Saturday, December 1, 2012

My iPad Is Changing My Reading Habits

It occurs to me that I read fewer books in 2012 than in previous years. I have been aware of this since I picked up Ulysses months ago and started to stumble through it again.  More on that in a future post. The point here is that it is not that I am reading less nor is it that, for whatever reasons, I decided to tackle some “weighty” novels in 2012 (The Magus and Dhalgren in addition to Joyce's work). The issue is that I am in fact reading more than ever before. It is just that most of my reading - probably a couple of hours a day on average - is on my iPad.

A sidebar: I purchased an iPad4 (or whatever the hell Apple decided to call this rendition of Steve Jobs' brilliant design – maybe the Newer New iPad) just before Thanksgiving. The screen resolution is noticeably more vivid and sharp, the processor is much faster, and the RAM (or whatever they call memory in Apple lingo) is about double the iPad2. I gave my iPad2 to my daughter as a surprise Thanksgiving Day. She was elated. I haven't seen her since. (Just kidding.) She was very appreciative.

Anyway, having purchased a number of PC's in my day, usually with each new Microsoft operating system (although I didn’t do Vista nor do I plan to buy in to Windows 8), I approached the new iPad with a certain amount of fear and trepidation. Having to reload and update everything in the PC world has been a pain in the ass since the 1980's. But, as a testament to the fact that Microsoft is more marketing company than software company, our culture somehow has ritualized the hassle. It is the walking barefoot on hot coals of our time. Or something. So, I had this anxiety thing happening because my iPad2 was set up just perfectly for me. Everything was customized just to my tastes and carefully constructed over the course of many weeks of downloads and organization. Did I have to start all over again?

Are you kidding me? This is an iPad. Steve Jobs knew how to do this stuff right. With absolutely no instruction manual to guide me, I intuitively plugged my iPad4 into my PC and told the new device to go find the stuff I had backed-up to iCloud. It did so then it automatically started restoring every aspect of my iPad2 setup onto my iPad4. When it completed that about 20 minutes later it asked me "Do you have other stuff you want to restore?" I said, "Why yes I do, thank you for asking." I logged into my iTunes account to finish syncing the new device. That was a lot more stuff and it took about an hour but when it told me it was finished I opened it up to discover everything - the icon placements and groupings, the downloaded material and apps, even the wallpaper background - everything was there where it was supposed to be. I was on familiar terrain with more capacity, a crisper image, and a faster processor.

It was amazing. Is there anything more beautiful than simplicity? (Actually, a couple of apps didn't transfer but it wasn't that big of a deal to download them again.  I didn't even notice they were missing until after several hours of use.)  I am more than pleased with my purchase and look forward to the day I can become completely PC free. It is coming.

But, back to my reading habits. I am not reading books on my iPad though I have downloaded some freebie classics by H.G. Wells, Edward Gibbon’s massive Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, etc. I am mostly reading news; a lot of news. I subscribe to The Economist and The Atlantic on my iPad. But, primarily I read freely available content from two very impressive apps - Flipboard and Zite. I spend about 45 minutes every morning before work and another hour and a half or so in the evening mostly with these two apps.

Flipboard offers a lot of general news content from hundreds of sources in categories such as News, US Politics, Business, History, The Art World, Museums, Film, Culture, Sports, Health, and Science among others. Those are the ones I picked and arranged in careful order (and transferred perfectly when I upgraded to my iPad4). Then there are specific news sources I have selected in an attempt to get a balanced view on the crazy world. These are The Daily Beast, Time, Salon, Huffington Post, The New York Times, The New Republic, The Nation, The New Yorker (complete with cartoons), Fox News, Red State, The Drudge Report, Bloomberg News, Politico, Reason Magazine, and Rolling Stone. That is a fairly eclectic assortment of sources.

Obviously, it is impossible to read everything. But Flipboard's wonderful newspaper style allows me to scan three to five headlines and then flip the page. I can read the first paragraph of most articles and if I want more I simply tap and there the entire article is for me to flip the pages on. It is incredible how much information you can expose yourself to in a comparatively brief amount of time. If I see something of particular interest, something with video content for example, I usually don't take time to absorb it immediately. I email it to myself to read/watch during my lunch hour or I work it in at some point during my workday.

Zite is a different sort of app but no less comprehensive. It deals a lot more with the blogosphere although most of the major news sources mentioned above are in there too. The cool thing about Zite is that it allows you give feedback to the app as to how much more of a particular type of story you want to see. You choose from categories it provides for each article which are essentially keywords. An article about unemployment in Spain, for example, contains keywords for Spain, Labor Market, and Eurozone. You can select any, none, or all of these and Zite stores the choices in your user profile in order to find more articles containing those keywords in the future. Gradually, over a period of weeks the reader customizes the news that interests them most.  Your user profile is portable.  You can log into it on any device containing the Zite app.  Pretty cool.

Zite comes in a standard, pleasing newspaper style. There are default sections for World News, Business, Psychology, Film, Music, Politics, etc. You pick which sections you want to read or create your own. I have created sections on matters of personal interest such as Gold, Meditation, Longevity, and Sex. Zite dutifully goes out and finds articles from hundreds of professional blogs and major news outlets and allows me to teach it what I want to read in these sections through the category keyword selection process. Over time, you find you have to tell Zite less and less about what interests you because most everything it fetches for you is interesting.

There is a danger in all of this, of course. The danger is that I create my own little perspective of the world and I close off everything else that is news. But, the app also allows you to select sources (or even writers) you prefer as well. So if I tag The New York Times, I also try to tag The Wall Street Journal to provide balance.  I tag The Weekly Standard and Fox News in addition to Mother Jones and Salon; all in an attempt to expose myself to multiple perspectives within my specific interests. Zite is a lot of fun that way.

Of course, there are many other apps on my iPad for news as well. I have apps for all the major television networks, for CNN, BBC, CNBC, USA Today, Slate, and good old Google News. I have live streaming television feeds for Bloomberg TV and even for Al Jazeera (with British journalists).  All for free. This freebie part is rather impressive. How is it these content outlets can provide me with so much for absolutely nothing more than an occasionally ad that I complete ignore? That paradigm might shift one day. Somebody has to get paid to report all this stuff. 

So, my iPad is gradually changing my reading habits. I am reading (or at least being exposed to) more information than ever before. With this I naturally have less mental energy for other reading sources such as magazines and books. I'm not sure how far I should go with this. I feel kind of maxed-out on the whole thing already. Maybe I am at my limit. I am aware that Internet addiction and prolonged time spent doing everything I just described in this post is considered by many to be a growing "problem" that might need "treatment." I'll try to be vigilant on the personal effects of all that.

Nevertheless, this is my reading experience in the Now. I think it is more of a positive thing than a negative one. Still, it makes it even more important for me to make time to quiet all that neural activity; to walk in my woods, to do some yoga, to exercise, and listen to music. I need that too. In fact, my reading from my customized mediation section of Zite is inspiring me to get back into that path, to start practicing again, at least in some capacity. This one-minute meditation technique seems a workable place to start.  It is good to empty the mind even if all you do is fill it back up again. That would happen anyway, the world being what it is, but with my iPad the fill-up is somehow enriching in and of itself. There's a world out there; a complex, conflicted and beautiful world. My iPad helps me extend my adventurous attitude toward it, even as my capacity for books eases.

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