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Re-Value(ing) Words

I’ve been following the demise of the written word for some time now. It’s taking place primarily through one of it’s main forms, story. The ‘story’ can be housed in either a physical or electronic form.

The first step was to remove the value of story by converting story to a widget. Of course, those of you with like minds who have been watching the drama might say that it already happened, but I will argue that no, it hasn’t, not truly. I do admit we’re on the cusp. The quality of story has definitely overall plummeted—but it is not yet gone. I will also argue that unlike other things (like butterflies) that once gone we can not bring back, story will always be with us so long as we are human.

The changing of the form from a physical to electronic medium allowed value to be moved from story (content) to the medium. Altering medium also made the switch to something of intrinsic value with a long life and small environmental footprint to a product that is a short life consumable with a very large environmental footprint and for the first time the medium would require constant input, further increasing it’s already outsized environmental costs.

Since the value is now the medium, content has become a secondary factor, hence it plummeting quality. Content has also become a huge income stream for the main players in the drama.

What one party will view as a strength, others view as weakness. This truth is never more realized than with the two mediums that now deliver story.

For the physical, it’s physicality gives it permanence which is seen as a strength by many. From the tree farms to the environmentally biodegradable inks, glues and local printing it takes physical space. Story in this form delivers jobs, green space primarily used by wildlife between cutting and planting and is itself a carbon sink, but that very physicality requires space. Space to grow the trees, to grow the plants that produce the inks, to process it in environmentally regulated production facilities.

The physical has weight, volume. It takes up space in your life. The physical is also fixed. Its form once created exists unchanging. I would argue it’s main value is not in its decomposable matter, but that it is unchanging. That it will be almost five hundred years before those reading the story in todays’s language would need help deciphering it. That if hidden away, the physical could be rediscovered and thus story remains.

Point of view is everything. The space needed to produce the physical can be turned to much more profitable intensive monocultures, be reutilized for resource extraction or consumed for some other uniquely human need. The factories are highly regulated, thus have limited profitability, moving them to less regulated areas where the damage can go unnoticed by the consumer is SOP found in any corporate manual.

The new medium by contrast is primarily created in such a way that the consumer can easily ignore it’s production costs. The medium is heavily wrapped in marketing to discourage scrutiny. To further draw attention from its constant cost to the consumer (through power use) catch phrases like dead tree are used to throw aspersions onto the physical form.

The biggest change is that the medium’s nature means that story suddenly is not permanent. Some argue that this is the best feature of the medium, the ability to change story with a stroke of a few keys. To alter meaning, shorten length, remove or adjust language within story, thus finally making story a true widget and completely adjustable to market pressures from the bottom up, top down or other financial motivation. There has been surprisingly little upset with this feature of the medium, even as it is employed by schools, religious groups and corporate governments. Consumers will adjust to almost anything if the changes are instituted in small enough increments. Now that the consumer is becoming conditioned to these aspects of the medium, continuing alterations to direct consumer behavior and expectations is and will give those in control of the medium tremendous influence.

There are also three connectivity areas to consider. The first is access to power, should it be limited or halted for any reason, the medium has only a short period of time before a power source must be located. The constant use of power is a revenue stream meaning that story is finally a true consumable. The second is that the medium must connect to a source of content. Managing content, owning content, supplying content are all highly valuable areas that allow access for media exploitation. Medium obsolescence is the third and though not considered as important as other areas, it will drive device value and consumption.

The medium’s main benefits are it’s ability to carry vast numbers of stories, it’s lack of physical space and weight and it’s ability to adjust font size. It’s environmental footprint aside, the medium allows many who struggle with the reality of the physical form to enjoy story.

For those of us who love words, that believe in an intrinsic value to story, who do not believe that story can be just another widget, we must act. We buy the world we and our children will live in. When we buy the physical story, we must spend wisely and only on those products that are produced in a biologically sustainable manner, created by environmentally regulated industries, supplying jobs in locally, not globally—where costs are so easy to hide—locations. When we use medium to consume story, we must buy quality over quantity, for we are investing in the value of the work that created story. Always be vigilant that medium doesn’t control story, that the story’s core is not compromised for the medium. When a particular story moves you so much that its physical presence is something you want, read deeply. Compare. If we love story, if words have value that is not tied to a dollar sign then we must guard against censorship in all its forms.


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