I had a conversation with my father yesterday about buying the paper New York Times. I used to but have stopped; he continues to buy the Sunday edition and a few day papers a week. Why, I wondered, when there are so many reasons not to buy the physical paper, did he continue to do so, even as the price increased? Consider:
My dad is no technophobe. He actually subscribes to the Times Reader, and can be found reliably reading the NYT on his laptop during lunch. He browses the headlines every morning. It’s clear that the majority of his day-to-day interaction with the paper is online.
He also lives in central Maine, a region that is lucky to get any national papers by 10:00 a.m. In fact, when he buys the paper, it is almost always in the afternoon, when he simply won’t have time to read any significant part of it. Not only does the physical paper cost more, he reads less of it!
And the price. We puzzled over exactly why he continues to spend — according to our quick calculation — around $500/year on NYT dead trees and ink. Not to mention the trip to town it requires. (Ostensibly he has other reasons to make the drive, but I think he makes up excuses so he can buy the paper.) Especially when every article is posted for free online (for now).
He is satisfied with the answer, “it’s just habit.” I’m less satisfied. We all have habits, and usually for some underlying reason. Besides, habits are meant for breaking.
I tried to argue it was due in part to his signaling a certain part of his identity, although I don’t think either he or I was convinced. The fact is that he reads his paper in relative solitude (generally only my mother sees him). So could he really be signaling? Perhaps, in a kind of “impartial spectator” way — the way he sees himself reading the newspaper gives him pleasure and affirms a part of his identity.
Does the image of one “reading the paper” appeal to us, and give us pleasure when we imagine ourselves approaching it? As I read a newspaper I also imagine myself reading the newspaper, and approve of it. It appears as a praiseworthy activity. It’s a powerful aesthetic. (It is my twitter avatar, from a painting by Cézanne. Undoubtably in the cultural consciousness.)
The opposing image I’d suggest is of a person behind a laptop screen. There are similarities, but there are significant differences. The man reading his newspaper is passive, taking in various facts from around the world, soaking up disparate narratives of the day’s events and hopefully coming to a greater understanding — he is a man of letters. The woman behind her laptop also takes in facts, narratives, events and arguments. But where the man stops she continues to work: she checks facts, asks questions, writes her opinion, comments on others’ work. She is an active participant in a global village of ideas — what was once a community to merely be considered, and now is a community one can be part of. She is a woman of conversation.
These two stereotypes are the “reader” and the “blogger” respectively. They are both equally important to a personal sense of propriety. We all yearn to be something significant in the greater world — the worlds of politics and art and culture. The way that we see ourselves in interaction with the larger world is, unsurprisingly, the principle of how we interact. To my father, seeing himself holding a newspaper is as fulfilling — as right — as it is when I see myself at my laptop.
And so, yes, it is a form of signaling. Our pleasure comes not from the substance of what we’re doing (the actual articles read or posts written) but from the aesthetic appreciation of our own propriety. We pray at the altar of our self-identity to appease it and convince ourselves it does exist and is proper. This could cost us $2 for the paper or a night staring at a screen.
Of course I do think the “blogger” image is more useful for society — hence the original argument with my father. But it’s clear we aren’t perfect utilitarians in respect to our identities; nor, perhaps, should we be. I don’t have much of a right to tell my dad he shouldn’t buy the newspaper (from opportunity cost, etc etc) because, well, it’s part of his identity. I wouldn’t want someone telling me not to sit at a screen all day (clearly a huge investment of my time compared to a $2 paper).