The Digital Future: You Know It When You See It

I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works:
Why Your World, Work, and Brain Are Being Creatively Disrupted
By Nick Bilton
Crown Business, 304 pp, $25

The digital revolution has now replaced the financial crisis as publishing's favorite nonfiction subgenre. The shelf groans with books on how the Internet is remaking culture, the economy, neural circuitry, and just about everything else. For good reason: It is. The optimists, like Clay Shirky (Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age), see online networks as bringing out the best in us. Nicholas Carr (The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains), among other pessimists, warns that the Internet's glimmering promise disguises a solipsistic realm of trivial obsession.

Staking a claim amid this crowded field is Nick Bilton, a technology writer for The New York Times. His ideas, expressed in sprightly prose, go to extremes, and, for the most part, lack practical application to mainstream business. Some of them are even downright alarming. Does the online pornography industry suggest a new business model for stodgy old-media companies? Do newspapers, in their desperate search for profits, need to become more like violent video games? In his forthcoming I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works, out next month, Bilton says the answer is yes. He tells media businesses to forget about luring traditional readers or viewers. Bait your hooks, instead, for "consumnivores." For better or worse, he writes, immediacy now trumps quality, and all commercially viable content now focuses on "Me."

He's got a point. If a media outfit wants to attract page views and advertising dollars, supplying fresh gossip, financial information, dating opportunities, and status updates are all feasible strategies—and there's nothing inherently wrong with any of them. Another strategy is marketing the quintessential self-pleasing media product: pornography. According to Bilton, the $20 billion porn business has much to teach the rest of us about adapting content to ever-more-specialized consumer preferences. He devotes his opening chapter to some of the XXX website operators he calls "test drivers for new media." Adult magazines and videos are fading fast, but low-budget, highly specialized hard-core sites are thriving, he reports with palpable enthusiasm.

Fetishes predated the Internet, of course. Now they're just easier to indulge. Without having surveyed the distant borders of digital smut, I wonder whether Bilton may underestimate the perversity of niche porn. Regardless, he then makes this bizarre leap: "The porn industry shows us that people will pay for good storytelling." What? At this point, one wonders whether Bilton understands the not-very-literary way porn story lines are typically put to use. The dialogue isn't exactly the point.

As his book unfolds, it becomes clear that "storytelling" is central to Bilton's rosy vision of the next generation of the media business. "We're all just storytellers," he writes. "Whether you're writing a book or a news article, selling an outfit or a car, writing a blog post about your weekend or a press release about a new product, you're telling a story. Whether it's 140 characters long, the length of this book, a video, interactive, 3-D, or in-person narrative, it's a story." Unfortunately, he doesn't identify the precise lessons Random House, NBC, or The New York Times are supposed to draw from porn, or even from Twitter. How, for example, would a serious news organization retain credibility while at the same time engaging readers' more lascivious pursuits?

Bilton deeply admires video games. They offer "engaging, immersive, truly multimedia storytelling and can draw in participants more powerfully than many traditional storytelling methods." He favors Modern Warfare 2, a military shoot-'em-up adventure. "It refreshes me for other work I have to do," he says. Elaborating on an argument popularized by Steven Johnson in Everything Bad Is Good for You, Bilton says some games may produce dopamine in the brain, a chemical that plays a role in the experience of pleasure and the exercise of intelligence. Bilton deftly summarizes research showing that video game-like training may help surgeons hone their hand-eye coordination. Pilots have trained with video simulation for decades. The Pentagon is experimenting with games designed to improve new recruits' reflexes and peripheral vision.

From these narrow applications, the author makes another strange leap, arguing that video games, broadly speaking, are good for kids, a gateway for interesting them in books and newspapers. "Long-form content isn't going to die," he writes. "Kids may seem distracted, but they will play video games for an average of three hours a day—which sounds like long-form content to me. If they don't read a whole book in two days or stay with a television show, it isn't because they can't concentrate. It's because we haven't adapted the storytelling to fit their changing interests."

This seems, at best, naïve. Left alone with an Internet connection, most kids will waste time. (As will most adults.) Nothing wrong with having fun, but let's not pretend they're going to somehow absorb history, biology, current events, or any other subject that makes long-form content worthy of the time investment. I'd like to meet a set of parents who, as a matter of common sense, prefer their kid play video games rather than ride a bike, collect bugs in a jar, or read a good book.

As for the video game lessons to be learned by mainstream businesses, Bilton doesn't offer any. "I don't have any great answers or easy solutions to bringing in more revenue in a digital world," he concedes—a major letdown. Given how much has been written about the Internet and the future of media, it's time for the digital boosters to begin thinking more rigorously about—and offering solutions for—two pressing problems: the alluring but harmfully distracting underside of virtual entertainment and the desperate need for ideas about how to make an honest living in an online media world.

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