Are You a Victim of On Demand Disorder?

If this column has a repeating theme, it’s the amazing new capabilities we’re all gaining as a result of the digital media explosion. Yet like all revolutions, this one is destroying old values, attitudes, and behaviors even as it creates new ones. I would never trade the Web, mobile computing, and the instant access to digital culture that they enable for the media universe that existed before, say, 1995—but I also think it’s important to be aware of what we’re leaving behind. So this week I want to get down a few thoughts in remembrance of a little something called going out of your way.

Do you find yourself listening only to the music you can download from iTunes? Watching only the movies you can find in your cable provider’s video-on-demand lineup? Reading only the books you can order from Amazon? Going only to the restaurants you can find on Yelp? I certainly do. And I think this is a growing tendency, thanks to the ubiquity of cheap digital content and devices that can access it. At the risk of being taken too seriously, I want to coin a pseudomedical term for this pattern: On Demand Disorder, or ODD.

The main symptom of ODD is an aversion to any experience, product, or piece of content that can’t be obtained more or less instantaneously. And the main long-term consequence may be a narrowing of one’s world-view to exclude ideas and materials that take a little more work to uncover.

I’ll illustrate with a few examples from my own life. As a gadget freak, and as someone whose job is to keep abreast of the latest digital technologies, I may be an edge case. But perhaps you’ll recognize similar patterns in your own routine.

1. In the three months since I bought a Roku Player—a $99 wireless device that lets you view movies from Netflix and Amazon on your TV instantly—I have watched dozens of movies and TV shows on the Roku. In the same time, I’ve watched exactly two physical DVDs from Netflix. My “Instant” queue keeps turning over, but I haven’t made any progress on my regular DVD queue. This despite the fact that the selection of DVDs at Netflix is still far greater than the selection of so-called “Watch Instantly” movies. In effect, I’m sacrificing choice for availability.

2. I used to be a fairly regular buyer of books from Amazon. About six weeks ago, I decided to splurge on a Kindle 2 e-book reader. Guess how many physical books I’ve ordered since then? One. Partly, I’m just trying to get my money’s worth out of the Kindle. But now that I have the option of buying a book through the device’s built-in catalog and having it delivered wirelessly in under 60 seconds, instead of ordering it online and waiting for it to arrive three to seven days later in the mail, I’ve become far more cognizant of my own impatience. When I get a hankering to read a book, I usually want to read it now. By the time Amazon can ship me the physical book, the feeling of urgency may have passed, or I may have found the information I needed elsewhere. The one book I did buy was an out-of-print monograph from an academic press that will likely never be made into a Kindle Edition.

3. I’ve been an active amateur photographer ever since my grandfather gave me one of his old Nikons when I was a teenager. My collection of thousands of photographs fits into roughly four buckets: a) 1980-1990: Ektachrome slides—my grandfather’s preferred medium—now stored in carousels and in plastic sleeves in binders. b) 1991-1997: Color prints, stored in albums. c) 1998-2004: Digital images, taken with my first two digital cameras, stored on CD-Rs. d) 2005-present: Digital images, taken with my various camera phones and my third and fourth digital cameras, stored on hard drives and on Flickr. It’s probably not hard for you to guess which pictures I view most often and least often. The sad truth is that because I can pull up my Flickr photostream instantly on my PC, my Mac, or my iPhone (or even, thanks to programs like Slickr and Boxee, on my television), the Flickr images are the only ones I ever look at.

My personal media consumption habits, of course, are of no great consequence to the larger world. What worries me is that as the amount of material available in digital, on-demand form grows, our familiarity with the non-digital world may atrophy. That would be a real shame, because … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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