Viva La Revolución! (Image via iStockphoto)

Same same, but different.

This is my favorite Thai expression. It can mean any number of things depending on the context. Often it is used in sales situations at the night markets:

“Are these real Nike shoes?”

“Yes. Same same, but different.”

This expression came to mind after reading a recent article in the Guardian by John Naughton. Naughton makes the point that it is difficult to know what is actually going on when you are in the midst of the revolution, never mind fathoming the depths of the revolution’s long-term consequences. He suggests looking at history as a guide, pointing to Gutenberg’s print revolution. “Imagine,” suggests Naughton “that the net represents a similar kind of transformation in our communications environment to that wrought by printing.” We might therefore conduct, he writes, a little thought experiment:

The first printed bibles emerged in 1455 from the press created by Johannes Gutenberg in the German city of Mainz. Now, imagine that the year is 1472 — ie 17 years after 1455 [Naughton uses the figure of 17 years since that is when, he argues, the Web became mainstream – the Web itself is 19 years old as of this writing and the Internet a few years older than that, depending on how one measures it]. Imagine, further, that you’re the medieval equivalent of a Mori pollster, standing on the bridge in Mainz with a clipboard in your hand and asking pedestrians a few questions. Here’s question four: On a scale of one to five, where one indicates “Not at all likely” and five indicates “Very likely”, how likely do you think it is that Herr Gutenberg’s invention will:

(a) Undermine the authority of the Catholic church?

(b) Power the Reformation?

(c) Enable the rise of modern science?

(d) Create entirely new social classes and professions?

(e) Change our conceptions of “childhood” as a protected early period in a person’s life?

Naughton’s overarching point — that is it impossible to know the longterm consequences of a revolution — is well taken. That being said, the comparison to the invention of the print press understates the magnitude of the revolution underway today. I cannot count the number of articles I’ve read or conferences I’ve been to where an author or speaker referred to the Internet as the “biggest change in human communication since the printing press.”

To which I say, same same but different.

Yes, there are some useful points of comparison. However, taken together the Web + Internet (let’s call it “networked computing”) is simply a much, much bigger communication revolution than print—its impact is orders of magnitude beyond that of the printing press and its shock waves are travelling at a vastly faster rate.

To return to Naughton’s thought experiment, if one had asked people in Mainz about Gutenburg’s invention 17 years after it was unveiled it is a good bet that most of them would have never heard of a printing press. Or if they had, they certainly were not directly affected by it. What percentage of Mainz citizens would have owned printed books in 1472? If I had to take a guess, it would be significantly less than 1 percent. Perhaps one or two people in total.

It took approximately 150 years after Gutenburg’s first pressing for anything resembling what we think of as print culture to emerge. The first newspaper, the Strausbourg Relation, did not appear until 1605—with the first successful English language daily, the Daily Courant, not emerging until nearly a century later in 1702. The King James Bible was not published until 1611. The first scientific journal, the Philosophical Transactions, did not begin publication until 1655. The first novel, Robinson Crusoe, did not appear until 1719. And Johnson’s great Dictionary of the English Language was not published until 1755.  Yes, there was a flowering of literacy and accompanying rise of print culture following the printing press… eventually.

Contrast this pace of revolution to that of networked computing. 19 years after the invention of the Web, and 17 after the invention of the browser, the tendrils of the Internet have extended to nearly every corner of the planet. Nearly 2 billion people use the Internet with billions more poised to connect via wireless devices. Half a billion are connected via Facebook. In North America, Internet penetration is over 77%. Vast swaths of the world’s economy have been rewrought already by the Internet. If you asked people on a bridge in Bern, Switzerland (where Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web) if they have heard of the World Wide Web, I imagine somewhere north of 99% are going to reply in the affirmative.

We can debate whether the rapid pace of adoption is a good or bad thing, but one thing is clear: there has never been a communication technology adopted this quickly in human history. Not broadcast media. Not print media. Not writing itself. If we include the mobile Web in our definition of “the Web” then the adoption curve becomes steeper still.

In addition to a much faster rate of adoption there is a second important distinction to be made between the print and Internet revolutions. The print revolution was merely a production revolution. We had books before 1455. Gutenberg did not invent a new thing, he simply changed the way an exiting thing is produced. This resulted, eventually, in mass literacy, enabled the creation of new information formats such as newspapers, journals, and magazines, and had other profound consequences—but at the end of the day, we are just talking about a more efficient means of production.

Networked computing has indeed revolutionized the means of production once again. With networked computers we can compose and produce information products far more efficiently than ever before. However, the net also impacts the means of dissemination. One no longer needs to print anything. Publishing, as readers of this blog well know, increasingly does not include paper. This a profound change, and one that impacts publishing to a far greater extent than other industries. If you make bicycles or table lamps or blue jeans, the Web might revolutionize the marketing and sales of your products. Your customers might find your products on your website and they might order directly off the Web as opposed to through a store. But your product is still, ultimately, distributed in the same way: you put the product in a box and put the box on a truck (or train or boat or plane). Not so with information products: the box is gone, along with all the trains, planes, boats, and trucks. The Scholarly Kitchen, for example, is delivered to your kitchen table, office desk, or even your coat pocket each day without a piece of cardboard in sight and without so much as bike messenger, dirigible, or pick-pocket in the mix. (Note to editor: consider a Scholarly Kitchen dirigible for promotion at, and transport to, various scholarly events. See Goodyear.)

This “unboxing” points to an even more profound change: networked computing changes not just production and dissemination of information products, it changes the information itself. Facebook is not possible in print (it is not an electronic yearbook). Google does not show up in the mail (it is not an electronic phone directory). Amazon does not exist in paper (it is not an electronic catalog). Blogs are not posted to the church door (they are not electronic pamphlets or newsletters). These information services – and a great many others (Web of Science, Westlaw, ChemSpider, etc.) – simply cannot exist in print. It is not because these things are more efficiently produced or disseminated – they are fundamentally different things.

Same same? Just different.

The production and dissemination transformations wrought by networked computing have caused relatively little havoc in scholarly publishing (as compared to the news, trade book, or recording industries, for example). Our industry embraced these new technologies early and adopted them into our workflows and business models. Scholarly publishers have been very good at taking print containers and moving them to the Web. But now we are at a juncture where entirely new content vehicles are emerging – and these are not at all like the old ones. They are not static pieces of content but dynamic works of interrelated information – in the form of databases with open APIs, mobile applications, and peer-to-peer networks, among many other things.

The question is whether the new content vehicles – new knowledge vehicles – will be disruptive to the industry or augmentative? Naughton writes, “The strange thing about living through a revolution is that it’s very difficult to see what’s going on.” And indeed he is right – it is. The important thing to ask, however, is whether we are looking in the right places and asking the right questions.

In his magnificent 5-part series on anosognosia for the New York Times (the first part of which was published, coincidentally, the same day at Naughton’s article in the Guardian), Errol Morris parses Donald Rumsfeld’s (in)famous epistemological categories of “known unknowns” and “unknowns unknowns,” asking:

How are unknown unknowns different from plain-old-vanilla unknowns? The fact that we don’t know something, or don’t bother to ask questions in an attempt to understand things better, does that constitute anything more than laziness on our part? A symptom of an underlying complacency rather than a confrontation with an unfathomable mystery?

The general stability and rapid adoption of potentially disruptive technologies is evidence, I think, that the scholarly publishing industry has been asking the right questions and looking in the right places. (Contrast this with the recording industry that seemed not to ask whether the music they had just digitized and put on CDs might be better disseminated without that particular container). That being said, there are some inherent bulwarks to disruption that have also kept the industry perhaps more stable than it might have otherwise expected to be. These include the functions of validation (peer review) and designation (career advancement) that are so inextricably tied to the scholarly publishing enterprise.

But will this be the case indefinitely? Are there potential disruptors looming on the horizon that we do not yet see? How do we gain a better vantage amidst the dust and din of an ongoing information revolution the contours of which we have never seen before? How do we separate those things that are unknowable at this time from those that we can know were we to look in the right places? Are the “unknown unknowns” truly unfathomable? Or are they waters that we can sound with the right instruments or the right questions?

Same same? Or different?

[Thanks to DC for pointing me to the Guardian article.]

Michael Clarke

Michael Clarke

Michael Clarke is President at Clarke & Company, a boutique consulting firm focusing on professional publishing and working at the intersection of content, technology, and business.

View All Posts by Michael Clarke


11 Thoughts on "Sounding the Revolution"

I think the real problem with predicting impact here is that we simply won’t be able to answer the questions until they have answered themselves. When that happens, some of our posed questions will cease to be valid, and other as yet unposed questions will come to us ready answered.

The web is still completely in it’s infancy, and if anything, important developments are happening more frequently now than they have ever done before. To extend your metaphor, I’m not sure we can strive to navigate the water, when there is no guarantee that water will continue to act as the prevailing landscape.

I agree with you that the changes afoot are not of the incremental variety. They are radical, evolutionary, and happening fast. Long range business planning is clearly pointless. That being said, I would still argue that questioning is useful even it the questions have a limited shelf life as speculating on a range of possible futures, and preparing to pivot quickly to adjust to whichever one(s) become reality, is a reasonable approach. If water ceases to be the prevailing landscape then it is best at least make some blueprints for land (or air or space) vehicles in the event you need to build them quickly.

In hindsight, I think you are right, but there is a caveat (isn’t there always!). I see a key distinction to be made here between those who fashion landscape, and those who habit.

Publishers habit, innovators like Gutenberg build anew.

And if you can’t build, you still require a landscape from which to conduct your business, so yes, planning is key if you are reliant on the innovation of others.

But what if you could build and then habit your own landscape. Shouldn’t the yardstick of progress be a willingness to actually drive innovation forward, rather than being able to adapt to change quickly?

On that point I completely agree. And I would argue that scholarly publishers have actually done a good deal of innovation. They were first to the Web with online content, first to the Web with viable business models, and first to embrace XML (actually pre-XML – SGML workflows).

The Internet is a landscape with much bigger beasts now, however. Apple and Google – the biggest beasts of them all – are now stomping around in our habitat. While I think there is still room for innovation and being a driver of change, a creator of landscape – and while I completely agree that more innovation from within would be a good thing – I think the reality is that there is still going to have to be a lot of reacting to innovation from outside as it coming fast and furious from many directions. Even Apple and Google have to react to each other (and Facebook) and to curve balls various governments like to toss out with increasing frequency. Yes, innovate, but stay fast and agile and keep those blueprints handy.

Reviewing the posts of the past three days, I am struck, again, by our collective failure to develop a collaborative mechanisms for innovation that will enable us to compete in visionary innovation while sharing the risk. As Joe notes, brand dominance is the driver that keeps larger commercial publishers in the game while squeezing out smaller concerns, who are forced to cede functions to outsourced partners and then to rely on the wisdom of others’ vision, capabilities, and good intentions. The blinders of self-definition prevent us from seeing beyond traditional structures, which is the space dominated by revolutionary technology companies, but we are reinforcing this pattern by fighting for survival in traditionally competitive ways. A review of true incubators within “our industry” may be instructive. Who is getting “out there” today? What are the commonalities and challenges evident in these examples? Experimentation will drive adaptation and survival, but it is impractical for individual publishers to take this on, in the midst of an enormous amount operational re-engineering and financial juggling. Given the unknowns of timing, which David Wojick has pointed out, we need to arrive at mechanisms that support very broad technological experimentation with shared investment and potential benefits. I’d actually like to see us hold nominations and give recognition to centers for experimentation that may advance the common good—whether or not they are bearing financial fruit today. Advances that are commercially accepted today are where we are (non revolutionary) and will have little influence on where we find ourselves tomorrow.

I certainly agree with your central point , about the difficulty of identifying the right questions when you’re in the middle of a revolution, but you overstate the differences between the current revolution and the print revolution. I’m just finishing Pettegree’s recent “The Book in the Renaissance” and one of the things that is striking about what he is able to document is how rapidly print moved through Europe. While the random man in the street of Mainz in 1472 might not have owned a printed book, he would almost certainly have been aware of printing. Presses had been established in over 40 Francophone cities by then, and 24 Italian cities had one or more presses. There were a dozen printers in Venice alone. Caxton opened the first printshop in Britain in 1476. There was a thriving market in indulgences, missals and schoolbooks, and the man in the Mainz street would certainly have been familiar with those.

Further, I would argue that print did create a revolution in distribution as well, simply because with multiple copies it was possible for a book to exist in many places at one time. That had never happened before, and it was a difficult thing for many people to get their heads around.

The parallel that is most striking to me is that the real challenge for printing during those early years, very similar to what we are now experiencing, is how to monetize the revolution. As Pettegree describes, by 1472, the print industry was already facing its first economic crisis, not at all unlike the bust of the mid-nineties. While manuscript books existed prior to 1455, and some of the early experiments in printing were exactly analogous to the early e-journals, by the end of the century the form & format of books was radically different. Yes, it took another 100 years for those milestones of mature print culture that you mention to emerge, but the early days of print were much more robust than you describe.
There is no question that the spread of the technology is much faster today (although it does depend on where you put your starting point – the internet itself traces back to the 1960’s. Perhaps we should be asking what took Berners-Lee so long?)

But the most important parallels, I think, are not how the technology developed, but how human culture developed the economic, social and legal tools and mores to take that technology and use it to develop a mature print culture. We’re not close to having sorted that out with a digital culture yet.

(Pettegree’s book is worth reading for those interested in the emergence of print culture, although I prefer Adrian Johns’ “The Nature of the Book” from 2000. The indispensible classic remains Febvre & Martin’s “The coming of the book : the impact of printing 1450-1800”, originally published in French in 1958)

Thanks for the thoughtful comment Scott. Geoffrey Bilder at CrossRef made much the same point at the ALPSP meeting where I did a “live edition” of this post yesterday. Geoffrey also brought up Pettegree’s book – which incidentally seems to have been pulled out of circulation for unknown reasons. The book is “temporarily out of stock” everywhere – including the Yale University Press Web site despite having only just been published in June. More interestingly, the Kindle edition of the book (which Geoffrey had on his iPad) is no longer available. I sent a note to Yale via their Twitter account yesterday but have received no response. Perhaps someone from Yale would care to comment here.

Your point about print allowing something to “be in two places at once” due to the emergence of the rapid and cheap copy is well taken. And while I concede I have underestimated the speed at which print technology and printed matter spread across Europe, I still hold to the argument that the digital revolution is a different creature. The ability to search information, aggregate content, instantly distribute information, apply software such as data mining tools, and combine previously disparate formats (e.g. audio, video, text, etc.) goes beyond revolutionizing production and distribution – the information itself is changing.

Perhaps my argument is simply one of degree. Are there things to be learned from print technology’s transformative effect on society that can be applied to the digital revolution? Of course. But I think the digital revolution is happening faster, along more vectors, and is ultimately going to be much bigger in terms of its long-term implications that print.

Not surprised that you heard much the same from Geoff — he and I have had a number of entertaining conversations along those lines. But I agree completely with your last paragraph — the change is happening faster, and in the long run may well be more transformative than the move to print. But we’re still a long way from a mature digital culture, and it’ll be how we handle the human factors, not the technology, that will determine the degree to which we take the fullest advantage of those changes.

As an aside, it’s curious about the Pettegree book being withdrawn — but it was riddled with typos. Particularly annoying in a Yale press book about books! Maybe they figured they needed to clean those up.

At the risk of being pedantic I’d point out that the Internet is about 40 years old, and it is just part of the digital revolution, which is about 70 years old. Moreover, the electric communication revolution is now about 170 years old. Big things still take a long time. Most of what we are discussing is very short term, hence not that big.

Comments are closed.