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.]