Tools of Change: Nick Bilton

The New York Times may very well be the only newspaper that has an R&D Lab. And as Nick Bilton boasted on Wednesday morning at a keynote address, there don’t appear to be any publishers with an R&D lab either. Bilton had called about ten publishers “just for fun” to see if any of them had an R&D department. The receptionists were baffled. But what Mr. Bilton may not understand — particularly in this publishing environment in which ebooks again represent less than 1% of the market — is that the average Joe is probably not familiar with the term.

None of this prevented Mr. Billton from some wild generation generalizations — channeled by way of his three-and-a-half-year-old nephew Luca, captured with digital tools on slides — that the generation now in prepubescent form will require everything instantly. In Bilton’s view, Generation Next will be growing up in a world in which they will expect all content in seconds. But not after they’ve been scolded by a diligent parent while grabbing for seconds before all the firsts have made room on their plates for dessert.

I was uneasy about the technological razzle-dazzle applied to toddlers. Yes, it’s a truism. But to bask in it without considering the deeper social ramifications was unseemly. Bilton’s enthusiasm reminded me of unscrupulous advertisers who have boasted about two-year-olds who can identify the Golden Arches. Or the kids who now enter a demographic before even saying their first words. But little thought has been paid to the ethics behind hitting kids up in their formative years. Instant gratification certainly gratifies, but how precisely do all the doodads aid rumination? Maybe there are some circumstances in which it’s probably best not to have it immediately. Maybe the limitations of a device produce creative and journalistic constraints that improve content. (Case in point: Because the laptop I am currently borrowing is having some issues and may shut down, and because I have approximately ten minutes to finish writing this post before heading of to another panel, I must express great care for these sentences, essentially writing this in one very careful and fast first draft, and strive to get as much here as my copious notes will allow. The technological limitations prevent me from liveblogging, as others are doing, and so I have additional time to think about what I have witnessed before writing about it. The reader may not be instantly gratified through the liveblogging. But I’d like to think, in light of the good observations made by Carolyn Kellogg, that this permits some things from not being lost between the tweets.)

Is long form content dying? As Bilton demonstrated by dragging up New York Times articles from the late 19th century, there were similar reports made when the telephone and the phonograph appeared. The “X is dead” statement has remained a constant through every iteration of technology. But I couldn’t help but consider the slide Bilton showed which read “Our Brain’s Are Changing” [sic]. Clearly, technology does have a downside. And it is, given the ebullience Bilton evinced at the possibility of going into a tangent comparing ants and those who work online, leveled squarely against individual expression. I do not view anybody who may be reading this post as an ant. I welcome outside perspectives, particularly from those who can sufficiently prove that I am wrong. I only ask that they take the time to actually understand the difference between plural non-possessive and singular possessive.

What do we lose in this greater scope when we settle for a custom version of the New York Times that conveniently elides those stories we might stumble across? And how does this facilitate — to use one of the dreaded corporate verbs I’ve heard too much around here — another’s curiosity? It is not enough to employ sensors as editors. It is vital that we use technology in a way that matches the human impulse: masticating instead of thoughtlessly devouring, listening instead of pontificating, and ensuring that the tools actually match the way our brains cogitate.

And if that means taking the cute young Luca aside and telling him that he can’t have his toys all the time, and extending these general limitations to a manboy or two here at TOC, then I think this might get us to a more constructive conversation about our relationship with technology. If we can’t factor in the concept of waiting into our daily lives, as Bilton clearly does not, then does he really have his finger on the pulse? Or is he just some guy more impressed by the flash and flicker of a new atavistic fire?