Are You a Victim of On Demand Disorder?

6/5/09Follow @wroush

If this column has a repeating theme, it’s the amazing new capabilities we’re all gaining as a result of the digital media explosion. Yet like all revolutions, this one is destroying old values, attitudes, and behaviors even as it creates new ones. I would never trade the Web, mobile computing, and the instant access to digital culture that they enable for the media universe that existed before, say, 1995—but I also think it’s important to be aware of what we’re leaving behind. So this week I want to get down a few thoughts in remembrance of a little something called going out of your way.

Do you find yourself listening only to the music you can download from iTunes? Watching only the movies you can find in your cable provider’s video-on-demand lineup? Reading only the books you can order from Amazon? Going only to the restaurants you can find on Yelp? I certainly do. And I think this is a growing tendency, thanks to the ubiquity of cheap digital content and devices that can access it. At the risk of being taken too seriously, I want to coin a pseudomedical term for this pattern: On Demand Disorder, or ODD.

The main symptom of ODD is an aversion to any experience, product, or piece of content that can’t be obtained more or less instantaneously. And the main long-term consequence may be a narrowing of one’s world-view to exclude ideas and materials that take a little more work to uncover.

I’ll illustrate with a few examples from my own life. As a gadget freak, and as someone whose job is to keep abreast of the latest digital technologies, I may be an edge case. But perhaps you’ll recognize similar patterns in your own routine.

1. In the three months since I bought a Roku Player—a $99 wireless device that lets you view movies from Netflix and Amazon on your TV instantly—I have watched dozens of movies and TV shows on the Roku. In the same time, I’ve watched exactly two physical DVDs from Netflix. My “Instant” queue keeps turning over, but I haven’t made any progress on my regular DVD queue. This despite the fact that the selection of DVDs at Netflix is still far greater than the selection of so-called “Watch Instantly” movies. In effect, I’m sacrificing choice for availability.

2. I used to be a fairly regular buyer of books from Amazon. About six weeks ago, I decided to splurge on a Kindle 2 e-book reader. Guess how many physical books I’ve ordered since then? One. Partly, I’m just trying to get my money’s worth out of the Kindle. But now that I have the option of buying a book through the device’s built-in catalog and having it delivered wirelessly in under 60 seconds, instead of ordering it online and waiting for it to arrive three to seven days later in the mail, I’ve become far more cognizant of my own impatience. When I get a hankering to read a book, I usually want to read it now. By the time Amazon can ship me the physical book, the feeling of urgency may have passed, or I may have found the information I needed elsewhere. The one book I did buy was an out-of-print monograph from an academic press that will likely never be made into a Kindle Edition.

3. I’ve been an active amateur photographer ever since my grandfather gave me one of his old Nikons when I was a teenager. My collection of thousands of photographs fits into roughly four buckets: a) 1980-1990: Ektachrome slides—my grandfather’s preferred medium—now stored in carousels and in plastic sleeves in binders. b) 1991-1997: Color prints, stored in albums. c) 1998-2004: Digital images, taken with my first two digital cameras, stored on CD-Rs. d) 2005-present: Digital images, taken with my various camera phones and my third and fourth digital cameras, stored on hard drives and on Flickr. It’s probably not hard for you to guess which pictures I view most often and least often. The sad truth is that because I can pull up my Flickr photostream instantly on my PC, my Mac, or my iPhone (or even, thanks to programs like Slickr and Boxee, on my television), the Flickr images are the only ones I ever look at.

My personal media consumption habits, of course, are of no great consequence to the larger world. What worries me is that as the amount of material available in digital, on-demand form grows, our familiarity with the non-digital world may atrophy. That would be a real shame, because there’s a lot of stuff that either won’t be digitized for a while because of the logistical or legal hurdles, or shouldn’t be experienced digitally anyway because it loses so much in the translation.

In the first category, for example, is the huge class of books known as “orphan works.” These are the millions of out-of-print books that were first published after 1923 and are therefore still technically covered by copyright, but for which there is no identifiable, living copyright holder. For most of these books, there’s not enough demand for anyone to bother reprinting them—and few publishers would take the risk in any case, since you never know who might come out of the woodwork to sue you. So the only way to read them is to go to a library or find a used copy at a bookstore.

Google is gradually scanning many of these books with the intention of making them searchable and perhaps downloadable online. The terms under which it makes them available are the subject of the controversial, as-yet-unapproved settlement between Google and a group of publishers and authors. But even if the settlement goes through, it probably won’t be easy or cheap to access the full text of Google’s digitized orphan books. And ODD sufferers, by definition, don’t go to the library. So orphan books are likely to stay permanently off the radars of all the people who are becoming addicted to Kindle-style book shopping convenience.

In the second category—stuff that shouldn’t be experienced digitally, or at least not only digitally—I’d include things like classic cinema and fine art. There are some great black-and-white movies (Casablanca, Rebecca, and The Third Man come to mind) that, to be truly appreciated, have to be seen on a big screen, projected from real celluloid, in a dark old moviehouse like the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square. And having just been to Philadelphia to see a massive exhibit on Paul Cézanne and his followers, I could go on for hours about the difference between seeing a digital copy of a famous painting and actually being in front of it. Yes, I am the same person who has written whole columns about the Corbis CD-ROMs that first turned me on to Cézanne in the 1990s. But unless you’ve stood close enough to a Cézanne canvas to see the bumps and cracks in the paint, to absorb the fact that Cézanne’s brushstrokes have a texture and a direction and a materiality that distinguishes them from the strokes of a Matisse or a Picasso or a Jasper Johns, you’re missing something fundamental about modern art.

In sum, there are certain artifacts of culture that will teach you more if you go out of your way to experience them the way their creators intended. But the more of these things that can be reproduced in “close enough” fashion on our computers or mobile phones or HDTVs, the more we may choose to forego the real things and settle for the easy things.

Now, I don’t want to sound like some kind of snob or aesthete who thinks that direct experience is always better than mediated experience. In fact, I’d say that your state of attention when you encounter something is far more important than whether you experience it first-hand or second-hand. The main thing is to be ready to engage your mind and your emotions. That’s why I don’t buy the idea that “Google is making us stupid,” to paraphrase the title of Nicholas Carr’s much-discussed July 2008 cover story in The Atlantic.

Carr’s main argument is that different media affect our thought processes differently, and that Internet content, because it’s so often full of tempting links to other content, is “chipping away at [our] capacity for concentration and contemplation.” That may be true for certain kinds of digital media—perhaps including blogs like this one, where variety is the whole point. But I think the flavor and impact of a media experience all depend on what you bring to it. If I am in the mood for Forster, then Howards End is no less engrossing just because I’m reading it on my Kindle and there are 270,000 other books a click away. But if Howards End weren’t available on the Kindle and I didn’t have the patience to find it in a bookstore, that would be a different story.

That’s the danger I’m thinking about today—that on-demand technology is training us to settle for whatever is immediately available, and that we’ll start judging the world not by how much color is in it but by the content of our iPods.

The cure for ODD, happily, is simple. Pick something you’re passionate about, start exploring, and don’t stop with the first thing that Google or Bing or Comcast or iTunes offers you. Whether the tool of exploration is a computer screen, a cell phone, or your own two eyes doesn’t matter so much. Just find something that gets you thinking and feeling. Now go!

For a full list of my columns, check out the World Wide Wade Archive. You can also subscribe to the column via RSS or e-mail.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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