With the rise of a more digitized and technocentric world many people fear that our over zealous embracing of these new technologies is driving us towards a digital cliff and leading us towards disaster. As we’ve seen in many of the readings and blog posts in this class many are fearful of the overabundance of technology now available to us and feel sure these new tools are corroding our society and disrupting our work, relationships and concentration. Nick Bilton’s book, I live in the future & here’s how it works: why your world, work, and brain are being creatively disrupted, is a creative response to the many pessimists and critics out there. Bilton’s main thesis can be summed up as: the world is changing and even though this transition may be bumpy there is no need to worry—we’ve been there before and change is good.
From the title you might assume the book will be an analysis of what the future, or at least the foreseeable technological future, will look like. However, the book is much more about it’s sub-title “why your world, work and brain are being creatively disrupted”. The review of tech developments Bilton presents are interesting, but if you are what Bilton calls a “net native”, the overview of current trends is probably nothing that is new or astonishing to you. However, if you don’t know a “bit” from a “byte”, this book serves as a fine overview of where we’ve been and where we’re headed in the ongoing evolution of daily communication and information dissemination. Having said this, even if you are a Gen Y—I’ve-grown-up-with-computers-my-whole-life—type, you’ll still probably find yourself nodding along and agreeing with Bilton and enjoying the ride he takes you on.
Bilton is a New York Times reporter and self confessed “technophile” and his book reflects what he sees as the future of storytelling, bolstering his ideas along the way with many historical and current examples.
Bilton starts the book off with a bang—no pun intended—with a look at the California porn industry and how this online industry has revolutionized the “pay to play” model to stay ahead of the curve (2010). From there Bilton explores the ever-changing landscape of social media and how it affects us in ways we may not even realize. Bilton references sites apps like Facebook and Foursquare that have become part of many peoples, including his own, daily routines.
From there, Bilton addresses claims that our brains are not meant to handle the fast-paced environment created by new technologies. To bolster this point Bilton looks to the video games industry, what he sees as one of the most successful storytelling genres, and explains that in order to engage and stimulate our brain in healthy development we should continue to seek out new forms of narrative and storytelling (Bilton, 2010).
Next Bilton looks at how modern consumers are increasingly looking for experiences that are tailored for them. Bilton also addresses the ever-growing debate about whether the next generation of thinkers will really be able to multitask effectively, and suggests that the answer is not as black and white as we may have been led to believe (Bilton, 2010). Bilton introduces several interesting concepts such as “consumivores”, the “byte/snack/meal” model, “anchoring communities” and “trust markets”. Consumivores is a term Bilton uses to reference what he sees as a new kind of consumer (Bilton, 2010). Consumivores are consumers who actively and collectively rummage, distribute and regurgitate content into “byte-size, snack-size and full-meal packages (2010, 15). Bilton’s “byte/snack/meal” model describes us as a society of “anchoring communities” that are constantly distributing and repacking information we come across to our networks of friends in small, medium and long formats (2010). Bilton uses the term anchoring communities to refer to the social networks we use to access and filter information and create some sense of boundary in the abyss that is the Internet (2010). When people post on Facebook, they are distributing information to their anchoring communities and their Facebook friends do the same when they pass along or create content (Bilton, 2010). As we build these anchoring communities we start to add and remove people from our communities, as each individual in the community does not receive the same amount of trust (Bilton, 2010). Instead a different level of trust and authenticity is applied to each connection, and this trust can fluctuate like single stocks in a market (Bilton, 2010). This is where Bilton’s idea of “trust markets” comes from.
From there Bilton goes on to assure readers that even with the proliferation of new media technologies that quality, insightful reporting and great storytelling will always exist and prevail (Bilton, 2010). Bilton says that the people we buy content from must create unique and interesting experiences for their audiences, as they now have to compete with all the amateurs and other content creators that have pop up over the years. Bilton, however, sees this as a good thing—a bit of healthy competition will encourage people to strive to give their audiences even better quality experiences and content.
Finally, an interesting point that Bilton raises that I had not before considered is the fact that the written word is a man-made invention. While many bemoan the digital advancements they see as disruptive and source of degradation in our society, in favor of more traditional forms of media such as print, I had never before considered that even a “traditional” form of media may have at one point in time stirred moral panic. Just like screens and video games, reading letters and words is also a man-made creation (Bilton, 2010). Bilton explains that most children, even if they have grown up sharing books with their parents and hearing stories everyday, are not able to pick up reading on their own because they need to be taught the process of decoding the symbols and associating sounds with symbols (Bilton, 2010). And, just as our brains adapted to this form of communication media, Bilton assures that “our brains will also adapt in a constructive way to this new online world” (Bilton, 2010, 136). Bilton also goes on to compare the printing press to the Internet and how both mediums stirred up much panic and fear when they first came into being because authorities were concerned about “the power of access to unfettered information” (Bilton, 2010, 53).
Overall, I highly enjoyed Bilton’s book and found it to be an interesting read that anyone, regardless of age and technological expertise, could read. Bilton’s book doesn’t bog the reader down with complex theories and paradigms but rather feels like you’re simply reading a long New York Times article.
One of my favorite features of the book is that Bilton has put QR codes at the beginning of each chapter ensuring that, “this is not a book but a unique reading experience” (Bilton, 2010, iv). By scanning the QR code with your Smartphone readers are instantly taken to additional content such as videos, links to articles and research and interactive content (Bilton, 2010). Don’t have a Smartphone? No problem. Bilton has all the links and content available on his webpage, nickbilton.com. With this feature I think Bilton has found a unique way to combine the best of the print and digital experience. This feature also proves an intelligent way to subvert those who may criticize a self-professed technophile, such as Bilton, for choosing to publish the book in print form, instead of say in a blog post. By giving the reader all the advantages of the print medium with the immediacy and interactive benefits of digital narrative, Bilton has created an easy way for readers to delve deeper into topics that interest them while keeping the book at a manageable, easy to read size.
My criticism of the book lies in the fact that Bilton is overly optimistic about the potential and benefits of technological innovations. However, Bilton’s book is a response to all the exaggeratedly pessimistic literature and the skeptics who believe the rise of new media technologies mark the decline and degradation of our society. Bilton offers examples from the past and present to show that throughout history skeptics who have seen technological developments as a bad thing have general end up being proven wrong. Having said this painting a slightly more balanced picture—showing the good with the bad—would have lent Bilton’s book more credibility.
Another criticism is that when I finished the book, I felt like the final chapter—the epilogue—would have actually been better suited as the opening chapter to give the book a more impassioned start. While the introductory chapter did serve to layout a road map for the book, I feel that the epilogue and introduction would actually have better served the book if they had appeared in reverse order.
In sum, Bilton seeks to provide a new framework for looking at the world and making sense of our ever-changing mediascape and I would argue, as a whole, he does a good job. Bilton’s book takes our complex, media environment and breaks it down into palatable portions. Part of the fear of these new technologies, is a fear of the unknown. Bilton assures the reader that if they are experiencing these trepidations and concerns that they are not the first and that, ultimately, everything will be ok. Bilton shows us that “the writing [is] on the wall—or the screen, if you will” and “it’s time to reorganize, rethink, and get back to the business of storytelling” otherwise the future will pass you as you sit idly by (2010, 8 & 266).
Bilton, N. (2010). I live in the future & here’s how it works: why your world, work, and brain are being creatively disrupted. New York: Crown Business.
Appendix 1: Some of my favorite links and articles found in the QR codes
Times Techie Envisions the Future of News
Sensors, Smart Content and the Future of News
Porn Business Driving DVD Techonology
Will Amazon’s Kindle rescue newspapers?
Cognitive control in Media Multitaskers
Gen M: The Multitasking Generation
Your brain on Google
Predicting the Future with Social Media
Why I Steal Movies… Even ones I’m in
Why Twitter will Endure
Is the Internet really a blessing for Democracy?
The Twitter Train has left the station
Stop the World
Is Google making us stupid?
Your Brain on Google
This is your brain on Tetris