Wednesday, February 24, 2010

De Laude Scriptorum

I have been reading an interesting book by Clay Shirky entitled, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations.  Shirky is a good writer.  His book looks at the fundamental changes taking place as the cost of organizing continues to collapse because of the internet.  Shirky contends that we are usually quite aware of organizations or businesses that do what we do, only better.  However, we are completely unaware of new technologies from outside our current paradigm that can not only do the job better, but make our skills irrelevant.  The newspaper is the most obvious current example.  Newspapers have not suffered at the hands of a better printed news format.  They have been decimated by on-line news, or maybe more importantly, on-line advertising.  

Shirky points out that this is nothing new.  In 1492, almost fifty years after the invention by Gutenberg of moveable type, Johannes Trithemius, the Abbot of Sponheim (pictured above), wrote a book entitled De Laude Scriptorum Manualium (literally, In Praise of Scribes).  The Abbot was railing against the fact that printed books were destroying the culture and skills of the highly-trained scribes of the monastic tradition.  Who needed scribes when a book could be typeset and printed with ease? The Abbot wanted to get his concerns in front of the widest audience possible.  So what did he do?  He had his book printed!  His own choice of technologies to disseminate his ideas undermined his basic thesis.

A new and powerful technology that dramatically improves on the old cannot be held back.  Printing replaced hand-copied books within half a century.  The automobile replaced the horse-and-buggy in twenty years.  The internet has displaced numerous other technologies in only a decade.

Each of these technology shifts were unstoppable because they changed the fundamental cost structures of the old way of doing things.  Those costs weren't always just monetary costs.  They included time, effort, ease of connection, and a variety of other social costs.  To quote the Borg in the Star Trek movies, "Resistance is futile."  Most of the time, though, we do resist because we have such a vested interest in the old ways of doing things.  Or we see the new way (in its technical infancy) as inadequate, not recognizing that it will improve dramatically.

We are very poor at projecting the future.  If we do attempt to foresee what is coming, we think in a linear extrapolation from what is happening today.  We cannot foresee the non-linear future, the future of disruptive technology shifts.  There are a few among us who can see a bit more clearly but we usually dismiss their predictions as science fiction (or worse).  These futurists may get the broad strokes right but the details are always different and hence we don't remember later that some had seen it coming.  Maybe it's better that way.  Most of the time, I like surprises.

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