WILL make this short: Reading prose on a screen is going out of fashion. We’re taking stock of the Internet right now, with writers who cover the digital world cataloging some of the most consequential currents shaping it.
If you probe those currents and look ahead to the coming year online, one truth becomes clear. The defining narrative of our online moment concerns the decline of text, and the exploding reach and power of audio and video.
This multimedia Internet has been gaining on the text-based Internet for years. But, last year, the story accelerated sharply, and now audio and video are unstoppable. The most influential communicators online once worked on web-pages and blogs. They’re now making podcasts, Netflix shows, propaganda memes, Instagram and YouTube channels, and apps like HQ Trivia.
Consider the most compelling digital innovations now emerging: the talking assistants that were the hit of the holidays, Apple’s face-reading phone, artificial intelligence to search photos or translate spoken language, and augmented reality — which inserts any digital image into a live view of your surroundings.
These advances are all about cameras, microphones, your voice, your ears and your eyes. Together, they’re all sending us the same message: Welcome to the post-text future.
It’s not that text is going
away altogether. Nothing online ever really dies, and text still
has its hits — from Susan Fowler’s whistleblowing blog post last year about harassment at Uber to #MeToo, text was at the centre of the most significant recent American social movement.
Still, we have only just begun to glimpse the deeper, more kinetic possibilities of an online culture in which text recedes to the
background, and sounds and images become the universal language.
The Internet was born in text because text was once the only format computers understood. Then, we started giving machines eyes and ears — that is, smartphones were invented — and now we’ve provided them brains to decipher and manipulate multimedia.
Suddenly, the script flipped: Now it’s often easier to communicate with machines through images and sounds than through text. It’s more than just talking
to digital assistants. Artificial
intelligence might soon let
us search and index much of
the world’s repository of audio and video, giving sounds and
pictures a power that has kept text dominant online for so
Tech did not just make multimedia easier to produce. It also democratised non-text formats, which, for so long, had been accessible only to studios.
Podcasting became something like the new blogging, a way for committed amateurs and obsessives to plumb the under-explored eddies and mysteries of life. There’s a podcast by a guy who spends more than a dozen episodes explicating the genius of Kanye West’s fifth studio album. He does so using a trove of documentary material he found — where else? — on YouTube.
Meanwhile, social media showered every multimedia creator with a potential audience, and it allowed the audience to connect and discuss the work, deepening fans’ relationship to levels of obsession.
It’s a kind of passion that
ultimately makes for a fundamentally new, deeper kind
of art. Look at all the room the Internet opened up for crazy mash-ups of ideas. Netflix’s best recent show, “American Vandal”, is a parody of “Serial”, the true-crime podcast, and “Making a Murderer”, another Netflix show.
The haze of misinformation hanging over online life will only darken under multimedia — think of your phone as a Hollywood-grade visual-effects studio that could be used to make anyone appear to say or do anything.
The ability to search audio and video as easily as we search text means, effectively, the end of any private space.
Then there’s the more basic question of how pictures and sounds alter how we think. An information system dominated by pictures and sounds prizes emotion over rationality. It is a world where slogans and memes have more sticking power than arguments. (Remind you of anyone?)
And, will someone please think of the children: Do you know how much power YouTube has over your kids? Are you afraid to find out? But, what are we going to do?
There seems no going back now. For text, the writing is on the wall. -- NYT
The numbers tell the story
of multimedia immersion
70 MILLION: The number of Americans who regularly listen to podcasts, according to Edison Media Research. People who listen weekly tend to spend five hours a week on them;
2 HOURS: The length of time, on average, that young Americans spend watching video online. That’s less time than they spend watching TV, but it’s catching up. Around the world, people spent a billion hours a day watching YouTube in 2017, that service reported;
800 MILLION: The number of active Instagram users. Instagram lifted Snapchat’s video diary features, stories, to great success, and now occupies its users for more than 30 minutes a day, on average;
US$9 BILLION (RM36 BILLION): The amount of money flowing to audio and video. Netflix unveiled a plan to spend US$8 billion on original content in one year, while Apple plans to shell out US$1 billion. Beyond that, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the animation mogul, is looking to raise US$2 billion to create “HBO for the digital age”; and,
2020: The year by which half of all searches will be done by voice, according to the digital research firm ComScore. Amazon says that during the holidays, its Echo Dot talking assistant was “the best-selling product from any manufacturer in any category across all of Amazon”.