Porn Points the Way to a Brighter Digital Future: Book Review

Back when the World Wide Web was shiny and new, it seemed as though the New York Times would discover a new online social ill every other week. There’s smut! There’s hate! The coverage could have been collected under the heading “The Internet -- Ewww!”

Now Times reporter, blogger and geek-in-residence Nick Bilton has produced a belated -- well, not exactly apology, more like an extended correction. In “I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works,” Bilton paints a vastly cheerier picture of our digital world and how it is evolving. While his vision is certainly a lot closer to the truth, forgive me if I’m not entirely reassured.

“I Live in the Future” is a breezy, once-over-lightly survey, intended for neither technophile nor technophobe but for the mildly befuddled. In 293 pages, Bilton takes us on a tour that ranges from the California porn industry to the laboratories of great universities to make sense of where we are and where we’re headed.

From printing presses to home video, he notes, pornographers have always led the way in adopting new media and figuring out how to make money from them. So that’s where he begins his quest to uncover the future, and initially concludes that this time might be different: Porn powerhouses like Playboy and Penthouse have found themselves buffeted by many of the same forces leveling the music and print worlds.

Source: Random House via Bloomberg

"I Live in the Future & Here's How it Works" by Nick Bilton. Close

"I Live in the Future & Here's How it Works" by Nick Bilton.

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Source: Random House via Bloomberg

"I Live in the Future & Here's How it Works" by Nick Bilton.

Eventually, though, he concludes that like many legacy businesses, they simply failed to adapt to the new realities established by the Internet: the consumer is still willing to pay for quality, but less than before, while demanding a vastly greater degree of convenience and especially customization.

The Future Is You

Bilton’s message is that the future is all about you. Or me. Or him. That is, new and emerging tools are putting each of us at the center of our own unique universe. The concept is as simple as the location-aware mapping application on your iPhone or Droid that moves as you do. But it has implications when applied to media, commerce or any of the other routines of daily life that are in the process of being upended by technology.

Bilton calls the social networks many use to help filter their tastes in everything from restaurants to politics “anchoring communities.” “By offering their own digital links and connections, anchoring communities help us cope with the massive numbers of people and the incalculable amount of information online and give us neatly refined selections to sift through together,” he writes.

Source: Random House via Bloomberg

Nick Bilton who wrote "I Live in the Future & Here's How it Works." Close

Nick Bilton who wrote "I Live in the Future & Here's How it Works."

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Source: Random House via Bloomberg

Nick Bilton who wrote "I Live in the Future & Here's How it Works."

Lacking Empathy

Certainly, there’s something to be said for the value of summoning these communities. But Bilton doesn’t give enough thought to what is lost in such a world of niches. Call it social cohesion, or empathy -- a set of shared experiences that transcends the interests, perceptions and input of those in our immediate social networks.

For all the digital medium’s power to bring us the world, it also makes it far too easy to retreat into a cocoon of people, information and ideas with which we’re already comfortable.

While such concerns are real, they are all too easy to exaggerate. “I Live in the Future” is at its best as Bilton punctures some of the most dystopian myths about digital technology, showing how such predictions have accompanied almost every advance through history.

Bilton cites the Times’s 1876 handwringing over the telephone, which “by bringing music and ministers into every home, will empty the concert halls and the churches” -- seemingly confounding the telephone with radio, making it spectacularly wrong on two counts.

Rotting Your Brains

And he likens concerns over video games to the widespread 1950s belief that comic books were rotting the brains of America’s youth. In response, he cites studies showing that video-game-playing surgeons are more skilled and make fewer mistakes, and that online content stimulates more of the brain than reading a book does.

At the end of the day, the digital medium is still much more a reflection of society than a shaper of it, as the recent flap over sex-service ads on Craigslist shows. (Alternative newspapers and other print sources have been every bit as randy for years, with nary a headline-seeking politician heard from.) Technology doesn’t cause what ails us, nor will technology cure it.

“I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works: Why Your World, Work and Brain Are Being Creatively Disrupted” is published by Crown Business (293 pages, $25.) To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Rich Jaroslovsky, who founded the Online News Association, is technology columnist for Bloomberg News and Businessweek. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Rich Jaroslovsky in San Francisco at rjaroslovsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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