Datamining the Disconnections: Bits vs Atoms, The Rematch

March 11th, 2009 | 19 Comments | Category: Essays, Videos

Record RacksI was raised by record stores. That’s where I went when my mom was grocery shopping or whatever. I was in Peaches or Coconuts or Camelot or whatever suburban chain had the racks. It was a childhood of digging in the crates, gawking at album covers, and occasionally buying a 12×12 cellophane square to take home, open, and spin.

I still frequent record stores. And bookstores. I feel crazy if I go a week without perusing the shelves of one or the other. It’s not nostalgia — I buy CDs only to take them home and rip them to MP3s, but there’s a fundamental difference between browsing actual books on physical shelves and browsing their titles in an online database. Not only are the two experiences dissimilar, they’re not related in any way.

I wrote before about the disconnection between certain activities in our mediated lives. Well, the digital revolution is sparking an altogether different strain of separation. In no way do I consider myself a Luddite, and if you’ve been reading long, you know that I’m not, but we’re losing something in our latest move from atoms to bits. Something big. Something we’ll miss later.

Choosing the difference is one thing (i.e., preferring to shop online, downloading MP3s, buying a Kindle, etc.). Having it forced upon us is another. With the latest involuntary seismic shifts in media — the disintegration of the CD market and subsequent closing of retail outlets, the shrinking of magazines and nodding off of newspapers — the changes are now coming without choices.

Yes, I realize that we’ve made these choices in an Adam Smith, “invisible hand” kind of way, but one wonders where these changes will leave us. The disappearance of media choices is one place where small-town America is on the cutting edge (i.e., you either get it at Wal*Mart, travel to the nearest metropolitan area to get it , get it online, or you just don’t get it.).

The prediction of the death of print media has been on the books since TCP/IP, but now that it finally has a body count, panic is around every corner.

In his book On Writing (Pocket, 2001), Stephen King urges aspiring writers to turn off their televisions, writing, “Once weaned from the ephemeral craving for TV, most people will find that they enjoy the time they spend reading. I’d like to suggest that turning off that endlessly quacking box is apt to improve the quality of your life and the quality fo your writing” (p. 148). Not being a snob, but not owning a TV, I can honestly say I get more done without it around (it’s on at my parents’ house whenever anyone is awake). But as Steve Jobs once observed, the two experiences are fundamentally disconnected: We do some things to turn on, and we do others to turn off.

Speedometers

Part of the distinction between types of media is a simple difference between the ways to display certain types of information. Think of an analog gauge versus a digital one. Neither is inherently better than the other. Their value depends on what information you want from them. An analog display is better at showing progress or a difference between values, whereas a digital display is more accurate at a glance. Now think about this difference in the context of storytelling, between a book and a movie. It’s not the whole story, but it’s part of it.

I’m not worried about the newspapers. I haven’t read a newspaper in years. I’m more worried about choice. When Jeff Bezos left Wall Street for Seattle to start Amazon.com, he picked books because when making a decision to purchase a book online and in a store, you can get roughly the same information. That is, you don’t have to try on a book before you buy it. This insight was Bezos’ one bit of genius, but it was also one of the initial ruptures in the latest stage of the evolution of our relationship with our externalized knowledge.

We’ve been externalizing our knowledge since we started speaking and writing on cave walls, but much more recently, as James Carey (1988) pointed out, the telegraph established a major watershed. It separated communication (and thereby information) from transportation. It made information a commodity, a resource not tethered to the physical world. The internet only extended and solidified the transition.

There are several trajectories here, but the main thing I want to point out here is just that: the multifaceted influence of technological mediation. Every change has unintended consequences, and we lose something with every gain. These changes are neither good nor bad, but we should be mindful that they’re happening.

Dig in the racks, browse the shelves, and read magazines — as long as they’re around.

References:

Carey, J. (1988). Communication as culture. New York: Routledge.

Cringely, R. X. (1996). “Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires.” New York: Public Broadcasting System.

King, S. (2001). On writing: A memoir of the craft. New York: Pocket Books.

————

Here’s how long a transition like this takes: Check out Steve Newman’s “telepaper” story as broadcast on KRON in San Francisco in 1981 (runtime: 2:17):

Further Posting:

19 Comments »

  • Stef said:

    I was raised on those same cellophane wrapped cuboids. I maintained a connection up until about 6 years ago. In reading your article i feel that the breaking of that link has contributed to the progression of my technological homogenization.

    Peace

  • patrick said:

    roy, i’ve been thinking about this a lot as we rip through our CD collection in preparation of selling it. I’ve bought a few “albums” online via iTunes, but I realized that I’d rather buy the CD and sell it back. The price is basically the same once you get a couple of bucks for the CD, and I enjoy record shopping too much to give it up.

    A few weeks ago, on a nice saturday afternoon, I was at Music Millenium, a great old record shop in Portland, and was struck by how many of the patrons were in their fifties. At least the place was hoppin! Partly, of course, it was busy buying peoples’ plastic disks (mine included) but plenty of people were buying records. They had a special deal where you got 5% off if you sang a favorite show tune at the register. I witnessed at least one money-saving performance. Now that’s creative thinking in a recession!

    Patrick

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    It looks like Clay Shirky (as well as our friend Dave Allen) is on about the newspaper thing. It’ll be a while before all of this plays out.

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Oh, and Steven Johnson gave a talk on the change yesterday at SXSW.

  • matt said:

    The other day Chuck Klosterman (whom I frickin’ hate – every day’s a Philosophy 101 class for that guy and he so, so incorrectly thinks that makes him a genius) was on the Bill Simmons podcast on ESPN.com. They were discussing the reasons for the death of the printed newspaper. CK actually made sense – he argued that it’s Craigslist’s fault. Free classifieds took away the papers’ revenue streams needed to support things such as flying journalists overseas for weeks to do intensive investigations. I didn’t listen to the whole thing bcause, again, I frickin hate that guy & couldn’t take his voice any more. But that’s the kind of thing that may hurt us all eventually – so much is available for free that there’s a real danger of important things which require budgets disappearing due to lack of money. And having a million individual blogger types acting as reporters seems unlikely to be an effective substitute. Same with music, as well as TV and movies (DVRs, ease of pirating, etc). And as Seth Macfarlane says, how are you going to do product placement in a period movie?

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Fuck Chuck Klosterman.

    Newspapers don’t make a great deal of their revenue from classified ads. It’s like Google ads: You can get some supplemental income, but in most cases, you can’t make a living (I always equate them to everyone winning the lottery in Bruce Almighty: You all win, here’s your $.17).

    The thing about Craigslist is that it’s the one part of the paper (or any other print medium) that translates to the digital space well. That is, reading classifieds is reading classifieds: whether it’s on the page or on the screen, the experience is the same. Other types of content don’t translate as well.

  • Gabi Wan Kenobi said:

    So, one thing I’d like to add to the dialogue of the demise of the printed media is one of environmental concern/benefit. Just a week (or so) ago, the Seattle P-I closed shop for good. Now, Seattle is left with one (major) newspaper, which is a forced limitation of choices, but I also wonder if there isn’t a hidden benefit here: resource retention. Is it possible that as the “body count” of the printed media rises, so too does the pulp (TREES!!) resource use decline. In an age where, I feel/believe, that every issue should take a careful, considerate back seat to the oncoming environmental catastrophe. The less trees we cut down to print newspapers (who quite frankly haven’t adapted and evolved fast enough to keep up with the technological shift), potentially the more oxygen they can produce and purify, which is a direct benefit for every living thing on this planet.
    Roy, I know not much is lost on you, but what do you say of the irony of defending the printed by utilizing the digital?

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Gabe, I don’t know how much I’m actually defending the old order of print. I agree with you from the environmental angle, however, my point is experiential: The consumption of information via the physical, shelved world and the scrolling, browsing world is fundamentally, phenomenologically different.

    With that said, I’m with you: Kill the newspapers. Save the trees for good books. :]

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    For once, small towns are on the leading edge.

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    And another from our friends at Evolver.net.

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Yet another from our friend Dave Allen.

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