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.