Nick Bilton lives in the future. But he knows the rest of us aren’t there yet, so he offers up I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works — a book from his world on what we all might be in store for down the road. It’s a world The New York Times reporter and lead Bits blogger inhabits so fully it has gotten him in trouble at work (when he admitted publicly in 2009 that he doesn’t read the print edition of the newspaper) and into public spats, defending Twitter‘s honor against New Yorker writer, George Packer. Bilton talks to TIME about what the media industry can learn from the porn industry, why you should let your kids play video games and why the Internet isn’t making us dumb.
Your book is called I Live in the Future…, so why print a paper book?
These analog models — they still work, for the most part. The perfect example of that is the fact that The New York Times sells a million copies of the print paper every day. So when I thought about what the best way was to get my message across a book format was the best way to do that. But I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just a book — that it was a fully interactive experience — on nickbilton.com you can watch videos that I’ve created, you can comment on chapters, things like that.
You provide a lot of counter-arguments to those things people always say about the Internet and technology. For one, why should you let your kids play video games?
They are incredibly good for our brains. They increase hand-eye coordination, they increase working memory, kids that play video games in a balanced way perform better on certain test scores. And to tell kids that they cannot have access to these technologies is essentially like telling a kid that they couldn’t read a book when the printing press came out. Not giving kids access to this stuff is going to hurt them in the long run.
That was quite a kerfuffle between you and George Packer [of the New Yorker] over Twitter. What are the takeaways?
This happened at the time when everyone was still defending Twitter or lambasting it. When I first started engaging with Packer I was a bit abrasive. I was fed up with the ‘Twitter is a waste of time’ line because it’s the complete opposite for many of us who use it. What happened after, as we started to discuss online, I came to understand completely where he was coming from. He was coming from a place where he is comfortable with his newspaper, the quiet car on the train, all of these things, and the idea of those things being taken away just didn’t make him feel good. What I really tried to do with that chapter in my book was to try and explain that, if you use it in the right way, Twitter can actually be extremely beneficial to the way you navigate content on the web. It’s understandable that people are afraid of it because it’s new, it’s different and it looks like this uncontrolled anarchy is taking place, but in reality it’s actually extremely useful.
You say you use Twitter as your own personal newspaper?
Yes. You can easily unfollow or follow someone, so you can build this social newspaper that you’re the editor of. You get to decide what you see and what you don’t see. And you get to interact with people in a different way. Imagine if you could interact with the stories in The New York Times in a social context? That is essentially what you’re doing with Twitter.
Last month, your publisher said The New York Times will stop printing, date TBD. What is your prediction?
There’s a long life span for these printed products, but I think that eventually the cost is going to outweigh the price of production. At this point in the game, would it be cheaper for The New York Times to say, ‘You know what, you pay $800 a year for a subscription, why don’t we give you a $500 iPad and create an App’? Is that more cost effective? I don’t know, but I think eventually those things are going to happen.
You say that the distinction between different mediums online is fading. What do you mean?
Ten years ago, CNN was a cable television network and The New York Times was a newspaper on a piece of paper. Now, CNN.com and NYTimes.com, with the exception of the brand names, are exactly the same thing. They both have video, they both have words, they both have photos, they both have comments, they’re both organic, lively and continually change throughout the day. The only thing that separates them as different types of experiences is memory of what they were in the past.
Obviously, one of the most oddball chapters in your book is the first one, about the porn industry. What can the media industry learn from the adult entertainment industry?
What I found fascinating was that the Playboys and the Penthouses of the world tried earnestly to maintain these brick and mortar business models. They did whatever they could to make sure people were still buying their print magazines. But the consumer was like, ‘Wait, there’s other places where I can get this content and it’s much less expensive and it’s customized.’ While Playboy fought tooth and nail to keep people buying these analog products, these other smaller adult entertainment houses came up and reached an audience and charged half the price and created an even better, niche product. The same thing has happened with a lot of these big media companies. They’re so focused on trying to make people buy their DVDs, their CDs, their newspapers, their magazines that, in their place, you have these niche blogs that have come along and offered what the consumer wants. (Comment on this story.)
You end your book in a non-traditional way, with a letter to all the CEOs, publishers, producers, editors, authors, journalists, advertising directors and filmmakers out there. What did you want them to hear?
That consumers aren’t coming back. They’re looking for these new digital experiences in every single type of thing they consume — whether it’s the clothes that they wear, the cars that they buy, the newspaper that they read. They’re not disappearing and they’re not consuming new things, they’re just looking for new ways to do it. Whether you’re creating content or consuming it, we’re all in this together — we’re all going through these transitions together. It’s not the end of the world. It’s not like people will never read news anymore or watch movies or listen to music — it’s just that the traditions we’ve had in the past are different now. We need to figure out who these consumers are, what they’re paying for and create a relationship with them and community around these products. If we can do that, we’ll make it through just fine.