When it comes to technology and change, I am a skeptic and fairly conservative. I tend to disbelieve that technologies have a direct effect on habits and behaviors. I see something closer to a dialectic between technology and society. Gadgetry does not fall out of the sky and compel people to change their habits. The technology itself is invented in a given context where unmet needs and desires (you might call them “behaviors waiting to happen”) inform the tools we create in the first place. We then interact with the technology, often take it in directions no one anticipated, and do as much to impose our own will and traditional needs onto the technology as it imposes new patterns on us.
In other words, societies shape technologies at least as much as the tech shapes the culture. Or something like that. Every historian of anything knows that attributing social changes to specific “causes” is a tough case to make. The cultural fabric is just too complexly interwoven for that.
This all comes up again for me because a journalist asked me recently to identify my “top 5 apps” from publishers. So many apps float by my notice that it is hard to reflect on what I have seen that really matters. I did my duty to a fellow scribe and offered up my list, highlighting the content providers I thought were doing a good job of translating their brands to the app platform. But the essence of apps, different from Web content, is their contextual relevance. Information in the right place and the right time turns content into a real tool and service. More to the point, this new mobility of information allows us to change behaviors as the consumer comes to rely on it. For instance, online travel sites are reporting a remarkable uptick in the number of same-day room booking because their mobile tools make this more possible. Many travelers are coming to rely on the fact that an app combined with GPS can tell them what rooms are available at what price in the general vicinity.
Arguably, since the Web has already been mobilized by laptops, the mobile platform completes and accelerates a shift in room booking patterns that had already been in place. And in many areas, this will be the case. Time-shifted viewing had already been initiated years ago by TiVo and the like, enhanced by the Web, and now made fully portable by the likes of HBO Go, CNN’s apps and now countless TV Everywhere apps from cable networks.
The morning news that I can’t catch because I spend the early mornings writing is now a part of my midday cardio routine. When Steve hits the cardio machine each day, the iPad is a necessary accessory. In fact, the two go so well together that in the time I have had my iPad it helped me extend my daily stair-climber routine from 40 minutes a day to 65. I am down another 10 pounds from my fairly stable weight two years ago. The iPad made me skinny.
The interplay between the app platform and changed rituals and behaviors is subtle, to be sure. And, again, I reject out of hand easy attempts to locate “causation,” as the social scientists like to call it. Nevertheless, we are just beginning to see how the concept of “mobility” is richer and more socially significant than our early concepts of “mobile” were.
We started the move to devices and smartphones by understanding them as extensions of the Web as we knew it. We are starting to see that the combination of location-awareness, peer-to-peer connectivity, contextually aware information retrieval and machine learning will create something much different, perhaps more culturally significant, than the Internet.
My daughter, for instance, is a young adult who traditionally has been timid about travel. Like her Dad a homebody at heart, before venturing forth on trips she has always needed to know exactly where we are going and how we plan to get there. She comes by it honestly. I have the same tic. GPS and mobile mapping has pretty much nullified our anxiety over being lost. Our sense of adventure has been enhanced. We are freer to venture down curious paths. The way we interact with the world has been altered… for the better.
This may not be as true in the world of media consumption, where eReader apps and devices have triggered severe ADD for me. I have been testing the Nook Tablet, Amazon Kindle Fire, their cross-platform apps and Apple’s revised iBooks app.
Having scores of books in a single app library sounds nice in theory. But in practice it has helped decimate my attention span. It simply is too easy to dance across too many books, starting many and finishing none. The format removes any discipline imposed by the limitations of a physical book. You pack a book for travel and it becomes the one book experience you have. If you hit a slow part, you marshall through because there is no alternative.
Under the new app model for books, my tolerance for the boring bits plummets. I have about five or six bookmarked books in my Nook and Kindle apps now, and I consider it a minor victory actually to finish one. And here is where it gets really weird. I have had to enact countermeasures to outsmart my attention lapses. I use the cardio machine as a hedge against creeping media attention deficit disorder. In the heat of raised heartbeats and desperate need for oxygen, it is nigh-impossible to manipulate the touch screen to close and load different books. If I start a book in that context, I am committed. Got through a quarter of "David Copperfield" this week, by God. Since I made this little tweak a couple of months ago, I have ripped through five or six novels. Again, the final shape of the new technology in my life was an interplay, a kind of negotiation with the gadget.
All of this may be as much an indication of my own strange relationship to media and gadgetry as it is a fair indicator of general trends. My eccentricities aside, my experience does speak to the different and intimate ways in which we will be engaging with the next generation of digital media. When information is mobilized, tightly contextualized, personalized and crafted into different forms by devices, we weave it into everyday habits at a different and deeper level. There is the potential here to change the way we interact with media and with the world itself. And those new patterns may be highly idiosyncratic and even harder for marketers to capture.
So far, mobilized media has made my body a bit skinnier and my brain a bit fatter. I can’t wait for what comes next.