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I must be thick. I’ve been puzzled for years about why the Internet, the Web, has been so infused with counterculture politics — free information, antagonism to authority, and a schizoid perspective on business models. Then I came across an excellent article in a magazine I immediately bookmarked (and may subscribe to). The magazine is called n+1, and the article is called, “The Internet as Social Movement: A Brief History of Webism.”

When I first encountered the Mosaic browser, my first instinct was to make a commercial product from it. After all, a distribution, presentation, and publishing tool that created worldwide, instant, interactive, commercial possibilities seemed like a major windfall for business and publishing. So build a commercial offering I did, and within months, I had customers buying digital products from all over, including in Antarctica. Antarctica! It was amazing to contemplate the business implications. (That product is still alive and well, by the way, I’m happy to say.)

But a certain strain of politics was riding shotgun even back then, a “Webism” the article describes nicely in the following potent paragraph:

. . . as Fred Turner—a communications professor at Stanford—has convincingly argued, it is a mixture of the technophilia of Stanford and the countercultural ethos of San Francisco that has created the ideology of the web as we know it. The first business venture of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the founders of Apple, both college dropouts who grew up in the Silicon Valley town of Cupertino, was to build little circuit boxes to steal long distance service from the phone company in 1976. They sold them in the dorms of nearby universities—for $100 you could get a little circuit breaker and save some money on your long distance bill. Best of all, with this gadget you could stick it to the man. Thus the era of the great freeload began.

From travel agents to music retailers to bookstores, the commercial revolution has been amazing, and it smacks of the same mentality — overturning authority, finding ways to outsmart the establishment while belittling it, driving prices down as close to zero as possible, and sticking it to the man (as long as “the man” wasn’t Jobs or Wozniak or Gates or Page).

But in the publishing world, the politics of the Web have hit a snag — namely, if traditional media outlets falter, who will publish and validate the geniuses of this era?

Who will provide them with the prestige they’ve been seeking (and, in many cases, deserve)?

If journals, books, and magazines are engines of prestige as much as they are engines of information, how can the ladder-climbing technophiles get their prestige if they destroy the stacks of print their ladders are leaning against?

The webists met the Times’s schizophrenia with a schizophrenia of their own. The worst of them simply cheered the almost unbelievably rapid collapse of the old media, which turned out, for all its seeming influence and power, to be a paper tiger, held up by elderly white men. But the best of them were given pause: themselves educated by newspapers, magazines, and books, they did not wish for these things to disappear entirely. (For one thing, who would publish their books?) In fact, with the rise of web 2.0 and the agony of the print media, a profound contradiction came into view.

Essentially, companies built on foundations of print media are important to the Webist world view — more important than movies, music, airlines, or DVDs — because the institutions built on print, the ones unable to gracefully move their brands into the digital age without the same destruction experienced in other industries, those institutions are where Webists get their validation.

Their love of publications is clear. It’s why Stewart Brand had the Whole Earth Catalog, why Chris Anderson started Wired magazine, why Tim O’Reilly has his books, and why every aspiring Netizen has always wanted to publish a book.

These people love print. They need the authority, relative permanence, and tactile qualities it and its traditional brands offer. So, when facing the propsects of books disappearing into e-books, people like Steve Jobs become reluctant. He didn’t hesitate for music or movies or television, but he famously hesitated with books. And with the iBook implementation, he and his designers kept more of the book’s attributes (page turning, page color, typography) than Amazon — a company run not by a Silicon Valley insider but by a former New York finance guy.

At this point the best thing the web and the book could do for one another would be to admit their essential difference. This would allow the web to develop as it wishes, with a clear conscience, and for literature to do what it’s always done in periods of crisis: keep its eyes and ears open; take notes; and bide its time.

Of course, prestige can come by other means, and another source to contemplate is academic institutions. Again, even while multi-billion dollar industries have been turned inside-out by digital entrepreneurs, these institutions have been largely left alone — despite the fact that the technologies, incentives, and users are probably all in place. In fact, they’ve been a focus of beneficial activities like iTunes U. And, interestingly, Wozniak, Gates, and Jobs all dropped out, pledged to return, and obviously place academia on a pedestal, while Larry Page and many others emerged from academia.

Perhaps the psychology of Webism is partially what has made publishing and academia less of a focus for aggressive digital strategies. There’s a consistent desire to preserve them.

In 1984, Steve Jobs and Apple debuted their famous ad depicting an athlete demolishing a totalitarian broadcast world. It was a defining moment of counterculture imagery. Yet it may also be a reflection of underlying bibliophilia and academic aspirations, owing to the fact that not one book or university was harmed in the creation of that advertisement.

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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.


6 Thoughts on "Has Publishing Revealed the Achilles’ Heel of Webist Political Philosophies?"

Wow, that n + 1 is a great find. The article you link is superb, and it’s part of a larger set of articles that are also worth reading (I particularly recommend their analysis of online advertising and why it’s failing in places like the NY Times).

The irony of a “print/traditional media is dead” blogger getting a book deal and touting the respectability such a thing provides is indeed always amusing.

One other odd contradiction seems to be that those most vocal about the evils of the music/movie industries are usually those who do the most illegal downloading of those industries’ products. There’s a deep level of addiction to media that seems to make some people powerless–they simply must hear all of the new songs released by artists through Warner Bros. despite the fact that they constantly proclaim that Warner Bros. is part of a corrupt and abusive system. The protests end up as rationalizations for their behavior, for their inability to kick their media-drug, it’s okay that I deeply love an evil companys’ products because I’m ripping them off. The reality is that if one really felt that strongly, you’d either give up the addiction, or limit your media exposure to artists who don’t violate your sense of what’s right and wrong. The protests are an expression of resentment of a love/hate relationship, how dare you make me love you so.

I must correct a factual error in this post. Chris Anderson did not create Wired magazine. That distinction goes to the radical libertarian Louis Rossetto, who made a bundle and is now in the chocolate business in San Francisco. The early issues of Wired (day-glo ink aside) were manifestoes of technology and a government-disturbing view of individual liberty. Like libertarians everywhere, Rossetto was in it for the money, and he made it. To tell the story of Silicon Valley without invoking the famous libertarian spirit is simply wrong. Libertarians are everywhere out here except in government. (This note is written by a standard-issue liberal, by the way.)

Actually Joe, there are a lot of us libertarians in the government, working to make it less abusive. In my case see:
I have helped create much of the regulatory reform machinery in the Federal government.

Speaking of being “in it for the money,” I do get paid for this kind of regulatory reform work, but we also do a lot of pro bono reform work, like commenting on silly proposed rules, of which there is great stock.

People’s political beliefs are generally not profit motivated, rather they are deeply held. Of course if you can get paid to express them so much the better. But it is insulting when people on the other side then claim you are only saying it because you are being paid.

Denouncing the government is a fine American tradition. Let it wave.

I have to firmly disagree with this interpretation of the n+1 article. A medium does not dictate authority as much as nostalgia would like us to believe.

Steve Jobs has complex ideas on the future of the book, based on software usability and market analysis among many things. This is the man that said:

“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore. . . . Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

The statement is misleading, as he is referring to reading for entertainment, not education, and is blasting a competitor’s product (Kindle), but you can see he is not an fan of the publishing industry and the its media paradigm. He will create his own paradigms and maintain authority.

n+1 is great, but the interpretation is interesting, as the publication itself is still clinging to print due to business models first and foremost. I would think authority ranks lower, but close behind.

If I made it seem as if print is what they’re in the thrall of, I miscommunicated. It’s the prestige that institutions that gained authority and the power to grant prestige during the print era still retain that’s the issue. The ego need for validation and prestige from traditional (not print, but traditional) media and education brands might be — and it’s true, the post and the n+1 article are both speculative — might be why traditional media and education have apparently been buffered, and even supported, by these technology companies.

Jobs’ statement about books were, as you note, words. Actions speak louder than words.

I continue to be fascinated by the many different interpretations of Jobs’ three sentence statement from a NY Times blog. At the time I read it (and still read it to this day) as being a statement about business models, and about the scale necessary to support an electronic device. If you create a device, you’re better off with one that will appeal to the largest number of customers possible. Not enough people read so the number of potential customers for a device that’s just used for reading is too small to benefit from scale. It’s still a valuable segment, but works better as part of a package rather than by itself. Essentially, he was saying the same thing that noted Apple-basher Cory Doctorow said in an essay a few months later:

When you go to China to get your Kindle or your Wii produced, you’re competing for space among the factories that produce socket wrenches, Happy Meal toys, laptop computers, prison cafeteria trays, decorative tin planters, vinyl action figures, keychain flashlights and cheap handguns…Frankly, book reading just isn’t important enough to qualify for priority treatment in that marketplace.

I see Jobs’ contempt for Amazon’s misunderstanding of the hardware market, but I’m not sure I can read any bashing of the publishing industry in his statement, he seems to be just quoting numbers to prove his anti-Kindle point. This, however, has not stopped the near constant use of that quote to bash Apple, to call Jobs a hypocrite, and to rally the Kindle-istas against the iPad among other things. I guess it proves the point that no matter what you say or write, there will always be listeners/readers who are going to parse and interpret your statements however they’d like.

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