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  • I like how Andy Singer captured our evolution into pod people in this cartoon. Of course, we're not done yet. Watching movies on smartphones will get old soon enough. We can already suit up with devices like Google Glass and VR goggles. I imagine that it won't be long, really, before videos are beamed straight into our skulls.

    Advances like TV broadcasting, computer chips, flat screens, the Internet, better batteries and all that have progressively privatized what once were collective experiences. I recall reading in pre-digital times an article by a futurist who opined, “Technology makes us individuals.” It seemed rather abstract to me then, but now – despite having added three billion people to the planet – physical audiences are shrinking everywhere except at stadium spectacles. More and more, our life experiences are vicarious and solitary.

    The cartoon may over-dramatize media miniaturization, but for sure, we are hooked. Viewing videos over smartphones is not too prevalent but is ramping up by about 25% a year, according to a new Nielson Company survey. It found that last spring Americans on average viewed 4 hours and 45 minutes of video content every day, mostly on network and cable TV, and much of the rest on DVDs. They also found that we spend another 4:45 of our day listening to radio and consuming non-video digital content on the Web (see next slide). That's a lot of screen and earbud time.

    I must not be a very average American because I watch TV at most two hours a week. Almost all the video I see is on a computer, and most of that consists of clips from comedy shows, short documentaries, political advocacy videos, product reviews, and mindless YouTube surfing now and then. So it sort of astonished me to realize that after accounting for eating, sleeping, working, bathing and relieving ourselves, there are only three or four other hours of our average day when we are not watching something on a screen. And we may well be viewing while we are doing those other things.

    So, I'm thankful that they aren't yet beaming videos into our skulls while we sleep. Oh I forgot; that's why some people wear tinfoil hats.
  • There's a flip side to all this passivity, though. While digital media tend to isolate us (for proof, just look around you on a city bus), they also give us agency. Almost anyone can post a video that millions might watch, just with a camera, a computer, an app or two and Internet access. Cottage media producers and bloggers can bypass editorial, studio and network gatekeepers to get content out there. That's significant people power.

    As did cable TV a generation ago, this wave of self-publishing has unleashed a flood of undifferentiated content that's nearly impossible to evaluate and assimilate. It may be misrepresenting opinions as facts, failing to cite good sources, or simply making stuff up. It's definitely not all good or good for you.

    You too can create undifferentiated content and perhaps you have. You can post videos and articles on any topic that matters to you, but who will regard them, and how? Will they be alone, in a room or on a bus? Perhaps you don't care; after all, reading is a solitary act, so why not viewing? On the off chance that your content goes viral, are you willing and able to capitalize on that notoriety and push your agenda to the next level? Do you have an agenda or just a drive to speak out?

    You wait breathlessly for anonymous individuals to post comments about your stuff. The unknown soldiers that gather may brandish unsupported opinions with or without information that might or might not be trustworthy or relevant. Trolls might flame you. Before long, your visitors get bored and click away in search of more interesting content, perhaps to a site full of speculations about the next failed relationship (insert name of celebrity here) will have.

    If instead you want your efforts to have consequences, try to find like-minded people who have clear goals and can organize themselves to forge ahead to achieve them. Negotiating next steps within a group might mean you have to surrender some autonomy and accept limits on your creativity, but isn't that an acceptable price to achieve things that you all want?

    Recently my family and I attended an event to mobilize people to end political corruption. Harvard Law professor and anti-establishment activist (how's that for an oxymoron?) Lawrence Lessig gave a riveting presentation explaining how and why the American political system has been seduced and sabotaged by money. You can watch a presentation like it here (other cool ones are here) on your favorite device, but no matter how much his rhetoric and visuals may inspire you, it won't be the same experience as being there with 500 other people getting charged up, and you won't get nearly as motivated to demand political reform. At least that was our takeaway.

    It's an open secret that viewing life from afar – virtually – entails moral hazards. In electric space, there's no there there. We drift past other viewers, rarely recognizing or encountering any of them. Tweeting remarks about a TV show and posting comments on YouTube don't hack it. To achieve change, you really have to be there at least sometimes, and then go on to do something in the physical world. Think of the planet as your home page and go make it presentable.

    We now return you to your regular programming.

    @Image 1: History of Motion Pictures by Andy Singer reproduced by kind permission of the artist.
    @Image 2: Author's pie chart of data published by the Nielson Company in the report "Shifts in Viewing: The Cross-Platform Report Q2 2014.
    @image 3: Infographic showing the pace of Internet posts from Bill Robinson's Techscape blog.
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