Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Our Rewired Brains

There were 500 articles from various media outlets and blogs waiting for me when I opened my Google Reader this morning.  Just a few months ago, the same feeds (about 20 in all that I subscribe to) were generating less than half that number.  To grow traffic and ad impressions, these outlets are adding content at an extraordinary clip.   But the quality is clearly being diluted; I have to scan 100 headlines and open 20 articles before I find one of any value.

I feel like my brain is being dumbed down by the sheer onslaught of information, much of it poorly written and poorly researched, yet often luring me in with a sensationalistic headline, all part of the fast growing "content farm" industry that pays hundreds of thousands of freelance contributors as little as $10 per story with the overarching purpose of creating cheap ad impressions. 

(And yes, I know, I am adding to the onslaught, as are the millions of other bloggers using every imaginable new platform to publish random thoughts and opinions. But many of us are writing because we have something to say and are not part of some content assembly line designed to gin up ad revenue.)

Author Nicholas Carr, in his latest book "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains", argues that the web's flood of information is destroying our ability to focus and is actually rewiring our brains. 

"When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking and superficial learning.  Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallow thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain."

I find myself craving high quality, in-depth pieces of journalism, written by pros who take their subject and audience seriously  and succeed in crafting powerful stories and posts that leave a lasting impression and break through the chatter.   Often the content that is serving this need for me is coming from the traditional media companies - NY Times, Wall Street Journal, Ad Age,  or veterans of traditional outlets that have joined digital brands, or sites that carefully curate their content, or a small group of passionate bloggers that have compelling stories to tell.

David Carr, a veteran reporter for The New York Times who also writes "The Media Equation" column every Monday for the paper's business section, described in last week's column the thrill of publishing a time-consuming, labor-intensive story about a an important topic in a world of commoditized, homogeneous, omnipresent news bites. 

"Yes, you can make news working in your pajamas and running stuff past your cat and no one else. But even in 2010, when a print product is viewed as a quaint artifact of a bygone age, there is something about that process, about all those many hands, about the permanence of print, that makes a story resonate in a way that can’t be measured in digital metrics. I love a hot newsbreak on the Web as much as the next guy, but on some days, for some stories, there is still no school like the old school."

I just hope our brains haven't been completely rewired yet and there is still a strong appetite for this type of content.

Nicholas Carr strikes an ominous chord in his book: "What we're experiencing is, in a metaphorical sense, a reversal of the early trajectory of civilization:  We are evolving from cultivators or personal knowledge into hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest.  In the process, we seem fated to sacrifice much of what makes our minds so interesting."

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Genius of the Tinkerer

I just got around to reading a riveting essay that appeared in the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago titled "The Genius of the Tinkerer." 

The essay is adapted from author Steven Johnson's book "Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation" and expounds the notion that innovation, of all sizes and levels of impact, comes from tinkering with existing systems and platforms.  Or put another way: great ideas are usually not the result of eureka moments, but of recycling and combining old ideas.

Invention, innovation and, ultimately, change are based on "the adjacent possible",  a famous scientist's phrase that captures the essence of how ideas are intermingled to create great new things.

"The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.  The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations. Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven't visited yet. Once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn't have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you'll have built a palace."

The essay goes on to provide some familiar and not so familiar examples of great innovation such as the Gutenberg Press which co opted the technology of a wine-making press to bring the printed word to the masses and Willis Carrier's redesign of a heating system in the early 1900s to facilitate air conditioning.

In the present, there is no industry being more shaken to it's core by tinkerers exploring the adjacent possible than the media industry.   And judging from the chatter at the Annual Advertising Week conference in NY last week, the pace of change is increasing at such a rapid pace, media companies big and small, old and new,  have no idea what is coming next or which aspect of their business will be permanently altered by some new innovation tomorrow.

It was particularly fascinating to see the tinkerers and the incumbents on the same stage together.

One panel I sat through featured an investor in Twitter and a top exec from NBC jousting with each other and appearing in many ways to be from two different worlds.

When Twitter was conceived just a few years ago, did the founders imagine it would become the primary news and information source for a growing swath of the population, a role companies like NBC served for generations?

Google’s towering position over the advertising industry was evident throughout the conference, yet is now well known that Google had no plans for advertising in it’s initial business plan. 

Seems quite true, particularly in the media business, that boundaries grow as you explore them, but it creates one confusing landscape.