“Things don’t replace things; they just add on.”
That’s one of the key lessons New York Times writer David Pogue has learned in his 10 years penning a technology column. While we are often inundated with reports of the latest “iPhone Killer” or “Kindle Killer,” those deaths never really seem to happen:
TV was supposed to kill radio. The DVD was supposed to kill the Cineplex. Instant coffee was supposed to replace fresh-brewed.
It’s a lesson we should all take to heart, as we deal with technological disruption and attempt to plan for the future of the scholarly publishing industry. Scaremongering is rampant, and predictions almost always revolve around a zero-sum game, where one player wins and another loses, one new technology or business model or skill set completely replaces an established one. This sort of Highlander thinking (“There can be only one!”) is misguided and unrealistic.
Kent Anderson’s recent blog entry tearing apart a New York Times Magazine anxiety-driven report on the state of “kids today” provides a great example. There’s no doubt that the Internet inspires different behaviors and requires a different skill set than longform reading. The question is whether we’re losing anything by adding these new skills or simply adding to our repertoire of abilities. Author Alexander Chee tests these theories in his recent essay, “I, Reader”:
Nicholas Carr’s book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” made a big splash this year, presenting an elegant argument about the way we’re being disarrayed. The problems are structural, he argues: This is our brain; this is our brain on the Internet. One favorite quote: “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” Yes, I thought. Me too.
When his book appeared, I’d more or less accepted that this had also somehow happened to me, my brain remapped by the internet.
Chee’s essay is a must-read, a book-lover’s journey through technology, from a great love of the physical objects books embody to an understanding and appreciation of the promise of e-books. After years of immersion in the surface pleasures of the internet, Chee finds himself reading again:
A month ago I picked up the iPad and found underneath a copy of “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” by Rebecca West. . . . It’s 1,158 pages long, beginning, as I discovered that day, with West resting in a hospital after surgery in 1934 and being shocked by the news of the murder of the king of Yugoslavia in Marseilles. I kept reading into her record of the way this news drove her to go to Yugoslavia, the subject of the book. I recognized West’s crisis, too — an early 20th-century version of my own. When I paused to make coffee, I admitted to myself I had finally started reading the book. But also, I was reading again in the way I’d always known, previous to the Internet, previous to the vigil. I wanted to cheer a little but I also didn’t want to disturb it either, and so instead I kept reading, which was perhaps the only right way to celebrate this. If I had in fact remapped my brain with my e-reader, which I suspected, the map I’d found had led me back here.
Chee quotes Susan Sontag’s “At The Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning” to boil novels down to their very essence, to explain what they offer that other types of media cannot:
In storytelling as practiced by the novelist, there is always — as I have argued — an ethical component. This ethical component is not the truth, as opposed to the falsity of the chronicle. It is the model of completeness, of felt intensity, of enlightenment supplied by the story, and its resolution — which is the opposite of the model of obtuseness, of non-understanding, of passive dismay, and the consequent numbing of feeling, offered by our media-disseminated glut of unending stories. . . . (“Time exists in order that it doesn’t happen all at once . . . space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”)
To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.
What we see as technology progresses, is a kind of evolution, where the important characteristics of a form are recognized and emphasized. Cory Doctorow makes a similar argument regarding newspapers. He links to an audio clip of HG Wells declaring the newspaper “as dead as mutton” in 1943 because people are instead going to get the news from their telephones. He was wrong, of course, because as Bruce Sterling puts it, “The future composts the past.”
What happened to newspapers is what happened to the stage when films were invented: all the stuff that formerly had to be on the stage but was better suited to the new screen gradually migrated off-stage and onto the screen (and when TV was invented, all the “little-screen” stories that had been shoehorned onto the big screen moved to the boob-tube; the same thing is happening with YouTube and TV today). Just as Twitter is siphoning off all the stuff we used to put on blogs that really wanted to be a tweet.
So with the advent of television, radio, telephones, mailing lists, the Web, wikis, Twitter and other new media and platforms, the important-but-ill-fitting stuff that we put in newspapers because it had nowhere else to go moved off to the new, more hospitable turf.
What we are likely to see then, is a boiling down of the scholarly journal or book into what really matters and what is best presented by this form. Michael Clarke’s eloquent arguments about the nature of scholarly publishing give some insight as to what is likely to stay with us. If those values are best served by the current forms, they will endure. Some aspects may be better served by new forms, but that doesn’t negate the value delivered, nor the importance of the end result.
We should welcome these remarkable technological advances rather than fear them. New approaches are additive and create new and better avenues for doing the things that traditional publications can’t. PLOS ONE, as an example, provides a tremendously valuable outlet for knowledge that might not fit well into the traditional journal peer-review process. This doesn’t take away from anything the top journals do really well, but instead takes something they do poorly and creates a new platform with a different set of goals.
If we are truly dedicated to the dissemination of information, to the verification and recording of knowledge, then this wonderful new toolbox is a blessing, not a curse. This is a time of great opportunity, a time to create new products that better serve the research community and a period that will ultimately reinforce the core values that our established products present.
8 Thoughts on "The Future Is Not a Zero-Sum Game"
I am tempted to hit you with your own critical club and point out that while what you say is true, the business side often is a zero sum game, there being only so much money to go around. But it is more fun to think about where we are going than to worry about who loses what in the process.
My theory is that journals provide a concentrated view of the frontier of their specialty. That is their expert value added, the thing they will always do. Nor do they just collect and pass along the best thinking, they also force it to be clear, and that too is a big valuable job. Journals produce thought.
What can be done better by others using the new technology is the distribution of these products.
So far so good, but journals have more to do than just hunker down. There are new modes of thinking that need to be collected, clarified and produced. These include, in order of difficulty: data, video, visualization, and social thought. There are also radical new venues, especially the tiny screen of the mobile app.
We must never forget that interesting times are just that, even when they are eating us alive.
I was struck by your thoughtful riff on Pogue’s comment that new technology is often additive, not destructive.
Without taking on the NYT’s brilliant columnist head on, just wanted to point out that, well, in fact, Pogue may be a little confused.
CD’s did in fact kill the vinyl record; DVD’s did in fact kill VHS; cell phones did in fact kill pagers, and on and on…
I think what Pogue probably meant to say was that CONTENT doesn’t change (Beatles White Album remains the same, but the vinyl, 8-track, reel-to-reel, cassette all disappear) but some platforms/appliances do go away. Increasingly the appliance and platform do change dramatically, and can be destructive to the appliance or platform provider if they’re not careful. Often, if the platform and appliance are proprietary AND have terrific marketshare (Apple), they can withstand destruction. If technology does one thing well for content providers, it removes the inefficiency in a transaction, and in doing so, unfortunately, also removes revenue. That’s why it’s hard for traditional book publishers, for instance, to get away with charging the same price for an eBook as for the analog version; most of us know that the high price for the analog version had something to do with felling a tree, pulping it, transporting it to a printer, etc., etc.
I think Pogue picked his examples to support his premise. What I think actually happens is that technology and users are both seeking simplicity and value. When something gets too complex, it’s vulnerable (iTunes is approaching this for me). Technology solutions are supplanted or marginalized when something simpler does the same thing as well, better, and/or with more options. The VCR’s points of vulnerability was the videotape itself, and it’s weaknesses were indexing/chaptering, perceived durability, and capacity. DVDs won on these terms, and the machines to play them supplanted the VCR.
I also think timeframe is important here. Pogue talked about 10 years. Technology cycles often take much longer than that to play out.
It should be noted that the DVD didn’t kill off the VHS tape. The DVD is actually a good example proving Doctorow’s point. It took one aspect of what the VCR did, and did it much better (playing pre-recorded content) and honed down the VCR toward its strength, allowing people to record content. Most of us had a very long stretch where we had a dvd player for watching movies and a VCR for taping things. The DVR has now, of course proven better at that particular activity.
The pricing question on e-books is a tough one. When the CD was introduced, the music companies loved it because it cost less to produce than a vinyl record, yet it retailed for a higher price. The music-buying public didn’t seem to have any problem with this equation. But in the case of the e-Book (much like we’ve seen for music downloads), the lack of a physical object seems to make a large psychological difference. The problematic part of this from the point of view of a publisher is that the e-book buying public seem to have an inaccurate view of how much of the cost of a book comes from paper, print, binding and shipping (ranges from 10-30% depending on who you ask). But a 30% price discount when compared to the print version does not seem to satisfy the e-book buyer.
Keith, in fact the CD did not kill vinyl. LPs have made a comeback and are, according to some statistics I’ve seen, the fastest-growing segment of the music business! For nostalgia buffs, this video demonstrates the persistence of this old technology: http://www.king5.com/on-tv/evening-magazine/Phono-Man-111890029.html.
I’m inclined to agree with Chee’s perspective. The new gadgets have not made me any less interested in long-form writing: the first two books I got from the Apple store for my iPad are Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” (over 2,000 pages!) and Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” (over 4,000 pages!).
I’ve been a professional record reviewer for twenty years now, and based on my fairly intimate perspective on the sound-recordings marketplace I can tell you that to characterize vinyl as “the fastest-growing segment of the music business” is to damn it with exceedingly faint praise. It’s true that vinyl isn’t technically dead — there are still some labels producing vinyl — but as an actual force in the music marketplace, it’s in a vegetative state. Vinyl persists as a boutique product for fetishists and professional deejays. (And more power to it, I say, but let’s not get carried away with its economic significance.)
I think Keith and Kent are both right that it’s not so much a question of whether new technologies either always or never kill old ones. The fact is that sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t — but as David pointed out in his post, the journalistic tendency seems generally to be to focus on the destructive potential and to talk that up. (You have to admit that doing so makes for a more interesting lede than “A new product unveiled today may or may not have a significantly disruptive impact on the marketplace.”)
Rick, I agree that vinyl is a niche market, but it is a market. Keith said it was “dead,” which suggests there is no market at all.
For printed books, we may see eventually their becoming a niche market also, allied with the rare book or “limited edition” market that appeals to bibliophiles. The book will not be “dead,” then, but just confined to a specialty market.