It’s true that digital convergence has turned the news business upside down. Virtually everything about making and communicating the news has changed since I started in this business. That’s why I’m pursuing this degree: to modernize my skills and stoke my imagination, sure, but also to step back and take a wide view of how different content creators are mashing up text, video, audio and data, attracting new audiences and devising new business models.
Closer to home, though, I’m astonished by just how much the smartphone combined with the wireless Internet has changed my life and the lives of everyone around me. When I was covering the dawn of the commercial Internet as early as 1995, I would tell family and friends what was happening and they would shrug. The Internet seems pretty geeky, and I’m not into computers, they would say. Email sounds cool, but why would I need that? Now those same people can’t go anywhere without their GPS-enabled phones, and even when they’re home they’re using some kind of connected device almost constantly, whether to listen to music, watch a movie, order a pizza, look up a recipe, schedule an appointment or check in with family.
Beyond that, a lot of us have amassed huge personal libraries of photos, videos and other memories. My young kids will always have an almost moment-by-moment digital chronicle of their early lives. Me? I have maybe two-dozen good photos from my childhood, plus a few two-minute films that my dad took when I was a baby. Are my kids better off in this regard? I suppose we’ll see.
What I didn’t appreciate in 1995 was just how serious the downsides of universal connectivity would be. Everybody is distracted, whether we’re working, driving or even walking. Just take a stroll through midtown Manhattan on any day, and notice how many people are either looking down at their devices, talking on them or shutting out the world with over-the-ear, noise-canceling headphones. It’s almost rare to see someone just taking in the sights and sounds of the city. That’s a loss, because one of the great things about cities was always the chance encounter, the serendipitous discovery.
Nobody seems to want to just be alone with their thoughts. To contemplate. To reflect. To imagine.
We have shorter attention spans, we’re less patient, we’re less open to new or opposing ideas, and we have less job security. Companies know our intimate secrets, which are routinely stolen by hackers. We have less trust in institutions and less respect for tradition. We worry about protecting our kids from online predators.
The Internet gave a rival foreign power a means to meddle in our elections, and our president and his North Korean adversary are using Twitter to threaten World War III.
For all the convenience of digital convergence, there’s a heavy price.