A tech world that centres on the user

A tech world that centres on the user

 This article was adapted from the book “I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works” by Nick Bilton, the lead writer for “The New York Times” technology blog Bits. The book, published on Tuesday, examines the impact of technology on our lives.

If you pull out your smartphone and click the button that says “locate me” on your mapping application, you will see a small dot appear in the middle of your screen. That’s you.

If you start walking down the street in any direction, the whole screen will move right along with you, no matter where you go. This is a dramatic change from the print-on-paper world, where maps and locations are based around places and landmarks, not on you or your location. In the print world people don’t go to the store and say, “Oh, excuse me, can I buy a map of me?” Instead, they ask for a map of New York, or Amsterdam, or the subway system. You and I aren’t anywhere to be seen on these maps.

But today’s digital world has changed that. Now, we are always in the centre of the map, and it’s a very powerful place to be. When people want to know how the media business will deal with the Internet, the best way to begin to understand the sweeping changes is to recognise that the consumer of entertainment and information is now in the centre. That centre changes everything.

It changes your concept of space, time and location. It changes your sense of community. It changes the way you view the information, news and data coming directly to you. Now you are the starting point. Now the digital world follows you, not the other way round.

I got my own hard lesson in this new “Me! Now!” world when some friends stopped by our house with their younger teenage cousin. As I started making coffee for our guests, she asked if she could use my laptop to “check the news.” I handed it over. I was curious which news sites she was going to, so I asked, expecting to hear something like CNN or

The New York Times, or maybe TMZ, the Hollywood gossip site. She looked up at me and said, “Facebook.” Then she turned back to the computer and continued reading. “I thought you were going to read the news,” I said. “This is my news,” she replied. To many in her age group, news is not defined by newspapers, or broadcast television stations, or even bloggers or renegades. Instead, news is what is relevant to the individual — in her case, what Facebook calls its “news feed.”

This doesn’t mean she only sees messages about the mundane; links to mainstream news outlets, blogs and everything in between show up too. The only difference: It’s hyper-personalised.

The Internet generation is looking for personalised experiences, from the clothes they buy, to when, where and how they watch the latest episode of “Glee.” For content creators this poses a problem: if they don’t offer the option to consume a product in a personalised way, many consumers will simply go and get it themselves — something that some would call stealing.

Now, it’s true that some people steal movies, TV shows, e-books and other digital paraphernalia just because they’re there, but many people steal them because they’re not there — not legally available online, offered by the people who create and sell them.

While I was a student in college, my friends and I stole music all the time. Sure, you could buy some songs online, but the choices were extremely limited, and it’s an understatement to say that the process of actually buying the music was painful. Getting it onto a digital device required a computer engineering degree and a lot of patience.

My music heist came to a screeching halt in 2003 when Apple opened the iTunes music store. With the single click of a button, I could download, transfer, and listen to an entire album or a single song. The entire transaction took seconds. And since the only way to do this with one click was to buy the music, I happily paid.

Paying for experience

It is important to understand that what they are buying isn’t just the content. In many instances, it’s the experience that counts more. With iTunes, I’m not just paying for the music; I’m paying for the experience too.

Think about a recent book or newspaper that you’ve purchased. If I told you I would sell you the content on Post-it notes, would you still pay for it? Likely not; the reading experience would be painful. When you buy these analog products, you’re paying for the whole package. You’re paying for an experience.

Original books, newspapers and CDs haven’t translated into something as meaningful in the digital realm for that me-in-the-centre customer. Entertainment and content purveyors want the public to pay, but the Web has functionally stripped away most of the original experience that connects them to the product. Not surprisingly, people won’t pay anywhere near the same price for content online.

The people who sell entertainment and information for a living are selling much more than that. Those who succeed will be selling new digital experiences and giving people incentives to buy the whole package, not just the words or sounds.

This is all playing out in the current corporate battles over devices in the living room, mobile phones and e-readers. Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google are not simply at war to own the television or your mobile phone. They want to be ready to own the entire ecosystem that will eventually appear and connect the way we consume everything.

I call this “1, 2, 10.” These simple numbers represent the distance a screen is from your eyes. Cell phones and e-books are approximately one foot away when you hold them in your hands. Computer screens are about two feet away. The average television in the living room is, you guessed it, 10 feet away. Content will eventually automatically follow you from screen to screen and place to place.

This version of the future plays directly into the debate around the death of print books or newspapers and which device will replace them. But the answer is simple: it won’t be one screen that replaces your newspaper or your TV show. It will be all of them. When this happens, the business of storytelling will blur even more.

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