Editorial: A Dangerous Medium
By Michael Kinsley
Posted Saturday, April 5, 1997
Just a reminder: A weekly edition of Slate is now available on paper,
delivered through the U.S. mail, by subscription only, for $70 a
year. Call 800-555-4995 to subscribe.
We hesitate, frankly, to offer a paper edition of Slate. Why? Because
paper is a dangerous medium, all too prone to misuse by pedophiles,
political extremists, paranoid conspiracy mongers, and purveyors of
bad casserole recipes. Hitler's Mein Kampf was written on paper. So
were many of Stalin's most bestial orders for mass executions. Those
of us at Slate who are parents must naturally wonder whether paper
should be allowed into a house where young children can read
or-worse-write on it.
As many newspapers, magazines, and other timber-industry byproducts
have pointed out in the wake of the Heaven's Gate mass suicide,
Slate's preferred medium of the Internet has some darker byways of
its own. That's true. But this anti-Internet alarmism is a
heavy-handed attempt to distract attention from the really dangerous
medium: paper. J'accuse. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Et cetera.
The earliest users of paper were ancient Egyptians, with their
bizarre worship of the Sun God, Ra. (A distant relation, perhaps, of
the Heaven's Gate cult leaders, Do and Ti?) In the modern era, the
practice of writing on paper was first taken up, and monopolized for
centuries, by Christian monks, all of whom had taken vows of
celibacy. Even today, reading paper products is a lonely habit whose
practitioners often spend hours or even days at a time silently and
obsessively turning pages, immersed in a world of fantasy, isolated
from normal society. No wonder some of them lose all grip on reality.
Charles Manson was a known book reader. So was Attila the Hun
(according to his former political consultant, Dick Morris). Yet
society ignored the clues until it was too late.
Mere words cannot describe the vast range of content now available on
paper. Much of this, to be sure, is harmless nonsense, such as the
installation instructions that come with popular software products.
But paper is by far the favorite medium of pornographers. Ransom
notes use paper as well. Several years ago a scientific journal
published instructions for building a nuclear bomb. Where? On paper!
In a culture where Internet reality is dismissed as "virtual," the
appearance of words on paper lends them instant
credibility-credibility that may not be deserved. An irresponsible
rumor can be set in type, and then printed and distributed by the
millions, with no guarantee whatsoever of its accuracy. And yet
people say, "I only know what I read in the papers." At best, paper's
materiality creates an unjustified impression of trustworthiness; at
worst, paper can be folded into an airplane that can poke someone's
Paper poses a special peril to children. Unlike a computer, a filthy
magazine can easily be snuck into the house in an innocent-looking
lunchbox. It can be hidden under a pile of sweat clothes in the
bottom dresser drawer. Any page can be folded, placed in a pocket,
and secretly transported or shared with other children. Books can
even be read by flashlight in bed, long after Dad has requisitioned
the family computer and is trying to log on to AOL, naively believing
that junior is safe from corruption just because he is tucked in and
It is fine to say that parents are responsible for what their
children read. But no parent can realistically patrol a child's
access to paper. It's everywhere-even at the library and other
taxpayer-supported institutions. Rating systems do not exist.
Filtering software is not available.
What is the moral? The first moral is that children are never safer
than when staring at a computer screen. At least you know they're not
reading a book or anything. Second, government regulation of paper is
clearly needed. We look to Congress for a Paper Decency Act, to close
the giant loophole left open when last year's Communications Decency
Act was limited to electronic media. Third, the recent ruling of the
United States Parole Board forbidding paroled federal prisoners to
use the Internet must be extended to forbid books, magazines, and
newspapers as well. Corrupting influences are everywhere.