Futurist Nick Bilton Sees Media’s Destiny: Storytelling
With smartphones, computers and tablets bombarding us with more data than we could ever ask for, it’s difficult to get a clear vision of what the future portends. But maybe we’re already living there.
That’s what writer Nick Bilton argues in his new book I Live in the Future and Here’s How It Works. A seasoned technologist and lead writer at The New York Times, Bilton underscores all the major web-based media — from digital books to porn, and from social networking to videogames — that are trickling into our everyday lives so seamlessly that they’re blending together into a rich storytelling experience.
“As we move to this world where we consume things on screen and the lines blur between television and radio and the printed word and every medium, everything is going to be catered to storytelling,” Bilton told Wired.com.
This media-rich phenomenon poses interesting implications for business and society, as well as our personal lives, Bilton says in his book. Wired.com invited Bilton to join us for a one-on-one interview to tell us his story, and here’s how it went.
WIRED: So you’re from the future. Are there jetpacks and flying iPhones and stuff? Tell us a bit about it.
Nick Bilton: (Laughs.) I actually came to the WIRED offices in a time machine from the future. I’m under NDA from the future police.
The title of the book is ironic and funny, but there were two reasons for it. I used to work in the research labs at the time, where it was basically my job to look forward two to five years in the future. And I’ve essentially grown up in a way that a lot of kids are growing up today with technology as the commonplace in their lives.
WIRED: Your first chapter is all about porn. What’s up with that?
Bilton: When I first started researching the book, I looked online to see who’s making money, and maybe I can talk to those companies or those industries and figure out what they’re doing and apply it to media.
The only people making money were, of course, the porn industry. I started interviewing these porn companies, and it turns out the Playboys and Penthouses of the world have essentially gone bust or lost hundreds of millions of dollars because they kept pushing their analog models — like their print catalog or their DVD.
And then all these little small niche products came about to fill the void. Some of them were pretty outlandish. You could pretty much find a website that caters to any niche out of content you’re looking for. Whether it’s girls in blue or white stripe stockings, or with one tattoo over their left shoulder. And people will pay for that. In 2006 alone, the porn industry made $3 billion.
WIRED: The publishing industry is obviously suffering with selling content. What do you think they’re doing wrong?
Bilton:I think they’re stuck in this world where they’re trying to push these analog models because they made so much money that way, and what’s happening is you have experiences … where someone starts a blog that caters to the same analog experiences.
With these mainstream products you can’t force the consumers to buy [the analog] versions; you have to enable these consumers to access the digital stream or else they’re just going to go somewhere else.
WIRED: So be honest: Does the WIRED iPad app fit your description of a good storyteller?
Bilton: I think it’s great because it offers a really beautifully designed experience, and it offers typography and the full narrative storytelling experience — but it fails drastically where it doesn’t have a social part to it.
The future has to involve our networks, where it comes to content consumption or creation, or else it’s missing a fundamental piece of the story. When someone goes to Facebook they can comment on their friend’s photos or comment on an article; there’s all these sites that allow conversation. Yet a product like the WIRED magazine application still doesn’t have that.
I think once social is integrated into it, it’s going to be a pretty compelling experience. I would love to download that WIRED magazine article and for it to reorganize itself based on which articles my friends have commented on, and I’d love to be able to see all those different kinds of views.
WIRED:Moving on to videogames, which are also a major topic in your book. Are they good or bad?
Bilton:Videogames are actually excellent for us. We’ve been told they’re bad for our brains and first-person shooters may get people in trouble. But the research shows the complete opposite.
You can go back to the ’90s: Richard Haier did a study with Tetris where he scanned people’s brains before and after extensive playing, and found they had better working memory and increased hand-eye coordination.
Also, Daphne Bavelier has done testing with first-person shooter games. She found that first-person shooter gamers have increased contrast ratio with their eyes and improved hand-eye coordination.
WIRED: But what about the stereotype that violent videogames will decrease empathy and increase aggression?
Bilton: The research about the increased aggression — it’s not very thorough. I do agree certain technologies decrease empathy a lot — like in web comments, people are saying things they would never say in real life behind anonymous names. But that’s something the web needs to figure out: How we tie digital relationships to real ones.
WIRED: I bought your book on iPad (Kindle app) because I just can’t stand reading on paper anymore. Is this digital screen rotting my brain like all the reports suggest?
Bilton: Absolutely not. There’s no evidence that says that. The fears that we have around technology are things we’ve been through before. If you look at when the telephone came out, the front page of The New York Times said that people would never leave their home again. When the phonograph came out, there was an article in New York Times with this great line: blessed be the boy of the future who never has to learn how to read. They really believed that that was going to happen. We’re going through the same thing right now with screens.
WIRED: Your book highlights a lot of the positive stuff we have to look forward to. What about some of the negatives, like the erosion of privacy?
Bilton: In the book I talk about an incident where I met Steve Mann, who’s a cyborg, at a conference. I was really excited at first. But then I realized that everything I was telling him was being recorded, and the only way I could’ve stopped that was to run in another direction. As more and more devices are in the world that are recording things and documenting, there has to be a way for people to opt out of a recording and say, I don’t want to be a part of that documentation process.
I also think that on the web the anonymity of people being able to say certain things and cyberbullying is scary. I think there should be a balance so we can allow anonymity for kids so they can learn from mistakes and grow up. But at the same time I think it’s also important to hold them responsible for their actions. I don’t know how we’re going to sort those things out in the future, and it’s going to require a lot of input from the government and agencies. I don’t trust that corporations will want to do what’s best for us.
WIRED: Do the pros outweigh the cons?
Bilton:Definitely. I think that every technology can be used for good or for evil, and we’re still sorting out the kinks in the internet and so on. I think the ability to tell stories in the way that we can now is amazing, and I think that a generation that’s growing up where there’s no limitations of location, space or time, I don’t necessarily see the negatives in that. I think the key is to really find a balance of how to use these technologies and when.
WIRED: What do the next five to 10 years look like?
Bilton: I think we’re at the very infancy of what the internet is going to do. We’re just using it for content and stories and media; I think it’s going to be in everything: electricity, our clothes, our cars, our pets. I think we’re really just testing the surface of what this technology is going to do.
Photo: Jon Snyder/Wired.com