Monday, October 11, 2010

I Live in the Future and Here's How it Works by Nick Bilton

At the Environmental Grantmakers Association Fall Retreat last week I tried two "stage gimmicks" that I derived directly from reading Nick Bilton's new book, I Live in the Future and Here's How it Works.
First, since we were at Asilomar, I got a 10 gallon bucket and filled it with sand. I dribbled a few grains of sand into my hand and said:
  • "This is how much information an 18th Century professional would have dealt with in his lifetime."
  • I filled a small bag with sand and said, "This is how much information is contained in a week's worth of The New York Times."
  • I tilted the entire bucket toward the audience, and said "This is the amount - 4 exabytes (10^19 power) of unique information created each year nowadays."
Turns out I was wrong about that last bit - I should have used Bilton's quote about how "American households' collectively consumed 3.6 zettabytes of information in 2008" A zettabyte is, of course, 1000 exabytes.
That's why your head feels like it is going to explode after being at a conference nowadays.
Then I held up a paper roadmap of California. Pointed out that when you use one of these maps you have a clear picture of the roads in the state and the first thing you have to do is locate yourself in that picture. However, when you use a map online or on your phone the first thing the software does is zing a little pin onto the map. That pin shows you where you are. That pin is you. The map is oriented around you, not around the state of California.
The session at EGA was on "Tools that Move the Needle." We heard from Bradford Smith of The Foundation Center, Jon Cracknell of The JGM Foundation and Environmental Funders Network in the UK, Rachel Leon speaking on behalf of the Gulf Coast Fund, and Rick Reed talking about the REAMP project. These are great examples of using data and data visualization to make sense of existing information, using technology to see information in new ways, and using technology to involve new voices in decision making conversation. We saw the world premier of "Bridging the Gulf" a fabulous 3 minute short on the Gulf Coast Fund's community data project.

Here's another way of looking at the amount of data we deal with daily. (from GOOD Magazine)

Having milked Bilton's book for my role in moderating this panel, its only fair that I share some broader thoughts on the book. First, let me note that I'm writing this book review while watching Giants/Braves game #4, cooking dinner, and checking on the progress of the City's 4-day, 24-hour-a-day trolley track replacement project that is happening within 50 feet of my front door. I just finished Bilton's book, which, contrary to the research he cites on multi-tasking while pleasure reading I was able to finish with the ball game on.

Bilton is the lead technology writer for the New York Times Bits column. He's engaging, funny, clear, and significantly less arrogantly tech-savvy then many in his position. His book is more than a book. Each chapter opens with a QR Code (that black and white box thingy at the top of this post) that leads you to online content, discussions, and other community oriented tools related to the book. This is cool, though not as cool as the book app that Stephen Elliot developed for his memoir, The Adderall Diaries or The McSweeney's App for the magazine. I read the book on the Kindle app, so theoretically you can read what I highlighted online here.*

His book, I Live in the Future and Here's How it Works, is one of those rarest of rarities these days - a business book that is a good story. Bilton takes us from the porn industry to classrooms, from Gutenberg to fMRI research, to surgical theaters and data visualization hubs. He has a penchant for making up terminology - consumnivore and technocondria are both self-explanatory and useful.

As he weaves together his observations from his own life, his work in the New York Times Research Labs, all sorts of other research (sociological, psychological, medical, and anthropological) he keeps an important perspective in place - technology changes things in accretive ways, we don't change as fast as technology does, and, "Paper is still gadget number one for reading content."

He also points out that it is experience we are after, not just content. Now that everything is digital, we may not even be aware of the original source of the information we're reading. I have Flipboard on my iPad and know just what he's talking about. Flipboard deliberately pulls tweets and blog posts, news stories, and Facebook posts all into one place and makes it all look good. The professionally curated, the amateur curated all swirls around me as I organize these feeds to include only what I want. This may be one of the snazzier tools with which to do it, but essentially we all do this all the time now when we set up a Feed reeder, Twitter lists, or iGoogle homepages.

The more the sources of the content fade to background, the more "I" get the ability to organize it all, and the more mashable content becomes, the more we seek a unique and powerful experience. The more we are relying on our own selected filters for information, whether that be the people we follow on Twitter or the editorial staff of The Wall Street Journal. Storytelling - using all of the tools at its disposal in whatever time period we find ourselves - still reigns supreme. In this moment, that storytelling needs to account for screens, click-away alternatives, video, other voices, game structure, and our ability to multitask.

After presenting a wide range of examples and scientific research about our brains on technology, Bilton flips the unexpected card and points out that "most of the scientists I've interviewed agree that the brain's thirst for stimulation drives the technological advances of each innovation." In other words, we're dopamine fiends bringing this rapid change on ourselves because we can. We can dream it, we can adapt to it, we can keep up with it. We always have.

While Bilton thrives on technology, he doesn't claim to read tea leaves. He won't predict the future of newspapers or other content providers. He does offer up some insights for the workplace of today and tomorrow:
  • Most of the generations that are fully native to digital environments have not yet joined the workforce. Watch out - the changes are just beginning.
  • People will do the right thing (pay for content and experience) if you make it easy for them. If you don't, they won't.
  • There's no going back.
  • Companies will have to take the leap of eating their seed corn in order to thrive. He points specifically to Apple's transformation from a computer company to a music distributor.
I think Bilton's insights are right on for every workplace. His insights about the malleability of data and the need for stories and filters (trust and anchor communities in his parlance) are as relevant to those in the social change/philanthropy sphere as they are to car salesmen, reporters, film makers, and fiction writers.

How do we know what we know?
How do we determine who will get to define the problem?
How does that, in turn, shape how we define the solution?
How do we interact with all the information around us?
These are key questions in shaping how philanthropy works. The technological infrastructure on which those questions are being answered and the cultural assumptions of the generations using today's digital technologies are fundamentally different than those of "command and control, broadcast television, movie theater" generations. The "future" Bilton describes explains the difference between Kickstarter and Network for Good, between Ushahidi and the AP and between The Extraordinaries and a Volunteer Center.

Read it.

BTW, the Giants just won and dinner was delicious. The track replacement project is proceeding apace. It actually looks like it will be done, on time, 4 am Tuesday.

*This public highlights feature is from Amazon and not limited to Bilton's book. It's actually kind of creepy to me, but I figured I'd give it a try once to see.

No comments: