Life in Real Time

Life in the slow laneI was just reading one of Steve Outing's Stop the Presses columns at Editor & Publisher. It's called Where News Consumption Is Heading, and as you might expect, it's aimed at those in the newspaper industry. But it contains some interesting opinions about future technology trends—not too far in the future, really—in the general context of communication, and that's what caught my attention.

In sharp contrast to the over-50 demographic—the primary audience when it comes to print newspapers, according to Steve—the more recent generations seem generally ambivalent toward print media. This isn't surprising, because the young and restless require equally young and restless products that go where they go, when they go—which is, of course, everywhere, all the time. A printed newspaper is the very antithesis of high-speed, wireless digital communication; it doesn't deliver anything in real time, it won't fit in the pocket of your jeans, and in the view of teenagers at least, contains little or nothing of value. As Steve implies, it's best to forget the possibility altogether, and move on to the next idea.

If there are any folks in the newspaper industry who have notions still that they'll adapt the print product to attract some of my daughter's generation, or those in their 20s, and probably 30s, too, I'd say your chances for success are practically nil. As a long-time newspaper guy, I think the chances of my two daughters reading a print edition as they grow older are close to zero.

I'd say the chances of my similarly-aged daughter making the transition to paper are equally remote. I'm not in that over-50 demographic just yet, but it's imminent; I can feel the wind already. But just because this repulsive event is going to slap me upside the head momentarily doesn't mean I'm going to abandon my beloved Google News, or any of my other online news sources for that matter. I pick up The Times once or twice a week at the coffee shop, and I enjoy the ritual.

But much as I like the newspaper, I don't need it. The headlines are stale, so I'm being entertained more than informed. It seems like cheap entertainment, too, until you stop to think about where all that paper is coming from, and where it's going. We really need to stop doing things this way.

Here, Steve quotes Brad Feld—evidently a venture capitalist who focuses on digital media—responding to the what's it going to look like in 5-10 years? question.

"Ten years from now," he says, "virtually all news in the US will be online -- physical newspapers and magazines will feel like an archaic relic of the past. We are now within five years of a tectonic shift to frictionless and ubiquitous online media. The pervasiveness of broadband and mobile infrastructure and the merging of distribution platforms to endpoint devices -- along with radically improved and increasingly inexpensive video displays -- are at the core of this. In addition, an entirely new generation of Americans who are now less than 20 years old will have had computers as their primary information medium for their entire lives.

While this viewpoint may already seem a bit dated to those of us accustomed to getting our news and other information via the Net—not to mention using it, perhaps, as our primary communication medium—the reference to inexpensive video displays brings up an interesting point. Speaking strictly for myself, two of the most positive aspects of paper have always been ease of transport, and expendability. Newspapers, magazines, and yes, even books are so very easy to take into the bathroom without undue worry over their condition afterward. A video display, on the other hand, is more valuable. Although I know folks who take their laptops literally everywhere, and am aware of small LCD panels permanently installed in some people's bathrooms, neither practice is ubiquitous. But as costs plummet, it seems reasonable that their light weight and modest dimensions will make them ideal for distributing the news to every imaginable corner. And at some point, entire walls—houses as well as corporate enclaves—may be constructed of liquid crystals or whatever takes their place, simply because the cost of such materials will no longer enter the equation.

But I digress. Really, the point is immersion. In the context of news and how it's distributed, the old concept of delivery to a particular point is as outdated as the idea of calling a particular location on the phone. We don't call places anymore; we call people. In a similar way, technology now encourages the distribution of news not only in real time, but to a virtually unlimited number of points at once. The two-way character of the new media further demolishes the value of the old. A one-way communication medium that just sits there, incommunicado? Maybe we'll all go back to letters in the mailbox, and film cameras, too.

In fact, one Robin Sloan, also quoted in Steve's article, even questions the survival of the word news. Maybe we just want to know what's going on out there, really. That's life, right?

"I think 'news' just becomes a less distinct category. You don't sit down with a newspaper, or even a news website, or even a super wireless e-paper device, for 10 minutes in the morning to very formally 'get your news.' Rather, you get all sorts of news and information -- from the personal to the professional to the political -- throughout the day, in little bits and bursts, via many different media. With any luck, in 5-10 years the word 'news' will be sort of confusing: Don't you just mean 'life'?"


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