Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Problem with Digital Info

As I’ve often said, here and elsewhere, I’m not necessarily a cutting edge early adopter, but I am interested in – and, occasionally, even bedazzled by – new technology. And while I am now intrigued by the development and potential of electronic reading devices – ubiquitously referred to as “eReaders” (because everything is now either “e” or “i” whatever ... maybe I’ll have to start referring to myself as “iBill”) – I’m foregoing the current Betamax versions (Kindle et al) until the manufacturing powers-that-be get it right. That is, until they make it a durable, magazine-thin and flexible, high quality four-color, interactive and wireless device. I give it another three years or so and we’ll be there.

But digital devices aside, a bigger concern to me as a media professional and avid reader in all mediums is the ramifications of the difference between how we consume and comprehend the digital word versus the printed word. Studies by technology-usability expert Jakob Nielsen and others have, not surprisingly, shown that we absorb online information differently than we do printed information. In fact, our comprehension of the information presented digitally is more superficial. “It’s not a deep learning,” Nielsen says.

This is why the demise of the otherwise outdated print publishing industry worries me. Our culture is already dumbing down at a blinding pace. Will it be pure free fall once print consumption is a rarity (or a for-elites-only endeavor)?

TIME magazine recently addressed this issue to a degree in an interesting article looking at how financial institutions are increasingly pushing clients to opt for online statements rather than printed ones. While this is positioned as an admirable “green” initiative, the real motivating factor is the cost savings to the bank or broker ($1 per statement, according to the TIME report). The “cost” to the account holders is that they’re not absorbing the financial information when delivered online to the extent that they did with the printed statements.

However, the TIME article does go on to point out some of the potential advantages of electronic financial statements – so far mostly unrealized, of course. The examples cited highlight the true value proposition of digital information in this era of both ink and bytes. That is, using the web and digital devices in ways that capitalize on their unique attributes, to do what print can’t do, rather than simply employing them as substitutes for more traditional forms of communication. The best of both worlds is out there, if we’re creative and ambitious enough to find it – and then manage to keep it in balance.

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