Friday, January 29, 2010

Slow and steady wins the race

While I was home in Maryland, my three younger cousins gigglingly shared with me a YouTube clip of MADTV's Anjelah Johnson parodying a Vietnamese manicurist, and one of Anjelah as "Bon Qui Qui", a cheeky King Burger cashier. They showed me a free cell phone ring website packed with sound clips ranging from bizarre to hilarious, and Facebook photo after Facebook photo.

Rewind to when I was a preteen: I was just registering for an AOL account, to the then-ubiquitous, now-farcical greeting of "You've Got Mail". Email, and IM, were phenomena- I remember sitting cemented to my computer chair emailing short messages back and forth with my friend real-time, before I had downloaded AIM, unaware that even more instantaneous communication was possible.

My cousins and their peers are growing up with technology a given. There's even a name for them, cited by Schott's vocab blog: Generation XD. They've never known Internet-less life. A great majority has cell phones, not to mention YouTube accounts, X-boxes, and robotic toys like the Zhu Zhu hamsters (what happened to American Girl dolls and Beanie Babies?) Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, sums up my at-a-loss sentiment: “People two, three or four years apart are having completely different experiences with technology."

But even people in their 20's, my fellow Millennials, have sewn tech into the seams of our lives. A Salon article cites The Harris Poll's finding that "Americans 18 and older spent an average of 13 hours a week online, excluding time spent checking e-mail.... -- nearly double the time spent online a decade ago. [And] people from ages 25 to 49 spent the most amount of time on the Internet (17-18 hours a week)."

So, the question is: when will we reach the point of saturation? When will the ever-quickening pace of digitization throw us off the tracks? In simpler terms, Jocelyn Noveck asks on Salon, "When is one more gadget just too many?"

In the face of innovations like Apple's iPad and its many mobile predecessors, some writers like Trevor Butterworth of Forbes have called for a "Slow-Word Movement," after the fashion of Carlo Petrini's "Slow Food Movement." Both call for counteracting the "relentless, endless free diet" of either fast media, or fast food. We should be savoring, sustaining, taking pleasure in the media we consume, much as we should be doing with high-quality, healthy, lip-smacking food. Butterworth hails Dave Eggers as the movement's pioneer, given Eggers' San Francisco Panorama newspaper, a stunning full-color print publication furnished with original feature contributions from headliners like Michael Chabon and Stephen King, traditional "hard-hitting" investigative reporting, and a 96-page books section, those two lattermost quickly becoming journalistic relics. Eggers' work reinflates quashed hopes of surival for literary publications like The Virginia Quarterly Review and New England Review. A Mother Jones article on "The Death of Fiction" cites the "tailspin" of the novelists' and short story writers' market, declaring magazines like the above to be on their death beds.

Another Slow Media Movement, as The Boston Globe's Brainiac blog calls it, paragon is the independent Mark Batty Publisher, dedicated to the art of crafting books, and to the gratifying experience of holding and admiring a book as a physical object.

I agree with Butterworth: we've traded aesthetics for abundance. We've prioritized rapidity of ingestion over quality of content. I think the ability to glance through news bytes or scan 140-character Tweets is valuable; we can't apply the slow-and-steady approach to all media. But we can return to the artisanal at least in part. We'll save money, save the time invested in setting up and growing familiar with using a new device, and (help) save the publishing industry.

Each of the 250+ medical journals published by the company I work for contains painstakingly researched, written, reviewed and assembled articles. The journals' websites aim to deliver efficient and user-friendly content to the physicians and students who log on, but never at the sacrifice of quality.

To quote again the Salon article: are we at "a cultural tipping point, a sense of general gadget overload"? In my case, my budget and my love of the literary and artistic say yes. In others'? Whether the iPad is successful or not may be indicative.

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