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Let’s Hear It for Reckless Enthusiasm!

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As we enter a new year, it’s good to set our sights on what we hope to achieve and how we plan to get there.

Let’s hear it for reckless enthusiasm!

It may seem out of character for a proponent of scholarly publishing to promote recklessness (or even enthusiasm, for that matter), but when I look back at the events that have brought about the important and welcome changes in scholarly communications in my (long) lifetime, I fail to see a case to be made for prudence.  Although most readers of this blog have been trained analytically and methodically and understand the virtue of placing one foot in front of the other, step by step, incrementally moving toward the consensually established goal, innovations of the best kind seem to take place in leaps and bounds—except when they don’t, when they crash and burn instead.

Thus I found myself in the mid-1990s, as the Internet bubble was just beginning to burst out of its Levi’s, sitting at a seminar organized by a major management consulting firm.  Most of the two dozen or so attendees were from the leading cable television and telephone companies.  (They were called RBOCs back then.)  The topic?  The explosion in network capacity, for which there was no known use; there wasn’t even an imagined possible use.  In the view of the consulting team and the bulk of the attendees, Wall Street had gone mad.  Where was the data, the programming, to come from that would fill all the miles of fiber optics?  What could possibly be sent though the underseas cables that could ever justify the cost of laying the cables in the first place?  Everyone shook their heads.  Too much capacity, not enough bits and bytes.  There were bad times ahead for network communications.

Of course they hadn’t heard of YouTube.  No one had even dreamed about YouTube or any of the other bandwidth-sucking Web services that were soon to spring from user-generated content.  UGC! What an amazing and entirely unforeseeable phenomenon!  There was no Wikipedia, no eBay; high school kids did not routinely create musical mash-ups on Mac laptops.  This was 15 years ago, which should give us pause when we try to think about what is likely to develop in the next 15.  Anybody care to write a five-year plan?  A three-year plan?

As I write this, the sneering of Bob Dylan springs to mind:  “You went to the finest schools, Miss Lonely “ and (from “Tombstone Blues”) “useless and pointless knowledge.” We are very well-read; it’s well-known.

So Wall Street went nuts and helped to build more network capacity than anyone could imagine how to use.  Internet connections rapidly migrated from universities to corporations and then to residences, where the speed of the typical connection leaped from 14.4 kps to 28 kps, and then briefly to 56 kps before entering the first rung of broadband (approximately 1 mps).  For a whopping $30 a month, my household now has incoming access  of 3 mps and comfortably supports 5-6 computers and the occasional iPod Touch, some of which are engaged in video chat and real-time movie viewing.    God bless those crazy people on Wall Street.

More importantly, the explosion in network capacity gave us cloud computing, and of course the preeminent cloud company, Google.  I defy anyone involved in scholarly communications to assert that the reckless enthusiasm that gave rise to Google and Google Scholar (and, soon, Google Editions) was not, in retrospect, a chance worth taking.  But at the time, it appeared to be gross foolishness—and it was.

Disruptions come from all directions.  Whereas problems stare at us in the face, solutions can sneak in through the back door.  Consider the twisted tale of newspaper recycling.  Twenty years ago this was viewed as a big environmental problem.  Newspapers were leveling forests; a paper was read once and then tossed away.  To deal with this, municipalities set up impressive recycling programs, with the goal of having today’s New York Times appear as tomorrow’s corrugated cardboard shipping carton.

It’s too bad we hadn’t yet imagined Craigslist.  By inadvertently serving to disaggregate the local newspaper, Craigslist drew away the leading source of revenue for newspapers, classified advertising. Among other things, this disruption is leading to the decline and possible disappearance of the printed newspaper.  This is a warped solution to the environmental problem of mountains of old newspapers (computers are not entirely environmentally friendly, and the loss of newspapers may take an awful toll on civic life), but it does suggest that careful planning does not always lead to the most effective solution.

To tap another American lyricist, Cole Porter:  “Life’s good, life’s grand./Future is all planned.”

It’s easy, of course, to preach the gospel of disruption at the expense of the established, the staid, the formal:  everyone would prefer to be Groucho Marx than Margaret Dumont.  When Wall Street parties, sometimes the next morning can look very ugly.  This appears to be the case with the gross overinvestment in residential real estate, though perhaps one day we will discover hidden value in the classic California home, with a three- (sometimes four- ) car garage and a structure that stretches out to the very limit of the property line.  There are indeed large investments being made today in scholarly communications that appear to be the economic equivalent of the 6,000 square foot starter home.  I personally am uneasy about the capital being poured into digital aggregations of books and journals and other materials locked into PDFs, aimed at the library market.  Where are the libraries going to find the money?  Why would you publish something in a format that you cannot read on an Android phone?

On the other hand, we don’t know how these aggregations will ultimately be used.  If we build it, they may not come—at least not now.  But in time, new uses for old capacity may come to light.  A huge aggregation of digitized books may find no more utility at first than their print counterparts, which often sit quietly and undisturbed on the library shelves.  An aggregation may have emergent properties that are not readily observed until the aggregation is put into place.  Will a digital mountain of books be of little use to the individual scholar, whose relationship to a book is direct and personal, but of great value to a data-miner, who (or perhaps which) discerns unanticipated patterns in the aggregation, leading to important new scholarly discoveries?  Time will tell, but time can only make that report if we make the wild and reckless investment in the first place.

Even recklessness, however, can be managed to some degree.  Not all reckless investments are created equal.  It appears to be the rule that a reckless investment to preserve a practice or institution ultimately yields very little in the way of serendipitous outcomes, but crazy projects designed to bring new capacity on board may come to delight us all.  This is the moral of cloud computing, and it may prove to be the benefit of massive digital aggregations.  The leadership of an organization has to struggle with this conflict—preserve the past or gamble wildly on the future?—which is a hard one, as the past is tangible, but the future is vague or unforeseeable.  At times, organization leaders simply have to take the leap, even without the support of a staff that has served the organization well over many years.

And this prompts my personal reckless enthusiasm:  to build infrastructure that enables an unmediated, direct connection between scholars and scholarly materials.  For example, there is a huge need for a new order of bibliographical records, which are transparent to end-users and easily integrated into machine-to-machine communications.  Such records will be very expensive to create; no one knows how they will ultimately earn their keep.  But then I think of these telco executives shaking their heads and saying, Where is the programming going to come from?

It will be there.

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About Joseph Esposito

I am a management consultant working primarily in the world of digital media, software, and publishing. My clients include both for-profits and not-for-profits. A good deal of my activity concerns research publishing, especially when the matter at issue has to do with the migration to digital services from a print background. Prior to setting up my consulting business, I served as CEO of three companies (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Tribal Voice, and SRI Consulting), all of which I led to successful exits. Typically I work on strategy issues, advising CEOs and Boards of Directors on direction; I also have managed a number of sticky turnarounds. Among other things, I have been the recipient of grants from the Mellon, MacArthur, and Hewlett Foundations, all concerning research into new aspects of publishing.


12 thoughts on “Let’s Hear It for Reckless Enthusiasm!

  1. That’s what is so fascinating about the human mind. Sometimes an idea may take decades or even centuries to come into fruition – but when the right conditions appear, there is no stopping it. That is why I believe that no piece of knowledge is ever useless or pointless – so three cheers for human ingenuity!

    Posted by Cherine Munkholt | Jan 1, 2010, 12:29 pm
  2. Beautifully put, Joe! I particularly like the line:

    “It appears to be the rule that a reckless investment to preserve a practice or institution ultimately yields very little in the way of serendipitous outcomes, but crazy projects designed to bring new capacity on board may come to delight us all.”

    Posted by Tim O'Reilly | Jan 1, 2010, 1:21 pm
  3. Our work creating learning cultures shows they produce more energy than they consume — fueling creativity that often yields unexpected returns and appreciating the serendipity that lets them see more opportunities than their competitors. You’ve made a wonderful case for considering that energy “enthusiasm”: wild, exuberant, unabated fire. Thank you.

    Posted by Marcia Conner | Jan 1, 2010, 3:19 pm
  4. As another old timer who tries not to think like one, I applaud this post, Joe–it puts so much of our shared experience of the past few decades into such good perspective.

    A couple of thoughts it has prompted:

    –How can we improve our chances of taking the right reckless leaps? Two strategies come to mind: attention and humility. They go hand in hand. You can’t really see what’s happening if you think you already have it all figured out. And if you really are paying attention, it will be obvious to you that you don’t have it all figured out.

    –An important part of this dynamic is how one reckless leap leads to another unanticipated reckless leap. We jumped from Gopher to Netscape because it had just become so darn hard to _see_ into the Internet. We have Google because it was so darn hard to _find_ what we were looking for, when the “Information Superhighway” (which implied on- and off-ramps, clear starting and ending points, from me to you and you to me) became a real Web. We owe all the exciting work now being done on semantics to the problem we have figuring out what all this stuff _is_. (Ditto for standards.) And do I need to mention that despite the initial wrongheaded expectation that advertising was going to pay for everything (the previous commenter, Tim O’Reilly, gave the most cogent analysis of this, especially for professional publishers, I’ve ever seen, at TOC a couple of years ago–his walk through the logic and the math was very illuminating), guess where Google has gotten all its billions?

    Thanks again for a terrific post.

    –Bill Kasdorf

    Posted by Bill Kasdorf | Jan 1, 2010, 3:40 pm
  5. Joe,

    In the Mid 90’s, I worked at Bell Labs. Your recollection is slightly off. Our worry was not about filling the pipes, although we wondered how that would happen. Our worry was mainly about the huge gap between the cost of provisioning long distance phone calls and the revenue they were generating. When it cost a fraction of a penny to carry a voice call, and typical charges were 10 cents- $1 per minute, how long would that revenue stream survive? There was no way you could charge for data what you could charge for voice, but there was still a lot of money to be made. So the result was a lot of energy put into protecting the long distance revenue stream.

    The analogy to today is clear. Publishers are spending most of their energy trying to protect to print revenue stream, when it’s clear that a lot of money could be made on the digital channel with appropriate pricing.

    In the end, it’s impossible to sustain a big gap between cost and price. Efforts to sustain the incumbent revenue will eventually lead to a collapse.

    In telecom, it turned out that the RBOCs, the unsexy low-growth stepchildren of the Bell System ended up on top. They had the connections to the customer and the expensive physical plant. You must have advised them well, because they did quite well while AT&T, Sprint and MCI ran off a cliff.

    In the Book ecosystem, the entities analogous to the RBOCs would be the distributors (Ingram, B&T) and the bricks and mortar chains. Interestingly, they’re the ones best placed to create the “direct connection” infrastructure that you suggest will require “reckless enthusiasm”. What is so reckless, exactly?

    Posted by Eric Hellman | Jan 1, 2010, 5:41 pm
    • I am familiar with the voice vs. data topic, but it was separate from the excess capacity matter. As I recall, one telco consultant referred to the excess capacity as “the dark fiber problem.”

      Posted by Joseph J. Esposito | Jan 2, 2010, 2:38 am
      • George Gilder talked a lot about the dark fiber problem. But the problem was never paying for the excess fiber, because the incremental cost of laying a hundred fibers instead of just one was negligible compared to the cost of digging the ditch or string the pole.

        I guess the comparable excess the information industry has is an excess of content. Who is ever going to read it all? We don’t know, but it gets produced nonetheless.

        Posted by Eric Hellman | Jan 2, 2010, 1:05 pm
  6. I appreciate your support for “reckless enthusiasm” particularly when applied to building out infrastructure and basic R&D. Your noting the huge need for a “new order of bibliographical records” is particularly apt. I’m engaged in attempting to accomplish such by supporting the application of principles of the emerging Semantic Web to media metadata.

    Posted by Roger | Jan 1, 2010, 11:17 pm
  7. Joe many congratulations on a well thought out piece and insights into disruption over the last few decades.

    I find the thing that often holds us back from leaping forward is assumptions. We see ‘a’ anlongside ‘b’ and automatically believe that the two are joined for life.

    In business we all too often see the package and miss the indivual parts that comprise it. People often can’t get it at first when we seperate out the all the parts and often bulke and say ‘you can’t do that’. They see it as one end to end process not many merely assembled one way.

    When we reassemble and understand the parts better it often makes change easy.

    Posted by Martyn Daniels | Jan 2, 2010, 4:51 am
  8. A minor technical point–while I don’t use the system myself, there appears to be a variety of pdf readers out there for use on Android phones, including Android PDF Viewer, ICViewer, Repligo, Documents To Go and others.

    Posted by David Crotty | Jan 4, 2010, 12:43 pm
  9. Nice!Just bookmarked this site, i’ll be back here once again.Love

    Posted by Wanda Braga | Apr 19, 2010, 7:07 am


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The mission of the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) is "[t]o advance scholarly publishing and communication, and the professional development of its members through education, collaboration, and networking." SSP established The Scholarly Kitchen blog in February 2008 to keep SSP members and interested parties aware of new developments in publishing.
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