Commentary

One Giant Leap Backwards

Technology is now doing more damage than good. Left unchecked, our children will live longer but lower-quality lives than our own.

While developing nations starve for technology to protect against disease or improve crop yields, we blow our resources intentionally publishing people's credit card purchases. How warped our sense of "progress" has gotten.

News Consumption? There's an App For That
We are becoming a nation of headline chasers.

Fifteen years ago, long-form features stories made the magazine. It was the amazing investigative journalism happening at places like Business Week, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and The New York Times that shined a bright light on the dark underbelly of society. We rely on these journalists to play a critical counterweight to our nation's government and corporations. 

Today, long-form journalism is rapidly becoming extinct. The Internet is cannibalizing the business model of subscriptions and ads, but it is also doing something much more meaningful, and infinitely more problematic: it is fracturing our attention span to consume information.

There is a raging debate on the Web right now about whether the Internet is rewiring our brains and making us stupid.  These arguments miss the point. The important question is how our relationship with technology is changing, and how technology is changing our relationship with those around us.

It is no longer enough to have dinner with friends or attend a meeting. We must leave our iPhones and BlackBerries on the table so we can simultaneously maintain connected to the world outside our immediate reach. We even have iPads to use while we watch TV.

In the United States, we are now consuming our news from applications like Facebook and Twitter. This year, Facebook passed Google as the number-one traffic driver to news sites.

We no longer read, we scan. Our constantly bifurcated attention span is forcing journalists to write shorter and shorter stories. Eventually, it will devolve to a headline and a few sound bites.

Celebrity of One
These new platforms are even shifting our view of ourselves.

Our television stations are riddled with reality shows that put the idea of celebrity within the grasp of every American. We love them because they sell the unstated idea that you are only a contest, sex tape, or affair away from celebrity.

Facebook has become the platform of choice for the "micro-celeb" -- an opportunity to practice narcissism in a socially acceptable way. If the obvious point of posting is for people to read and comment, is success measured in the number of comments?

How long will it be before people begin optimizing their lives for "broadcast-worthiness" rather than quality?

Will the Facebook Generation Become the Asperger's Generation?
The fascinating question is whether we are witnessing evolution at an unprecedented pace, or merely becoming the victims of our own creation.

We have become fantastic multitaskers, well-suited for tasks like text-messaging seven people simultaneously or trading stock. Meanwhile, our attention spans are evaporating. Studies have shown that younger generations are getting worse at eye contact and detecting nonverbal cues. Are we unwittingly pushing ourselves down the autism spectrum?

The average American now watches more than 1,800 hours a year of television, yet 80% have not read a book in the last year. It's beautiful irony that we created a culture that likes watching authors be interviewed on TV, yet doesn't like reading the books they write.

Maybe deep thinking no longer matters. Maybe we are a culture that prefers to be entertained rather than informed. Maybe everything that is important can be said in 140 characters. Or, maybe we should stop and think about whether we want to live in the world we dreamed up.

Consider this: 42% of college graduates will never read another book for the rest of their lives.

As publishers, this will transform our businesses -- and as a society, harm it irreparably. 

23 comments about "One Giant Leap Backwards".
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  1. Mike Loomis from Eastco Worldwide, June 17, 2010 at 11:17 a.m.

    David - This is gutsy and brilliant. The Oscar Wilde quote comes to mind... "Everything popular is wrong". Thank you!

  2. Warren Zenna from Havas Media / Mobext, June 17, 2010 at 11:33 a.m.

    Hmmm. A bit confused, David. While I pretty much agree with everything in this post - and humbly cop to my own level hypocrisy - are you not also the President of an Email platform and Chairman of an Ad Serving platform? Seems like this puts you in somewhat of an ethical, Shakespearian, conundrum, no? Thanks for distributing spam to my inbox and sharing my IP parameters with teeth whitening firms. Lets discuss this provocative paradox over drinks -- and in between tweets and Facebook updates.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, June 17, 2010 at 1:01 p.m.

    Truer than true. All of those who are techno spastic should really hope their doctors, etc. are not. However, the expectation of the children living longer is not coming true. Obesity bites hard.

  4. David Koretz from Adventive, Inc., June 17, 2010 at 1:40 p.m.

    @Warren,

    BlueTie actually provides outsourced email hosting TO businesses, we are not an email marketing company, and don't send ANY email outbound. In fact, we block 98% of the 6 Billion messages we process each month to keep our customers from getting spam :)

    Adventive is also not an ad serving platform, but a platform for businesses and agencies to build great rich media ads that feel like applications. Ad serving is just the back-end delivery vehicle obviously.

    That said, I am still completely hypocritical, but for different reasons :)

    I find myself checking my iPhone and iPad at dinners, while laying in bed, and every place else.

    I'm doing my best to kick the habit though, because I truly believe the net effect is not positive.

    David.

  5. Dave Kohl from First In Promotions, June 17, 2010 at 1:45 p.m.

    Along the same lines, the technology is playing havoc with the attention spans of consumers. "Too short" has become far too acceptable. The 500-page book is becoming extinct. It's as though I'm the only person on earth who complains that movies are "only" 90 minutes or less. The whole country has gone USA Today.

  6. Susan Roane from The RoAne Group, June 17, 2010 at 1:48 p.m.

    Brilliant post today. And so beautifully written. We may be multi-tasking but research proves we are doing those those tasks "crappily".
    I'm as digital as the next person and watch way too much TV (while multi tasking--reading newspapers and polishing my nails). The future of real engagement, connection and relationships are my concerns. Disclosure: I wrote Face To Face: How to Reclaim the Personal Touch in a Digital World.

  7. John Adams from Adventive Inc, June 17, 2010 at 3:09 p.m.

    David,

    Great article - knocked it out of the park once again. For obvious reasons I normally refrain from commenting on your monthly contribution, but thought I would share the irony I felt reading today’s post:

    I had planned on meeting a friend last night for a drink and some oysters at Ulysses on Stone St. to celebrate Bloomsday (i.e. the annual 6/16 celebration of James Joyce, his novel and the restaurant’s namesake). Instead, I saw a friend’s link on the iPhone Facebook App about “The Situation” giving a homeless guy a cheeseburger on the streets of NYC and wasted the next 20 minutes of my life surfing TMZ.com.

    Not hearing back from me immediately, my friend finally texted me saying she was making other plans. I shrugged it off, made a payment to my student loan and turned on the TV.

  8. Kelly Wenzel from Centro, June 17, 2010 at 4:40 p.m.

    Bravo. Unfortunately, for all the power of technology, it doesn't convey the fact that I literally wanted to stand and applaud while I was reading. Connectivity has become a compulsion -- to our detriment. As a new mom, I was especially struck by the recent NYT piece on "plugged in parenting" and how it makes our children feel. http://bit.ly/98mJhr Your article was like an exclamation point on the topic. Thanks.

  9. Greg Thompson from Dow Jones Local Media Group, June 17, 2010 at 4:48 p.m.

    So the great thing about technology is that you and I probably never would have interacted in any other way. Maybe you would have written a book on this topic and I would have read it.

    The points are spot on, yet succumb to that which is bemoaned in the article. These are powerful statistics, but with no credited source. For example, how can you know that 42% of all college graduates will never read another book? (Minority Report isn't even in beta yet?) It makes a great sound bite, except since this article had the source edited out for my small span of attention I can't know if I should believe it or not.

  10. David Koretz from Adventive, Inc., June 17, 2010 at 4:53 p.m.

    @Greg,

    There is no question technology does amazing things. I have spent my last 15 years as the CEO of technology companies advancing that cause. I just think we need to be more cognizant of the downsides.

    As for the 42% statistic, here is the source (footnoted), and several other stats you will find shocking:

    http://www.humorwriters.org/startlingstats.html

  11. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein, June 17, 2010 at 6:44 p.m.

    Nothing like cozying up to the fireplace with a good IPad.

  12. Robert Rose from Big Blue Moose, June 17, 2010 at 7:13 p.m.

    David....

    Excellent, thought provoking post. I'm sure the irony of posting it online isn't lost on you so I won't even go there.

    Having said that I couldn't disagree more.

    So, I think the trouble I have with your argument is that (if I may sum it up) it really breaks into two halves... On the one side, you seem to be saying that the quality of our relationships is suffering because of the distraction of technology. And, then on the other (although you seem to be separating yourself from it) you seem to be arguing *exactly* the same point as Nicholas Carr by saying we're losing our ability for deep, contemplative thought because of the "short-form" nature of the Web.

    The 42% as a current indicator of reading appetite is a specious statistic (at best) as it's at least 7 years old - and sourced from a custom book publisher. I think we can both agree that (as my Dad would have said) they've got a "dog in that fight".

    Having said that, the spirit of that stat may actually be true(ish). You'll certainly get no argument from me that literacy rates among college graduates are horrific. There are many studies which point to this. But my challenge with both of your points is blaming the Web and technology for this is not a productive argument.

    Most of what you point out as examples are just personal choices. I've actually found great value in my Kindle/iPad for reading long-form books. The fact that I can freely download classics (many times at no cost) has re-invigorated my love of classic literature. I'm reading more now than I ever have. As for relationships - I'm finding great joy in connecting with people all over the world that I would have *never* communicated with prior to the social web. Through those connections, my ongoing professional education is more rich than it's ever been (this blog post as prime example as it came to me by Tweet).

    And I certainly don't think I need to extol all the virtues that technology and the Web has brought to burgeoning democracies, transparency in government and other social issues.

    As for the "dumbing down" of Americans because we're not reading long-form material - I can't agree there either. But I think the Nick Bilton blog post (linked in your post) argues this better than I can - so I won't belabor that here.

    In short, I agree with the first part of your concluding sentence. It will transform business (all business). But rather than rethink it - let's build the future we want out of the present we have. If we want our kids to read - let's not hand them a dog-eared copy of Moby Dick - let's hand them an iPad or a Kindle and give them a whole library.

    Thanks for making me think on a Thursday!!

    Cheers,

    ~rr

  13. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, June 17, 2010 at 7:49 p.m.

    One of the best inventions ever was the delete key to address typing errors. The next best was and still is, is voice mail. And you don't even have to look up the number! As long as a person returns a call within a certain amount of time - life altering doctors are an exception - leaving a message is quite respectful. Using your phone at dinner, in a meeting, while driving, in class, in a movie theatre, is not. If those who are playing with their toys during your meeting, take them away and they can have them back at the end of the day. Treat children like children and adults like adults.

  14. Anne Peterson from Idaho Public Televsion, June 17, 2010 at 8:03 p.m.

    If you want your kids to read, read to them from the time they are born on whatever medium you prefer — and let them see you reading for pleasure and education. They still might not take to reading, but they will be predisposed (and pre-exposed) to it. Oh yes, and check out Sesame Street, Word World, etc. on your local PBS station.

  15. David Koretz from Adventive, Inc., June 17, 2010 at 9:52 p.m.

    @Robert, thanks for the very thoughtful response. You forced me to think as well.

    I also have both an iPad and a Kindle, and there is no question they are additive in my life, and cause me to read (and generally learn) more.

    Let's put the Kindle where it belongs though. It's a niche product, for a niche audience. Only big readers (or innovators) buy it, and no surprise that it causes them to read more. That's fantastic.

    For the general population however, we are seeing shorter and shorter articles, shorter emails, etc. which is leading to a population that has a "headline education" but no real depth of understanding.

    That is compounded by a barrage of text messages, emails, instant messages, tweets, Facebook updates, etc. The cumulative effect of all this is that it frequently breaks concentration.

    No disease was ever cured, no significant dispute resolved, and no breakthrough accomplished by someone who was persistently distracted.

    The constant chirping and buzzing and vibrating is low-level torture.

    Humans need time for deep thought, daydreaming, and self reflection.

    As much as I love the iPad and the iPhone, there is no question they sharply cut into our ability to just drift off.

    David.

  16. Robert Rose from Big Blue Moose, June 18, 2010 at 12:53 a.m.

    @ David....

    Yes, indeed.... And with that clarification I think you and I are closer in agreement...

    My only quibble was that it's *our* choice (and our fault) not the technology to blame. We can choose to evolve into new ways of learning, expressing and communicating. The important thing is that we choose. :-)

    Now if you'll excuse me I'm going to actively turn off the computer and go read something analog.

    Thanks for a great discussion.

  17. Brian Rock from Network Ten, June 18, 2010 at 1:44 a.m.

    Interesting, but I wonder if this isn't merely another salvo in the eternal conflict between the traditional and the new:

    "I believe what really happens in history is this: the old man is always wrong; and the young people are always wrong about what is wrong with him. The practical form it takes is this: that, while the old man may stand by some stupid custom, the young man always attacks it with some theory that turns out to be equally stupid."

    (G. K. Chesterton)

  18. David Koretz from Adventive, Inc., June 18, 2010 at 2:49 a.m.

    @Robert,

    Einstein once said that it has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.

    Obviously we created the devices, much like we created nuclear weapons, spam, the jersey shore TV show, and other awful things.

    The question I keep asking myself, which led to the article is: is replacing contemplation and deep thinking with massive parallelism proof of our evolution, or has Darwin just not gotten rid of us yet?

    David

  19. David Koretz from Adventive, Inc., June 18, 2010 at 3 a.m.

    @Brian,

    Interesting question. The ironic part is I'm a young man (30) and in the tech business, but sound like an old one ;)

    I would suggest that history has shown us that not all "new" is progress.

    I'm still reminded of New Coke, Windows ME, Microsoft Bob, Clippy, and Pop Rocks. All of them were considered
    innovative in their day. Of those, only Pop Rocks (because they are delicious) stood the test of time.

    David.

  20. Bret Dangelmaier from ZOS Communications, June 18, 2010 at 2:08 p.m.

    David - interested read. Re. your paragraph seven ("It is no longer...") -- that behavior has nothing to do with technology. It only shows how people have no sense of what is "proper behavior in public". And the root cause of this begins at home, where all manners are (or aren't) instilled into the children.

    Although this technological steamroller of change is upon us, we just cannot forget the basics (e.g. teaching handwriting in schools, manners at home and the like).

    As for Clippy (I just can't resist....) going away quickly and quietly at MSFT... I think it was due to some "powerful" media software reviewer really hating it and the new people in charge of MS Office not having the backbone to defend something they never championed in the first place. MSFT shuffles people aroud after every major release. Once MSFT backed away from it, the idea of it being a dumb one grew and grew. The concept itself (explaining the complexities of a product in a humorous and non-tech manner) was not a bad one at all.

  21. Jean Renard from TRM Inc., June 19, 2010 at 3 a.m.

    Distracting the population is an old trick Caesar used it to his advantage and sophistry was an art form taught in Greece. Shorter and thinner programming is cheaper and the real question is are we lemmings jumping off the cliff following no one but ourselves or is there some sinister plot at work.
    As I look at things I see a lot of smart folks exploiting the opportunities that short attention spans create for highly focused agenda driven individuals. As our culture disappears, the awesome power that the internet affords us all will go to waste faster than a senator's resolve with a box full of cash.

  22. Brian Rock from Network Ten, June 20, 2010 at 8:15 p.m.

    @David,
    You wrote "The ironic part is I'm a young man (30) and in the tech business, but sound like an old one ;)".

    That's good, because I'm an old man (51) who sounds like a young one. ;)

    I agree that not everything new is good. I'm just not convinced that the impact of tech on literacy and attention-spans is as dire as it sometimes appears.

    Take book buying. You quote sources that claim 80% of Americans haven't read a book in the past year, and 42% of college grads will never read another book.

    Yet according to Nielsen Media Research Australia's Panorama 80% of Australian graduates read a book in the past 12 months, while 70% of people 14+ read a book over the same period. It's possible that Australians are radically different to Americans in their book reading habits. That amazon.com alone manages to sell around $6 billion worth of books in the US suggests otherwise.

    I don't doubt that there are large numbers of people with short attention spans. This probably isn't particularly new. What is new is that there are now more options for catering to these people.

  23. Jerry Foster from Energraphics, June 21, 2010 at 3:37 a.m.

    I was lost near the beginning when I heard someone say that it is supposedly a bad thing that America's men face the prospect of soon losing the radically feminist Washington Post and New York Times. I recommend the book "How the New York Times Distorts the News".

    Needless to say I believe society is much improving because of the Internet and the ability of many people, including me, to finally get their point across.

    Look at how the Washington Post just published a major article stressing how women should not marry until they are well established in their careers and in their late thirties. That is being slammed all over the Internet now. Without the new technology, we'd all be forced to assume this advice was sound or part of the way things are.

    Look at how old media magazine "The Atlantic" just published a piece of drivel as a major cover story called "The End of Men" - which is triumphalist about men being apparently second class citizens in the US now. The logic in the article is being taken apart sentence by sentence all over the Internet.

    As this old junk media collapses, they are showing their true colors more and more. The Washington Post just hired Jessica Valenti, well known as a radical feminist whom most men disagree with.

    I've seen first hand how this old media stabbed the truth in the back: NYTimes writer Eduardo Porter interviewed me about the IMBRA law in 2006 and then told me later that his editors had completely rewritten his story to make it look like there was nothing controversial about background checking men before they can meet foreign women online.

    Before blogs, these dishonest institutions *hid* controversy and covered up for their friends and sponsors.

    Not only did these rags mostly twist "investigations" to fit a leftist and often anti-male ideology, they actually betrayed the left by not properly investigating poisons in our food and safety hazards in various industries: they were serving corporate sponsors just as the left said they were.

    And maybe I am wrong about this last point, but which major media was pushing hard to expose the lurking danger of the deep sea oil drilling industry?

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