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Happy Ignorance

There's something about watching people wade through a column of mine.

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I don't write in this space a tenth of what I formerly did, as the task of keeping a newspaper alive far outweighs what I may opine about from time to time. As well, there are fewer and fewer issues that I believe I can impact by picking up my fingers and start pounding down into a keyboard. I also used to have more time to think about writing something that is even worth thinking about.

There are plenty of folks out there who will challenge me on the notion that I actually thought about anything with any depth beyond the width of a copper penny. But, there was something about watching people wade through a column of mine—or Scott's, or Bill's, or Katharine's, or Ben's, or Holly's—and seeing their reactions over a beer or breakfast, that spoke to the personal nature of print. Letters would then roll in, and we all knew that if someone took the time to write a handwritten note or to peck out a tribute or dagger, what we said had some degree of importance.

I still observe people reading City Weekly. I watch what pages they read, what pages they turn to, and it's an especially nice feeling when I see people hold up a paper and point something out to a nearby companion. I love that and I'm happy to report that our readership remains loyal. Factoring in our new products that have introduced new readers (Devour, Vamoose, three additional Best of Utah editions, We Are Utah and our upcoming City Guide), we might be reaching more people and a more diverse audience now than we ever have. Not that long ago, we used to print 52 editions of City Weekly annually plus a City Guide. Now, we print 52 issues of the Weekly, plus more than 30 glossy print magazines annually. Yeah, we're nuts.

But today, writing doesn't feel the same. I blame myself and for one reason: Twitter—that time and brain-cell killer. In 2010, I was having dinner with my good friend, David Carr, columnist for The New York Times. We'd known each other for years, each wearing down molars in the alternative newspaper industry, me with City Weekly, him with the Twin Cities Reader, then as editor of the Washington City Paper. We both pulled out our phones and checked how many Twitter followers we had. Each of us had but a couple hundred. I remember David saying Twitter was going to be the next big thing. Yeah, right. Pass the fry sauce, man. This April marks my 10-year Twitter anniversary. I have around 1,500 followers (less than some cats, herrings and most fake memes have), but I swear I only have 27. I've averaged two tweets and four likes a day for 10 years. When David died suddenly four years ago, he had more than 400,000 followers, and was a certified Twitter star. He was right.

David thrived on Twitter where his bullet-point insights, quick wit and clever perceptions were tailor-made for users who found it acceptable to communicate about even the most sensitive subjects with keyboard shortcuts, diminutive analysis, anonymous threats, false praise and emojis. And they did it—even taking on deep-think topics like climate change, gender equality or social politics—in fewer characters, 140, than are in this single sentence. We believe we understand the gist of a long tale or government policy by just reading a single tweet. We believe that, because we have come to the point of not reading an author or position paper. It's really the exact opposite: We simply trust the person composing the tweet; we only follow who we trust.

Just as God died in the 1960s, analysis died in the 2010s—maybe sooner—but we missed it. Actually, we did miss it. In his 1995 book, The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan pronounced (as sages have for millennia) that societies eventually become ignorant. The catch-all phrase we use now—attributed by those on the right to smart, elite "libtards"—is that democracy dies in darkness. What Sagan actually wrote is this:

"... the dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bite (now down to 10-seconds or less) the lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance."

Poor Carl. He'd have to pare off four characters from that quote, which is barely a fraction of his entire book, in order to enter the Twittersphere, which now allows 280 characters. Some people criticized that double-down by Twitter, but give credit where it's due: If not for those additional characters, we wouldn't have @realDonaldTrump who is a person Sagan foreshadowed when he described our essence as a "celebration of ignorance." If there's one thing Trump is good at, it's dumbing down ideas.

Sagan would be lost today. His quote doesn't leave room for #cosmos or #weareallstardust hashtags or to thank @god. He'd have to hope that people shared his quote and people on his team surely would. They perhaps would if they saw it or had time. We pretend to, but don't care as much about nearly everything, though. Fewer things add up to anything; just lines of randomness, nothing deep, everything motivated by how mean or smart we might appear. The dumbing of us all.

Someone tweeted that Sagan quote in my direction recently or else I'd never have seen it. I also had never heard of that book until now. I never knew his thoughts were ancient thoughts. I sure feel smart. You might even think I'm smart, and we're both smart if we both agree it was a smart quote. Which means of course, we're both ignorant, and that's what Sagan was talking about.


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