Digital Distractions?

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My trusty e-reader with a “Vicky Bliss” mystery loaded. (c) 2015, Robert C Trube

Back in 1994 Sven Birkerts wrote The Gutenberg Elegies, which argued the modern life is changing the way we read. Think about it–in 1994, the internet was all text based and most of us who were around them were just discovering it. Cell phones were these primitive brick-like contraptions with an antenna you pulled out that you only used to make phone calls. We bought or rented videos, listened to books on either cassettes or CDs, and watched TV either over the air or on cable.

There have been scores of articles since, including a more recent one touting a new book by Birkerts, still contending that our technology disrupts our reading, and our writing. At least from the side of reading and engaging with books, I suspect the issue is a bit more complicated. A recent discussion at my Bob on Books Facebook page suggests that the advent of various digital technologies have had both benefits and downsides.

A regular commenter said various digital technologies have tripled her reading! A number of people have found e-readers have facilitated their reading. One person, whose husband is connected with the military, found her e-reader helped them meet weight restrictions on their moves. They are also convenient for reading while traveling (another time where trimming weight makes sense). Many use free library downloads to save costs. E-readers make digital text searches easier for research purposes. Some find reading easier on an e-reader, including a person with eye problems, for whom an e-reader is “a real blessing.” Another person, however, thought their e-reader was messing with their eyes, and some still prefer real books to e-readers. However, one person reading an 800 page book wished it were on her e-reader because of the weight of the book!

Audiobooks are also a favorite for a number, particularly because these make it possible to take in a book while engaged in other activities. One artist friend finds listening to an audiobook helps him focus on his work. In another discussion, a number linked audiobooks and exercise. Nothing wrong with getting physically and mentally fit! Some of us (myself included) exercise while reading on our e-readers.

One of the other ways technology aids readers is in searching for books. Project Gutenberg offers 58,000 e-books for free download. Library websites facilitate searches for books, reserves, and downloads of e-books and audiobooks. The energy savings of not having to physically go to the library in many cases is not to be overlooked. It is now possible to link a local library or bookstore to Goodreads under the “Get a copy” function.

TVs and smartphones can be a problem. One person observed their reading time go way down when they discovered streaming services on TV. One person decided to quit television. Others find social media like Facebook a distraction. They are reading, but…. This can be a problem when you use a reading app on your phone, but get distracted by others apps, particularly if you have notifications turned on for any apps. But there is a problem that once the phone is on, it is easy in a moment of boredom or distraction to check Facebook…or Twitter…or even Goodreads. Fifteen minutes later you remember you were reading. Some admitted that addiction to their phones is a problem that is cutting into their time.

Perhaps for these reasons, or just the love of the feel of a physical book, there are a number who still like to turn the pages, and my observation is that they turn quite a number of pages from the books they report on reading! Unless one is listening to an audiobook, I suspect most of us probably need to put mental or even physical distance between our e-book or physical book and our phone. Dedicated e-readers on which you can only read can be helpful here. Perhaps it can be healthy to have times of the day where we don’t have our phones with us, and reading times may be one of them.

None of this explores a deeper question, and that is whether we engage in the same way a physical book, an e-book and an audiobook. My hunch is that we do not, but we still may attain the same end, whether it is simply diversion, or illumination. I wonder if the issue is not what I’m reading but how well I am paying attention, and how actively I am thinking about what I’m reading. However, I would maintain that reading, in any of these forms is better than not reading, and if any encourage those who might not otherwise read to plunge into a book, that’s a good thing.

Your thoughts?

Paywalls

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Image by Ron Mader, [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

Remember when the internet was free? I still remember the incredible fascination of discovering the world at my fingertips the first time I got on the internet and found the first primitive Yahoo search engine (before the days of Google and Bing).

There is still an amazing amount of that out there. But increasingly, if you are like me, you’ve run into walls. Paywalls.

The problem? Many content providers from The New York Times to The New Yorker have put up paywalls. Paywalls mean you must be a subscriber to see the content, or any content beyond a limited number of articles per month. Some, at least, like The New York Times, have actually found this a successful strategy.

I understand. Print circulation of many of these content providers is dropping and hardly anyone has figured out how to create a good advertising revenue stream on digital media, particularly with ad blockers (more recently sites have taken to asking you to pause your ad blocker on their site as a partial remedy). Bottom line is that writers and others who make these content outlets possible have to be paid or they will be out of business. The Atlantic, one of the few media outlets without a paywall has a good article explaining how all this works. [In a counter-intuitive move, I decided to subscribe to them because they don’t have a paywall, and I really appreciate many of their writers and articles.]

I also decided to subscribe to one major news outlet with a paywall. I have print subscriptions to a couple of periodicals that allow me access through their online paywalls because I subscribe. But here’s my problem. I’m at my limit of subscriptions. And I probably encounter paywalls on a dozen or more sites that I access each week. Often, I’m referred there via a newsletter only to find either that I cannot access the content, or that I need to use up my allotment of free articles to do so. Often I am at these sites because I curate a Facebook page on books. Truth is, although I do it sometimes, I hate to post material with a paywall for those on my page.

NiemanLab ran an article about this problem and they have come up with a solution that I have wondered about for some time. Perhaps you can guess what it is if you subscribe to Netflix or Amazon Prime. Create an umbrella subscription that will give access to a number of periodicals and news outlets. By using cookies and some type of user ID, it would seem to be easy to track usage and allocate revenues accordingly.

For the big outlets that have been going it on their own successfully, this might not be attractive. But for smaller content providers that many might decide to pass up, I could see the benefit in enhancing their revenue stream.

In Christian circles, it was once common to use song lyrics at meetings and retreats, and knowingly or not, routinely violate copyright restrictions and rob artists of earnings on their artistic work. In 1988, Christian Copyright Licensing, Inc. was formed. Churches and ministries could purchase an annual license, the fee for which was based on group size, and gave access for noncommercial use to a wide range of music and lyrics. Now, over 250,000 subscribe, enough that their founder, Howard Rachinski, was inducted into the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame in 2016, a sign of the impact this has had for musicians and songwriters.

A blanket periodical subscription could be offered as a tier of plans based on usage. I think a marketing/usage study might be needed to determine these but I suspect offering multiple price points based on usage patterns would be attractive to many who value the content, recognize the need to these outlets to have revenue, but can’t afford a dozen subscriptions (or don’t want to keep track of that many usernames and passwords). People pay $120 a year for Prime, around $170 a year for Netflix, depending on the plan, $180 a year for the basic Audible plan, and often $400 a year or more for premium cable or other plans, when at one time they got their TV for free, and audiobooks at the library. Might this be a good way to pay for digital print media that we care about?

What do you think of such an idea? How much per month or per year would you pay for a subscription?

Is Reading Solitary or Social?

I probably drank too much caffeine yesterday and so had a restless night. So I was up for about an hour and read a couple essays in a recent book titled The Edge of the Precipice: Why Read Literature in the Digital Age? edited by Paul Socken. One particular essay caught my attention: “Solitary Reading in an Age of Compulsory Sharing”.  The author extolled the glory of reading as a solitary activity in an era where social media tracks most of our activity (including the books we read if we use vehicles like GoodReads). He worried that linkages between sites like Amazon and Facebook could mean that all the books we purchase could become “updates”, and even the use of e-readers could provide information about our reading habits. Print books purchased offline and read privately preserve that wonderful solitary experience, which he differentiates from loneliness.

As an introvert, I get this. Sometimes, having my nose in a book is the equivalent of posting a sign that says, “Leave me alone!” (though I also find that this often doesn’t work!). More than that, reading as we usually practice it, is a solitary act in the sense that words on a page engage and evoke thoughts and emotions in my inner person–sometimes enjoyment, sometimes perplexity, sometimes intense interest in a novel idea that rearranges my mental furniture. I can be in a coffee shop or alone in the family room and no one knows what is transpiring–unless I tell them.

At the same time, I note that the author of this essay differentiated being solitary from being lonely. I would contend that in fact, reading is never solitary because we are always engaged with another mind, and that is why we are not lonely. Last night while my wife was in dream land, I was mentally engaged in an argument with this essay’s writer. I was alone, yet not alone. While I was the solitary figure in my living room, I could not engage in reading alone–I needed another in order to have someone to read.

And so I would contend that reading, even apart from reading aloud, discussing books in groups, blogging and posting about books, is an inherently social activity, and one of the profoundest because in reading, I enter deeply in the thought world of another. I guess this is where I struggled with the essayist. To me, it seemed to be all about his experience of the book alone. For me, reading is about entering the world of another–someone I may never meet physically–but someone who I’ve become intimately involved with in the sense of entering their thought world, their vision of the world, their arguments. I both do this, and step back and think about what I admire, what I would want to explore more, what I would question.

I also found the writer kind of snarky about social media–particularly the idea of social media monetizing the things we share (which I will concede happens). At least he wasn’t being snarky about social media on social media! Certainly I’ve seen some of the same things he does–the people on GoodReads who never read anything, the mean-spirited reviews on Amazon that substitute attack for critique. Social media, like all our technologies, is a double-edged sword. What I am intrigued with is the project of using social media to foster a community of those who love significant conversations, who want to share what they are reading and thinking. I work in a national organization and I have the chance to interact with colleagues across the country who I may see once a year or less. I’ve had the chance to intersect with like-, and differently-minded bloggers. I’ve heard from total strangers who found a book I reviewed of interest or help to them. And my interest in a book has been piqued by the review of another.

Moreover, I love discussing books with my Wednesday morning book group. My wife and I sometimes read devotional literature aloud together or read aloud on car rides. So I would contend that, apart from the fact that I’m not talking to the human beings around me when I read, reading is an inherently social act, and one that is even richer with the personal and virtual social interactions we might have around our books.

But this brings up a question that might be the subject of a future post: can we be in solitude without books or any other form of external input? This may be one of the greatest challenges for us in an age where we undergo a 24/7 bombardment of media.