It truly is the rise of the machines.
Okay, most of us have lost our minds, anyway. I assume there are still a few folks out there who aren’t glued to their various devices all the livelong day, jumping from one task to another — one distraction to another — in the name of productivity. And there are likely a smattering of humans left who can go 15 minutes without checking Facebook. But their numbers are dwindling. Fast.
For better or worse, I’m right there in the middle of that overcaffeinated pack of multitaskers engaging in a continuous balancing act of priorities and trying to stay on top of every last development that makes its way into the 24/7 news cycle.
As a lifestyle, it’s not that much fun, really. So why do so many of us buy in to it?
Somehow, little by little, life just got this way. And somehow, bit by bit, we’ve turned into information junkies. The advent of the Internet gave us access to an (increasingly) unthinkable amount of information, and some of us just can’t get enough — especially these past few years, with the rise of the blogosphere, social media juggernauts like Facebook and Twitter, and countless online media outlets.
Sometimes I wonder: What if we could travel back in time to 20 years ago and give ourselves a peek at the future of 2011? Would we be taken aback by what we saw in the crystal ball, or would we look on with a sense of awe and excitement? Either way, one thing I’d personally probably wonder is: Just what in the world are we doing with all those gadgets in 2011 to occupy so much of our time?
A month or so ago I happened to catch the documentary Crackberry’d: The Truth About Information Overload on CNBC, which talks in depth about the often-negative effects that today’s superabundance of data — and distractions — can have on our brains, behavior and overall well-being. According to the program, it seems we’re becoming a society of comparatively shallow thinkers who have lost the ability (willingness?) to focus on any one thing — be it a task or an idea — long enough to give it our full attention. And perhaps we’re losing the capacity altogether simply to engage in only one thing at a time.
You know, like driving a two-ton SUV in heavy traffic, for instance. Or operating a commuter train full of passengers. Without texting.
Just what is behind all this need to stay connected to the grid is a topic for another forum. But for myself, being heavily involved in the magazine design and publishing business — a distinctly non-cutting-edge media industry currently facing an onslaught of challenges from the digital zeitgeist of our era — I do wonder what roles “old” media like print magazines can still play in a world that has become so very inundated with rapidly developing news stories and breaking updates around the clock. Does in-depth magazine commentary — not delivered in real time — still have a place amongst the 140-character capsules of wisdom flitting about the globe?
Kill Your Smartphone
Print magazines aren’t only still relevant to our culture — I’d say we desperately need them. Our brains are awash in real-time data — it’s a data-plethora out there, if you will. What we certainly don’t need, the bulk of us average folks, is more trivial, superfluous information — more status updates, more Tweets and the like. We are drowning in them already. No, quite to the contrary, what we need is a break from all that. Somewhere inside, I’d bet most of you reading this know just what I’m talking about and secretly (or not-so-secretly) yearn for a few minutes just to unplug and detach. And what better way to do so than kicking back, feet up, with your favorite print mag?
Recently, Andi Gabrick wrote a great piece on the TMG Custom Media blog entitled “Printervention: An Ode to Magazines,” in which she extols the virtues of real, tangible paper mags. One observation she makes is particularly keen, I think. “Print,” she says, “creates moments.” Especially in this day and age, print is not only sometimes preferable to digital media — it’s the escape from digital media. Along with printed books and newspapers, print mags are one of the few formats left that allow us to separate from all the connectedness in which we live the bulk of our lives. They let us stretch out on the couch, or sit back in a coffee house, or relax on a bench and just be with a story. And focus on one thing. Assuming you can shut off your team of little gadget friends, print allows you to achieve that rare modern feat: doing one thing at a time — and nothing else.
When you don’t get to experience the feeling of uninterrupted thought very often, finding such a rare moment truly feels wonderful. And what’s more, it makes us feel human again, rather than a thing — a processing machine seriously in need of a total reboot. And it is with that in mind that all the talk in the magazine industry lately about moving away from print and into digital, tablet-based magazine content simply makes me cringe.
Magazine Apps: What’s to Love?
For starters, being able to partake of tablet magazines requires a significant investment in the hardware itself. For the life of me, I can’t figure out what the incentive is to plunk down $549 or so just to keep getting the same content that’s already delivered right to my door on a regular basis. Convenience, you say? Maybe it’s just me, but print magazines are plenty convenient for my needs. They’re compact and easy to carry — and don’t require periodic recharging. Unless you tend to read 8 or 10 mag issues at a time, I don’t see how tablets make things easier for the average reader.
Second, what exactly does this new digital mutation of my beloved magazine have to offer that makes it worth the effort and expense? Advertisers, app developers and tablet makers alike tout the benefits of the “interactive” ads, often including animation and/or video, available to readers in magazine tablet editions. If reading a magazine to look at the ads is your thing, then I guess you’re in luck, but I’d bet the vast majority of readers want less obtrusive ads, not more obnoxious ones begging for our attention. Haven’t we already been down this road with all the heinously animated web banner ads out there? Personally, as a reader, I want no part of a content-driven medium that places more emphasis on selling me something and less on the content itself — and I know I’m not alone. One of the reasons print magazines are such a wonderful medium is that the ads are so un-obnoxious. They demand nothing of me, and I truly appreciate that. If magazine publishers believe what readers want is more poking and prodding from advertisers via an iPad app, I think they’re sadly mistaken.
Another bizarre trend that seems to be emerging in tablet magazines is the “click-to-buy” phenomenon, whereby readers can purchase items featured in magazines right there inside the app. For some mags — probably those with lighter content, I would think — some consumers might find this a worthwhile feature. You see a cute dress or a snazzy golf club in a magazine article, and — click! — it’s on its way to your door, simple as that. In effect, such magazines double as catalogs, which might be appealing to those in need of a dose of retail therapy. Once again, though, I have to wonder why we feel the need to add activities to the already fulfilling act of reading for its own sake. Do we seriously need another venue in which to buy things?! I view this “benefit” as just another source of distraction — one that detracts from, not one that enhances, the kick-back pleasure of diving into a compelling article.
Oh, and one more thing: Print mags don’t come with the often painfully long download times required by tablet magazines.
Standing the Test of Time
So call print magazines passé, old-fashioned, and behind the times, but they’ve been a staple of American culture for a long, long time because of the inherent value they bring to the reading experience. And in today’s world, print is a refuge from the ceaseless chatter of our Web 2.0 world and provides us valuable separation from the countless online distractions that chip away at our precious few minutes of daily peace — a welcome opportunity to silence the gadgetry and just enjoy a good read. And for those of us old enough to remember, print mags allow us the very un-guilty pleasure of reliving a few moments from a time before gadgets became our masters, when phones came with cords, mail came with stamps and news came rolled up on the doorstep — and “www” meant absolutely nothing at all.
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