Wednesday, December 29, 2010
I Live in the Future by Nick Bilton
Nick Bilton is extremely upbeat in his assessment of where we're going with information sharing. In fact, one might accuse him of having the tail-wagging enthusiasm of a convert. He does, in fact, call himself a "borderline digital immigrant" rather than a "digital native." He may be aiming this narrative at an audience who does not already spend much of it's time online, and instead is aiming at "digital immigrants" who feel somewhat battered by cyberspace's firehose information portals. He takes a unique angle on information sharing in Chapter One where he investigates the way the porn industry has changed their online presence over time to adjust to the needs and wants of adherents. The chapter was undoubtedly orginial research, but I thought it overlong and after awhile, rather off-putting. Chapter Two tells us about the past (undoubtedly the past informs the future) but the ideas weren't new and though they may have rounded out the piece somewhat, I thought he was lolly-gagging on the way to a point. I gave him to page 90, by which time I'd underlined more stuff than in any previous book. I skipped to the last chapter, at which point he tells me something I'd read years ago: Jeff Gomez in Print is Dead. Gomez left something imprinted in my brain that resonates to this day: [to parphrase] "It's not how you read something, it's the ideas that count."
Bilton tells us that he "no longer feels a shred of information overload, content anxiety, or fear that I might be missing something, online or off" because he relies on his anchoring communities (friends, family, and online associates) to funnel information to him. Research shows that "most people do." Bilton introduces us to the term "homophily," the concept of living within a segregated bubble in any community. He asserts that "we see drastically more opinions and viewpoints than we do in traditional media such as television and newsprint." Could it be that the traditional news media made a (crude, perhaps, but sincere) attempt to be fact rather than opinion? He cites extensively from an article published 2010 Gentzkow & Shapiro University of Chicago which concludes that there is "no evidence that the Internet is becoming more segregated over time," and therefore are not being herded into silos of thought and opinion.
I'd like to believe this, but the research of one article does not make the case for me. I feel like I have the evidence of my eyes to tell me that there has been a hardening of position amongst the populace, and a greater incivility and lack of respect for another's opinions. I think people may be shoring themselves up in positions taken for no other reason than their friend (or, god forbid, a celebrity) takes a position, and the way people get information on the web allows them to feel justified in even unreasonable positions because so many people out of their group will support it. A mob mentality, if you will, borne out on a scale the world has never before seen.
The author explains a series of dueling opinion pieces between himself and George Packer (author of Assassin's Gate and a New Yorker staff writer) regarding the value of constant connection. The dueling positions are described in detail and he admits that impassioned responses supporting both sides came down in greater numbers in support of Packer's position. But Bilton seems to be saying that one cannot hold back the tide. Who wants to? When Bilton next tells us that "digital natives do not distinguish between mainstream stories in the mainstream media such as newspapers and television and those created by their peers," I'd say we have more a generational divide here. The digital natives are clever and all, but really, when Bilton says that "online name recognition and trust may be more important than simply affiliating with a trusted institution..." I begin to shut down. I read him only because he was the NY Times correspondent for electronic developments, so you can see I am not a digital native.
I picked up this book because of a one-liner by Jonah Lehrer endorsing it. I get sucked in every time. I don't know Jonah Lehrer. I just read one of his books and admired it. But he's just doing what authors do: endorse other authors books in hopes that his own will be recommended fairly. I admit to feeling something akin to rage the further I read in Bilton's book, but perhaps it was just terror.