Sunday, October 26, 2014

Shift from Print to Digital as Seen on NY Subway

Reading during my subway commute was a daily routine for me when I lived in New York. Upon finding a seat (or, if there weren't available seats, grabbing a subway pole to steady myself during the ride), I would take out a book or magazine and become absorbed in its pages until I neared my stop.

Screen, screen, everywhere a screen, on the New York City subway today.
Image: David Zax/Matt McGregor-Mento/tamografia

When I first moved to the city, those around me in the subway car would whip out newspapers during the morning commute. It was a common occurrence for the person sitting next to or standing directly in front of you to continuously flip and noisily flap their copy of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or New York Observer mere inches from your face in a subway car crammed with people.

As the years passed, I noticed fewer and fewer physical newspapers being read by my fellow commuters and more and more handheld electronic gadgets being taken out as soon as the train doors closed. During my final years in New York, what almost always happened as soon as I sat down on the subway with a book in hand is that someone else would immediately sit next to me and, with a loud sniff or a slow clearing of the throat, delicately flip open and turn on an e-reader.

Sandwiched between two subway riders who were staring at glowing screens, I was undeniably aware of the stark shift from print to digital media. Although I did not miss newspapers being fanned and flipped in my face, the seemingly sudden proliferation of personal screens during my subway commute was just as startling. Michael Bourne, in his article "Screens on the Subway: The Rolling Library Is Going Digital," made the same observation:

"On every train I rode during my week back in New York, screens outnumbered printed pages, sometimes by a factor of two to one. When I've peeked, some of those screens have been displaying news stories and magazine pages and even a few books, but far more often my fellow subway riders were watching TV shows or playing Candy Crush on their phones."

As it was for me, "the speed and starkness of the change" from print to digital media being consumed in the "rolling public library" of the New York subway came as "a shock" to Bourne, who went on to say:

"A decade ago, none of the devices my R train companions were so avidly viewing even existed. Back then, if you didn't want to read on your morning subway commute, you stared off into space."

True. Or you closed your eyes for a brief nap, or put on headphones and plugged into a Discman (or, later, earbuds and plugged into an iPod). Sometimes, believe it or not, you would actually strike up a conversation with your fellow subway rider, just to pass the time until your stop. "Now, more and more often, these idle moments - on subway cars, on airplanes, in dentist's offices - are being filled by games and movies and social media. By screens," said Bourne.

Bourne says more about this shift from print to digital, especially as it has occurred in the New York City subway, in his excellent article "Screens on the Subway: The Rolling Library Is Going Digital," which you can read HERE.

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