We’re back. Did you miss us? That question isn’t the product of an (especially) insecure soul. I mean it.
There is a glut of news about technology, the Internet and related issues. Open The Japan Times or just about any other newspaper, and you’ll find cyber-related stories on just about every page. Entire magazines, e-zines, newsletters, Web pages and TV shows are devoted to the topic. Sometimes we have a neat interview or catch an item before it hits prime time, but since we have been filling this space for about six years now, we have covered most of the stories in one form or another more than once.
The fact is the news may change, but the concerns are pretty timeless. Take the dispute over Napster and other file-sharing programs. A new study shows that the vast majority of users of those programs aren’t “sharing” at all. A tiny sliver of individuals, about 2 percent, actually provide the music that the other 98 percent of people listen to.
It’s an age-old problem called “the tragedy of the commons.” Provide a free space and most people exploit it. Only a few contribute to upkeep and maintenance; the rest free-ride. Economists are well acquainted with the phenomenon; new technology merely shifts the place where they observe it.
It’s fair to ask whether Mark and I are adding value or whether we’re merely adding to the din. The latter possibility is disturbing: The last thing anyone needs these days is yet more information, especially if it keeps people from pondering important issues.
It’s kind of like having 500 TV channels: You keep flipping in a desperate effort to find something interesting. If you don’t find something the first try, you start over in the hope that programs changed since you last checked. The surfing becomes an end in itself. The real way to find something interesting is to turn the tube off and go looking for it. But it’s tough when the set is whispering “let me entertain you.”
Is it so innocuous? I’m not so sure. Take cell phones. I’m newly acquainted with their charms. After berating friends for their eagerness to talk with someone else far away when I am standing at their elbow, I find myself making calls just about any time I stroll along. Some are important, most aren’t. But it’s easy, so I don’t care.
Would I be so quick to dial up if I knew that those headsets gave off radiation? The (potential) damage is different, but the cause is much the same: technology that is seductively convenient, but has an impact that we cannot imagine.
But back to this space. I subscribe to a dozen or so daily electronic newsletters, and they are in addition to the newspapers and wires I read all day long. Some focus on news, some are more specialized. But only a tiny amount of information can be found in one and not another. They overlap constantly. (Read Slate’s daily summary of the major U.S. dailies to get a sense of the differences in coverage between them. The Standard.com’s Media Grok, a neat resource, makes much the same point.) And as tech news invades the other pages of the paper, even specialized publications are much less unique. But like those 500 channels, I keep getting and skimming them all out of the fear of missing something.
This isn’t yet another complaint about information overload: This is about opportunity costs. It’s not so much being awash in a sea of alternatives and being paralyzed as a result; rather the issue is the choices we are forced to forgo as a result of these many new options.
Some of the examples are pretty mundane. I love my Visor PDA and the freedom I have to download news and information and read it while I travel. But I have also noticed that I read far fewer books than before.
I am busy, but I’m inclined to blame the increasing load of digital information that demands my attention before it is obsolete. That book will still be on the shelf tomorrow, but those news bites will be history. Compounding the loss is the fact that those books help put the news in perspective.
I also suspect that the rich menu of options encourages laziness, if not a lack of discipline. It’s far easier to move on than it is to commit the mental and intellectual effort needed to make sense of or appreciate the article in front of me. This problem is not new: The same complaint was leveled against television when it first appeared.
[Real-life, real-time interlude: On the way to work this morning, my AvantGo download provided a gem from the New York Times’ book-review section that asked whether a new series from the Modern Library Chronicles was “a promising way to attract new readers to history? Or mere pandering to the shortened attention span of television addicts?”]
Some will say we’ve been here before. The difference is that you can survive without a TV. You might be left out of some conversations and miss pop-culture references, but it isn’t too much of a cross to bear. (Some wear it like a badge of honor.)
There is no such latitude when it comes to new technology. This stuff is vital to survival in the economic sense. Without a tube you might be antiquated; without a computer, you risk being liquidated.
The big difference is that digital technologies are more mobile, more all-encompassing and hence more demanding than television ever was.
Those of us who like to think we take this stuff seriously have to ask whether we’re willing to go where our logic leads. From this perspective, that old Stewart Brand bon mot — “You’re either part of the steamroller or part of the road” — seems more ominous than before.
Brad Glosserman (firstname.lastname@example.org)