Breaking Digital Chains

Technology is omnipresent in contemporary American society. Electronics permeate every facet of our lives, from the iHome alarm waking us up to the smartphone calendar update reminding us of our next work meeting. While there are many obvious benefits to technology, the mobile and persistent nature of new tech tends to isolate users from their social surroundings instead of enhancing relationships.

I recently purchased a new smartphone because I accidentally drowned my previous phone in a hot tub. After a few weeks, I thought the battery life seemed exceptionally poor. I checked the rated life, and I was getting significantly less life despite having the screen dimmed. After examining all my settings, however, I realized that it was probably due to leaving on push notifications. These push notifications sent my email, Facebook, Twitter, eBay, and Amazon accounts through to my pocket instantly. I decided to turn off the push for everything but eBay (I occasionally sell items there, so a quick response is legitimately necessary) and set my email to only check every 2 hours. I soon noticed a battery life increase, but even sooner realized the sheer amount of time I had been wasting on those “social” networking sites. Instead of checking Facebook every 15 or 20 minutes, I now only look at it once daily or so. I rarely check Twitter at all anymore. By shutting off the insistent push, I broke the instinctual habit of checking my phone during any down time and now tend to focus on actually talking to the people around me instead.

Last summer, I met someone who was even worse than I was about constantly using a phone. While hiking the Superior Hiking Trail in northern Minnesota with some friends, I met a hiker who not only brought his phone with him, but carried along a solar charger so that he could use it the entire time. He didn’t even realize we were passing him until we came into his line of vision because he was listening to music on his phone. I found the intrusion of technology into the beautiful wilderness disturbing, a self-contained comment on the American addiction to devices.

Do I consider myself a slave to technology? No, I do not; I know how to program, to hack a computer into doing what I desire. Today’s computers are still unimaginably stupid, and programming truly requires babying the compiler. But fifty years ago, programs were basically incomprehensible to the casual reader. In twenty or thirty years, I have no doubt that I will be amazed at the state of technology; programming languages will likely develop to the point where programs can nearly be written as a normal English set of instructions. Though I am not a slave to technology, I do recognize tech as a moving force within my own life. It often attempts to snare me into using it more than I really wish to. It requires an intelligent and strong-willed user to master the technology instead of allowing it to consume your time and energy.


Newspapers and the Web: A Digital Dilemma

The modern news industry is a far cry from the so-called “golden age” of newspapers in the early twentieth century. Then, new papers were being created yearly and sales soared; today, the second Google instant search suggestion for “newspaper subscriptions” is “newspaper subscriptions decline.” In 1990, national daily subscriptions surpassed 62 million, but stood at only 43.4 million by 2010. The newspaper industry is struggling economically, and there are no easy answers.

Unread newspapers sit in a trash bin.
Unread newspapers sit in a trash bin.

Arguably the greatest threat to newspapers is the Internet. Because of the transient and easily updated nature of the Web, 24 hour news is extremely accessible. The majority of this news is free, which provides no subscription revenue and a somewhat volatile source of advertisement revenue. Today’s teenagers grew up in a Web-saturated environment; they have never experienced an age before the Internet, where newspapers were the primary source of everyday news. Likewise, many teens have never paid for their news, instead receiving it from free websites such as CNN. Changing their consumption habits is exceptionally difficult.

The best ways to lure a teenage audience to reading a newspaper are by providing low-cost, relevant, high quality content. I will personally never pay more than a dollar for a paper, whether or not it is a Sunday or special edition. Fifty cents is a more realistic amount for many teenagers, who are generally less economically privileged already. The content in newspapers must also be relevant; I personally find reading articles about the stock market interesting, but most teens don’t. Including a teen-focused section or featuring teen authors for smaller papers could create a draw to the paper. My local newspaper in Dubuque, Iowa – the Telegraph Herald – used to include an ALTernative section each Wednesday featuring comics, media reviews, and editorials from teen authors in the readership area. Even if I didn’t read the paper the rest of the week, I made sure to at least skim it each Wednesday. Having relevant content is crucial because the Internet already provides so much niche reading that it can easily draw readers to topic specific websites.

Creating high quality content is the last and most essential draw for a newspaper. This is where a print newspaper can separate itself from many online news sources. When readers pick up a printed paper, they expect to read grammatically correct, well-edited copy. The physical nature of the paper lends a sense of credibility and weight to the text that most online editions cannot successfully imitate. Offering in-depth, balanced presentations of different stories will draw a wide variety of readers to the paper. If you are asking readers to pay for something that can be found elsewhere for free, the quality must be worth the price.