Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Technology Revolutions are Messy

Clay Shirky had an interesting post in his blog entitled Newspapers, Thinking the Unthinkable. I recommend reading it. Shirky’s point is that the newspaper industry has been struggling since the advent of the internet to find a new business model that will allow them to make money and stay in business. His prognosis is that they can’t and they will disappear. He comments:

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

Much has been written about the demise of newspapers. Nicholas Carr in the The Big Switch devotes much of a chapter to the topic. As Carr describes it, newspapers were able to prosper because they were able to put together an information bundle - news, classifieds, sports, stock prices - that they were able to pay for with ad revenues. People had to buy the whole bundle to get the pieces they wanted. The problem now is that the newspapers are being unbundled. Most people don’t want to buy a whole newspaper, they just want to go to the story that they see on the website that interests them. It is no longer possible to get advertisers to underwrite the cost of the bundle. This means that no one is paying for the foreign bureau in Baghdad, for instance, but in a more pernicious way, the very stories that are now promoted by the news editors are the ones that attract the most clicks and hence the most advertisers. These often tend to be the lighter stories that do not delve deeply into issues that have longer-term consequences.

So the newspaper transformation revolution continues. This is by no means the first. Revolutions are messy. As Shirky notes, it is easy to see the Before and the After. What is hard to see is the During. He mentions the work of Elizabeth Eisenstein who wrote a book entitled The Printing Press as an Agent of Change which describes what happened during the Gutenberg transformation to the printed page:

The Bible was translated into local languages; was this an educational boon or the work of the devil? Erotic novels appeared, prompting the same set of questions. Copies of Aristotle and Galen circulated widely, but direct encounter with the relevant texts revealed that the two sources clashed, tarnishing faith in the Ancients. As novelty spread, old institutions seemed exhausted while new ones seemed untrustworthy; as a result, people almost literally didn’t know what to think. If you can’t trust Aristotle, who can you trust?

Eventually, of course, a new equilibrium was established and it easy to forget the queasiness that occurred during the transformation period. It is always this way. Nicholas Carr closes his book with the following:

All technology change is generational change. The full power and consequences of a new technology are unleashed only when those who have grown up with it become adults and begin to push their outdated parents to the margins. As the older generations die, they take with them the knowledge of what was lost when the new technology arrived, and only the sense of what was gained remains. It’s in this way that progress covers its tracks, perpetually refreshing the illusion that where we are is where we were meant to be.

[Image from Wikipedia: Statue in Brookgreen Gardens, Pawleys Island, SC]

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