Technology is changing the way we live, work and interact with each other. Some critics worry that Google is making us stupid, that Twitter is eroding our people skills, and that social networks like Facebook are actually making us less social in the “real” world. Not so, says tech writer Nick Bilton. We talk with a techno-optimist about the positive impacts of “disruptive” technologies.
- Nick Bilton Lead Technology Writer, Bits Blog, NYTimes.com; author, "I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works" (Crown)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. It was a game-changing technology, and they said it would destroy life as we know it. On March 22, 1876, The New York Times wrote about a new device called the telephone, detailing the promises of this machine that could capture the voice of one person and transfer it over wires to someone miles away. But it also warned of a sinister outcome, church pews and music halls left empty. People would stop coming since they'd be able to hear the sermon or the concert performance from the comfort of their homes.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIToday, those claims seem ridiculous. But we still see technology as a mixed blessing especially in the era of smart phones, wireless Internet and Twitter. Sure, Google has become a powerful tool for research and learning, but it's making us stupid or at least intellectually lazy. Sure, Twitter allows us to connect with people in new ways, but it's breeding a new generation of online narcissists who update everything. Nick Bilton says those gloom-and-doom predictions miss the mark. Nick Bilton is lead writer and technology reporter for The New York Times' Bits Blog and author of the book "I Live in the Future & Here's How it Works." He joins us from studios in New York. Nick Bilton, welcome.
MR. NICK BILTONThanks for having me.
NNAMDIWe've always had a love-hate relationship with technology. And when the first caveman discovered fire, somebody probably complained that it would keep kids awake at night and prevent them from learning to hunt. You call this technocondria. What's that?
BILTONWell, it's essentially the idea that, you know, we're afraid of every technology that comes into society. And we've done this for centuries and hundreds of years. And you're probably right, you know? There was probably, you know, discussions in the caves when they invented fire about this being a bad technology and so on. But you know, more relevant to today, you know, we saw this happen with the printing press. We've seen it happen with the telephone, the phonograph, the television. We've seen it happen with trains. It's just -- it happens with every new technology that displaces the society and then we kind of -- we get used to it and it settles down and we start to look at the next thing and worry about that.
NNAMDICould you read for us the section in your book where it talks about how the telephone was first greeted?
BILTONYes. So it says, you know -- and this was the article in The New York Times on that morning that the telephone was first greeted, and it says that, "The rural visitor who spends a Sunday in town and reads a printed notice in the office can be had at 11 o'clock instead in the telephone room listening to the telephone." And then he says, you know, "Thus, the telephone, by bringing music and ministers into every home will empty the concert halls and churches. And it's an unpleasant task to point and possibly -- the possible sinister purpose of this device."
NNAMDI(laugh) Well, apparently, it did not happen. There are those who say the new wired world is making us stupid. There are those who fall into a more optimistic camp who think that new technology is not something to fear but something to dive into. You come from the optimists' camp. Why?
BILTONWell, I come from the optimists camp but I'm not an Internet Utopian. I definitely recognize some of the fears that we should be, you know, be aware of. But I, you know, I -- the reason that the title "I Live in the Future & Here's How it Works" is I essentially grew up on -- with technology as a major part of my life. I had my first computer when I was 4 years old and first video game system at the same time. And I've always been involved in technology. And I -- you know, my brain still works in a pretty normal way.
BILTONAnd I wanted -- when I started writing the book, I wanted to go out and see well, you know, people saying that by using Google and by using these devices and technologies that we're ruining our brains. And I didn't quite buy that. So I went out and I spoke to neuroscientists and researchers and experts in evolution, and it turns out that our brains just adapt. They don't necessarily -- it's not evolution that's taking place right now, but it's adaption. And the thing that I found that was really fascinating was that the neuroscientist said that our brains were never even designed to read. Right? That we use an area of our brain in the frontal lobe that actually -- that we look out for symbols on objects and we use that to read. And so if we're gonna talk about technology being bad for us, we should talk about reading being bad for us.
NNAMDIWe'd like to join -- we'd like you to join this conversation at 800-433-8850. Are you a digital native who thinks new technology works to simply adapt our brains, or are you one of those who thinks that it is doing something bad to our brains, that for some reason or the other, we are looking skills that we need? 800-433-8850 or you can go to our website kojoshow.org. Send us a tweet @kojoshow or an email to kojo.wamu.org.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Nick Bilton, he is lead writer and technology reporter for The New York Times' -- Bits Blog and author of the book "I Live in the Future & Here's How it Works." It's one thing to say that technology is changing everything, that we are in the midst of a user-centric media environment, but those phrases don't always mean very much. Early in this book, you have a simple but useful illustration of what that means. You use the example of a tourist traveling to a new city and trying to figure out where they are on the map. Could you compare how that would be done old template, new template?
BILTONYes. So in the past, you know, maps are something that we transitioned through for the most part already. You know, in the past, if I -- let's just say I went to New York City, I would ask for a map of New York City. But now, I pull out my cell phone and I click this little button on my phone that says locate me, and a little blue dot appears right in the center of my phone. And what that is, is it puts me in the center of the map. So the location that I'm in, the map is created around that. It's not the other way around. It's not me going into the map. It's me -- it's the map coming around me. And we're seeing that change takes place throughout everything that we do. I have this -- the intro to the book talks about, you know, I cancelled my subscription to The New York Times, and not because I didn't wanna consume The New York Times, it was because I wanted a more personalized experience. I didn't wanna see the sports section. I didn't want to see certain things that I'd already read online, and I wanted to create that experience in a digital form. And I think that that's something that's transitioning across all of our experiences.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that when you made that revelation to your employer that it was a bit problematic for you.
BILTONYeah, it was, and this was a couple of years ago. I tell the story about how I was out in California. I was giving a talk at a technology conference, and there was a Wired reporter that interviewed me about some of the work I was doing. I used to work in The New York Times research and development lab, and the goal there is to look 2 to 10 years out. And we, you know, played around with flexible displays and hyper personalized printed newspapers and things like that.
BILTONAnd the article when it came out on Wired.com talked about how I canceled my subscription. And, you know, I came back to New York, and it didn't go over so well. Some people within the building were really annoyed that I said that publicly. And my response was, "Well, maybe instead of people being mad at me for saying that I don't read the print paper, but she asked me what I do instead, because I'm part of this next generation that's developing these new experiences."
BILTONAnd I have friends that work in the music industry that went through the exact same thing. So they worked in the music industry when MP3s were coming out, and they told their bosses, "Hey, I'm not buying CDs anymore. I'm downloading music." And their boss is like, "You're crazy. No one will ever want to do that." And now, I know people that are going through that same thing in the movie industry where they're saying, "I'm not going to movie theaters anymore. I'm staying at home, and I'm streaming these things, and I'm even stealing them on BitTorrent because that's the way I want to experience it." And their bosses are now saying, "Well, you know, you don't know what you're talking about." And so I really think that that we can tell from the next generation what's going to happen next by looking at their actions.
NNAMDIWell, your admission to The New York Times, while it was met with some degree of consternation, is also an indication that The New York Times, one of the older media establishments, is grappling with what new disruptive technologies mean for its bottom line. The Times is also a true innovator in the next order of thinking about how the news will be delivered. As somebody who straddles these two worlds, you have to look at your newspaper and say, "Well, it's certainly trying."
BILTONOh, without a doubt. And I address that in the book. You know, I say that it was a minority of people that had talked to me about canceling my subscription. And for the most part, I mean, The New York Times is by far ahead of everyone else in what they're doing digitally. You know, there's so much innovation in the newsroom and the fact that they have a research and development lab in The New York Times speaks, you know, speaks momentous of that. But -- and we're -- you know, I think everyone is going through these transitions. Everyone is going through the changes that are taking place with technology. And it's not just media companies. I mean, if you look over the next 5 to 10 years, it's going to be everyone. It's going to be the Gap with the clothes that you wear. It's going to be the coffee shop where you buy your coffee. You know, the Internet is going to be embedded in absolutely everything. And it's going to have sweeping changes on society that we haven't even envisioned yet.
NNAMDII love reading the newspaper. I love the smell of it. I love the sound it makes when I fold it. I love reading it over breakfast and invariably getting all kinds of stains on it. And I may not be convinced that my iPad or a computer screen can replicate that experience. What do you think?
BILTONWell, I think that, you know, that's something that you enjoy, and that doesn't mean that that's going to away. You know, a million people still buy the print New York Times every day. And, you know, if 47 million newspapers go out the door every day from other organizations. But I think part of it is generational, and I think that, you know, I used to love my New York Times, too. I used to love the printed paper in the morning, and then I replaced that with a social experience and a screen.
BILTONAnd one of the things I found when I was researching the book because the whole debate over screens versus paper always comes up and it's always a very heated discussion. And I actually -- I found these research papers around cell phones, and what they're finding is that for the next generation they're so connected to that cell phone because it connects them to their loved ones. It connects them to the people they care about. It connects them to information. That they have that same exact experience and that feeling for a digital device that is socially connected that a lot of other people do for printed paper because of the way it feels.
NNAMDII got to...
NNAMDIGo ahead, please.
BILTONYou know, there was a research paper I found called "The Digital Umbilical Cord," and it was actually -- it followed kids in Israel that, you know, they moved out of their parents house, and they were given a cell phone, and they felt this connection to this device that was second to none.
NNAMDII got to tell you I never thought that I would enjoy reading books digitally, but I love my Kindle who knew? Here is Mike in Maryland on the phone. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIKEOh, thank you very much for your time. Actually, the digital umbilical cord, we've been -- one of my two questions. I was wondering if you ever found any research that, you know, I think it's wonderful that you can connect to Facebook. You know, I have friends in Thailand that I met, and they'll stay connected. But I was wondering if there's any research or you have an opinion on whether it's possible to have a number of, like, hours to actually see somebody and be connected physically and socially that way as opposed to just online? And then my second question...
NNAMDII'm not sure I understood the first, so let's take them one at a time. Nick Bilton, I hope you did.
BILTONI didn't actually understand the first.
NNAMDISo could you repeat the first question? It seems to be a comparison between spending time with somebody online and seeing them face to face?
MIKEExactly, exactly. You know, it's possible now to have conversations with people around the world that you're just in your basement and never actually getting in front of somebody to have a conversation. I was wondering if there's a human need for face-to-face communication that way.
NNAMDIAnd if there's been any study done showing the difference between the two kinds of communication in terms of what effect they have on what?
BILTONYeah, I mean, there is definitely...
MIKEAnd I guess psychological effects.
MIKEIf the human actually needs face-to-face conversation or is it just simply the feeling of being connected to somebody else?
BILTONYeah, so we do need face-to-face conversation, without a doubt. But it's not all or nothing, you know? You know, people still go to concerts. You know, they still go to conferences. You know, people travel hundreds of thousands of miles every year to go to conferences related to their businesses where they could watch it streaming on the web, but it's a different experience, right? You don't have that face-to-face interaction. You don't have the serendipity of the people that you meet. You don't have the touch and feel of a human being. And we do need those, but it's not one or the other. I think that we can have different relationships that connect us in ways digitally that work.
BILTONI think that we can have different relationships that connect us in ways digitally that work. And, you know, people iSight. You know, I iSight with my nephew every once in a while. He is four years old, lives in California and it's a conversation that we have and it's a connection. And there's a lot of research that shows how, for the next generation, they don't necessarily differentiate the two as much. They don't want to be, you know, sitting in a basement having conversations with people that way, but they don't say hey, this is not a way to communicate with people. They do engage with it but we'll always gonna need that human interface and that human touch. And I think that that's what mobile devices are helping us do. They're helping us get out of the basement and go outside but still be connected to the Web in different ways.
NNAMDIInterestingly enough, Nick, we have the author Hal Niedzviecki on the show. He is the author of The Peep Diaries. He had an interesting experiment where he invited his thousand plus friends on Facebook to come out for a happy hour. Only one showed up, and he was kind of surprised about that.
BILTONOh, that's very funny. It's, I mean, it's understandable. We still have these fears and trepidation when it comes to human interaction with people we've met online for certain people. But what I've found is that the next generation is -- there is no differentiation as much. And it's happened with me. I've met people online that I have become extremely close with and extremely friendly with and, you know, never even met them in person. I have a chapter in the book called, you know, “Meet Sam H, My Really Good Friend.” And this guy is -- he's somebody I met through the game at the service Foursquare.
BILTONAnd for the listeners who don't know, Foursquare is a social networking game where you check into restaurants and bars and coffee shops and you can leave tips but it becomes a game and right -- and the whole concept is to become the mayor of a place, and the mayor is the person that goes there the most. And so I was the mayor of my local coffee shop, and then all of a sudden, one day, I wasn't and there was the guy by the name of Sam H who had become the mayor and I was like, this is crazy. I go here every day. How can Sam H be the mayor of this coffee shop? So I ran home and I googled him and it turned out we both teach at NYU. We both live in the same neighborhood. And I sent him an e-mail and I said hey, what are you doing on my turf? You know, back off. And it was joking, and we developed this friendship and I never met Sam H and I still -- to this day, we text message once in a while when we find new restaurants. You know, we -- if we see one of us has checked into a coffee shop, we recommend things that we know each other would like. And there's a friendship there that developed with someone that I never spend time with so...
NNAMDIGotta take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Nick Bilton. Mike, I know you have a second question that you're gonna ask. We'll get back to you after we come back from this short break. Nick Bilton is author of the book "I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works." He is lead writer and technology reporter for The New York Times' Bits Blog. You can still call us, 800-433-8850, with your comments or questions about the digital life so to speak. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIt's a Tech Tuesday conversation on the so-called disruptive aspects of technology and how it affects our brains and our lives. We're talking with Nick Bilton. He is lead writer and technology reporter for The New York Times' Bits Blog and author of the book "I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works." We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. We left off with Mike in Maryland. Mike, you're on again. Go ahead, please.
MIKEThank you for the follow up. I have a question for you regarding the authority of research online. With the accessibility of Wikipedia and all sorts of different resources, sometimes it gets a little difficult to figure out the authority of some of these publications, I guess for lack of a better word. And I was wondering if you're worried about maybe a false authority or a false authoritative voice that some people may take as -- may take very seriously even though there's absolutely no grounded research or logic or reason behind some of it.
NNAMDIYou mean the supermarket tabloid of the online environment? Here's Nick Bilton.
BILTONYeah. I talk about this in the book. There's a chapter called trust markets, and it's what we trust online. And I kind of look at it in this way, it's almost like a stock portfolio where you place things in there and you give them different relevance and how far you trust them and how far you don't. And if something, you know, if something betrays your trust, it's out, you know? You don't really get a second chance in these experiences. But what we found is that -- and a lot of research shows this -- is that people don't necessarily trust big organizations anymore. They trust the people within them.
BILTONYou know, there's Pew Research and Forrester Research and a number of other research companies that have found that, you know, we generally trust corporations in the 20 percent range. We trust newspapers in the 30 percent range. We trust, you know, other large organizations even less. And -- but we trust people almost 90 percent, you know, and people that we don't even know, we trust them 60, 70 percent. And what we've found is that the people, you know, they're using their social networks like Twitter and Facebook, and they're placing people within them and using them as authorities.
BILTONAnd as far as mainstream content that goes out there and it becoming, you know, false content like on Wikipedia and things like that, we saw this happen a couple of weeks ago with -- there was a couple of tornados that happened in Brooklyn, N.Y. and in the Bronx. And there was a photo that somebody had put on Twitter, and it was a -- it was a tornado over the Statue of Liberty. It turns out it was actually -- it was a photo from the 1950s, and it was everywhere. It was on the news sites. It was everywhere, but it went away in about two hours or so because people realized -- the same people that it helped pushed it up to the top helped pushed it down to the bottom saying, hey, this isn't real. So those are some of the things we're seeing.
NNAMDIMike, thank you for your call. We move on to Jim in Alexandria, Va. Jim, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
JIMYeah, I think the real potential harm for sites like Facebook is gonna be felt in the next generation. Because I'm on Facebook, and I find that my relationships with people who are not on Facebook has really suffered. But, at least, I have the basis of the relationship with the people on Facebook was based in something real, real relationships before, you know, the computer age, and we had Facebook and all of that. And I -- you know, I'll be very interested to see what happens when the next generation comes along and they have entire relationships that are based electronically. I don't see how your guest can claim that that somehow is as legitimate and real and fulfilling as relationships that are based in legitimate human contact.
BILTONI'm not saying that they are legitimate, that they are better than a relationship in real life. I said earlier that we do need those, those in-person relationships. I mean, anyone that thinks otherwise is the same person that's saying that the telephone is gonna (unintelligible) its holes, and no one will ever leave their house again. What I'm saying is that there is a balance between the two, and I think that there are relationships that will work online exclusively because of locations and time spent and things like that, and then there are relationships that will develop in person and I think there'll be a hundred different types of relationships in between there that -- that blur all those lines.
NNAMDII don't know if this is relevant, Nick Bilton, but this we got from Betty in Silver Spring. "Your author mentioned that our brains were not necessarily designed for reading. I heard recently on NPR, probably an interview with this author possibly, that the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates warned against the dire consequences that the widespread use of writing and reading could have on intelligence. The idea seemed to be that humans would no longer have to remember anything because they could easily refer to something in writing, and this would cause mental laziness." I would love to know if that's really true, that is, if Socrates said it. Was that you who talked about that, Nick?
BILTONI have talked about it before, but I've heard it, I've heard it discussed by some other people, too. But absolutely, that was, you know, that was a big thing that he discussed.
NNAMDIAnd that's a knock on Google, isn't it?
BILTONYeah, (laugh) that was the -- that Google is making us stupid. But he, you know, Socrates said, you know, that we shouldn't let kids read and write because they will forget things, and there'll be laziness. I mean, it's funny because there was -- when the pencil and the eraser -- when the eraser was invented, there was newspaper articles around the eraser saying that it would make people lazy because then they can mistakes easier. You know, it's every technology we worry about, every new iteration in society. But going to the Socrates point, the thing that's fascinating about the way our brains work is people think that we're evolving, you know, online and that's absolutely not true 'cause evolution with the human brain takes place over hundreds of thousands of years, right?
BILTONThe alphabet is only 5,000 years old. The -- you know, the printing press is only 500 years old. The Internet is 20 years old. And so our brains aren't evolving. Our brains are still working in the same way. They're just adapting to the technologies that are there for us. If -- you know, people sometimes say, well I used to be able remember anybody's phone number, right, and now I don't think I could because I have a cell phone. If I took your cell phone away and said, hey that's it, no more remembering people's phone numbers -- I mean, no more relying on your cell phone for people's phone numbers, you'd be able to remember people phone numbers again because your brain -- that's just the way it works. It's elastic. It conforms to these new changes.
NNAMDIIndeed, I recognize changes in my own brain or differences in the way I process information than my younger colleagues process information. You just mentioned that I can rattle off the phone numbers of pretty much everyone that I know. My younger colleagues, my children simply can't do that. The human brain evolved over thousands of years, so it's not very likely that any technology even these new, transformative technologies are going to fundamentally rewire the brain. But the point you seem to be making is that researchers are looking at the brain and trying to measure something that you just mentioned called plasticity of the brain.
BILTONYes, so this goes back to some of the stuff that was actually discovered with jugglers, about people that learned how to juggle before and after and some neuroscientists measured their brain before and after and found that the brain kind of rewired itself and actually reshaped itself a little bit. And what -- the researchers are now finding -- and there's only been -- there hasn't been that much research around the way that the Internet is affecting our brains, but Gary Small at UCLA, who runs a neuroscience department out there, he's scanned people's brains when they're reading a book and people that were reading on the Internet using Google. And he found that the brain acts in an extremely different way. It's much more engaged online because it's -- there's always cognitive processes that were going through when, you know, when we were holding a mouse and keyboard and so on.
BILTONBut what was fascinating was that these brains that he scanned were people that were 60 years old. These weren't people that had grown up with the Web, these are people that grown into the Web. And, you know, there's a lot of technologies out there, video games included, that showed that our brains -- that they just rewired themselves and adapt, and if we take the things away, they go back to exactly where they were before.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Here is Paul in Chevy Chase, Md. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAULWell, yeah, hi. I think I would make a kind of a drastic statement that I think actual -- the virtual world actually undermines the preexisting real world, the natural world. And I think it's important, just -- I guess for a couple of reasons. One is, like, we've seen the invented technologies, modern technology, industrial technologies on the environment, but what people I think don't realize is that digital technologies actually increased electrical use. Plus the innovation, the constant innovation and turnover in products impacts the increasing, you know, production, distribution, consumption and – off to the disposal problems, the elements that are used in the chips and stuff. And I think that's just on the basic, you know, nuts and bolts level. But also, I think the digital technology, like the techno sphere, actually prevents us from seeing the effects because it's so increasingly invasive that we live more and more and more in the techno sphere and we actually don't see what's really going on in terms of the impact that's having in the ocean, in the forest, in the climate and all these things.
NNAMDISo you're making fundamentally the argument, Paul, that all digital technology is creating a more severe environmental problem than we already have?
PAULYes. It's accum...
NNAMDIOkay. Allow me to have our guest respond to that. Nick Bilton?
BILTONI mean, you're absolutely right. I mean, I bet it's not just digital devices. I mean, you know, cutting trees down to make paper products is -- it does the same thing. These, you know, these are all -- all of these technologies are bad for society. But what's interesting is, I think over the next 20 to 30 years, that's actually gonna change because we're reaching a plateau with what we can do with these digital devices, right? We're reaching -- we're eventually gonna reach a point where they're gonna become organic, right? You know, you're starting to see that -- just the tiny little glimpses of it where people, you know, are making shapes out of DNA and things like that. And I think that eventually, you know, your little Apple computer is gonna be a little Apple cell, or something like that. But, you know, for the next 20, 30 years, I think we have to be really careful about not just digital devices but all kind of technology, whether it's reading books or magazines or anything and the effect that they have on the environment.
NNAMDIThank you for call, Paul. On to Allison in Baltimore, Md. Allison, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALLISONHi. I wanted to make a comment about checking in with your phone or whatever device you're using. I have friends that tell me when they're at a show or at a coffee shop or wherever, and I find myself rolling my eyes at them because it seems kind of self-obsessed or, you know, just like it's craving attention for whatever they're doing and needing to update it 24 hours a day. And I guess I just wanted to hear what you thought about that.
NNAMDIYou know, I suspect Nick Bilton and -- of course I haven't studied this, so I could be really, really wrong -- that that is meeting a desire that people always had, they just didn't have the technology to do it before. It seems to be not just that the technology is changing, it's the expectations of consumers. We're no longer content with a one-size-fits-all media. We want media that provides a full user experience. So the notion of staying connected to your friends through your cell phone is a desire that can simply now be satisfied.
BILTONYeah. It's interesting. I mean, I do tend to actually agree that, you know, that checking in and updating your Twitter status and on Facebook every 10 seconds is not good for us. It's, you know, you're not connected. And I think that there's a balance, you know, I mean, but you could take this -- you could take that argument and you could apply it to somebody who reads books, right? You could say, hey, this person -- they always have a book with them. They bring it out at dinner. They do this. They do that. And you would say, hey, this is - this isn't cool, like this is something that -- taking it too far and they're not being social. And I think that we're still figuring out those balances, you know? This is all so new, I mean, you know, smart phones are -- essentially have only really started to make it into the marketplace over the last few years, and we're still figuring out the balances between all these different things. And, you know, I used to -- when I first started using Foursquare, for example, I checked in everywhere. And now, I don't. I check into a few places here and there. And I use it on -- sporadically and I use it when I think it's gonna be useful and fun.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Allison. Much of the Internet and breakthroughs for the physical structure or the physical infrastructure of the Web came about in part because of military applications. But when it comes to an increasingly content-driven future, you say we should not be looking to the defense industry, we should be looking at the pornography industry. How has the porn industry transformed technology?
BILTONOne of the first chapters in the book talks about this. And I, you know, when I sat down to start writing and researching, I said to myself, okay, let me look online and see who's making money. And I went through all these different industries and it turned out that only a couple of industries were doing it. And the one that had been doing it for quite a long time was the porn industry. And so, I went out to California and I met with all these people in these industries and what I found was that the Playboys and the Penthouses of the world have essentially failed. They've gone out of business. They've lost hundreds and millions of dollars. Their products aren't selling in the way that they used to. And part of the reason for that is because they try to push these analog products. So Playboy still tried to push its cable channel and its $50 DVDs and its magazines and consumers didn't want that, right? They wanted a much more niche-personalized experience.
BILTONAnd what took the place of these organizations, these huge porn houses, was these little -- essentially, they're like little blogs versions of the porn world. And they're small studios with, you know, 12 to 15 employees, and they make a few million dollars a year, and they're pretty profitable for what they do. And they don't have the infrastructure that costs that a lot of the old media companies do. And we're seeing that same thing happen in the media world today. And the porno industry has been making money online for two decades, you know, billions of dollars actually. So, it was pretty fascinating to see -- to see what they were doing.
NNAMDII'm really glad to hear you discuss it so dispassionately. I'd be interested in hearing the response of -- oh, maybe your wife, when you told her that you were going to be researching the porn industry.
BILTONYeah, it was pretty funny. She -- at first, she was like, okay. That's fine. (laugh) And then after -- and then I went to -- when I went out to Los Angeles to interview some people, one of the companies said, hey, do you wanna meet with -- I forget the people's name, but some of the big stars in the industry.
NNAMDIBig porn stars.
BILTONBig porn stars, and my wife was like, you don't need to meet with them. There's no reason for that. (laugh) So it was pretty funny.
NNAMDIBut it's all research, dear. We've got to take a short break. When we come back...
NNAMDI...we'll continue our conversation with Nick Bilton. He is lead writer and technology reporter for The New York Times' Bits Blog. His book is called, "I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works." If you haven't called yet, the number is 800-433-8850. Or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there. It's Tech Tuesday. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIt's a Tech Tuesday conversation on technology and how it affects how we live our lives. We're talking with Nick Bilton. He is lead writer and technology reporter for The New York Times' Bits Blog. His book is called, "I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works." We got an email from Rebecca, Nick, that says, "Many years ago, I developed the habit of reading the entire newspaper. I have broadened my knowledge of many areas by reading articles on topics that, initially, did not interest me. If I only read about things that I knew I was interested in, I would miss out on that education. I admit that I do, however, skip over stories about Paris Hilton and the Salahis. But some of the gloom and doom predictions, Nick, about the Web are probably misguided, but user-centered technology does make it easier to find stories that amplify one's own views. Some people fear that our politics are becoming more polarized because conservatives only read conservative blogs and liberals only read liberal blogs, and we never hear or see anything that challenges our world view." But you tend to disagree.
BILTONI absolutely disagree, and the research disagrees too. I mean, think about 20 years ago or 10 years ago, right? If you were conservative, you read -- you watch Fox News and you bought the Wall Street Journal or something like that. You didn't ever pick up The New York Times. You never saw an article from The New York Times. You never saw anything from any liberal magazines. You only saw the things that you wanted to see. And online, what's happened is because of the way that we all link, you know, if a conservative organization writes about a liberal blog post, they're gonna link to that blog post and they're gonna talk about it, right? If -- and on your social network, you're gonna be friends with people -- sure, you're really gonna primarily follow the people that share information that's relevant to you, but you're also gonna be friends with your co-workers and your family members, and even your neighbor, and they have different political views or different interests than you do. And because of that, what we're seeing is that you're starting to see things that you never would've actually come across before.
BILTONAnd there was a fascinating research study that was done and I referenced in the book where, you know, it talks about this idea of homophily, which is the concept of birds of the feather flock together. And the actual research shows that people that, you know, are conservative actually end up seeing more liberal content than they ever have in the history of any kind of media before because of the way the Web works and because of the serendipity we find on there.
NNAMDIIn your book, you wrote about something called anchor communities, basically a network we build of trusted sources across our professional and personal lives. They sort of act as filters?
BILTONYes. So one of the things I'd found in the book was I found a research of Benedict Anderson. And he's an amazing anthropologist who wrote this book in the 1980s called Anchoring -- I'm sorry, called "Imagined Communities." And the concept was that, you know, if I live in New York City, I'll never meet all the people that live in the city, you know, this 12 million or so people. But I feel a connection to them, right? And so, essentially, we're all a part of an imagined community. If I read the print New York Times on a Sunday morning, the same thing. I'll never know the million or two million people that are reading that print New York Times, but I -- if I run into someone and we actually started that conversation, we're part of the same community together.
BILTONAnd what's happened with the Web is everything is now part of an imagined community. Everything is connected to everything else. And so I think what we've started to do with these social networks is develop what I call anchoring communities. So we create these silos where we put all the people in that we trust and that we wanted to track with and that we want to see their -- the things that they are linking to and sharing and talking about, and we're essentially creating these anchors, you know, in the abyss that is the Internet that will never stop growing.
NNAMDIHere is Betsy in Bethesda, Md. Betsy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BETSYThank you for taking my call. I love your show.
BETSYAnd I'll take my comments offline. I come from a long line of classroom teachers, several generations, yet I was the only one to champion the technology boom as an alternative method of learning because I have a child who was born in 1985 with severe ADHD, ODD, learning disabilities, clinical depression. And what I found in raising him was that video games kept his attention and taught him how to map, taught him how to go from one thing to the next thing to the next thing in an orderly fashion. Sitting in front of a movie with him, I could actually have conversations that were impossible otherwise because he was non-compliant with medication. He dropped out of school at 13, ran away from home. It was 3,000 miles away, but with a cell phone and, eventually, text messaging and e-mail, we have still remained close. We have contact all the time. He is my best friend. And he's now, without a high school education or a college education, working in a record production company because sitting behind the desk wasn't the kind of learning he did. He learned it all using technology in his telephone. And he has become a shining star in this industry, and I'm proud of him. And I'm proud of myself for not resisting the alternatives that were gonna give him a chance to thrive as a successful adult. So that's my comment. Thank you.
NNAMDIWell, Betsy, before you go, you should know that...
NNAMDI...at the beginning of this conversation, Nick Bilton revealed that he got his first computer and his first video game when he was four years old. So you're talking to a really empathetic listener here, is she not, Nick?
BILTONActually, a sympathetic listener because, you know, I definitely have trouble concentrating and always have, and I found that the -- you know, I'm the best when I'm doing multiple things at once. And the video game thing. I mean, I can guarantee there's gonna be a -- whoever's listening to this is gonna roll their eyes and shake their head when I say this. But there's so much research around video games that show the positives of it. It's mind-boggling. I mean, there's research that shows that the kids that play first-person shooter video games are -- have better hand-eye coordination, better visual acuity, better working memory. They're better at taking tests. But we have these...
NNAMDIHow about surgeons?
BILTONAnd surgeons, too. I talked about this in the book. There's, you know, laparoscopic surgeons. This is, you know, factual research papers that show that laparoscopic surgeons that play video games, you know, are almost 60 percent faster and 60 percent more accurate than those that don't, which is a really, really important thing when you're doing surgery. You don't wanna be left open on the operating table, taking your time. And, you know, there's a long, long list of these things, this stuff around video games. And one of the things I argue, as far as education, is, you know, if I go to -- if we all were in a gym glass together, right, we all wouldn't be able to run the mile at the same speed. Some people would do it at four minutes. Some people would do it at 10 minutes. But when we transfer to these other classroom experiences, we're expected to read books at the same exact speed and to comprehend the words within those books at the same time. So what if a history class, instead of everyone reading a book, maybe there could be a video game that some kids could play around World War II. And they could learn and engage in a way that's different around some of the history experiences that we're kind of, you know, conditioned to believe that we can only consume with books. And, you know, if you look at the video game research around this, you can see that science actually shows that this could happen.
NNAMDIBetsy, thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDIOn to Allison in Washington, D.C. Allison, your turn. Go ahead, please.
ALLISONHey, Kojo. After listening, I have to say I was almost gonna hang up because I'm feeling, like, such a Luddite. But everything has its place. But I think that we're missing a really big part of communication, and that's the social skill or the body language or intonation. Yeah, I Facebook with people. I text with people. And I always say texting is the best way not to talk to someone because I think we are missing this big part of what communication really is because it isn't the words. And I would just like to hear what Nick has to say.
BILTONI mean, I absolutely agree. You know, it's really, really important for people to have these social interactions, these in-person social interactions. And you see this done. I mean, you see kids that are sitting on the subway or in the park and they have their iPods and they have their cell phones and their iPods and whatever else. But they are also -- they're engaging with each other and they're sharing things. And, you know, I had this happen with me. I was out for dinner a few weeks ago with a group of tech bloggers. And we pulled out our cell phones and we were showing each other videos we'd seen during the week and fun things that we'd seen online. And it actually enhanced the conversation because when we're referencing things, we could actually show them to each other. But I don't think that -- you can't expect to replace your in-person conversations with digital ones. In certain instances, like I said earlier, when locations and boundaries are there, yes, it makes sense. But I think that the in-person, that's always gonna be there. It's never gonna go away. It's that same line with the, you know, the telephone and the phonograph that will never leave our house again. We always will. And just another note on that. You know...
BILTON...what's fascinating with the book, in the 1450s when the books -- when the printing press happened, that wasn't the big change in society because books then were 50 to 100 pounds, right? You went to the library and you read it on a lectern, and you didn't carry that thing to the park with you. But in the 1500s, what happened was somebody invented the mobile book, and it was this thing that you could roll up and stick in your pocket. And that was when huge changes happened to society. And I think the same thing is happening with computers and mobile phones. We don't wanna be tied behind a computer, you know, sitting at a desk, talking to people. We wanna be out and we wanna be with each other and communicating, but we kind of want those enhanced experiences, too.
NNAMDILet's talk about multitasking. And thank you for your call, Allison. It's undeniable that our brains are asked to do more these days than they were 20 or even five years ago. We check e-mail. We tweet. We log on to Facebook. We surf the Web. And we also need to squeeze in some work every once in a while. This has all generated a big question. Can you do all of these things at the same time, or are we basically doing more things poorly? You write about something called the cocktail party effect. What's that?
BILTONWell, so the research around multitasking, you know, we've been led to believe that our brains are not designed to multitask, and it's actually not as black and white as that. And, you know, this goes back to this research around what is called the cocktail party effect, and this was a scientist by the name of Colin Cherry and it was in the 1950s. And he wanted to understand -- they were having trouble in -- with flight control. And they were having trouble with the flight control in the towers where they were trying to figure out which airplane was speaking over the loudspeaker, right? And so what they did was they did all this research around how our brains can navigate multiple kind of -- multiple inputs of conversation and how we can actually -- can we multitask between them.
BILTONAnd the cocktail party part comes from this idea that we -- if you're in a cocktail party and there's, you know, a hundred people there and they're all having conversations and you're in the middle of the conversation, if I walk in and I yell from across the room your name, you're gonna turn your head, right? So your brain is processing all this information simultaneously, but it's filtering the things out that aren't relevant. So now, when it comes to multitasking, the same thing is happening, right? So we'll never be able to get to a point where we can drive a car and text message at the same time because that's dangerous. But there's nothing to say that while I'm watching a sports game, I can't read tweets about it, too, or I can't tweet about it or I can't talk to friends on Facebook or even look up statistics online. Because what's happening is, it's less of a cognitive load for us to switch between tasks that are similar than for us to switch between tasks that are different. And I think that's the really important thing to think about when we talk about multitasking.
NNAMDIBut I've been seeing this term disruptive technology all over the place. What do we mean exactly when we describe something as disruptive?
BILTONSomething that changes. I mean, it has vast changes on society, you know? And the Internet is -- I mean, as much as it's changed society so far, it's gonna do it much worse. I mean, worse is -- I shouldn't have used that word, but I mean, it's gonna be much broader with how it changes. I mean, it's literally -- you know, think about -- imagine a world before electricity, right? When electricity came along, we didn't imagine that it was gonna be in every single thing that we touch. We probably imagined, hey, you know, I'm gonna be able to turn on a light in my living room. And electricity is everywhere. It's in our clothes, in the way that are clothes are made. It's in, you know, it's in our cars. It's in our home. It's just everywhere. And the same thing is gonna happen to the Internet. And it's -- you know, right now, it's something that we consume media through and that we share information and things, but it will eventually be embedded in everything that we do. And I think that that's gonna be the major disruption in the society.
NNAMDIOnto Todd in Bethesda, Md. Todd, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TODDHi, Kojo and Nick. I'm enjoying the show immensely. And we kind of move past what I was gonna talk about, or response, I guess, early in the show. But I'm an older guy. I'm a Gen X-er who jumped into tech, and now I've raised three boys in the middle of it. But my wife and I both use Second Life, and that's a social media connection point that's not often mentioned in these conversations, and it's completely avatar-based. And one of the things I've noticed about it is that it really does foster some very deep relationships. I've got friends around the country. I've got friends overseas, in Croatia and Europe, different places.
TODDAnd through that avatar-based system, I think at times we actually do experience some of the physiological endorphins. Our avatars can high five, handshake, hug. And, you know, I found that to be really meaningful. And, you know, I was just thinking about that in terms of taking away from real-life relationships. I think it may be augment some.
NNAMDIWhat do you think, Nick Bilton?
BILTONI mean, I agree. I think that, you know, this worry that one is gonna replace the other, it's not that. It's, you know, it's not that we're gonna stop leaving our home. It's an addition. It's an augmentation. It's -- you know, if I -- so because I -- because, you know, people worry that we can't, you know, we can't have meaningful relationships with digital experiences, should I not iSight with my nephew? Should I not text message my sister or my father? I mean, it -- these aren't replications. They're additions. And they're different strings that tie us together in different ways. And I don't think that one is worse than the other. And for people that, you know, that scoff and roll their eyes at someone who uses Second Life, they don't have to use it, you know? It's to each his own. It's how we decide to use the technology, and as long as we do it in a balanced way, I think it's completely fine.
NNAMDIThis book is available on iPads and other e-readers, but right now, I'm holding the paper form in my hands. It's about as old media as it gets. But you've tried to figure out a way of luring the content with the Web using barcodes?
BILTONYes. So there's a feature in the book. I didn't want just write a book because I think that, you know, the ability now is there to make them interactive and you know, to make paper interactive. So there's this little square codes in there, they're called QR codes. And you can download a free application from nickbilton.com, or you can just go online and search for QR code reader for your phone. And what happens is when you -- reading the book, each chapter, there's one of these codes and you can scan it with the application, and then it will take you off to a mobile website where you can see the links that I talk about, and click on the them. You can watch videos that we've created or videos that I referenced in the book.
BILTONBut most importantly, you can comment on the chapters. And people are actually going in there and having a conversation around each chapter. And I think that that's really important. If you can -- if you can have a conversation around a blog post, you should be able to have a conversation around a book too.
NNAMDINick Bilton is lead writer and technology reporter for The New York Times' Bits Blog and author of the book "I Live in the Future & Here's How it Works: Why Your World, Work, and Brain are Being Creatively Disruptive." Nick Bilton, thank you for joining us.
BILTONThank you very much for having me.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.