Possible cognitive and affective implications of the new media paradigm shift

A Library for The New World

Digitized, instant communication is the great technological revolution of our time. It has streamlined business and delivered more information more quickly to more people than ever. And it has accelerated basic and applied research. Both the problems and the researchers who work on them are scattered around the world, but they come together in a common focus on the Internet.

This article by a librarian of Congress brings into focus one of the many aspects of the technological new world that are seen as its virtues.

Interviews in this On the Media  piece go along the same lines of liberation discourse with regard to video on demand (although with a much more commercial bent). The same themes could be heard in many of the keynotes at the  Podcast Expo.

However, an often forgotten aspect of Kuhn's paradigm shifts (of which this might in retrospect turn out to be one [sorry for the syntax, I've been reading too much Wodehouse]) is that they not only provide a new perspective on and knowledge of the world but they also leave some of the old ones out. This is inevitable and not necessarily detrimental, it just bears reminding ourselves of that.

Now some of the gains, that are often quoted, and that I have  personally experienced are:

  • Freeing of content from a mode or place of reception (e.g. I now listen to many radio programs while cycling; I can also read newspapers from anywhere in the world without going to the library)
  • Asynchronous broadcast/reception (e.g.  the same thing, podcasts or timed online recording allow me to listen to things I missed)
  • Aggregation e.g. thanks to news.google.com, an RSS reader or a blogroll I can read many different perspectives on the same story (often from sources I never new existed)
  • Customization e.g. I can decide what sort of advertising I want to see, or what I want to listen to or watch; without being hostage to the pressures of scheduling and editing traditional media were subject to and which were of necessity a compromise between the content recipient's and the content transmittor's needs

Now, for me personally, there are a few things that have been lost and I have not yet been able to assess the cognitive and affective impact on myself.

  • Random information I first noticed this when reading newspapers online. On the one hand, I was reading Czech newspapers in Glasgow (and not just the ones the library subscribed to) so my first reaction was entirely positive. However, I soon noticed that I read an issue much more quickly online and don't feel as informed as with the paper version (and I'm used to reading on the screen). Upon closer examination I realized that the layout of a newspaper's page is very conducive (at least for me) to a particular kind of skimming which allowed me to get a good overview of all stories, not just the ones I'd be naturally intrested in. Clicking on a link simply entails too much commitment as opposed the casual skimming of a few lines of text. This could have simply been due to the layout of the page (which has since improved) but that only shows me the beginnigs or perexes never the tailbacks.
  • Variety or variability This is a related issue that brings in to the mix the amount of information available. Until very recently I listened to BBC's excellent Radio 4 almost constantly when doing things that don't require too much focus. I soon came to dread certain times of the day when programs I didn't like were scheduled (for me it was between 2 and 4 which is the domain of drama). But on the other hand I got to hear a lot of useful and interesting things by accident to which I would never have tuned in on my own. Now, unless I know something particularly interesting is on (such as a news show), I will rather listen to a podcast. Of course, this way I have discovered the underappreciated qualities of NPR and ABC science and commentary programming but I only listen to topics in which I'm interested (commentary, science, media, technology).

On balance, I like this new world but I wonder what the implications of the losses are for me personally. It would be too tempting to make a claim about its impact on society. Changes in individual congnition and conceptualization are notoriously difficult to scale up to a group (unless we simply use the 'group is person' metaphor). But I'm not even sure yet (nor may I ever be) what the impact of them is on the psychological subject to which I have the closest access, viz me.

Many philosopher sages will talk about replacing depth with surface breadth but that is quite obviously not it. Instead, the new technologies offer both but they are a different depth and breadth. Right now, it seems to be worthwhile change.

I suspect that statements such as those below from the article quoted above are too optimistic (as their kind usually were in the past) but they're not a bad dream.

 Libraries are inherently islands of freedom and antidotes to fanaticism. They are temples of pluralism where books that contradict one another stand peacefully side by side just as intellectual antagonists work peacefully next to each other in reading rooms.


 Through a World Digital Library, the rich store of the world's culture could be provided in a form more universally accessible than ever before. An American partnership in promoting such a project for UNESCO would show how we are helping other people recover distinctive elements of their cultures through a shared enterprise that may also help them discover more about the experience of our own and other free cultures.