The future of paying attention

Nicholas Carr has a short piece in The Wall Street Journal reiterating his argument that the web is “turning us into scattered and superficial thinkers.”  (More Carr here and here.)  Is the web uniquely full of “constant distractions and interruptions”?  Carr drives home his point with a comparison to another medium:

It is revealing, and distressing, to compare the cognitive effects of the Internet with those of an earlier information technology, the printed book. Whereas the Internet scatters our attention, the book focuses it. Unlike the screen, the page promotes contemplativeness.

Sure enough, one of the attributes of the book, as a technology, that I’ve lately come to appreciate is the focus it lends.  Being offline, and thus comparatively free of distraction, can be a technological benefit.

But in a companion WSJ piece, Clay Shirky takes issue with the comparison:

In the history of print, we got erotic novels 100 years before we got scientific journals, and complaints about distraction have been rampant; no less a beneficiary of the printing press than Martin Luther complained, “The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure of limit to this fever for writing.” Edgar Allan Poe, writing during another surge in publishing, concluded, “The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information.”

The key, Shirky argues, is that we, as a society, learn how to make good use of new mediums.

The response to distraction, then as now, was social structure. Reading is an unnatural act; we are no more evolved to read books than we are to use computers. Literate societies become literate by investing extraordinary resources, every year, training children to read. Now it’s our turn to figure out what response we need to shape our use of digital tools.

This is probably not enough to satisfy Carr, who fears that we’ll trade in a superior set of habits and structures for an inferior one.  From the Carr piece:

[Developmental psychologist Patricia] Greenfield concluded that “every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others.” Our growing use of screen-based media, she said, has strengthened visual-spatial intelligence, which can improve the ability to do jobs that involve keeping track of lots of simultaneous signals, like air traffic control. But that has been accompanied by “new weaknesses in higher-order cognitive processes,” including “abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination.” We’re becoming, in a word, shallower.

Carr’s prescription is less time online.  But I’m personally much more intrigued by the project of designing the habits, norms, technologies and social structures that allow us to maximize the benefits of the web.

This is what author and academic Howard Rheingold calls “infotention.” As he puts it:

Infotention is a word I came up with to describe the psycho-social-techno skill/tools we all need to find our way online today, a mind-machine combination of brain-powered attention skills with computer-powered information filters… Knowing what to pay attention to is a cognitive skill that steers and focuses the technical knowledge of how to find information worth your attention. More and more, knowing where to direct your attention involves a third element, together with your own attentional discipline and use of online power tools – other people.

Cognitive discipline + technology + a good network = the future of paying attention.  No one knows how well it will work, but few can deny the potential offered by the web.  Learning how to use it well is one of the greatest challenges we now face.

Framing your friendships

Two things are indisputably true of Tyler Cowen: he has an interesting mind, and he has an economist’s mind.

This struck me as I was reading Chapter 4 of Create Your Own Economy, titled ‘IM, Cell Phones, and Facebook’.  It’s a quirky (and occasionally funny) chapter about how our choice of communication platform impacts our communications.

On one level it’s the “medium is the message” thesis.  But, since he’s a behavioral economist, Cowen frames his argument as competition between competing frames of reference.

We choose to send or receive messages in particular ways, in part, to determine which kinds of framing effects will influence our thoughts and emotions.  The greater the number of media we have to choose from, the more likely this process will suit our tastes.

Though economists often discuss framing effects in the context of bias or irrationality, Cowen focuses on the potential benefits of competition between mediums.  “Facebook,” he writes, “has made me friendlier… It is a framing effect that I have chosen to keep, and to my advantage.”

Framing effects may not be the simplest lense through which to view his basic point: greater choice in our communications is a good thing.  But it’s an interesting lense.  And an economist’s lense.

Tyler Cowen on cultural literacy

I’m reading Tyler Cowen’s book Create Your Own Economy and I’ll be posting thoughts and snippets as I go.  Here’s Cowen on the new cultural literacy:

What cultural literacy means today is not whether you can “read” all the symbols in a Rubens painting but whether you can operate an iPhone and other web-related technologies.  The iPhone, if used properly, can get you to website on Rubens as well.  The question is not whether you know the classics but whether you are capable of assembling your own blend of cultural bits.  When viewed in this light, today’s young people are very culturally literate and in fact they are very often the cultural leaders and creators. (pg. 59)

I’m only a few chapters in, but I’m greatly enjoying the book.  And, of course, I can’t recommend Cowen’s blog, Marginal Revolution, highly enough.

Google’s optimism

There’s plenty to discuss in James Fallows’ excellent Atlantic piece on how Google plans to save the news industry.  It has some good background on what’s hurting the industry, notes that hard news never made money, touches on un-bundling and re-bundling (aggregating), and plenty more.

I want to briefly highlight two points.  First, Google is supposedly agnostic about paywalls:

…people inside the press still wage bitter, first-principles debates about whether, in theory, customers will ever be willing to pay for online news, and therefore whether “paywalls” for online news can ever succeed. But at Google, I could hardly interest anyone in the question. The reaction was: Of course people will end up paying in some form—why even talk about it? The important questions involved the details of how they would pay, and for what kind of news. “We have no horse in that race or particular model in mind,” Krishna Bharat, one of the executives most deeply involved in Google’s journalistic efforts, told me, in a typical comment. His team was already working with some newspapers planning to put their content behind paywalls, others planning to remain free and hoping to become more popular with readers annoyed when paywalls crop up elsewhere, and still others planning a range of free and paid offerings. For Bharat and his colleagues, free-versus-paid is an empirical rather than theological matter. They’ll see what works.

[Emphasis mine.]  Read that bolded line again.  Of course people will pay for news?  Really?  If it doesn’t seem all that obvious to you, you’re in good company.

But I’d offer a couple thoughts to put Google’s position in context:

1) Google has pissed off enough newspaper editors already (as Fallows discusses); why piss them off even more by pointing out that paywalls are unlikely to work?

2) If you include advertising as a way “people will pay in some form” then the statement is actually pretty reasonable.

Which brings me to the second point worth calling out.  Google is bullish on the potential of web ads to bring in big revenue:

Newspaper and magazine publishers have felt trapped by the death of print, says [Neal Mohan, VP of Product Dev.], because display ads in print have been such a crucial cash cow. The switch to online display ads has not offset the losses in print, since the “per eyeball” revenue from online display ads has been so much lower…Online display ads may not be so valuable now, he said, but that is because we’re still in the drawn-out “transition” period. Sooner or later—maybe in two years, certainly in 10—display ads will, per eyeball, be worth more online than they were in print.

I know very little about the economics of web ads so I’m in no position to comment here, but I certainly hope he’s right.

In any case, it’s a characteristically terrific piece by Fallows.  I highly recommend reading the whole thing.

Sachs on our policy discourse

Economist Jeffrey Sachs has a column in Scientific American complaining about the dismal state of policy discourse in the U.S.

In general, our political system regularly puts around the table people who are not the best equipped to find deep solutions to our problems. Certainly it has also done so on climate change, with the nation’s expert community kept at arms length from the legislative drafting process. As with health care, the outcome has been House and Senate draft legislation that lacks public support. The same has been true on Afghanistan: the “war cabinet” has lacked real expertise on that country’s culture, economy and development challenges, and the U.S. public has remained uninformed of true options.

As a start toward better policy making, the administration should put forward a detailed analysis justifying each major proposed policy change. That white paper could form the basis for coherent public debate and reflection, along with Web sites where outside experts would be invited to share opinions accessible to the public. The public, too, would be invited to blog about that position paper. A version of the draft legislation understandable to lay readers would also be posted (alongside the more technical and inevitable legalese) and opened to online commentaries by experts and the public. The administration and Congress would rely more heavily on external advisory panels to tap into the nation’s wealth of expertise and to draw on the views of business, academia and other sectors of society.

In our governance systems today, the intrinsic complexity of the challenges easily outpaces the gut instincts and amateurism of the existing government machinery. I would not presume or recommend that decisions be left to the purported experts, who often represent special interests or have their own biases or narrow views. Still, a systematic vetting of policy options, with recognized experts and the public commenting and debating, will vastly improve on our current policy performance, in which we often fly blind or hand the controls over to narrow interests and viewpoints.

I agree that this is a problem, and that we could do better.  But count me unconvinced that an administration white paper will make much of a difference.

Civics vs. culture

A friend objected to my post Subsidizing the Style section on the grounds that I was discounting the social value of newspapers’ cultural content.  Fair enough.  The Times, and newspapers more generally, obviously contribute to our cultural conversation and that’s important.

But if tomorrow newspapers disappeared entirely which would suffer more: our civic discourse or our cultural discourse?

To me the answer is clear.  Newspapers are much more central to civic life than to cultural life, though their role in the latter is not to be discounted.

Consideration of that hypothetical has to include consideration of which types of content would be easily replaced by other sources.  I think in the case of culture-oriented feature content the web would likely provide ample replacement for the loss of newspapers.  In the case of beat reporting, investigative reporting, war reporting, etc. I’m not convinced.  Hence my focus on subsidizing those areas.

Subsidizing the Style section

Last post I wrote about my hesitancy to pay for The New York Times, despite being a loyal, regular reader.  I’d rather be asked to donate to keep quality journalism publicly available than forced to pay to privately consume it.

NYT Style 08

In this post I want to touch on another reason why I’m hesitant to pay for the Times.  Even if I decided to mentally justify the purchase of an annual NYT subscription as a charitable donation to support quality journalism (assuming a model in which this paid for some/most of the paper to be freely available) I’d still have serious reservations.

Much of the Times’ work fits my definition of core civic journalism, the often expensive reporting that is essential to a democracy.  But much of the its work does not.

In addition to its terrific international and political reporting, for instance, the Times has a Style section, a Travel section, a Food section, and plenty of other less essential feature-oriented segments.

Even if I approached a Times subscription as a charitable donation I’d be hard-pressed to justify that “donation”, knowing that some portion of my contribution would pay for those non-essential segments.*

Think of it this way: the disappearance of the Times would be a huge civic loss.  The disappearance of the Style section would be no loss at all.

Unless there were some way to feel confident that my dollars were directly subsidizing essential, socially important journalism, I’d be hard-pressed to subscribe out of the goodness of my heart.

*Traditionally the Style section – and the advertising it draws – has subsidized foreign bureaus, investigative reporting, etc.  That model worked well for a time.  Some might even argue that since these feature segments are popular, I need not worry that they require any subsidy; more likely, one might counter, they’re still subsidizing the quality journalism I’m worried about.  Possibly.  But I worry that as the current advertising-driven model continues to erode, that arrangement will end.  And all the incumbents who work for those socially unimportant portions of the paper will fight tooth-and-nail to secure an equal share of whatever revenue the Times can find, my subscription included.

Just ask nicely

Despite being a huge fan of the New York Times, I’m reluctant to subscribe when the paper institutes its paywall. There are a couple of reasons for that, but in this post I’ll focus on just one: I’d rather be asked to support good journalism than forced to pay for it.NYT Office

Being asked to support a worthy cause triggers an assessment of that cause’s importance to society, whereas being asked to pay triggers a selfish cost-benefit analysis.

Is the good or service in question worth the money?  Could I find it cheaper elsewhere?

The NYT has lots of terrific content but in an information economy characterized by abundance it has to compete against lots and lots of quality, free content.  I’m constantly overwhelmed by intelligent, valuable content that I’d like to read/watch/listen to.

If managing my information intake is a matter of weighing quality content against quality content, looking for any slight preference for one feed over another, why would I select the one that requires an annual subscription?

Moreover, while reporting may still be expensive, quoting is cheap.  Even if every major news source put up a paywall, bloggers could still quote a couple key grafs on their way to offering analysis.*

In short, I believe that the marginal benefit offered by outlets like the NYT will not meet my own criteria for being “worth paying for.”

I’d much rather be asked to give to an organization whose work I want to support.

Some might see this as hopelessly idealistic.  How many people would really donate?  Perhaps it is, but so is the alternative.  I just don’t see many sophisticated readers weighing the cost of subscription against the wealth of free content online and deciding to subscribe.

One final note: the membership model at one point under consideration by the NYT strikes me as closer to what I’d like to see.  Ask loyal readers to become dues-paying members, for which they get access to extra content in exchange for offsetting the cost of keeping most of the website freely available.

*At this point I think it’s fairly non-controversial to suggest that America’s copyright regime is overly restrictive and that further restricting it, so as to prevent the sort of quoting I refer to, would be incredibly damaging.

Social media, email and relationship inflation

Umair Haque has a post at Harvard Business Review advancing the following hypothesis which he dubs “relationship inflation”:

Despite all the excitement surrounding social media, the Internet isn’t connecting us as much as we think it is. It’s largely home to weak, artificial connections, what I call thin relationships.

A year ago I was blogging as part of a class on Social Media & Business at American University and I wrote a post that touched on a related issue: how email use affects relationships.  I’ve reposted it below.

In short, I I think Umair may be right about the devaluation of the term “relationship” but I’m not convinced that the addition of thin relationships through social media has any negative impact on thick relationships, though I’d love to take a look at research bearing directly on this topic.

My original post “Online or in person? We can (and do) have it both ways” is reposted after the jump.

Continue reading Social media, email and relationship inflation

Too many cooks, too many kitchens

Imagine a society in which kitchens are rare.  No one has one in their home.  Everyone has to go out to eat three meals a day.  As a result, the society employs quite a large number of professional chefs to work in the few large kitchens, cooking food for everyone else.Too many cooks

Now imagine that technological changes enable anyone to have a kitchen.  Suddenly everyone in the society has the ability to cook for themselves in their own home.  And so cook they do.  For themselves, for their families, for their friends and neighbors.

Sure enough, many of them find they greatly enjoy cooking and are quite good at it.  They happily cook for neighborhood barbecues and picnics, expecting nothing in return but the satisfaction it brings and the community it fosters.

Some people still eat out regularly; others do so occasionally.  Yet, unsurprisingly, the demand for professional chefs decreases sharply.

Perhaps also unsurprisingly, many chefs and former chefs start to complain.  It has suddenly become much more difficult to make a living cooking.  And they are skilled chefs, after all.  Don’t they deserve to be compensated for their talents and effort?

I raise this example because whenever I suggest that amateurs should play a larger role in the production of digital culture – and that I’m comfortable with a corresponding decrease in the number of professional writers or musicians – the notion is treated as not only radical, but heartless.  Those professionals are working hard!  Don’t they deserve to make a living?

Well I imagine most people don’t feel the same way about chefs and cooking, and I want to suggest a very simple reason why: status quo bias.  We’re used to thinking about cooking as mostly an amateur activity; eating a meal cooked by a professional is the exception.  But when it comes to music or magazine writing it’s the reverse.

Now it’s not quite an apples to apples comparison. For one thing, food, unlike digital information, is a rival good.

However, the error is in thinking that the arrangement we’re used to is particularly special.  It wasn’t handed down by the gods or even a philosopher-king.  It was merely the result of an arbitrary economic arrangement that no longer applies.

Incidentally, the cooking metaphor works nicely for arguments about quality of content as well.  A professional chef is more skilled, on average, than an amateur.  But would anyone deny that there are plenty of amateurs whose cooking far surpasses that of many professionals?