Google's first production server rack, circa 1999
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Yesterday, Michael Clarke provided a tour-de-force post about why scholarly publishing hasn’t been disrupted. Except for this opening paragraph, my post for today was written well before I ever saw Michael’s post. Yet, in a way, this post comments on his by asking, What if scholarly publishing is never disrupted? What if, instead, it is supplanted?

When does a historical period end? When it’s supplanted by another, subsuming trend, one that imposes irrelevancy because it creates a superordinate framework, a superstructure that pushes the prior historical period into becoming raw material. In the Information Age, crafts of editing, typography, writing, and storytelling became the raw materials for the mass media spread of these ideas — the manufacturing, distribution, and aggregation of information products that created billions of dollars of value.

The Information Age is being subsumed, commoditized by something else entirely.

In a recent post on the blog Collective Imagination, Joe Salvo argues that the Information Age is over, and the Systems Age is beginning. His logic is hard to dispute, especially given observations on this blog in the past — that the age of information scarcity is over, replaced by information abundance; that systems like Google and Amazon and others are in ascendancy; that social media is carving out customized, long-term experiences we’ve not seen before; that cloud computing will be a defining characteristic of this new decade; and that mobile computing with its location, date, and individual awareness features is a harbinger of things to come.

Server farms the size of shopping malls which resolve in devices we carry in our hands, all connected and sharing data out of the cloud and our social networks (review sites, recommendation engines, traditional data stores of geographic, financial, meteorological, logistical, and other data sets) — these basic exchange systems are so well-entrenched already that, as Salvo argues:

the value of any average datum is being reduced to near zero. Intelligent systems will be increasingly responsible for sensing, collecting, and manipulating data in near real-time with little to no human supervision. More importantly, most discrete data will be actively forgotten once it has passed through filters and pattern recognition systems that ultimately feed into a new type of system memory. Decision making ability will no longer require perfect recall of every piece of data (There is often simply too much information to process in a tractable, timely manner).

For our industry, the implications point, yet again, to clear predictions of if not irrelevancy at least substantially diminished value. Typographers — the ultimate craftspeople of words — are still at work in our society, but they can’t copyright their works, and earn money through custom work and other pursuits. Authors are underpaid in every way. Editors are feeling similar downsizing pressures throughout the information sphere. If the value of any average datum is being reduced to near zero, then the value of specialized data can’t be much greater, and any residual or proprietary value can be extracted at light speed. It’s akin to what Google did to libraries — it made the information experts and guides fairly irrelevant. Students didn’t need card catalogs, Dewey decimal, or a friendly librarian to find useful information resources. Their laptops were even better.

What can information providers do? Quite simply, they have to shift the paradigm. This week, a number of posts touch on this topic, either directly or tangentially. Check your email system, your RSS system, or your smartphone — and think about why you’ve spent hundreds of dollars on things to support those systems, but haven’t purchased a bookcase in a while.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.

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15 Thoughts on "The Age of Systems Is Dawning — How Can Information Providers Respond?"

Coming from a biology background, it’s an interesting parallel–we’re going from a reductionist approach to biology to a broader, systems-level approach. Instead of studying one gene, leading researchers are studying gene networks. Leading imaging labs are creating groundbreaking tools that allow the observation of every cell in an embryo over the course of development, rather than just a few cells fixed at one point in time. Many of the issues you mention are cropping up, massive data sets in particular and the means to parse, understand, store and share them are still not well-developed.

Although I’d add the caveat that predicting the future is a sucker’s game. The term “systems biology” has been around since the 1950’s and it’s still not clear exactly what “systems biology” is, or is going to be, other than a vague catch-all term for a diverse set of trends. Each system biologist you speak to seems to have their own idea of what the field is and these ideas often vary wildly.

In reading your linked article by Salvo, I think it’s important to also read the discussion that has occurred in the comments. On first reading, it comes off as yet another pie in the sky, handwaving set of wishes for the ever-elusive machine “self-awareness” and artificial intelligence. When called out on this, the author does a better job of explaining what he means, relatively simple predictive systems, and admits that the fuzzy and baggage-laden terms lead to misunderstanding, with a promise to clarify further in future posts.

One further thought–I’m not as convinced that what we now call “cloud computing” is necessarily going to win out. As it now stands, cloud approaches are more about increased profit than anything else:

The main attraction of the cloud to investors and entrepreneurs is the idea of making money from you, on a recurring, perpetual basis, for something you currently get for a flat rate or for free without having to give up the money or privacy that cloud companies hope to leverage into fortunes.

Many are skeptical towards the reliability and usefulness of these services, and so far, consumers have shunned subscription plans for things like music or software in favor of ownership. This could just be the last gasps of an outgoing paradigm, but until cloud offerings vastly improve or change drastically for the better, they may not gain much traction.

I’m still not exactly sure what the “Age of Systems” is, but it seems unrealistic that we are moving into an era where the crafts of editing, typography, writing, and storytelling (if those are being lumped in with raw data) are reduced to near zero value. In the end, I think the intellectual, imaginative/creative, and emotional capability of individual humans to be able to interpret and put a story to the data (rather than some automated, collective, commercial system) will remain the prized asset.

Well, what’s more valuable — Google’s indexing of the New York Times, or the New York Times? Makes you stop to think. Who is paid more — the engineer fine-tuning the next iTunes platform release, or the editor eyeballing the help system copy?

Google is a system of content, a usage of content, a deployment of content, but not a coherent narrative in and of itself. Would you rather own Amazon’s storefront or a single copy of each story Amazon sells? Which is more valuable? Which is a harbinger of things to come?

I don’t think editing, typography, writing, and storytelling will drop to zero value. But compared to the value of systems that utilize the outputs of these, they might hold very little value relative to the major systems that seem poised to dominate and dictate.

Doesn’t it depend on how you define “value”? Is it stock price of the company, market cap, the salaries paid to the employees? What value does Google’s index hold without the content that it indexes? Isn’t Google a value-less shell without the content? Take away the products Amazon sells and you have an empty store.

You’re right, which is why I mentioned that this is about being supplanted on the front-end. Google is a value-less shell without the content, but with so much content to be had and the rewards their system can convey back on content producers who play ball, it’s pretty unlikely that Google will be a shell anytime soon. And they can do it by sharing very little of the full value they reap.

This is going to be a major balancing act for content producers of the near future. Our expertise is in content production, not in hardware design and manufacture or search engine algorithms. The deficiencies of the Nook and the legal circus and shortcomings of the CrunchPad (now the “Joo-Joo”) are good examples of the perils of companies going outside of their core expertise. It can be done, but it’s expensive, and more often than not it seems to end in failure. For a smaller academic publishing house, the idea of supplanting Google or Apple is not even worth considering.

The good news though, is that we’re already adept at outsourcing. Many publishers outsource their warehousing and fulfillment. Web-hosting of journals is regularly done through third party platforms. A large portion of our sales are done through bookstores and Amazon. It’s not that enormous a shift in the landscape in some ways. Things might get problematic when the Googles, Apples and Amazons decide to become content producers themselves, supplanting their need for our services. Then again, given the acquisitory nature of such companies, perhaps we can all take the Mark Cuban approach and sell ourselves off to the highest bidder….

Very well put, David. And Google, if you’re listening, I’m available on weekends if you’ll provide food, shelter, FiOS, and flattery.

Very interesting ! As we keep evolving new jargons to say the same thing in different words , no doubt there is a transition from Information Age to a new world. However, the ability of human brain and the arts are mandatory and vital and a part of the evolving process.

Very interesting ! The ability of human brainand the associated skills are vital even during the transition and post-transition stage from Information Age to new era. I am also confused with systems biology.

What a pity to read again and again that “information experts and guides [are] irrelevant”… If we librarians are irrelevant, then teachers are irrelevant (Google can teach you), and scientists as well. And journalists, of course (because of the “citizen journalists”). Are you a scientist? or an author? something like that? a kind of expert? So, you are irrelevant too.

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