Hi. My name is David and I’m an info-holic.
I didn’t realize I had a problem. Well, no, that’s not right. I knew I was addicted to information, but I thought I could control it.
See, I thought it was because I’m a writer, and I need to do research. Ninety percent of the job is research. (The other 10% is lying awake nights planning revenge. Because all fiction is about getting even. Think about it.) The point is, I had an easy justification for my habit.
I used to read a book a day, mostly science fiction. And the magazines, every month: Astounding (which became Analog), Galaxy, If, Fantasy & Science Fiction. Then, when my interests shifted to technology, I started buying Hi-Fi and Stereo Review and Popular Photography and Cinefex. And, of course, I loved reading about real science and nature, so pretty soon I was picking up copies of Discover, Scientific American, Science, New Scientist, National Geographic, Omni, Wired, even Popular Science.
During the golden age of computer magazines, I lost control. There was Personal Computing, Recreational Computing, Compute!, Kilobaud Microcomputing, Profiles, InfoWorld, PCWorld, PC Magazine, and of course, Byte. Byte was the thickest of them all. PC Magazine could have been thicker, but they chose to publish every two weeks instead of monthly. Even so, those issues were huge.
Every month, I would go to the biggest newsstand I could find and work my way from one end of the rack to the other, piling up magazines in my arms. I could easily spend $100 or more and come home with more magazines than any normal person could read in a month.
Until about 10 years ago.
I thought I was getting my addiction under control. But it wasn’t me. It was the magazines. They started disappearing, first one, then another. I didn’t notice at first. I was still spending $60 or more on technical journals and periodicals.
The magazine industry had a great century. Cheap printing gave us pulp fiction on rag paper and eloquent commentaries on slick paper. The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Look and Life gave us weekly glimpses into the rest of the world. They fed our hunger to know. When television took over that job, starting in the 1950s, all of those zines disappeared within a decade.
The magazine industry responded by focusing on specialty markets: cameras, cars, stereo gear, guns, gardening, architecture, food, fashion, movies, gossip, and a variety of sexual persuasions. By the end of the 1970s, specialty zines were narrowcasting. There were zines for specific genres of television and movies, there were zines for specific software (Lotus and WordPerfect), there were zines for specific brands of computers (TRS-80 and Apple and Kaypro).
And this is when the magazine industry changed.
For the first two-thirds of the 20th century, magazines were the reader’s access to specific channels of information. The last third of the century, magazines were the advertisers’ access to a specific demographic of readership. Niche magazines thrived on the support of the companies that needed a direct channel to that specific market. Advertisements in those zines became more detailed and specific. It was an inevitable evolution, but a costly one, because magazines stopped being about selling information and started being about selling products. When the product reviews used up more and more pages, there was less and less original content. Magazines became less useful and less interesting.
At the beginning of the 20th century, magazines showed a profit by selling copies, hundreds of thousands. By the end of the century, magazines showed a profit by selling ads. And that was as disastrous as any dot-com bubble, because when the advertising evaporated, the magazines died.
The great die-off began in the mid-nineties. Not just magazines, but newspapers as well. By the turn of the century, the cause was obvious, but any rational discussion of the situation was vastly overshadowed by the declining sales of compact discs and the anguish of those who had married themselves to a brick-and-mortar distribution channel. The overwrought weeping and wailing and garment-rending of the music industry was a distraction from the real issue.
Yes, I’m talking about the Internet.
The Internet is like the blob. Remember that old movie starring Steve McQueen? The blob was a large red mass of glop that absorbed all organic life. It was especially fond of people. And the more people it ate, the bigger it grew.
Likewise, whatever the Internet touches, it eats. It absorbs. It makes it part of itself. First it was books, then music and newspapers, now it’s movies and television shows. Magazines were just a snack along the way.
Think about how much you do online: banking, paying bills, handling insurance, paying your income tax. Buying things: books, music, videos, clothes, toys, games, electronics, cameras, accessories, chocolate, car parts, and probably most of your software. And porn, of course. A friend of mine, who used to do some accounting for an adult-entertainment group, shared the details of the decline of that entire industry over the last decade. The Internet is about immediate gratification.
When the local Borders closed, my last convenient newsstand disappeared. But I noticed something: I didn’t miss it all that much. My magazine habit had dropped to near zero. Everything I was interested in was already on the Web.
The Internet has become a giant interactive magazine. It’s a relentless torrent of information that you dip into or dive into. You can get broad-spectrum news or narrowcasting, depending on the websites you pick. It’s also a news broadcaster, a music player, a TV station and an office water-cooler. It’s a game machine, a library, a spy camera, an observatory, a travel agent, and a Jewish mother who sets you up with nice girls, even giving you directions to her house.
For the last 20 years, ad agencies have been trying to figure out a new advertising model for the Internet. Conversely, many websites have been trying to figure out how to sell ad space on their site. Google has the best ad philosophy. The ads are unobtrusive and don’t get in the way of the content. Certain other websites have the worst ad philosophy, popping up boxes in front of the content you’re looking for. Most despicable are the sites that play a 30-second commercial before you can see the 90-second news video you clicked for.
In second place are those that play an unrequested video commercial in the corner. (Here’s a clue-by-four: Advertising should be accessible, not invasive. Ads that get in the way alienate the user—but that’s a much longer rant for another time.)
But back to my problem. I’m still an info-holic. Only now I don’t have to leave the house and I don’t have to spend $100 a month on pieces of dead trees.
On any given morning, I will spend at least two hours reading across a variety of websites: Digg and Slashdot, The Huffington Post, Facebook (of course), eBay, Google News, several discussion forums, and whatever interesting links any of these sites might point to. If I see a mention of an interesting product, I’ll Google for reviews and visit Amazon for an idea of pricing. On a good day, I can go till dinnertime. And after dinner, I play Starcraft II online. Sometimes I can go for two or three weeks without ever having to do a lick of real work.
I suppose I need an insightful punchline for this essay, but if you’ve read this far, nodding your head in agreement, then you’re an info-holic too.
There is a very real danger in consuming too much information. It doesn’t always happen, but the risk is real—over time, you could develop a severe mental condition called wisdom.
David Gerrold is the author of over 50 books, several hundred articles and columns, and over a dozen television episodes, including the famous “Star Trek” episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles.” He is also an authority on computer software and programming, and takes a broad view of the evolution of advanced technologies. Readers may remember Gerrold from the Computer Language Magazine forum on CompuServe, where he was a frequent and prolific contributor in the 1990s.