Indelible memories of those innocent years of grade school, awkward years of junior high, the posturing years of high school, and the challenging years of college are found between the covers of your old yearbooks.
You remember: those are the tomes filling that 60-pound box you’ve been hauling around all your life, transferring unopened from one attic the next, defying you to actually set them out on the curb on trash day.
One of the annual rituals of school days was the yearbook signing when you passed the books around to sign and be signed, getting back the most intimate comments from people you didn’t even know you knew, and getting rather bland sentiments from friends you thought were intimates.
Later, as a parent, you were eager to see the book that set you back $25 or more, only to find your Valicia had forgotten to have her class mug shot taken and was seen only once in the book in the blurry background of a pep rally shot.
And, of course, you hoped if young Terrence were voted something like “Most Likely to Succeed,” that he wouldn’t wind up disappointing American society and becoming a Charles Manson later in life.
So school yearbooks can be anxiety-provoking, but they can also be a lot of fun. Sadly, however, yearbooks are also among the victims of shrinking school and family economies. The good news is that help has arrived from the digital era of communications, which we are calling the Virtual Unknown.
At the university where I teach, Indiana’s Ball State, the award-winning Orient yearbook has been gone for several years now. At my former university, California’s Azusa Pacific, the Student Government Association would like it dropped and for student money to go elsewhere. Only a president nostalgic for a past era, is keeping it alive.
For awhile, many schools tried shifting from the expensive hard-cover books to video yearbooks. Some still are using that and publishing books digitally on CDs or DVDs, choosing to forego printed yearbooks altogether. The thought is that videos, sights, and sounds are better — and save more trees — than printed books.
But a lot of schools are taking digital to another level and letting students customize their own books.
Print on demand
Some of these schools, like the Chahta-Ima Elementary School in suburban New Orleans, are going to a new kind of print-on-demand yearbook to save costs. Companies like TreeRing Corp. , based in
Redwood City, California, use Internet-based technology that saves schools money by letting them print only as many copies as needed while letting a wider group of students, faculty and parents collaborate in the process.
Other companies offering these print-on-demand services include ones like Lulu, Ziblio, and Lifetouch.
Casey Gleason, principal of Chahta-Ima told the San Francisco Chronicle, “We wanted the school to be able to have a yearbook for its historical significance,” said Gleason, whose school has served several generations in Lacombe, La. “We wanted to do it at a reasonable cost, but not sacrifice instructional funds for the school.”
TreeRing is a start-up company featuring a publishing model that is catching on in the book industry of printing only the number of books needed by a customer.
It’s too early tell if this model will challenge the traditional school yearbook market, in which publishing companies like Taylor and Jostens dominate. But with more schools abandoning traditional yearbooks, it could.
The publishing of the yearbooks is done entirely online, with students, faculty, and parents able to contribute elements to the book. The class mug-shot pages and student organization pages remain pretty standard, but much of the rest of the book uses the “crowdsourcing” technique of having individuals upload pictures of themselves involved in school or family activities to other pages, for which templates are provided. They can even pop in pictures of news or cultural events during the year that were meaningful for them.
The result is a kind of personalized yearbook that insures your kid doesn’t have to lay out money to buy a book in which he/she is only pictured once or twice. So each book may be somewhat different from the next, but you pay for only your personalized book; not someone else’s. Another plus is that TreeRing pledges to plant one tree for every yearbook printed.
Very Californian and very cool.
No unsold books
It’s also cool for the schools and their budgets, because instead of being stuck with a couple thousand dollars of unsold books at the end of the year, there are no unsold books because a book doesn’t get printed by TreeRing until they receive payment from the student or family. The books are actually printed by an Indiana company contracted by TreeRing. Most of them are done in soft cover and costs can vary from roughly $10 to $15 each, which is cheaper than most traditional hard-cover yearbooks.
With these new publishing options available, yearbooks will hopefully be around for many years to come.
A silent prayer
But you still hope that “most likely to succeed” will refer to your young Terrence doing well in an endeavor that is considered legal and, who knows, maybe even ethical.
I taught at Northeastern University in Boston in the 1980s, sandwiched between two men who would become famous there. One was crime writer Robert B. Parker, creator of the Spenser and Jesse Stone detective novels, who served on the English faculty at Northeastern until 1979, three years before my arrival.
The second was Shawn Fanning who was fooling around in his dorm room while a student in 1999 and came up with a little music file-sharing system called Napster. That was 12 years after my departure.
I could be bitter about not finding the fame these two did, but I have a consolation: I don’t have to worry about how to spend all that money.
Brainstorming in Boston
My thought this week is about what Fanning created: that first popular file-sharing system. I also find it ironic that a few years later — just across the Charles River — Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg would create Facebook before he and the Crimson administration would part company somewhat abruptly. I’ll leave you to see the current film, “The Social Network,” to see how and why that parting occurred.
Fanning’s Napster was, of course, the online music peer-to-peer file sharing service that operated successfully for, albeit a short two years before the courts shut it down in July 2001, calling it copyright infringement on the music industry. Napster’s technology allowed users to share their MP3 files with other users, passing right by the long-established music and film distribution system. The band Metallica sued, then A&M Records sued, and the race was on to the courtroom.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. Although the original Napster was closed down, Fanning’s creation pioneered the idea of decentralized peer-to-peer file distribution programs. And these have been much tougher to shut down or even control. Even the name Napster is still around, after the brand and logo were bought and the service turned into a pay music download service.
It is interesting to note the connection between music file-sharing and information file-sharing which, of course, is done all the time on the Web. A journalism professor at Ball State University, Brad King, wrote this month in MediaPost Magazines that the newspaper industry can learn a lot from the Napster story.
King writes that, after Napster was shut down, more than a dozen music-selling Web sites secured rights from the record companies and seemed poised to take us into a new digital entertainment era.
“But looks can be deceiving,” King writes. “With Napster no longer a threat, the labels scaled back their licensing initiatives and within a year most of those 12 sites weren’t around. Instead, the labels pushed forward with MusicNet and PressPlay, digital retail stores they wholly owned, creating a walled garden where consumers needed to subscribe to both … If someone wanted to purchase a song, that ran another $2.50 per track.”
King continues, “The move showed an incomprehsible misunderstanding about the reason for Napster’s success. Predictably, the two digital stores faded into obscurity while file-sharing networks continued tothrive. And herein lies the fundamental problem facing nearly all traditional media companies as they move into the digital age: identifying the problem customers have already solved.”
And the problem was …
According to King, the music industry was just flat wrong when they didn’t think people would be willing to pay to download songs. The problem was they just didn’t have an easy way to pay for them, let alone find the music in the first place.
“The Web showed them they could access information quickly, yet when they tried to find music online in 2001, it was nearly impossible, because the record labels steadfastly held music back. but the customers didn’t, ripping their CDs into digital files, which Napster made searchable.”
“The fact that Napster was free was incidental. The fact that Napster was easy, wasn’t.”
Under this thinking, the music industry went wrong when it tried to protect its franchise, by putting up walls between content and consumer, rather than adopting a customer-friendly solution. In the end, instead of protecting its business model with MusicNet and PressPlay, they damaged it severely.
So what can the news industry learn from this?
King asserts that the news industry confronts a similar scenario where file sharing has been replaced by user-created content on blogs and Twitter as well as social networks.
“The story of Napster … gives modern media executives an interesting roadmap for successfully building communities and tapping into the user-generated involvement that can open up new growth and revenue opportunities if they understand one simple idea: User-generated content isn’t the problem. It’s the solution ot the problem the traditional media didn’t know it had.”
Slashdot solves a problem
King cites Metafilter, Boing Boing, and Slashdot as successful examples of user-generated content information sites. And Shashdot has even taken a good stab at solving the credibility problem that many user-generated sites have. Shashdot is one of the key Web sites of choice for those interested in techno geek culture. Users post information from around the world, and that data is a mix of information from traditional sources, blogs, and personal experience. There, however, King notes Shashdot diverges from similar sites like Boing Boing.
“Once a user submits a story, the Shashdot crowd helps determine which ones are ‘greenlit’ … a story is pushed to the front page by voting the story up or down, by giving a particular story an up or down rating. That ranking helps the Shashdot section editors determine which stories are promoted to the main Slashdot pages. It’s a rather ingenious scheme … to create a trustworthiness scale … That scale is even more important considering the site has 5.5 million readers each moth, each of whom can submit stories.”
To make this site even more amazing is to note that, if Slashdot were a newspaper, it would rank as the second largest news organization online, according to to the Newspaper Association of America.
“Yet with millions of readers submitting content, Shashdot retains strong editorial oversight with the help of its ‘karma’ system,” King says.
The BSU professor concludes, “The traditional news industry, particularly newspapers and magazines, are facing a similar decline (as the music industry). Like the music industry nearly a decade ago, executives have a choice. Do they follow the music industry, erecting walled gardens around their content, fighting consumers and forcing them to segment themselves? Or do they embrace what their readers, who are also their paying customers are doing?”
As a writer, I often find it easier to communicate via the written word than orally, so I tend to write long. I want to be sure my meaning comes through as I plan it. That works sometimes, and sometimes it doesn’t. But when I give thought to an e-mail and produce one that runs a few paragraphs, then get back a quick one-liner in response, I wonder, What’s up with that? Isn’t this guy treating my thoughts seriously? Is he angry with me for some reason? Or am I just being paranoid?
Apparently others are in the same boat, too. A few months ago I posted an entry that drew some discussion about the shortcomings of e-mails, text messages, and Facebook messages in conveying true meanings of the senders. I cautioned against trying to resolve disputes via e-mails, for example, because of this very problem.
So I wasn’t too surprised this week when I picked up a copy of the Ball State Daily News and found an interesting, albeit disturbing article from Kelly Dickey, about how serious electronic messaging can be.
Lost in translation
Entitled, “Conversations being lost in translation,” the article quoted students and counselors about the damaging effect these kinds of messages can have on individuals.
For example, one victims advocate noted: “From what I’ve seen and experienced, technology can be a wonderful resource to connect but, on the flip side, it can be a communication gap. If you’re texting back and forth via e-mail and Facebook, (the other person) may not know how to take what you’re saying.”
A loss of humanity
Therein lies the rub. The victims advocate, Michele Cole, said a decrease in human connection takes place when two people communicate through technology, and it can definitely have negative effects on relationships. One reason is the oft-stated fact that most electronic communication is devoid of that all-important nonverbal communication.
Cole continued that, in the Ball State University Counseling Center, “We strive for better communication with partners and conduct programming on healthy relationships. We focus on interaction. The nonverbals are such a large component of our everyday communication that, if you’re trying to just text back, and forth there’s that communication gap.
You don’t have to have counseling credentials to recognize the problem. Sophomore speech pathology major Laura Albers sees it, too.
“There’s a disconnect, and it’s just going to get worse,” Albers said. “You can be in a room with your friends, and there’s no point being there because they just text other people.”
Another student, Freshman Jordan Oppelt said she’s bothered by this, too.
“When that happens I just think, ‘What? You don’t want to hang out with me? I’m not good enough?” she said.
Another vexing issue concerning the flood of Facebook and Twitter communications is the public exposure or private matters involving the sender or other individuals. This comes under the heading of, “When does interpersonal communication become mass communication? When it goes on Facebook or Twitter.”
The domino effect of Facebook message distribution thrusts a knife into the heart of one-on-one messaging. There is an illusion that you are only communicating to a few close friends about yourself or someone else, but the audience is often much larger than you anticipate.
Even a simple act by one person of expressing her love for a guy she’s dating, can be very embarrassing for the guy if she hasn’t asked him first if it’s okay that she posts that message on Facebook. Suppose he doesn’t feel the same way but just hasn’t told her yet? Or suppose she hasn’t even told him yet, but thought it would be less stressful on her to pop it onto his Facebook page rather than telling him face to face?
Before Facebook, this act would be like hiring a pilot and his plane to trail a huge banner across the sky over the neighborhood where the guy lives.
Michele Cole of Ball State notes a lot of people assume a false sense of security when they send messages via text on or on Facebook.
“It goes back to, ‘I would text it but wouldn’t say it to your face.’ You get that false sense of courage.”
I’ve been teaching at the university level for many years, and it has been interesting to watch the evolution of students’ feelings regarding their privacy. As late as a year or two ago, many of my students didn’t seem to care if they were abandoning their privacy by posting private facts about themselves or others on the social media.
But lately I’ve been seeing the opposite: more and more students are thinking less and less about rushing onto Facebook with a revealing personal message unless they convince themselves they know who is receiving that message.
And that, by the way, is harder and harder for any of us to control in this age of the virtual unknown.
“The social media is the biggest change in society since the industrial revolution,” proclaims an eye-popping video posted recently on YouTube.
After reading the support for this claim, I am inclined to agree. And, like a lot of you, I’m wondering where these changes will lead us in the future.
We’re talking about media rituals here, or any lifestyle habit we succumb to that is created and/or influenced by the media.
Turn the radio on
For example, radio altered the lives of most Americans when it began offering nightly entertainment and news programming. Families who had previously spent the evenings talking or reading, came to spend them clustered around the big furniture cabinet spewing out the comedy of Fibber McGee and Molly or the daring adventures of The Shadow.
Television did the same thing, as did the Internet, and the social media of Facebook, twitter, flickr, YouTube, Myspace, et al, are doing the same thing now.
Marshalling a thought
The late media guru Marshall McLuhan would be telling us from the Other Side, “I told you so! The medium is the message!”
And that brings me back to this YouTube video produced by a futurist named Erik Qualman who has written a book called “Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business.” It’s found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIFYPQjYhv8&feature=related
Qualman is a 38-year-old Michigan native who graduated in business from Michigan State University, where he played basketball, and then got an MBA from the University of Texas. He is now global vice president of Digital Marketing for EF Education, headquartered in Lucerne, Switzerland, and is a professor of digital marketing for Hult International Business School.
As a columnist and blogger for Search Engine Watch and ClickZ Magazine, he spends a lot of time doing essentially what I do with this blog, only he gets paid more for it. Amazing what an MBA will do for you.
Fasten your seatbelt
Here are a few boldface observations Mr. Qualman makes about our world and the way social media are changing our lives. Because I can’t help myself, I’ve added a comment to each of his insights. If you’re not sitting down, perhaps now would be a good time to do so.
• Over 50 percent of the world’s population is under 30. For those of us toward the other end of the life cycle, this is depressing news enough.
• 96 percent of Millennials have joined a social network. And, BTW, a lot of their parents and grandparents have done the same thing.
• If Facebook were a country, it would be the world’s third largest. I’m still searching for a word to express my amazement at this. “Wow!” just doesn’t quite cut it.
• Facebook tops Google for weekly Web traffic in the U.S. This isn’t bad for a media site that had to have Leslie Stahl explain its basic workings to America just two years ago. It’s also not a bad startup venture for a guy named Mark Zuckerberg who is now all of 26.
• Social media have overtaken pornography as the #1 activity on the Web. If this is true, then it shows that not all new media rituals are bad for us.
• 1 out of 8 couples married in the U.S. last year met via the social media. Like several of Mr. Qualman’s observations, I don’t know how this one was established or what it’s based on. But I do know one thing: This is how I met my wife 10 years ago.
• Radio took 38 years to reach 50 million users; TV 13 years. The Internet took only 4 years, and the iPod did it in 3. We are becoming fast learners, no?
• Facebook added more than 200 million users in less than a year. I wonder if Mr. Zuckerberg has bought him a real bed yet with all the money he’s raking in. Two years ago he told Leslie Stahl he has only a mattress on the floor.
• The U.S. Department of Education revealed in a 2009 study that online students outperformed those receiving face-to-face instruction. OK, now this is a study I would really like to see for myself. I find it just a tad hard to believe, as well as being overgeneralized.
• 1 out of 6 higher education students are enrolled in online courses. This I do believe, and I teach some of them.
• The fastest growing segment of users on Facebook is females age 55 to 65. I learned long ago not to make pronouncements about the lifestyle habits – and motivations behind them — of women. This is pretty startling, though.
• Ashton Kutcher and Britney Spears have more Facebook followers than the entire populations of Sweden, Israel, Switzerland, Ireland, Panama, and Norway. Well, these two celebrity icons are easier on the eye than parts of Belfast or the Gaza Strip.
• Generation Y and Z consider e-mail passe’. And this news comes at a time when my public library is just starting a new class for seniors on how to log on to your e-mail accounts.
• What happens in Vegas says on Facebook, twitter, flickr, and YouTube. Vegas aside, I think I wrote a couple posts a few months ago on what the social media are doing to our private lives.
• 100+ hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every 4.5 minutes. And the YouTube monitors take down an equal amount, some of which are movies I was hoping to see before they were deemed to have copyright problems.
• If you were paid $1 for every article posted on Wikipedia, you would earn $1,712.32 per hour. Interesting, but tell me again how the owners of Wiki are making any money at all?
• There are over 200 million blogs. Which, of course, is why no one is reading mine.
• 78 percent of consumers trust peer reviews of products and services; 14 percent trust advertisements. This is another way of saying we have all become advertising execs, without the pay or other perks of the Mad Men.
• Kindle eBooks outsold paper books last Christmas. Again, I would like to see the source of this assertion. Just too hard to believe.
• Successful companies in social media act more like Dale Carnegie and less like Mad Men: listening first, selling second. If so, this is a change that is long overdue.
And the final observation is one that any journalist or media executive should turn into a screensaver for his or her laptop. As for trying to divine what the implications are, good luck. It goes like this:
• We no longer search for the news. The news finds us. And we no longer search for products and services. They will find us. And they will find us on the social media.
A plot in one of the old Twilight Zone episodes featured a guy, let’s call him Adam, who was pictured walking through his normal daily routine with one notable exception: he was invisible to everyone else. Adam couldn’t understand why, and his stress level was rising accordingly.
The light went on when he was informed that his light was off: that he was, in fact, dead.
I’ve been feeling like Adam all week, ever since I was informed on Monday by a computer-driven corporation that I am deceased. Such is life in the virtual unknown.
But such errors were also known long ago to wits like Mark Twain who gave us the heading of this post. Twain was quoted as saying this after his obit appeared in the New York Journal.
Tip of the iceberg
The news of my demise came in the form of a “credit alert” from Experian, one of the three major credit reporting agenices that seem to run our lives. It said a “potentially negative item” had just been posted to my credit report by the good folks at Capital One. They’re the credit card folks with TV commercials featuring Middle Age Vikings who are as inept as the company itself.
The credit alert stated Capital One had posted one of my accounts as being “charged off as a bad debt,” although I’d been paying regularly and on time for a few years. When I checked with Capital One to see what was going on, I was redirected to the Probate Services Department where a guy named Doug said I was supposed to be dead.
Sorry to disappoint, Doug.
An actual admission of error
The human error by Capital One (which they actually admitted to in a letter I got today) remains unrecognized by their comptuer server which has to notify Experian and the other credit agencies that — oops — we made a little boo boo. But the computer won’t do that until Capital One launches its own investigation into my life-or-death status.
And I was told this morning by Ray, one of Doug’s colleagues over in C-One’s Recovery Department, that that can take from 60 to 90 days.
Yet another probe
Meanwhile, two nice – albeit powerless – women at Experian named Maggie and Mrs. ____ (I’ll respect the surname privacy), say that Experian will have to launch its own investigation as to whether I am still alive. The law gives them 30-45 days to do that.
In the interim, my credit report is frozen to the point that even I can’t see it. More importantly, neither can any would-be lenders.
Oh, and did I mention I’ve just moved to a new city and I’m trying to get a home mortgage? Not surprisingly, one cannot achieve that goal with an invisible credit report.
The epicenter of India
Monday’s saga actually began futilely talking to a C-One call center rep in India who didn’t have my problem on her script. The conversation went south from hello when she asked me how I was doing, and I responded, “I am dead. How are you?”
Again, the response wasn’t on her crip sheet, so she had to check with her manager who decided it was time I talk to someone at the Capital One ranch.
Ironically, Monday ended right back in India at another call center after I was told by Maggie at Experian that I should talk to their “online credit manager.” I foolishly assumed there was a real person with this authority who was awaiting my call. So I called the 866 number Maggie gave me, and got another call center rep, this one trying to imitate a Midwestern accent (there is such a thing, but she didn’t have it).
In any event, she knew nothing of any online credit manager, so another dead-end. I sometimes feel for these sub-minimum-wage call center workers who are paid to act as screens so the fat-cat executives can keep the walls up between themselves and their customers. These workers, meanwhile, have no power to solve problems and can’t even address any not on the scripts they are provided.
Tuesday was spent in a last-gasp hope for a quick resolution by finding a local notary who signed off on a letter containing all my identifying stats that any computer hacker would love to have. The letter said I am still among the living, although this experience is sapping life from me minute by minute, and would Experian be kind enough to let the records reflect that soon so I could buy a home in my new town?
One week and counting
As of 30 minutes ago, no luck. I’m still dead according to Experian. Chalk up Week One of Capital One’s mistake. And of my afterlife.
There’s a P.S. to this saga which arrived in the mail this morning: Even though Capital One still officially lists me as dead, they have just sent me a new credit card.
All of this made me realize something that most of us really know already: In a world driven by corporations, computers, and cutbacks, we have little control over our daily lives when push comes to shove. And the chance of remedying someone else’s human error is nearly impossible — at least not for 60 to 90 days — when you have trouble even connecting with a human voice and/or when that human says simply as Ray did over at Capital One this morning:
“There is nothing we can do. The computer is in control.”
At least, he said, until the human investigators are satisfied I am alive.
As writer and program host Rod Serling used to say, “There’s a signpost up ahead; You have just entered the Twilight Zone.”
My grandfather was a Presbyterian minister who lived in the pastoral town of Aurora, Missouri, with his wife Janey. It’s a quaint little farming community (think Mayberry) in an area of the state now famous for the chaos of Nashville Lite, better known as Branson.
My dad would take us to visit Grandpa and Grandma once or twice a year, as our family boarded a Frisco rail car out of Oklahoma City that stopped in Aurora on its eastern run. If you have never experienced a night journey on a passenger train, you’ve missed something special.
Grandpa was one of the links in the chain of influence that led me into writing. Specifically, it was the sight of him and Grandma Janey sitting in their study at their big, facing mahogany desks and writing letters or sermons that stuck in my memory.
A quiet focus
Occasionally catching the other’s eye over their twin Royal manual typewriters, they were surrounded by rows of antique, glass-doored bookcases. There I was first introduced to James Fenimore Cooper’s books, like The Last of the Mohicans, and I found the whole experience of the books, Grandpa, Grandma, the desks, typewriters, and bookcases to be riveting.
Quiet reflections taking place in a cozy setting overlooking a vegetable garden on a sunny afternoon or moonlit evening.
As I retrace those memories tonight, I realize my wife Anne and I are replicating that pastoral setting of Grandpa’s study, but we’re doing it 21st Century-style in our living room, writing and occasionally catching each other’s glance – over our outstretched legs on which sit digital laptops.
No more Royals, just an HP and a Gateway instead. No more clacking of the cast iron key faces striking the paper and roller, just the nearly inaudible sound of our laptop keys striking … nothing. Not much need for rows of bookcases when you have the vast resources of the Internet at your command and resting upon your lap.
The magic of Grandpa’s study is gone.
The quandary of multitasking
Up until a few minutes ago, Anne and I were doing our laptop work while catching glances and while watching 20/20 on TV. All of us today know this scene as multitasking, and we’re getting pretty adept at it. The ability to do two or three things at once has become vitally important to many sojourners in the world of the virtual unknown.
In fact, I was leafing through an alumni magazine of Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Journalism today and found an article alerting readers to “25 Newhouse Alums to Watch,” as their careers are apparently soaring. In an interview with one of these 25 best and brightest, the young grad was asked what was the most valuable lesson that she learned in the journalism school.
Her answer was multitasking.
Back to the scene tonight in my living room. I am reminded that there are times with Anne that multitasking is not such a great idea. It only works well when:
- Both of us are doing it at the same time.
- Anne doesn’t want to engage me in conversation.
If she wants to talk and I want to multitask (ie. write and converse at the same time), things get dicey. Anne is big on eye-contact, and I haven’t yet learned how to train one eye on the screen while having the other wander over to her.
It’s at this point where Anne disagrees with me, however.
She believes she is the one who can multitask better than I, finding me too focused on the laptop itself to engage her. It’s a touchy debate, but I can see where we’re both right. Her idea of multitasking is to stop typing for a moment while she engages me in conversation; mine is to do both at the same time. I can see, though, how I’m sometimes less than convincing that I’m paying her as much attention as the computer.
In this, I doubt she and I are much different from other husbands and wives. I wonder how many arguments have erupted over multitasking? Maybe it isn’t so different as when our dads were reading the newspaper at the breakfast table while, on the other side of the large printed page, sat a frustrated wife.
It’s the principle
One might think — since the laptop screen is much smaller, hence the spouse so easy to see — the problem would be solved. Alas, such is not the case. I assume that the friction would even develop if the multitasking involved something as small as a Droid or i-Phone screen.
The principle is the same for the one insisting on eye contact: Without it, kiss the chat goodbye. And while you’re at it, kiss the good-night kiss goodbye.
Real interpersonal conversation remains old-fashioned. For best effect it requires the ability of each person to single-task. That’s not easy to do in this post-modern world.
Too many times we equate single-tasking with inefficiency.
Man in a hurry
If you’re a fan of TV Land’s ubiquitous The Andy Griffith Show, you may recall an episode called Man in a Hurry where a cigar-puffing businessman, barreling his way to Raleigh, is delayed
when his car breaks down in Mayberry on a Sunday and Gomer is asked to fix it quickly.
The multitasking executive is exasperated to think he has to endure a lazy afternoon on Andy’s front porch with Andy, Barney, Opie, and Aunt Bee instead of getting on with his important business in the city.
Exasperated, that is, until he falls under the charm of being rather than doing. He finds, in a 1960s way, that being requires the ease of single-tasking even if that task is simply enjoying a simple moment of simplicity.
The magic moment
When I see that episode, I think of my grandparents in their study where the most important time in the world to them seemed to be the moment they were in. And then I think about how far we’ve come from that; how we think the moment is wasted if we aren’t multitasking.
I know we can’t turn back the clock, but it would be nice just to turn back the laptop occasionally; leave it home on weekends or while we’re on vacation, and spend a little time just enjoying the beauty of the moment engaging family and friends.
I think we can do it if we can convince ourselves that, as smart as a computer is, we can be even smarter. At least as smart as my grandparents were back in Aurora.
In the summer before college, Dad took me to a big discount store for government employees we used before there was anything like a Walmart. The goal of this shopping trip was to buy me a portable tape recorder the size of a small suitcase – I think it was a Wollensak – that I could take to college in my freshman year and use to record in-class lectures. I could then play them back later in my dorm when I was studying.
This turned out to be one of those buys that sounds like a good idea, especially to parents envisioning a future scholar in the family and to the kid himself who thinks he will actually take the time to listen to the same boring lecture twice.
If I had held on to the tape recorder over the years, it would be in mint condition because I don’t think I ever used it. It would be the star of the Antique Road Show.
I was thinking about this old Wollensak one afternoon this week when I was at an electronics discount house and saw what today’s dad would probably think was a good idea for his college-bound son:
A smartpen. Officially, the Pulse Smartpen.
Part ballpoint, part microphone, part tape recorder, and part computer, this seems a worthy entry into all things new. And it doesn’t even come from Apple.
The secret’s in the glow
The smartpen is an interesting concept, if no other reason than it combines high-tech digital communication thinking with one of the oldest forms of communication: the pen, previously the quill, previously the hunk of charcoal that Cro-Magnon shamans used to draw pictures on cave walls 30,000 years ago. Although in place of the charcoal tip, there’s a laser light pulse aglow, recording what you write.
In between the very old and very new, there’s a touch of Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone in the smartpen or even James Bond utilizing the latest brainchild of that crafty gadget man known only as Q. Clicking this pen three times will not result in a massive time-delayed explosion, however, as Bond’s pen once did.
The latest iteration of the writing stick was developed by a company called Livescribe which touts its company and product this way:
“Livescribe is fundamentally changing the way people capture, access and share information with pen and paper. Founded in 2007,Livescribe has developed a breakthrough low-cost mobile computing platform which includes the award-winning Pulse smartpen, dot paper, smartpen applications, Livescribe Desktop software, Livescribe Online Community, and development tools. Since its launch in April 2008, the Pulse smartpen has won multiple awards, including Popular Science’s Best of What’s New 2008, Popular Mechanic’s 2008 Breakthrough Award, and MacWorld’s Best of Show in 2009.”
Links audio to writing
In short, what the smartpen does is to record and link audio to what you write so that you can play back the recording later or even playback your handwritten notes on your computer. Or you tap it on a special part of the paper and it records like an audio tape recorder. The Livescribe software allows you to search your handwritten notes for specific words to find exactly what
you’re looking for, and it allows you to share those notes and audio online for others to see. It even lets you transform your note, drawing and recordings into Flash movies.
Whew! A lot to ask from a ballpoint pen.
So far, reviews of the Pulse Smartpen have been pretty good. Laptop Magazine (www.laptopmag.com) tested it out and assessed it this way:
“During a meeting we simply began writing on the paper. There are no controls to start and stop the digital capture of handwriting; it begins when you power on the pen and press it to the paper. It stops capturing when you stop writing. However, if you want to record the audio as well, you have to press the Record circle on the bottom of the paper; the recording timer will pop up on the pen’s screen. After activating it, we no longer felt the pressure to write down every word spoken, which was a relief.”
“Three audio-sensitivity settings are available: Conference Room, Lecture hall, and Automatic. Using the Conference mode, the Pulse did a great job picking up the presentation made in our company’s conference room. However, we did hear the scraping of our pen against the pages in the background of the recordings. It wasn’t too prominent and we could still make out the spoken words.
“The pen’s scraping noises went away when we opted to use the Pulse’s included 3D recording headset, which plugs into the top of the pen. The headset functions like a normal pair of headphones, and on the back is a pair of binaural mics that enable 3D audio recording. If you are wearing the headset, the pen records from both mics, resulting in a surround-sound recording.
“When we played back the audio recorded from the headset it sounded just like were in the meeting again; when a person to the right of where we were sitting spoke, we could hear them in our right earbud. The surround sound didn’t transfer over to the 3D recording on the computer.”
The Pulse Smartpen comes in 2GB and 4GB sizes, ranging from about $150 to $190, maybe less depending on where you buy it. Both are available from stores ranging from Target to Best Buy. Like any pen you have to replace the ink cartridges when they run dry, and you can buy a pack of four for $6.
Sean Connery’s Bond would have found one of these things indispensible. But that bomb application would have been essential.
I guess I was a strange kid (two words that form a redundancy, parents might say). In some ways I was like the young character Brick on the ABC-TV sitcom, “The Middle.”
In case you haven’t caught any first-season episodes of that very funny show, Brick is a kid with limited social skills who is at home in his own world which is often under his bed at night with a flashlight, reading a book. He sometimes takes refuge there after having been forced by his parents to interact with other kids, to whom he often breaks off contact with his pet phrase, “OK, I’m done talking with you now.”
I grew up in the day when kids could actually walk or ride bikes to neighborhood schools without being shepherded by parents worried about child abductors. It was about a 15-minute walk, and 7 minutes into it, I’d pass the public library. One day on a return trip home, I decided to open the doors and walk in.
From that day forward, I was hooked on reading.
The public library became a routine stop on my afternoon walks home as I discovered the other world of books. I devoured the Black Stallion stories, I went back in time to enter the world of Buffalo Bill and Wyatt Earp, and I met the Hardy Boys and followed them through some 23 adventures before the series gave out (happily for young readers, it’s been revived).
These memories rushed in this week as I’ve been thinking about how our libraries are weathering the sometimes stormy and unpredictable world of the virtual unknown: the age of the Internet and Web 2.0 media which, conventional wisdom might dictate, ushers in the end of the need for libraries at all. Frankly, the story is not receiving much attention from the nation’s news media.
Why go sit in the restrictive and bland atmosphere of a library to read or do research, when you can do it on your computer sitting out by the pool or on a hammock in the backyard?
Puncturing conventional wisdom
Happily, conventional wisdom is often wrong, and that is the case with the value of libraries. This is not to say everyone — most notably politicians — recognize that value.
I do a lot of traveling and work in different states, but I have a home in the small town of Ashland, Ohio, pop. 25,000 and home to a good private university. This town has a great public library, not because of a modern facade of glass and steel (it settles for the old-fashioned look instead), but by its dedication to serving the literary and information needs of the community.
On most days it is hard to find a parking space in the library parking lot, and you may have to park across the alley at the local funeral home instead. Once inside, the place is buzzing. There’s activity in the periodical room, over in the children’s book wing, in the study carels, and in the stacks themselves.
The computer magnet
But the magnet that draws many patrons is the dozen or so computer stations that often have a waiting list of users. Hard as it is for some technophiles to believe, there are still some people who can’t afford Internet hookups at home and rely instead on the local libraries where online usage is free. Even those who do have home computers find it easier to go online during the day at the libary when they are out and about.
Nevertheless, in a move that has been replicated many times in other states across America, Ohio politicians thought they found an answer to the state budget crisis by cutting the budget to the public libraries, forcing the Ashland Library to lay off staff and severely cut its operating hours during the week.
The legislators were using the conventional wisdom of, “Who uses libraries anymore, anyway?” They, of course, were wrong. All that had to do to discover they were wrong was to visit a local library and see it in action. But lawmakers are too busy lawmaking to do such shoe-leather research, so they let their assumptions inform their thinking.
Library fights back
Even as the state was cutting the budget, however, the Ashland Public Library had organized a successful petition drive to keep the library open. It then made a pitch to the Ashland City Council to put a tax measure on the ballot amounting to a few cents per resident to step in and save the library, restoring it to full operating service. The voters of Ashland wasted no time in approving that measure, this hometown library on Claremont Street is back in business full-time, and the parking lot is still full.
The popularity of the Ashland Public Library is consistent with a recent national study on library usage. Even though the Web is increasingly important as a primary information source for most Americans, most adults — and a lot of kids — still use libraries, the study found. The survey was conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and the University of Illinois, and it looked at overall library use plus library use for solving problems related to subjects like education, taxes, job searches, and health care. The study, and related stories, can be found at www.pewinternet.org/topic/Libraries.aspx.
The reseachers found that Internet users were more than twice as likely to patronize libraries as non-Internet users and that more than two-thirds of library visitors in all age groups use computers during their trips to the library.
Job searchers are new patrons
Across the county, librarians are reporting increased library use because of the depressed economy as job-searchers go to libraries to use their computers to find work. Here’s how Grand Rapids, Michigan TV station WZZM reported that phenomenon on Feb. 1:
“Even though it was Super Bowl Sunday, libraries across the country were still finding more and more patrons because of the economy. Libraries are reporting the highest computer usage ever because they’re free and offer a portal to potential jobs, giving people a chance to survive the economy.
“Asante Cain, a manager at the Grand Rapids Public Library, says business is booming with people coming in for a myriad of reasons. “To file unemployment claims or to work on resumes,’ says Cain. ‘We have a small business development center for people who are starting their own businesses.”
According to the Georgia Public Library System alone, 38 out of 58 public library systems in that state showed an increase in the number of users of electronic resources, adding a total of nearly 1.4 million users. In all, more than 13 million people used public-access Internet terminals at Georgia’s public libraries in one year alone.
Statistics also show that the traditional use of libraries is still strong in the areas of hard-copy book checkouts and attendance at public forums and culture conferences. Many libraries find ways of subsidizing dwindling state revenues by conducting periodic book sales or even maintaining standing book stores within the library.
Back at the Ashland, Ohio, Public Library, there are these uses as well. But then it’s also Wednesday afternoon and time for the “Sit, Stay, and Read” program for kids, young and old, where you can read your favorite story to a therapy dog who is more than willing to listen.
And, by the way, Tuesday night’s showing of “North by Northwest” was a big hit upstairs in the library’s free theater.
If Narcissus had tweaked one of Socrates’ famous teachings just a tad, he could have come up with a pretty good one-liner carrying a double meaning. It would, of course, be simply:
The more time I spend on Facebook, the more I wonder about narcissism. There seems to be a lot of talking and not all that much listening, and so much of the talk centers on what the poster
is up to or what great thought she/he just had. My own posts are usually no different. I recently concluded a cross-country road trip from California to Ohio and felt duty-bound to publicly journal it on FB all the way.
Self-love to the max
Narcissism is defined variously as “self-love,” or “an exceptional interest in and admiration of yourself.” One definition notes that it is “self-love that shuts out everyone else.”
Giving myself and a lot of other FB posters the benefit of a doubt, I don’t think we’re there, at least not yet, because there is a lot of interacting with others that takes place on the site. There are a lot of congratulatory messages, notes of concern and support, a lot of happy birthdays and happy anniversaries. I’ve even got at least one FB friend who uses her posts to extol the virtues of God. And it’s only natural that we post what we know best, and that is often news about ourselves.
But there are times when you see nothing but photo slide shows of individuals that look like they were taken at a Glamour Shots studio over at the mall and, when you compare them with the snapshots taken from every unflattering angle possible, you wonder if you are looking at the borderline between narcissists and everyday people.
Or could it be some of us just remember what Mom advised: “Always look your best!” I mean, have you never asked for a second or third click for your driver’s license or school I.D.? And how may people are ever even going to see that mug shot?
This subject of self-love and the social media has not escaped the attention of psychologists, and I came across an interesting study the other day that looks at it. The researchers are Laura Buffardi, a grad student in psychology, and W. Keith Campbell, professor of psychology, both at the University of Georgia. Their work appears in the October issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. (http://psp.sagepub.com)
Buffardi says narcissism is not just drawing attention to oneself or wanting to be liked. Clearly a lot of us fall into those parameters. Instead, she and Campbell say it is more severe than that and is characterized by an inability to form healthy, longterm relationships.
In the way it’s used
Buffardi noted, “Not everyone who uses Facebook is a narcissist. We found that people who are narcissistic use Facebook in self-promoting way that can be identified by others.”
So the two researchers gave questionnaires to 130 FB users, analyzed the content of the pages and had untrained strangers view the pages and rate their impression of the owner’s level of narcissism.
The team discovered, after analyzing the results, that the correlates of narcissism are the number of FB friends and wallposts that individual have on their pfile pages. Buffardi feels this is similar to how narcissists behave the in the real world, accumulating many relationships, most of which are very shallow.
And to my question about the kind of pictures FB users post of themselves, the researchers offer this: “Narcissists are also more likely to choose glamorous, self-promoting pictures for their main profile photos, while others are more likely to use snapshots.”
Hmmm … better re-evaluate my own profile picture, shot one evening in the Austrian Alps. Too much?
Impressions of impressions
Back to the Buffardi/Campbell study where they write, “Untrained observers were able to detect the narcissists also. Observers used three characteristics (quantity of social interaction, attractiveness of the individual, and the degree of self-promotion in the main photo) to form an impression of the individual’s personality.”
The study seems to find what we would think to be true: Some FB users use the site in narcissistic ways, while others just use it to stay in touch with friends and keep them informed about their lives.
Says Campbell, “Nearly all of our students use Facebook, and it seems to be a normal part of people’s social interactions. It just turns out that narcissists are using Facebook the same way they use their other relationships: for self-promotoion with an emphasis on quantity over quality.”
Couldn’t it be that some people are just more extroverted than others and choose to have larger circles of friends? Just because you fall into that category doesn’t make you a follower of Narcissus.
So all this is interesting to speculate about but, of course, if we start focusing too much on ourselves and how we look to others on Facebook, aren’t we in a de facto way becoming narcissistic?
Volumes have been written about the trouble the Web is causing for the newspaper industry, and much of it is true. The good news is that newspapers have been adapting to the changing media landscape for some time and have embraced convergence across print and online platforms.
Less has been written about the trouble the Web is causing the television industry, but those problems are mounting as recent research shows. How well television adapts to the challenge will determine the future of TV, the medium which former FCC Commissioner Newton Minow once dubbed “the vast wasteland.”
Viewers turn to Web
A story in the June 6 edition of the Canadian newspaper, The Vancouver Sun, reveals that 68 percent of people worldwide with access to the Internet admit to spending more time online than in front of their television sets. The poll was administered to 24,000 people from 23 different countries and was conducted by Ipsos, one of the world’s largest research companies, for Canada.com.
The results sound bad for television, but they may not be as dire as they initially look, according to Steve Mossop, president of Ipsos Reid. “The survey results are indicative of a trend,” Mossop told the Sun, “but I don’t think the TV is going anywhere. Growth rates are significant, but the full implications are still a number of years away.”
Web access an issue?
He added that 73 percent of the world’s population doesn’t even have Internet access. That may be true globally, but it’s not true in North America, Western Europe, or the population centers of Asia where nearly everyone has access to the Web. And it is these more advanced parts of the globe that drive media revenues.
Other experts offer a more severe assessment of the problems the Web is causing TV. One is Richard Cavell, a media and technology researcher at the University of British Columbia who told the Sun that, in simple terms, “It’s over. There is no TV anymore, because it has become the Internet.”
Despite a recent American survey that found television usage per capita to be up by several hours a year, Cavell said the unspoken part of that finding is that the increase in TV usage is on the Web as users download and stream TV programs online.
Good news, Dad
Good point, and it’s one I’ve found to be true among my college students. The days of college students (or more likely their dads) hauling up big-screen TVs to the dorm rooms are largely over. Mqny students don’teven have TV’s in their rooms, because they are watching TV over their laptops and – increasingly – on their i-Pods or i-Phones. These devices are more portable, and they don’t require cable hookups or fees.
That might not be too bad for the television production companies and distributing networks because people are still watching TV. But it is bad news for the companies manufacturing TV sets. More importantly for the television industry is the effect it may have on traditional TV advertising. If viewer numbers decrease for television programming and commercials, and if the advertising can’t make the jump as effectively to Web-based viewing, there may well be less advertising revenue for the television industry. And that, of course, has a snowballing effect on entertainment programming and on news and public affairs shows, too.
Classic TV on the Web
Recently I’ve joined the growing crowd in watching TV over the Web, and it works fairly well for guys like me who are more addicted to the older shows than the current ones. For example, a night is pretty much a total loss for me if I can’t catch at least one episode each of Seinfeld and Frasier. I can often find full episodes online (I just checked and several Frasier episodes are still on YouTube although who knows for how long) or at least get a multitude of clips of the most memorable moments of these two great shows. And over on AOL Television’s In2TV (http://television.aol.com/in2tv) you get a long list of intact classic TV shows to watch from the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.
Nets stream shows to Web
It’s even possible to watch first-run episodes of current TV programs on your computer after they have been aired on traditional TV screens. And it isn’t some bootlegger streaming them, but the TV networks themselves. One such network site is www.nbc.com/video that allows you to watch full episodes online of shows like Chuck, 30 Rock, Heroes, and the rest of their current season program lineup. Much of this is made possible by the change from analog to digital transmission that television has undergone in recent years, capped by all stations broadcasting in digital starting a year ago on June 12.
Not only can we watch TV on our computers, however. Now we can also connect our computers to our TV’s and use our TV screen as our computer screen, typing in whatever we can access from the Web and having it show up on our big-screen TVs. Google TV is one such system that facilitates this.
An excerpt from Google TV’s May marketing pitch explains it this way:
“Google TV is a new experience for television that combines the TV that you already know with the freedom and power of the Internet. With Google Chrome built in, you can access all of your favorite websites and easily move between television and the web. This opens up your TV from a few hundred channels to millions of channels of entertainment across TV and the web. Your television is also no longer confined to showing just video. With the entire Internet in your living room, your TV becomes more than a TV — it can be a photo slideshow viewer, a gaming console, a music player and much more.”
Google is working with Sony, Logitech, and Intel to put Google TV inside of television sets, Blu-ray players and companion boxes. These devices are slated to go on sale in the fall in Best Buy stores around the country, Google says.
Stay tuned for the latest developments.