“DIGITAL, SHMIDGITAL!”

I remember a conversation I had with my dear departed Dad quite a number of years ago, when my own magazine production company’s office had recently acquired its first collection of computers…

When I began my journalism career, the manner by which my words, and the words of every other contributor to our publications, got from the typewriter (remember those?) to the printed magazine page was through a lengthy and laborious process. This process began with writing and rewriting, proofreading and editing, more writing and more editing. Then the completed and carbon-copied (remember that?) manuscript, rife with proofreading signs and symbols written in pencil (remember those?) was handed off to another proofreader and/or editor, who did his/her thing before finally passing the now well-worn manuscript off to the Art Director. The AD decided what type font and size were required for each and every word group: title, subhead, blurbs, body copy, captions, footnotes, etc. The AD was allowed to use a pen and would further disfigure my brilliant article and all the others, by virtue of his/her own set of mysterious signs and symbols.

When the Art Director finished further disfiguring my article and everything else that was going to go in that month’s issue, he/she put it all into a large manila envelope and placed a call to the typesetter (remember her?), who sent someone over to pick it up. The typesetter would then retype everything in the package via a machine called a “phototypesetter” that magically turned our written words into perfectly justified columns of type on long sheets of satin-finish photographic paper. When the typesetter was finished with his/her business, these long sheets of photographic paper, called “galleys,” where then placed in even larger manila envelopes and messengered back to us. Typesetting an entire issue could take two weeks or more, and the copy generally came back piecemeal, so that the AD could work on several articles while waiting for the other galleys to come in.

While the articles were in the hands of the typesetter, the AD busied him/herself with “sizing” artwork. This required perusing each and every photographic print, slide and illustration which was intended for a particular issue, putting crop marks on them and figuring out a percentage (using a “percentage wheel”) by which each photo or illustration would have to be reduced or enlarged in order to fit in the space allotted for it in the issue. As I am sure you can see, this was another lengthy and laborious process; if you were putting out a monthly magazine, or—God forbid—a fortnightly (every two weeks) or weekly, like Sports Illustrated, Time or Newsweek, well, there really didn’t seem like there was enough time to get the whole thing done. But get it done, we somehow did.

The final step in the process called for the AD to paste each and every galley onto sheets of heavy white paper with pale blue margins printed on them, called “mechanicals.” He/she accomplished this on a large drafting table, while utilizing rubber cement, a T-square, triangles and an X-Acto knife (remember those?). Of course, these galleys had to be pasted around every box on each page which contained a photo or illustration. And every word had to fit into the exact number of pages and columns to which a particular article was assigned. Black and white pages then went to the printer, and color pages to the color separator, whose job it was to “separate” each color page into four pieces of photographic negatives corresponding to the four colors in the printing process: cyan, magenta, yellow and black. These four colors are then able to produce literally every hue in the universe for the final printed publication.

I apologize for subjecting you to all of the preceding tedious text, but my intention is to give the uninitiated a glimpse of just how incredibly difficult it was, when I began my journalism career back in the Seventies, to relay inspiration, ideas, information and images, from the minds of writers and artists to the eyes of readers and appreciators of art. This process has been vastly streamlined and simplified—eliminating practically all of the above—by the introduction and astonishingly rapid improvement of computer technology, hardware and software. In a mere not-quite-a-lifetime (my own), the process by which we human beings acquire art and information has gone from lengthy and laborious to virtually (clearly the perfect word) instantaneous.

Our children, perhaps, and their children, certainly, have no concept of just how fortunate they are to be living in this era of instant informational and communicational gratification. (I often say, only half-joking, that in this technologically superior age it is not only possible, but—unfortunately, I think—all too common for one to have an intimate digital relationship with someone halfway around the world, and yet never actually speak to one’s next-door neighbor.) My own daughter, Carolyn, at 27 years of age today, was just entering her adolescent years as the digital environment was exploding exponentially all around her. I sometimes shudder to think of the astonishing technological advances that await her children and their children.

This is not all good, to be sure. Our kids and their kids (and, yes, more than a few of us) are so connected to smart phones that I can’t help but wonder if this is something that is truly “smart.” Will we, for example, become so accustomed to relating to our ever-growing collection of digital devices that, in the very-near future we will fail, to an even greater extent than we do now, at relating to each other? I say this, of course, as I am typing on my laptop, intermittently texting friends, listening to James Taylor on my iPod, and looking forward to streaming a CGI-bloated movie called Pacific Rim on my 60” plasma TV. Have I related in the good, old-fashioned, traditional way to another human being today? Not yet, but I probably will speak with my wife Jan at some point, after I’ve recovered from my digital hangover.

How do we rectify a situation in which human beings have become far too comfortable with, and reliant upon, devices and far less in-touch physically and emotionally with each other? I don’t think we can. The cover of Pandora’s (not the audio streaming App, but the character from Greek mythology) Box has been ripped from its golden hinges, never to be replaced again. In reality, few of us would replace it if we could. The only thing I will say further about a future whose technological rocket fuel has blasted it nearer to us than ever before in human history is this: Just because we can do something—as wonderful as it may seem—doesn’t necessarily mean we should.

Oh, yes. That conversation I had with my Dad more than a dozen years ago… After many minutes of excitedly relating to him the wonders of our new computer era, to the best of my extremely limited knowledge (I still don’t understand, even a little, how some humongous compilation of “ones” and “zeroes” makes it possible for me to play Real Racing 3 on my Kindle Fire), I said: “So what do you think about this digital revolution?”

“Digital, shmidgital,” he said in his inimitable way, while slowly shaking his head. “I haven’t figured out how the radio works yet.”

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One thought on ““DIGITAL, SHMIDGITAL!”

  1. Thanks for the publishing tour. I had no idea how complicated it was to put together a magazine when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. And I could hear your father’s voice in the last sentence.

    Your story reminded me of an anecdote from my business. About ten years ago my colleagues and I started the service business that I run today. Since at its core it involves transmitting and processing legal information it was only natural to embrace the digital age. But the historical client base was married to printing and shipping paper. Would they migrate to digital? I called a customer and asked if his firm would be willing to test a paperless environment. He said that such decisions could only be made by the senior partner, who he described as averse to new technology. “Let me put it this way”, he said, “my partner finally got a cell phone but it has a rotary dial.”

    Like

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