Sunday 26 June 2011

Gutenberg, Berners-Lee, Aristotle, McLuhan, Chomsky, Rubel & Zappa's Eyebrows all walk into a blog post...

A penny finally dropped today that has been dropping since 1998. I thought it had dropped back then. I was wrong. It started dropping but it didn't finish. Until today. 

I'll start at the beginning. 

In 1997 I enrolled on the MPhil in Publishing Studies course at Stirling University in Scotland, having completed my undergraduate BA degree majoring in Political Science & minoring in Sociology at St Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Canada. From Scotland 2.0 back to the beta you might say...

During my PubStud masters (it's the official degree name and a pretty cool name if I may say so) I stood out on the course as rare having been online since 1993. I remember being the only person doing a dissertation looking at digital anything. I remember being the most proficient at HTML on the course, even more proficient than the chap teaching us HTML.

I had a keen interest in macro-level societal and systemic observation, analysis and critical theory and this interest and skill set had been identified and sharpened during my PoliSci degree. I now ported all this into digital communications theory and publishing specifically. It was clear my Masters dissertation was going to be either very very right, or very very wrong. I remember the course leader saying to me when I told him what I wanted to do my dissertation on that they had no clue what I was talking about but that they were looking forward to reading it. Oh, and no one felt capable of advising me on the content itself either.

I felt unique but very alone. I felt like such an explorer: scared and excited all at once. I really felt like I was charting new territory. I loved every minute.

I thought I was very very right. Like most students. Turns out, I was only very very half right. I was so close to being fully right but I missed one key element. I failed to make one more degree of progression, a move that would have really made me appear prescient. In hindsight, it was so obvious. I just failed to connect two simple pieces together. Or rather, I failed to disconnect two pieces from each other. I made a logical flaw and I have only just realised that flaw. I failed to realise that the nature of publishing was changing but so were the players.

It actually all started 557 years before I went to Stirling, in Mainz, Germany with Johannes Gutenberg & it ended with Tim Berners-Lee in 1991 with the first website going live (a CERN page naturally).

For me, the information age we were all bleating about in the early to mid 90s had come and gone. The information age started with Gutenberg when information became a realistically retail (not just retell) commodity with a concomitant value. The information age ended with Berners-Lee creating the WWW as we know it today thus rendering, in the long run, all information ubiquitous and therefore valueless, in essence.

Post Berners-Lee information only has a value in a certain context (time, place, packaging etc) and not just a value in and of itself, as was the case from Gutenberg to Berners-Lee.

For me, I argued, seemingly successfully in my dissertation (althought I suppose no-one I knew really had enough of a clue to disagree back then), that information now had no value and that we therefore, with Berners-Lee contributions to communications, entered what I called the post-information age.

I went on to argue that the publishers of tomorrow (after all, my dissertation was titled: 'Go forth & inform: the role of the publisher in the post-information age') would not be the those that, as had traditionally done up until this point, simply lock up and retail information, but rather would be those that free and retell information.

I remember drawing an analogy of how historically we started on a beach of knowledge with direct access to knowledge without effort (Garden of Eden anyone?) and as more noise had disrupted the signal, that we were finding ourselves wading ever deeper into a sea of information which lay on top of the knowledge. As a result, we tended to mostly float on a superficial layer of information with little access to the knowledge underneath which in turn was becoming harder to reach due to increasing noise (water levels) as a result. We are enjoying increased access to information but decreased access to knowledge.

I further argued that the successful publishers of tomorrow would be those that helped us navigate our way down to the sand (knowledge) now under an increasing layer of water (information). I likened publishers of tomorrow to SCUBA gear.
Interesting aside #1: The first king: Google! 
I published this dissertation in May 1998. The Google domain name was registered September 1997 and the company was  incorporated September 1998. I often feel like I should have seen something like Google coming. If only I had committed myself to getting into the SCUBA business in relation to information. I digress.

My dissertation stopped at the point of realising that the future of publishing involved publishers as they had been. But the very entities and actors, the players, within the publishing business were also changing. At the time though, there were only publishers. And that is why I only got it very very half right.

See, when we spend time doing something it tends to become a habit.
Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. 
Aristotle (384 BC - 322 BC) Greek Philosopher
As Aristotle indicates, and as Darwin might agree, it would become inevitable that some of us, after much hard work and presence in a new medium, would start to navigate that medium better. To move throughout the sea of information for ourselves more competently.

I loved the theories of McLuhan a lot at the time (not to mention Neil Postman & Joseph Campbell) and if the medium is itself the message then clearly the medium we use ultimately trains our brains to behave in certain ways. Chomsky's theories on Linguistics convinces me he would agree. Digital would be no different. It would evolve us. So publishers were now not the only players in the game. SCUBA gear itself was devolving into the hands of all of us.

Therefore, use of the new medium of digital communications offered by the WWW would move us, counter to the direction established by modern physiological evolutionary theory, from land back into the water so to speak. From a world of information with gatekeepers into the world of information overload with knowledge underneath, a world where we are all free to move about exploring knowledge as we see fit, if the right tools are available.

This desire has been met with increased ability in the tools we use i.e. Wikipedia, Twitter etc. And so it became. We figuratively have grown gills and became adept at navigating the depths ourselves. So where does that leave publishing?

We became brands, editors and publishers. Blogger, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn et al are all the tools of our trade. The majority of us do not use content to generate revenue directly. The majority of us want to communicate with people, establish that we know something and that they should pay attention. For the majority of us, this will define who we are, what we know and what we do.

Commercial publishing used to absorb the vast majority of our media attention spend. I am sat here writing this online, my wife is also blogging. We are both talking to each other about what we are writing. The TV is on pause. We may be unlike the norm, but MSM is losing our attention. Period.

For most of us, our filters (digital and otherwise) on the world are both the best source of information/knowledge available to us and equally the best marketing strategy we could ever have. The oral tradition never went away, it just got drowned out by television, and is now back with a vengeance thanks to Facebook, Twitter et al.

So, you probably think I think publishing is screwed. Nah, too easy. I still love books, magazines, music, movies and so on - although I haven't bought a paper in ages. 

So publishing will also evolve, is evolving. Publishers just got billions of competitors for their readers attention that's all. How do they compete? Build faith, trust, authenticity and so on. many are doing just that. But it's not their world any more. 

Like the Church producing bibles pre-Gutenberg in Scriptoria, publishers will continue to package and ship content. But many others will too. Sadly for publishing, it has less to fall back on than the Church, so I expect there will be heavy casualties ahead in the publishing industry. Indeed, that degradation has already begun.

So I got it very very half right. The completely correct future of publishing in the post-information age is that it will become more and more a part of everyday life and not a commercial specialism. It will recede into the background and just become a part of what we do, he said blogging on blogger.

I have often spoken of my belief that because of all of the above Facebook simply cannot lose to Google. Facebook is us. Google is a machine. Facebook has the emotion, connectivity and authenticity in all of the content we give it to help refine what it puts in front of us. Google just mostly relies on a specific thing we are searching for at a particular moment in time. Mostly. Oh, I know it's algorithm is much more complex than that. But the point is, and please don't lose sight of this key point: Google is an algorithm. That's why Facebook is avoiding search like the plague. That's why Google are gagging to get into social, and failing badly. It's not Google's fault. It's like any machine trying to be human. It just doesn't have the capacity for humanity, for feeling, for authenticity.

In the end, something will come along and be even more human than Facebook. It is inevitable really. We already exist, and our representation in digital space can only become more real, true and authentic over time.

That's the great thing about humanity. How could a machine-based system made up of us out 'us' us? Truth is, the system can't beat us, the machines can't win. They have no capacity (yet?) for emotion, failure, authenticity and much more that makes us 'us'. Thankfully.
Interesting aside #2: Water into wine?
More proof from Steve Rubel's blog today titled 'Social influencers shift SEO' about SEOMOZ's explorations into the impact of social on search. Basically, SEO is also algorythmic but now needs to get into search. It needs to be human. For me, that's like asking accountants to get into design. They are mostly oil & water, chalk & cheese etc. We're not built or wired that way in general. We have two sides of the brain and we tend to excel in one hemisphere or the other, but rarely both. Yet. I spoke with a chap recently who says he grows workforces and is working on creating a creative technical workforce So perhaps that might shift our capabilities?.
And so we come back to my dissertation and why I got it only half right. The future of publishing is not about the future of commercial publishers. That was my mistake. Publishing is a function, not an industry. The future of publishing is a story of two parts: 1) Commercial publishing will continue on, will evolve, will shrink and command less of our attention. 2) Publishing as a human function, as a set of practices and tools will integrate into our societies (albeit at different culturally and developmentally different speeds I'm sure) and become an invisible part of the fabric of those societies and the ways they communicate. 

On the cover of my dissertation I had the following Frank Zappa quote:
The computer can't tell you the emotional story. It can give you the exact mathematical design, but what's missing is the eyebrows.
Frank Zappa 
Google, SEO, machines, businesses, systems and so on just don't have the eyebrows. Only people have the eyebrows. And as Frank rightly points out, it's always all about who has got the eyebrows ;)


  1. Since time began, when new methods of communications were/are invented society has had to change. Visual, verbal, non-verbal (body-language, gestures... eyebrows!) and written communications are all driven by emotion. It's the ability of the human race to express and interpret said communications that is invariably in question. That said it can also be the lack of appropriate and authentic communication which leads to misinterpretation which therefore invariably leads to complication.

    The internet is, in fact, just a massive pot of emotion harnessed in and travelling via technology. Even behind every piece of knowledge there is the emotion that drove that piece of knowledge to be found and another emotion that drove the finder to find it...

    I raise a glass and an eyebrow to this wonderful man Mr Al Tepper and emotion in general. However tied up you are on the Internet always be alive always feel and don't be frightened to show it :) May all you do online be authentic, appropriate and sustainable. After all, there is an art to raising an eyebrow!

    And if you want to know where we will all be in another ten years... I bet you anything Al knows n all :)

  2. And I have to say, write more posts ;) From "Land To back to water" and "He who has SCUBA gear is king"... smart! ;)