Last week the New York Times published a nostalgic piece about the state of media consumption. Teddy Wayne, the author of the article, discussed how isolated our reading and listening experiences are now, and how we have abandoned many practices that used to allow people to expand their musical and literary horizons. We read news, stories and books on iPads and Kindles and listen to music on phones and music players. Our media content is now on our personal devices,making accidental discovery imposible.
Mr Wayne opened his piece by describing how he went through his parents’ vinyl record collection, listened to some of them, and discovered several Beatle songs he had never heard before. He lamented that this discovery wouldn’t be possible today. “The albums stacked up next to the record player, in plain sight for years, would be invisible MP3s on a computer or phone that I didn’t own. Their proximal existence could have been altogether unknown to me.” He extends his premise of accidental discovery to books, newspapers, magazines, and movies.
His piece struck a chord with me. I’ve observed the “discovery” aspect of books, especially of the large format, many images, coffee table variety, and especially with children. A book is picked up, leafed through for a few minutes or half an hour, then abandoned. But it’s picked up again, opened on a different page, and read for a few more minutes. Then again at a future time. That kind of interaction can’t happen with a digital book that’s only on a parent’s Kindle. I’ve also observed what happens when a full album is played on a living room speaker, as other household members passively listen and sometimes embrace a new artist or song. Mr Wayne also mentioned the breakfast table, where reading a newspaper happens because it’s convenient reading material in the right place at the right time. Reading Sports can turn into reading Business, simply because they’re both in the same section.
So I can sympathize with Mr Wayne when he says we’ve lost something important in the switch to personal devices. Sure, we have instant access, and access to much more content than we ever had before, but we’re very isolated in our consumption.
What I’d like to add is to lament about how hard it has become to share content. Maybe it’s driven by the desire to sell more copies of an item, maybe it’s DRM restrictions and copyright protection issues, and maybe it’s just that products are designed and intended for individual users, but it’s almost impossible to (legally) share the various forms of digital media. There are some exceptions: Google and Apple have created family accounts for a limited group of people (though Apple’s works only on Apple devices) and Netflix allows multiple users within a single account, which is also intended for different family members. Some music streaming options allow friend recommendations as well, which is a form of sharing. But aside from these limited options, sharing is nearly impossible. It isn’t possible to digitally loan a book, or an album or a movie to a friend. That friend usually has to buy the content outright, which makes the barrier way too high for casual browsing or listening, which doesn’t bode well for serendipitous discovery.
Can we bring sharing back?