“Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.” – Marshall McLuhan, The Medium Is The Message, 1967
In the past 50 years we’ve moved from large format broadcasting to micro-casting: targeted, short bursts of information, tailored to the commercial motives of the broadcaster and curated to the so-called needs of the consuming public. As scientists begin to study the effects of these new media on our cognitive and neurological processes, I find myself concerned with society’s weakening ability and motivation to stay properly informed of the goings on in the various public spheres in which it is made up.
Every culture, however, has a sub-culture: a movement counter to the overwhelming tides of what is considered popular or the norm. In the decade leading up to present day, for example, we have seen a strengthened “slow food” movement, working against the mass food production and distribution of the agribusiness industry. As future generations are faced with both an increasingly facile media as well as a decreased physical ability to consume the “long form,” how will those looking to stay knowledgeable about the their world 50 years from now consume information?
Longformers 2062 considers the tools that might be used by this counter culture as it tries to take on these challenges in the name of a well informed public.
“However elegant and memorable, brevity can never, in the nature of things, do justice to all the facts of a complex situation. On such a theme one can be brief only by omission and simplification. Omission and simplification help us to understand — but help us, in many cases, to understand the wrong thing; for our comprehension may be only of the abbreviator’s neatly formulated notions, not of the vast, ramifying reality from which these notions have been so arbitrarily abstracted.”– Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisted, 1958
Huxley perhaps never considered a world in which the tools and systems we valued as “the next big thing” would, in fact, encourage communication in brief spurts of 140 characters or fewer. As we envelop ourselves in this brevity — one click, one swipe, one tap of the glass at a time — what happens to our understanding of “the vast ramifying reality”? Can the media available to us allow for a well informed public?
“But life is short and information endless: nobody has time for everything. In practice we are generally forced to choose between an unduly brief exposition and no exposition at all.”
Over 70+ days, I will broadcast the entirety of Brave New World as the Longformers would in 2062: via Twitter, complete with Net-friendly colloquialisms. The project offers what the novel will look like in a future where long form information and knowledge sharing is on the brink of extinction. A time and place in which literature is fed to us in soma-sized bites, in the hopes of satiating our cravings for the latest morsel of data.
For the Longformers, this tool would act as a recruitment tool: those who follow the @__BraveNewWorld stream are identified as members of society who may still value the long-form, even if they may not have the cognitive ability to consume it.
“I don't know when they first had feeds. Like maybe, fifty or a hundred years ago. Before that, they had to use their hands and their eyes. Computers were all outside the body. They carried them around outside of them, in their hands, like if you carried your lungs in a briefcase and opened it to breathe.”– M.T. Anderson, Feed, 2004
While sequential consumption of broadsheets was never guaranteed, the newspapers of old featured no “home” buttons or banner advertisements. As the advertising-supported media model moved in and attention spans moved out, it became much too easy to believe that one had learned a full story through headlines, sound-bites, and photographs. By the time our micro-casting culture is in full swing in 2062, future generation news consumers will need to be taught to read the news as it was written: sequentially.
News Scroller provides the training wheels for this coaching. By piecing together each column of a surviving publication, members of the Longformers produce film-like cartridges that are dropped into scroll readers. The top panel of the reader allows for about 140 characters to be viewed at a time, forcing our long-form-readers-in-training to move through an entire newspaper without the overwhelming task of paging through and browsing a full broadsheet.
The piece acts as a practical means to teach proper knowledge consumption, but also as a reminder of how civilizations of old spread their gospel: portable, scroll based packages meant to provide sequential information in digestible, bite sized snippets. Further, by carrying around the News Scroller, Longformers declare publicly their allegiance to the “slow news” nature of their movement—a badge of honor.
In 2025, Google introduces Google SumUp™: a service that will summarize any email over 140 characters down to that limit. It translates complicated phrases and nuanced paragraphs into facile statements. In order to monetize, the resulting emails are sponsored. A long paragraph about running a road race may be boiled down to “Thanks to ThirstAid Athletic Quencher, I got a personal best.” The optional plugin proves so popular (and profitable), that in 2030 users can no longer turn it off, nor can they find an email service that isn’t using it.
By 2045, the privatized postal companies—primarily in use for packages of physical goods at this point—have developed a technology that will read letters and apply the same algorithms as SumUp, replacing your friend’s written word with their summarized versions (the sponsorship revenue is too good to pass up; no one reads long letters anyway).
Our Longformers are hard at work attempting to get around this forced brevity. Through reverse engineering, hidden messages, and special equipment to assist with both, the group hopes to have a solution before their kind completely dies off, a victim of the same lack of reflective subjectivity that inspired the movement from the beginning.