Nick Bilton's new book, I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works, putsdigital culture in proper perspective.

Media criticism.
Sept. 13 2010 4:48 PM

Digital Native Calms the Anxious Masses

Nick Bilton's new book puts Google, GPS, Twitter, Facebook, and your iPhone in proper perspective.

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Does Facebook make you nervous? Terrified that Google will make you stupid? Alarmed by the frequency and brevity of Twitter? Offended by people talking and texting on their smartphones? Made nauseous by iPads? Compelled to vomit at the sight of somebody reading a book on an iPad? Filled with Orwellian horror by GPS devices? Scared witless at the prospect of what Vinton Cerf calls an "Internet of Things" that will eventually connect the status—lost, unpaired, mismatched, being worn—of your socks to the Internet?

Then I've got the book for you: Nick Bilton's I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works: Why Your World, Work, and Brain Are Being Creatively Disrupted. Bilton, currently the lead writer of the New York Times' Bits blog, has good news for those who dread our technological present, panic about our future, and pine for the days when you actually dialed a phone call, just three TV networks did business, and computers, which were the size of a VW microbus, were kept in big, air-conditioned rooms.

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Bilton's conversational book helps readers understand the current technological upheaval by placing it against the backdrop of previous disruptions. He points to, for example, the arrival of the telephone and cites one Cassandra who predicted in the March 22, 1876, New York Times (PDF) that the experimental device "by bringing music and ministers into every home, will empty the concert-halls and the churches." On Nov. 7, 1877, the Times reported that the phonograph was going to eclipse the telephone and kill public speaking and reading:

Why should we print a speech when it can be bottled, and why would [the next generation] learn to read when some skillful elocutionist merely repeats a novel aloud in the presence of a phonograph. Instead of libraries filled with combustible books, we shall have vast storehouses of bottled authors.

The locomotive riled 19th-century Great Britain, which feared that engines would blight crops, terrify livestock, and asphyxiate passengers with their high speeds (greater than 20 miles per hour). The numbskullery continues. Gutenberg's press was going to destroy the clergy and destroy the state. Television was rotting the public's brain. Comic books were corrupting our youth. Similar predictions and warnings about the bicycle, the radio, the automobile, the airplane, the washing machine, and the microwave were sounded.

The techno-apocalypse never comes, Bilton points out. Cultures tend to assimilate and normalize new technology in ways the fretful never anticipate. Our language, which some fear will be dumbed down by the slang and acronyms and abbreviations that the pop technologies of texting, IMing, and e-mail encourage, becomes only richer, inspiring what Bilton calls "a new kind of cultural communication."

Bilton's comfort with technology has something to do with being a digital native. At 34 years of age, he remembers exploring the Atari 2600 game machine in 1981. Like many young gamers, he became a coder, but he's really a media polymath. He's worked in advertising and labored as a photographer, videographer, and art director in addition to pounding the keyboards as a journalist. He spent three years at the New York Times Company's skunkworks, which worked on imagining and building the media future. I once visited him at Times Company headquarters, where he led me on a head-spinning tour that demonstrated how, in the near future, the media I consumed would come to understand my needs and follow me from location to location, from device to device.

The in-person tour of the future Bilton treated me to at headquarters gets a much longer workout in the book. He also soothes our fears about electronic media turning kids into zombies and placates our worries that adults will suffocate from "information overload" with deep readings from the scientific literature and generous doses of common sense.

Although enthusiastic about technology, Bilton never comes off as a cyber-utopian. Even if silicon chips had never been invented, even if the Internet's tendrils had never reached out to us, even if there were still just three TV networks, our future would be disordered, messy, and a little scary. That's the way tomorrow always is. Reading I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works made me grateful for the future that I see cracking over the horizon. Take the guided tour Bilton has arranged for you in his book and on his Web site, and let me know if you don't feel the same way.

******

Google didn't make me dumber. But it did make me crankier. How about you? Send IQ (before and after) to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. I wonder if Bilton is good enough of a coder to make my Twitter feed analog. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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