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TEXT OF INTERVIEW
Tess Vigeland: Where would we be without technology? Well if you’re a cynic you might say: A lot better off! What with all that Twittering-Facebooking-texting business.
But author Nick Bilton has a new book that might usher you into this century. It’s called “I Live in the Future and Here’s How it Works.” We spoke about it recently before a live audience at the Drucker Business Forum. He began our conversation by telling me about a story that appeared in Wired magazine a couple of years ago. An article that claimed that he — a New York Times writer — didn’t read the actual paper.
Nick Bilton: I remember the day that I found out that I could actually get the Sunday paper on Saturday. So I’d ride my bike every Saturday morning to the New York Times. And all of a sudden, I stopped going, and I stopped reading the print paper. What had happened is that I started to replace it with a social experience. With my phone and all these other experiences, and after a while, I ended up canceling my subscription. And so when the Wired reporter approached me at this conference and he asked me, ‘Do you read the print paper?’ It was almost like time stood still, it was like that moment in “The Matrix,” and I was like, how do I answer this? I was honest, I said no, but I read it on my computer, on my laptop. And so the article on Wired said, “Nick Bilton loves the news, it’s newspapers he can’t stand.” Which was a little bit editorialized, but when I got back to New York, my bosses went berserk. And my response was, at first I was very apologetic for what I’d said. But then after a while, I kept saying, well I’m the next generation of consumers of the New York Times; if I’m not reading the print experience, maybe you should be asking what I’m doing instead and we should be focusing on that.
VIGELAND: You addressed this issue of whether all this technology is dumbing us down. And that long-form content like books, like newspapers, will die.
BILTON: That’s not what I say.
VIGELAND: No, not at all. In fact, you counter that by saying that kids will play video games for three hours at a time — how is that not long-form content? But Nick, it’s video games.
BILTON: Yes, but video games are a narrative, right? There was a friend of mine who went to Europe this summer. He took his son, and he was really excited that they were going to France, and they were going to Normandy. He was going to tell him all about the war and what happened. They get to the beach and his son’s like, ‘Oh this is where the British came over, and this is where the Germans were,’ and he described this entire thing. He kind of like acted it out. And he was like, ‘How the hell do you know this?’ He’s like, ‘Oh Call of Duty 2.’ So my argument in the book is in a history class, why do we all have to go and open up this book and plod through this really kind of mundane experience?
VIGELAND: Plodding through a history book.
BILTON: Who took history class and had this book that was like, ‘Oh my god, I have to go to history class again,’ right? Why can’t that be an immersive experience where you’re involved in that world?
VIGELAND: You tell some really great stories about the history of technological advance and how a lot of the fear and doubt that you’re hearing now about Facebook and Twitter has happened historically in many, many ways, from the printing press to the telephone to television. And people have what you call, techno-chondria?
VIGELAND: Yeah. Technology-hypochondria.
BILTON: With the printing press, there was tremendous fears, especially in Venetian society, where a lot of the stuff was taking place. That the printing press would kind of destroy society. This was one technology after another where this happened, and it happened with the telephone. The front page article: March 22nd, 1876, on the New York Times, describes what this technology is but then the writer says it’s going to empty concert halls and churches and people will never leave their home again. The same thing we’re hearing about the Internet, right — people are going to use Twitter and Facebook and they’ll never leave their home again or have social interactions. I think it’s just another in the line of communications and technologies that we’re a little bit afraid of, which is kind of understandable but we should recognize that we’ve been here before.
VIGELAND: I want to ask you to respond to a quote from Jaron Lanier, who wrote a manifesto recently called “You Are Not a Gadget.” He basically comes out and says Facebook reduces life to a database.
BILTON: I mean it is and it isn’t. There’s 500 million people on that service. But one of the misconceptions is that these things are going to replace real life, and I don’t think that that’s the case. It’s interesting, when I was researching the book, I found when the printing press came out, it didn’t change society instantly like we think that the printing press did. It wasn’t until the 1500s, when a gentleman by the name of Aldus Manutius invented the mobile book. Before that, books were 50 to 100 pounds apiece. It took like two people to turn a page. And the mobile book really changed everything because you could take it with you.
And I think the same things happened with mobile phones. For a long time, computers were the way that we accessed content and we sat in our bedroom or our office and we didn’t leave. And people don’t want to do that, they want to be out. These mobile devices that we all carry around I think have become that, essentially the mobile book of today.
VIGELAND: I don’t know if any of you have actually seen the book yet, but when you go through the book, at the beginning of each chapter, there’s a little symbol here. And if you’ve got a mobile phone, you download an app, and you click on it, and then you click on this, I hope you can hear it.
So now what it’s done is it’s taking me to a website where I can get more information on all the material that’s in this chapter, I can engage in a conversation with readers of the book. It’s really, really cool, I have to tell you. I spent some time doing this over the last couple of days.
BILTON: One of the things that I write about in the book is that I don’t think we sell content. If I said to you, I’m going to sell you this book on Post-it notes, would you buy it? No, because the experience would be awful, but the content is there, right? So I’m not just selling the content, I’m selling the entire experience. There’s the hard cover, there’s the design, there’s the layout. There’s this entire experience that we pay for when we think we’re paying for content. This is something that applies not just in media, but to every single thing we do. We’re not just buying the car, you’re buying the thing that goes around that. And it especially takes place with content online when it comes to newspapers and books and magazines and things like that, and radio shows.
VIGELAND: That was Nick Bilton, New York Times technology writer and author of “I Live in the Future and Here’s How it Works.” We spoke at the Drucker Business Forum.
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