God In The Machine
Introducing The Sun's Digital Edition
FOR A LONG TIME the best indicator of The Sun’s position on digital media could be found in our spartan Wikipedia entry, which includes the following quote from editor and publisher Sy Safransky: “I’d no sooner abandon print than throw someone I love overboard in a storm-tossed sea.” Love for print does not always mean a distaste for on-screen reading, but in this case it’s not far off the mark.
I came across that quote when I was thinking about applying for the position of digital-media director at The Sun. I did apply, and I got a letter back — by mail — from Sy, along with a couple of sample issues. The letter outlined Sy’s nascent ambition to create an online edition of The Sun as a companion to the thriving print magazine. The sample issues told another story.
The first included an essay by my predecessor, Angela Winter, about creating The Sun’s website. In it she described meeting Sy “in all his post-hippie, neo-Luddite glory” and then recounted how she’d helped coax him into something resembling the computer age despite his avowed anti-technology streak. I appreciated the subtle warning: the office Angela described was not a place for gung-ho pixel pushers quick to proclaim the printed word dead.
The second issue Sy sent me contained an essay by Wendell Berry about refusing to buy a computer and an interview with technology writer Nicholas Carr, who suggests that the Internet might be making us less inclined toward mindfulness — or, as he puts it, “stupid.” It wasn’t necessary to read between the lines: The Sun may have taken its first tentative steps into the online world, but Sy remained skeptical of the Internet’s relevance to his thoughtful, discerning readers.
Sy asked me to reply — by mail — with my thoughts on The Sun, its minimalist website, and the issues he’d sent. So began a months-long correspondence about a job that at most magazines would have been filled within weeks of its posting. I eventually persuaded my future boss that within the tangle of hyperlinked instant gratification could be found deeply engaged communities of readers and writers who weren’t much different from those who came together each month through The Sun.
Even before this conversation, a trickle of letters had begun to appear on Sy’s desk from subscribers asking for an electronic version of the magazine. The frequency of such requests has steadily increased. Some make stirring arguments about the trees that would be spared. Some live abroad and long to get each issue promptly and without the added expense of international shipping. Many seek to reduce clutter by eliminating the Leaning Tower of Suns stacked precariously beside their beds. And he’s heard from younger readers, “digital natives” who have been reading on-screen for most of their lives and seem none the worse for it.
I am not quite young enough to be a digital native myself. I lobbied my parents for dial-up Internet access in the early nineties, and when that failed, I paid for it with my own money, spurred by a high-school teacher who thought the Web might bring a bright introvert out of his shell. The pre-Google Internet was populated by a motley assemblage of impassioned pioneers excited to share in something new. The frontier they carved out had to be wrangled into lists of topics relevant to their interests because, without search engines, the few websites that had been published were all but impossible to find. For a shy boy adrift in a rural, conservative town, it was exhilarating to find a place where people discussed things that mattered and didn’t automatically reject other viewpoints. At first I read every post, every rebuttal, every tear-filled testimony, every hateful riposte. One thing I think Carr gets right: the Internet can be addictive. I became a regular on message boards, sharing my short stories and poetry, asking questions of the first Buddhist I’d ever encountered, and parsing rumors about the love lives of my favorite country-music singers. But I learned to resist the short-attention-span impulses of the Web the same way I resist them offline: by being vigilant and acknowledging that my defenses against such distractions are imperfect. It is harder to moderate my consumption in today’s rich landscape of blogs and social media, to reject each unclicked link’s urgent siren song and instead read one long, thoughtful post at a time.
WE BEGAN WORK on the digital edition of The Sun in 2010: a lifetime ago in Internet years. We have taken the same care in building the online edition that we do in crafting each issue, and if we are unfashionably late to the digital party, I don’t think Sy minds very much.
I share some of his concerns about the way people use technology and read on-screen, but I suspect that the difficulty many sometimes have staying focused isn’t unique to Internet browsing. Google isn’t making us stupid; it’s just the latest incarnation of a very old struggle for our attention. In print The Sun eschews the flashy distractions employed by most other publications. The same is true of the digital edition, which offers an ad-free oasis from our busy online lives. We’ve also begun work on a digital archive of back issues. I hope its depths will be well plumbed by first-time readers and longtime subscribers alike.
When I showed Sy how to use the digital archive, I asked him to think of a keyword that was likely to have appeared within recent issues of The Sun. He hesitated for a moment, squinting at this online facsimile of the magazine. Then he searched for “God.” When the dozens of results came back, his eyes lit up, and his hand moved toward the mouse for a survey of back issues. The machine, unencumbered by a fallible memory, “knew” each issue from cover to cover. As the archive grows, all our digital subscribers will have access to nearly forty years of memorable writing and striking photography.
We often receive letters from new readers who describe the same sense of discovery reading The Sun that I felt as a teen browsing the Web for the first time: a feeling of finally coming to safe harbor among kindred souls. Until now, that discovery could happen only through a magazine in your hand. The Sun’s first port of call will always be the printed page, but we’re excited to supplement that experience with our digital edition. May it find its way to the next earnest reader, fingers at the keys, searching for home.
For more information about The Sun’s digital edition, please visit www.thesunmagazine.org/digital —Ed.
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