Nick Bilton on multitasking and media

Nick Bilton (Pop!Tech bio; homepage) is speaking as part of the (Re)Mixed Messages session this morning.

“He’s a deep thinker about the future of media,” says Andrew Zolli. “We thought it would be potentially worthwhile for you to see just how far we’ve come, in terms of the media and the internet, so we’d like to show you an actual early report from the early 1980s — one of the first experiments in the space.”

We’re shown a video in which a news reporter posits that someday we might sit down to read our morning paper on the computer — “it’s not as far-fetched as it might seem,” the anchorwoman says, and the whole room laughs. We see someone dialing an old-fashioned rotary telephone hooked up to a modem, and the voiceover explains how the newspaper (without pictures, ads, or comics) can be sent through the phone lines into someone’s television set! “We’re not in it to make money,” says someone from the SF Chronicle (which draws some knowing laughter from the room.)

“This is only the first step in newspapers over computer,” says the voiceover — someday, he predicts, we might get all of our news via computer! “It takes over two hours to receive the entire text edition of the paper,” adds the anchorwoman. Ah, the 1980s.

Nick Bilton. CC photo by Kris Krüg.

“I own a home computer,” says Bilton, by way of beginning, and assures us that what he’s going to say is his own work, not the views of the Times. Five things to know about him: first, he works for the Times, doing research visualization. (He’s a Design Integration Editor and User Interface Specialist & Lead Researcher at the New York Times; his job is “exploring and testing technologies that could become commonplace” years from now.)

The Times wanted to look at who was coming to the Times website and where they were coming from. (Home computers, mobile devices…) He shows a moving image of dots lighting up all over the map: morning on the East Coast, then morning on the West Coast, etc. They’ve also been doing a lot of work lately on “Newspaper 2.0,” trying to figure out what the future of newspaper is going to be: everything from the Kindle to flexible devices with digital ink.

“Another concept we’ve pushed a lot is this idea of smart content,” he says. A newspaper is dumb content; it doesn’t know what you’ve read or what your preferences are. A digital source can become intelligent. Imagine that you go to the Times website and read a story on Iraq; when you open up the paper on your mobile phone, the phone should be smart enough not to show you that same story.

A second thing to know about Bilton: he teaches at NYU/ITP. He tries to teach his students that no matter what device or project is involved, it’s all about storytelling. He’ll be teaching a new course in the spring on “telling stories with sensors, data and humans.”

Third thing to know: he co-founded NYCResistor, a hacker collective in downtown Brooklyn. “We do a lot of hardware hacking, build robots, geek out like you wouldn’t believe.” They use open-source hardware and they teach classes in the community.

Fourth thing to know about Bilton is what he’s here to talk about today: he’s writing a book about his work. The book was originally called Byte. Snack. Meal. The new business of storytelling, but the publisher was worried people would think it was a food book! So the new title is I live in the future and here’s how it works. About his vision of where media, tech, devices and so forth are going.

And the fifth thing to know about him is “I have ADD. Really, really bad.” (He shows us report cards from his childhood in England, proving that his mind has always wandered.) “This has been helpful later in life! I’m good at multitasking and doing a lot of different things!”

We keep hearing that multitasking is bad, he points out — that our brains can’t do it, that society is going to change for the worse. A book recently cam out arguing that it’s going to put us back into the Dark Ages. But our brains multitask all the time. “Right now I’m breathing, I’m thinking about my next slide and my last slide, I’m wondering why I didn’t go to the bathroom earlier.” But there are limitations. We can’t read two books at once.

Brodmann’s Area 10 is an area in the brain, the border between the two different things one can’t do simultaneously. “With the next generation, a lot of scientists believe that this area is going to start working faster and faster” — it allows us to oscillate between two things at once. Bilton mentions technochondria, fear of new technology. When the railroad first came into being, people believed that you could asphyxiate and die if you went 20 miles an hour, and if you went 40 miles an hour your bones would explode. “We make these dumb assumptions all the time!”

We are multitasking, Bilton says. “I want to look at why we’re doing it.” One reason is the interfaces we’ve built. When you get a text, your phone vibrates, or beeps, or a window pops up. “It works too well; it’s jarring.” Another reason is that we have a tremendous amount of media to consume. So we simultaneously consume it.

To explain how we got here, go back to before the printing press. No one read. People stood around in bars or on soapboxes. The largest library in Europe had 122 books. “Along comes the printing press.” Which didn’t change everything; it changed a little bit, slowly. Gutenberg’s Bible was 2 volumes of 50 pounds each. “It’s like computers 50 years ago. You couldn’t carry it around, lay in the park and enjoy it.” Aldus Manutis in 1502 said, “why don’t we make these things smaller, so we can put them in our pockets? That’s how we got the mobile book, equivalent of the mobile phone. That’s when people started to read.”

And then along came the radio. “We put our books down, put our newspapers down, and would sit in the living room.” And radio became successful, and we start to see the first signs of multitasking; we don’t have enough time in the day to listen to shows and to read books and newspapers, so we do them at the same time. Same thing happens with television — and then the radio moves into the car, and we’re multitasking even there. Now we’re liable to be on our laptops, writing email, texting, tweeting, watching tv, and playing Nintento at the same time!

Our brains are adapting. “This is not evolution,” he assures us. Evolution doesn’t happen this fast. Maryanne Wolf has written, “After many years of research on how the human brain learns to read, I came to an unsettlingly simple conclusion: We humans were never born to read.” And yet we do. There’s a study that came out in Nature in 2009; a gentleman wanted to understand why people read and what happens in our brains when we do. They found a group of people in South America who are literate, and found new parts of their brain that grew and existed after they had done reading. “So our brains are still learning.”

Another study shows net naive people and net savvy people, reading a book and surfing the web, and the net savvy people’s brains light up twice as much as do the net naive people’s when they’re surfing the web. There’s a new kind of comprehension at work. Yet another study shows that playing Tetris increases attention, hand-eye coordination, working memory, visual and spatial problem solving. “Internet and games are a new form of narrative we’re learning how to do.”

What does this mean for newspapers? “We talk about business models,” Bilton says, “but that’s getting ahead of what we really should be talking about — that everything about news is changing.” The devices we access news on are changing. Now we read the news on mobile phones or computers. “I have a different psychological experience with that device, and I’m going to have that same psychological experience with that news, too.”

“The relevance of news is changing.” When Teddy Kennedy died, he says, “that wasn’t news to me.” It didn’t mean anything to Bilton, but to a lot of people it did. “There was a shooting across the street from my house: that was news to me, but not to you, unless you live where I live.” Our concepts of news are changing. By the same token: if someone in my friends network gets in a car accident? That’s news to me. Bilton tells a story about a friend borrowing his cmoputer to check “the news” — meaning Facebook.

“We used to buy newspapers based on the location where we live; now we can get news from anywhere. Our concept of trust is changing. We trust the news media 29 percent and we trust our friends and family 90 percent.”

Go back to the first newspaper, Publick Occurrences, in New Amsterdam. The last page was left blank because people were encourage to write back, pass the paper along to someone else, and thereby be part of the conversation. Over time, news became a big business, and people were shut out of the conversation except for Letters to the Editor. “But now, we all have a printing press,” Bilton says, showing an image of people holding up mobile phones. “It’s changing everything, swinging the pendulum back to the middle.”

“We have a social responsibility to report news. I don’t think it should be left just to the news organizations or just to the people.” The next generation is growing up in a world where all they do is take pictures, comment, upload videos; this is the world that they live in!

The editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal said recently that there are two kinds of people, consumers and aggregators. But for our generation, that’s inaccurate. Today we consume, report, aggregate; we do everything. We all tell stories. “Imagine if 9/11 happened today: the stories, the photos, the tweets? It would have changed the entire news experience.” Society is changing, Bilton says, “but I think it’s for the better.”

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