‘I just want people to pay’

Even though I spend too many of my waking hours on the internet, like a hamster on an endlessly spinning wheel, I have some sympathy for John R. MacArthur’s disdain for online publishing. Indeed, it’s probably because of this sense that the internet has an unlimited capacity to eat time that I see some appeal in the idea that we might return to a pre-digital age of print.

But the passionate defense of print media that the publisher of Harper’s magazine makes, falls apart when we learn this:

On several occasions during a recent interview, he could not quite remember a fact that supported a point. His version of searching for it on Google was yelling to a staff member, who hurried to deliver the information.

Who needs Google when they have staff?

But perhaps the more relevent question would be: who needs to use Google when they have staff who can use Google?

MacArthur’s argument against online publishing is that the web isn’t “much more than a gigantic Xerox machine” that prevents publishers and writers getting paid.

Even so, when he somewhat dismissively refers to the internet as a place where people go to blow off steam, I wonder whether he is oblivious of the degree to which he indirectly relies on it — like a man who says he doesn’t need to know how to cook because all his meals get delivered by caterers.

MacArthur might believe his argument is against those who promote online media and thereby undermine the economic viability of publishing, but maybe he should imagine how he would make his case with Gutenburg.

Whereas Gutenburg came up with the means of making the written word accessible to the masses and thereby democratized human expression, the revivalists of print seem more interested in restricting access of their publications to their well-heeled subscribers.

MacArthur might believe that everyone who is cultivated enough to appreciate a quality literary magazine will also be able to afford paying for it, but in making that assumption he represents the American liberal elite with its over-sized sense of being liberal and its downplayed status as an elite.

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