entirely clear what it’s about – is the closure of sidewalk level news stands around town. Maybe it’s just the prices, because you used to be able to pick up a couple of magazines for a buck or two, but now you are looking at close to a twenty dollar bill.
What’s wrong (or at least way different) about newspapers nowadays?
I asked one acquaintance where she gets her news, and the answer became clear that it’s from her cell phone. She clicks to CBS or NBC, or is given links by a few Facebook friends. Apparently for much of the American population, the small screen is sufficient. It’s different from folding pages of a full size newspaper, but apparently that’s not a problem.
And the major difference is of course that the news that you get in a newspaper, such as it is, is no longer news, because everybody read it on the internet or on an iphone the previous day.
So, our big city dailies are basically selling features. They tell upscale suburbans what to wear and where to shop. They run crossword puzzles and the bridge column, and they run a small semblance of investigative reporting. They also carry the big news stories of the day – the latest brush fire and the impeachment hearing – for those who like some in depth coverage -- but it’s not all that much more than you got on your cell phone.
And more to the point, the details are already up on numerous internet sites. In a place like Los Angeles, we get news stories sourced from the east coast or from Europe hours before we would see them in the morning paper, and we already got the brush fire story on the televised newscasts.
So, the dailies are not only competing with the internet and cell phones, they are losing out to televised newscasts.
As an aside, the effect of televised news is to increase the level of polarization between legitimate journalism and the strongly partisan approaches we see on some of the cable networks. And the corollary – or side effect, if you will – is that the cable networks and talk radio have a need to attack legitimate journalism because actual fact gathering conflicts with their fictionalized approach.
The curious hope from an as-yet unrealized technology
The development of personal computers was not obvious as late as the 1960s, and the development of the smart phone came even more recently. What has held back the complete replacement of print technology is the viewing screen itself. Old timers remember when computer screens were green with yellow letters popping up. Then we got screens in full color. Then we got bigger screens and higher resolutions. What we haven’t seen yet is something that would entirely replace a full-sized news page, something with the size, flexibility, and light weight. I have no idea how that new technology would come about, but here’s a wild guess: Imagine something like the current generation of virtual reality goggles, but with much enhanced capabilities and in addition, the ability to look past the virtual reality news page and out at the real world. Maybe add some ability to hear a sound track in full symphonic accuracy.
The underlying problem is still how to charge people for news
I get several requests a day for contributions and/or subscription fees to internet sites. What’s difficult about this is that they are meritorious sources, they spend a lot of money on putting out their internet products, but if I were to subscribe to all that I would like, the cost would be prohibitive.
What would be useful is some way of paying into some unified place and getting subscriber access to a large number of sites. Imagine paying for Amazon Prime alone, and getting access to all the big city newspapers and, in addition, all of the smaller internet sites that need our money. It would be nice to be able to supply a modest donation to Daily Kos through a centralized depository and simultaneously buy into Talking Points Memo and Kevin Drum’s blog.
The Era of Lost Opportunity: Global Warming
We’ve known about the possibility of global warming for several decades. We had chances to engage in preventative measures, but we didn’t. The teens is the decade that it all became crystal clear. The surface of the earth is warming, it’s getting out of control, and we’re not doing enough. Worse yet, there are still politicians who engage in denial.
When the history of 2001 – 2019 is written, our failure to protect the future will be the strongest finding. The sins of today compare to the failure of early twentieth century diplomacy in preventing the two world wars. What is not yet clear is whether there is a solution to the current problem that is even as good as the solution we found to the world wars.
One small part of the solution continues to evolve . . .
A decade’s evolution in transportation, public and private
One of the first columns I wrote for CityWatch was an end-of-year piece that proposed the production of thinner cars and lots more lanes on the crosstown freeways. Figure something as wide as an Indianapolis racing car with maybe 45 horsepower. Re-divide the Santa Monica Freeway into ten or 12 lanes in each direction. A decade later, I would modify that original column to suggest that the cars be the same size, but run on electricity.
Curiously, that column has been partially paralleled by what is actually happening in the automotive universe. We’ve seen the arrival of those truly tiny cars that don’t seem to have a back seat or a trunk (or even an engine compartment). They are, unfortunately, still a little too wide. This could be fixed by making them one seat wide, and add a second seat behind the first seat. This kind of design works for jet fighter planes, so why not for commuter cars? Think about making the Santa Monica Freeway a zero emission, multi-lane roadway with a speed limit of 45 mph between the westside and downtown, with a total transit time of 15 minutes or so.
Over the past ten years, we’ve been seeing an evolution in cars that has resulted in better fuel efficiency in the gasoline cars, the addition of hybrids and electric cars to the fleet as technologies improve, and a nearly uniform shape (without square edges) that improves on aerodynamics. The one major design flaw is that these cars are still too wide, making it difficult to solve the problem of traffic gridlock.
The First Mile, Last Mile issue
The city of Los Angeles continues to add light rail to its transportation structure. This is not a bad idea in itself, but it is an incomplete idea. Getting from your home to the train and from the train to your office is referred to as the “first mile, last mile” problem. Curiously, the advent of disposable electric scooters offers us the beginnings of a possible solution. One variant might be the creation of smaller, lighter scooters that you can own, and can take with you on the train and to your office. That would be the beginnings of a partial solution. The existence of plentiful scooters that don’t belong to individuals, but which could be taken home (or dropped off close to your home) would be a similar solution. These things are worth talking about over the next few years.
There are many other issues and trends to be discussed as the teens come to an end next month. Will the twenty-tens (or is that twenty-teens?) be remembered by historians as the era of Obama and Trump, or as the decade in which the earth was allowed to burn, or as the precursor to some international cataclysm that we don’t yet foresee? Tune in after another ten or fifty years . . .
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)