Digital media and the 40-hour work week

Not long ago, Nina Lentini edited one daily newsletter, worked from 9 to 6 at home Monday through Friday, and enjoyed nights, weekends and holidays with her family. Now, she edits not only that publication but also 10 weekly newsletters, which means starting at 7:30 a.m., working weekends and holidays–sometimes until 11 p.m.–and having her daughter help by replying to business-related messages as they drive around in the car.

As Michael Winerip details in his New York Times story, these weekly newsletters are sources of additional ad revenue that cost her employer virtually nothing to produce, since they're published online, Lentini still gets the same salary, and the writers who contribute free stories to them get "paid" only in links to their own Websites.

Lentini accepts these working conditions because she's glad to have a satisfying job with a good salary, considering the current economic and cultural landscape. "Everybody works like this now," Lentini told Winerip. "This is just the new reality." The problem is, he notes, "she remembers the old reality."

Skepticism toward new media is often written off as a generational divide, that people who aren't "digital natives" are just resistant to change or just don't "get it." Maybe, in fact, we do get it… "It" being the fact that the new reality is not an unqualified improvement over the old one.

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I read the newspaper (so others don’t have to)

I love the New York Times. I live in New York City. And I'm a journalism professor. So I feel like it's my personal, community and professional duty to get daily home delivery of one of the world's greatest newspapers. But sometimes when I see that foot-tall pile of papers accumulating over the course of a week, it seems like a part-time job and I kinda wish the Times were paying me to read their paper instead of vice versa.

Doing so, however, does unearth nuggets like these regarding current techno-cultural developments. First:

  • Cell refuseniks! While 85 percent of adult Americans have them now, some people still don't want cellphones. And they're not just stubborn old folks. A subset of people in, say, their 20s and 30s, who had cellphones have been getting rid of them. Even though it makes communication slower and less convenient, they say the sacrifice is worth it because they resent the disruption or want to save money or prefer handwritten letters or think gadgets prevent them from living in the moment. Will controlling one's own availability become the new status symbol? Social pressures will make that difficult, the article says. But since when is it cool to give in to peer pressure, people? (Hence, the need for a slow media movement to raise awareness and help people resist. Which leads to…)
  • The Tyranny of Email! You might have heard about this book, which was reviewed in the Times recently. The author, John Freeman, also had an essay in the Washington Post published under the rubric of "A Manifesto for Slow Communication." The gist of his argument: Compulsive emailing fosters a busy-ness and a numbness that detracts from leading a meaningful human life. Our time on earth is limited and we should use it more purposefully, which means slowing down. He notes the breakdown between work and personal life, the isolation from real-world places, the increased difficulty in reading slowly and listening and being idle and not fidgeting. His eloquent manifesto (which deserves to be appreciated in full) asserts, "This is not a sustainable way to live. This lifestyle of being
    constantly on causes emotional and physical burnout, work­place
    meltdowns, and unhappiness. How many of our most joyful memories have
    been created in front of a screen?"
  • How Not to Act Old! Like Freeman, this article on the workplace generation gap recommends that you stop sending e-mail — but for a totally different reason. It focuses on a new book arguing that people should avoid wearing watches, counting their change, or using landlines lest they look — and I quote from the subtitle here — "totally lame." Research shows that much of the generational divide arises from technology. While older people are still trying to catch up with Internet and cellphone use, younger people have already abandoned e-mail in favor of texting and Facebook, and they don't even listen to voice mails. (I also read somewhere recently that the average teenager sends and receives 50-70 texts every day. Yikes!)

The rotary phone: Now, that’s *really* slow media

Sometimes, when people react to my Slow Media project, they make me feel like the grumpy old duffer in this video, who thinks all the whippersnappers nowadays "care more about being modern than about getting three square meals."

He's irritated by the prospect of his home getting one of those new-fangled dial phones. Why, his old device is only thirty years old, and it works perfectly fine! Who needs a dial anyway, when there's an operator to connect your call? (Think of all the jobs killed by dial phones; they must be like the ATMs of telephony.)

This appears to be part of a series on "Modern Wonders" such as the record player, electric stove, and reel-to-reel tape. I'm not sure what year this was, maybe around 1930. The whole 10-minute clip is devoted to dial phones, and that's just Part 1. The second part spends another 10 minutes showing grandpa how to — wait for it — dial his own phone.

Desert island medium

If you were stuck alone on a desert island for three days and could pick one single medium to use, which would it be? Assume that all of your material needs are met: food, drink, clothing, shelter. 

The mediums on offer include books, iPods, phone calls, texting, magazines, Facebook (not the whole Internet; just the Facebook site), newspapers and radio. Cellphones and computers, of course, merge so many different functions that we tried to unbundle those modes here, for argument's sake.

A quick classroom poll tonight yielded a surprising result. The winner, by a margin of 2-to-1, was books. Texting, phone calls and iPods all got two votes each. Magazines and Facebook each got one vote. Newspapers and radios came up friendless, at least for a 72-hour stay under these conditions.

People cited "escape" and "passing the time" as reasons to choose books, while others preferred phone calls as a means of "connecting" or getting information through two-way exchange.

Maybe print culture isn't dead after all, though books and magazines together earned support from four students while digital media as a single category garnered favor from five.

Some students pointed out the power limitations of electronic devices and suggested that their choice would veer toward print if they knew they wouldn't have three days' worth of juice.

Digital natives, digital immigrants…

We were talking last week in my Media & Culture class about Neil Postman's views on "technopoly," the idea that technology is not only becoming a bigger part of our culture but pretty much taking it over. (More on Postman in a later post!) This led me to ask students: Do any of them get frustrated with the role that digital media like cellphones or the Internet plays in their lives? Answers were affirmative but focused on the absence of technology, not its presence: Yes, I hate it when I forget my cellphone and have to spend an hour going home for it. Yes, it's annoying when I can't get a signal, my computer is too slow, etc. The class argued against Postman's perspective but unwittingly confirmed it, universally perceiving digital media as pure boon without bane.

I started thinking, "Hey, maybe it's just me. Or maybe the difference in attitudes is generational." (Despite the fact that, in my late 30s, I'm not quite a generation older than the students.) This discussion came in the wake of our watching a PBS Frontline documentary about "Growing Up Online" that's full of scare-mongering and moral panics by parents and teachers about What The Internet Is Doing to Our Children and How Powerless We Are to Stop It (alternate online identities, soft-porn profile pictures, privacy issues, cyberstalkers and predators, etc.) The adults featured in the program made a few good points but overall their moralistic concerns seemed a little overblown, to the mind of this teaching non-parent, anyway.

One theory for undertanding this shift that the PBS producers are keen on — and that I also find useful, to a point — is that of "Digital Natives" and "Digital Immigrants." The terms seem to be coined by Mark Prensky, who describes himself as
"an internationally acclaimed thought leader, speaker, writer,
consultant, and game designer." He says that people who were not born into the digital world but have adopted many aspects of new technology are immigrants, whereas students are native speakers of the "language" of computers, video games and the Internet. It's safe to say that I'm the latter and my students are the former.

It's also safe to say that Prensky is the anti-Postman. While they both believe, as do I, that this shift from a print culture to a televised and now digital one represents a huge discontinuity with profound consequences for education, Postman is sensibly skeptical about the presumed gains and unusually attentive to the potential losses that this brings. Prensky, on the other hand, has blind faith that the digitally molded minds of today's students represent a great leap forward for humanity. As Mao's cultural revolution proved, great leaps are not always forward-bound.