A couple weeks ago, I posted about reviews of Nick Bilton’s new book, I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works. After reading the sample chapters, I was intrigued, but I don’t have the money right now to go around buying books just because I want to read them. So I hopped on the web, and a short time later I was reading the book for free.
(That is to say, I placed a hold request at my public library’s website, and a few days later picked up the hardcover. Why, what did you think I meant?)
I finished the book yesterday, and there really is a lot in it to digest. A lot of it is information I was aware of already, but Bilton does a great job of tying it all together and explaining what it all means. In a way, I’m really too close to the subject matter to judge whether it does a good job of explaining it to someone unaware of it—I think I would like to see what someone like my father would think of this book.
The overall point of the book seems to be to reassure people that the more things change, the more they stay the same. People have been worried, in fact downright frantic, about every major new invention that came along. The telephone and phonograph caused fear that nobody would go out to see live shows anymore. Comic books were horribly subversive and would lead to rampant moral decay. And on, and on, ad infinitum.
Needless to say, these things haven’t turned out to be the case. And, Bilton says, the Internet isn’t going to rot our brains either. Like most things, it is changing our brains—but our brains are adaptable, and meant to be changed.
A Chapter By Chapter Review
I already covered the introduction in my previous piece linked above: Bilton explained why he stopped subscribing to the paper version of the New York Times and talked about the furor it caused when he revealed this in an interview. Bilton also talks about his history with technology, and the way technological innovation is changing the way we consume media.
In the first chapter, Bilton looks at the pornography industry, long considered one of the “early adapters” of technological change. (And the trend is apparently continuing into the e-book world, judging from the Kindle erotica piece I posted earlier today.)
Bilton points out that the porn industry’s adoption of the 2-hour-capable JVC VHS over the 1-hour Sony Beta format was one of the key inflection points that led to VHS’s eventual primacy. And he reveals that the traditional porn industry is itself facing some of the same concerns over how to move forward into digital content shared by traditional media. But he also touches on some firms that are finding the way forward.
The second chapter dives into some of those previous technopocalypse fears I mentioned above, most notably the comic book scare. It also covers another “new media” magazine that is considered old and staid now but was fairly controversial in its early years—none other than Reader’s Digest. Bilton also addresses the fears some have that texting and Twitter abbreviations are “corrupting” the English language.
In the third chapter, Bilton talks about the way the Internet is able to build virtual communities by providing a way for like-minded people from all over the city, country, or world to meet and “hang out” on-line. He also recaps his debate with New Yorker writer George Packer over the benefits of Twitter that I covered back in February.
This is one of the parts of the book that I find most interesting. Bilton posits that, far from causing information overload, our Twitter and other social networking communities are actually a way of helping us manage information overload. Even though they were designed just as a way of telling our friends what we were doing at the moment, they’ve evolved into ways of sharing links to stories we find interesting and relevant.
Sure, some people still use these social services to tell friends what they’ve eaten for breakfast, but generally, we’ve taken the sharing to a whole new level, exchanging expertise and insight and helping one another decide what’s important and what is merely digital fluff.
Certainly my own experiences with social media have shown this tends to be true—especially since apps like Flipboard have come along to turn my feeds into something even closer to a traditional magazine.
The fourth chapter delves into matters of trust: who we trust online, why we trust, and the social dynamics of leaders and followers. There’s some interesting stuff about experiments showing that the general direction of movement of a random crowd can be decided by as little as five percent of it.
The fifth chapter starts with a mention of the Nicholas Carr article in The Atlantic that I mentioned in the same post as the Bilton-Packer dispute above. This is another important chapter, in which Bilton delves into neuroscience to talk about what the Internet is doing to our brains
One interesting note Bilton points out is a rebuttal to those who claim our brains “weren’t designed” to process information from screens, or play video games. Bilton notes that by that criterion, our brains weren’t designed to read, either. We all have to learn it, and the process of learning to read actually causes changes in our brains—it actually leads to new development in key neural areas. So does learning to do any complex task, such as juggling (or, for that matter, surfing the Internet).
And some of that development can be beneficial for other tasks. Bilton points to the studies showing that surgeons who play certain kinds of video games actually become better at performing surgical tasks that require extreme dexterity.
In chapter six, Bilton discusses “me economics”—the notion growing, especially among the younger generations, that services should be specifically customized to give them what they want. Using our placement on a Google Maps app as an example, Bilton talks about the way that we’re each at the center of our own digital universe.
Being in the center—instead of somewhere off to the side or off the page altogether—changes everything. It changes your conception of space, time, and location. It changes your sense of place and community. It changes the way you view the information, news, and data coming in over your computer and your phone. And it changes your role in a transaction, empowering you to decide quite specifically what content to buy and how to buy and use it rather than simply accepting the traditional material that companies have packaged on your behalf.
This me-centrism, Bilton says, is at the root of a lot of the clash between today’s digital “consumnivores”—people don’t just passively experience media, but “consume and regurgitate” it—and the old guard who want to limit and restrict the ways in which their content can be used.
Some (especially those associated with the content-creating old guard) may see the “me economy” as shallow selfishness or entitlement. But it could also be seen as a natural outgrowth of digital media’s non-fixed form and hence infinite customizability, and of the way many services have sprung up emphasizing customizable features.
Bilton focuses on the movie industry as one that has been reluctant to embrace consumer desires—insisting that movies be shown only in theaters for several months before coming to video where people can view them in their own homes. He talks about his discussion with one filmmaker on the matter of piracy,
He also explains why people who focus on associating sale price of a medium with production cost (for instance, the print-vs-e-book costs discussion I mentioned an hour ago) are missing the boat: people don’t pay just for content, but also for quality and overall experience.
Chapter seven is about how people can multitask and pay attention to multiple things at once. This chapter also brings in some important concepts relating to e-books, as studies concerning doing multiple things at once show that concentration-intensive tasks such as reading for pleasure are difficult to do while trying to do other things at the same time.
They also suggest that younger generations exposed to multimedia may find traditional print reading “not as engaging” anymore (something that was feared by some of the parents in a survey concerning kids and e-book readers that I mentioned earlier). Bilton suggests that future e-books might grow to include more multimedia, or even interactive games, to help promote learning.
In chapter 8, Bilton looks ahead to the future, guessing at what future forms of storytelling might look like. He looks at the difference screen size makes in how we enjoy and relate to content we view there. (It turns out, not as much as you might think.) He talks about the idea of our devices being able to sense context so we could take our media with us seamlessly even as we go from place to place.
Bilton looks at how Apple “undercut itself”, selling the iPhone that it knew would cannibalize the iPods that were its biggest earner because Jobs knew if Apple didn’t, someone else would. And he looks at the possible repercussions of a digital, socially-networked world that might “remember” one’s youthful indiscretions for decades to come.
And in a brief epilogue, in the form of a letter to content creators, Bilton explains that technological change is a one-way street: consumers “aren’t coming back” to traditional forms of media, and it’s up to those creators to figure out how to deal with it.
I’m not going to wake up one day and say, “Hey, the web isn’t for me, I’m going to start buying CDs, print books, and newspapers again.” I’m among the new era of consumers and contributors, and we’re looking for new forms of content and storytelling. Where it doesn’t exist, we’re going to find it elsewhere, make it ourselves, or, in some instances, just take it.
All in all, the book is a fun read, full of interesting information and insights and it certainly provides a lot of food for thought. Not everyone will agree with Bilton’s assertions, but he does a really good job of laying them out with ample supporting evidence.
The Rest of the Experience
But the words on paper (or screen) are only part of the overall experience of the book. Bilton included QR codes at the start of each chapter that link to pages on his website where people can see supplemental material such as videos or links to things discussed in the chapter, and also leave comments and engage in discussions about the chapter and its content.
How does this work? Well, it’s a mixed bag. The supplemental material is interesting, especially the videos, but the pages come off less as a foundation for a community and more as blog posts without the actual post. The pages don’t include any actual content from the book, beyond the first two or three sentences of the chapter and a “READ MORE” link that leads to a “buy the book” page. There’s not really a lot of discussion there, either; perhaps due to the lack of content—none of the chapter pages I viewed had more than a handful of comments.
Meanwhile, books published in the Creative Commons, such as Larry Lessig’s, can have the entire text put into wikis for people to comment on and update as they like. James Boyle’s The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind has an on-line system where people can respond paragraph by paragraph if they want to.
While allowing people to update Bilton’s book would probably be going too far, it would still be nice to have it to seed the discussion, like Boyle’s. But of course that’s not going to happen since the e-book can be sold separately for money.
For a book that celebrates the “me economy”, the much-vaunted interactivity seems a little lacking—especially when you consider that, as Joe Wilkert pointed out, the e-book experiences currently available aren’t much better than the printed book in that respect. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that the content itself is well worth reading and discussing. Check it out (from the library, if you’d rather not buy it).