Essay: Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.

Fresh off the not-press (actually a couple of days old now but anyway) is this fantastic essay by Clay Shirky.  It covers off the problems facing the newspapers today and points out the hard truths; that this is not a unique or new problem, that there is no guarantee that newspapers will, or even should, survive, that journalism and newspapers are not the same thing.

My favorite quote, “‘You’ll miss us when we’re gone’ has never been a good business model”.

The main points of the essay seem to be:

  • People in the industry have known this was coming and purposefully ignored the pragmatists who warned that their preparations and ideas (micropayments, ad-supported, drm) were not working.
  • We are in the middle of a revolutionary cycle, the likes of which existed in 1500 with the invention of the Gutenberg press.
  • Revolutions are scary, social contracts and long-lived institutions die, but we cannot prevent them simply by putting our fingers in our ears and shouting “la la la”.
  • Much of what was happening and considered “the way things work” were actually that way by coincidence and environment.  Changing the environment will change those things, like it or not.  This will go for music, movies and tv as well, however hard they fight it.
  • We have no way to know what the future of these changes will bring.  We just have to wait and see.

This is a scary and exhilarating time to be alive and see the new world opening up, much, I imagine, as it was for the people living through the literacy and print revolution of the 1500’s.  I find myself particularly concerned by the changes as I straddle several lines both in the old world and the dawning one.  As a technologist and solutions architect, I find the changes invigorating and exciting.  The new technologies, the connectedness of our world.  The internet gives everyone their own platform, their own space, their own voice – and if that leads to a cacophony of babellian proportions then that is the sound the new world makes.

I am also a writer and have been for many years.  The internet gave me a platform, particularly when I was younger, for poetry and fiction.  It brings the industry within reach and allows collaboration and discussion with people all over the world.  It brings ebooks which the technologist and reader in me loves as I carry whole libraries around on my phone, so reams of reading material is always at my fingertips.

But also as a writer and reader I love books.  Not just the content, but the objects themselves, the feel, smell, look of them.  Despite owning hundreds upon hundreds of ebooks and reading on my phone, I also own a small library full of books, all perched on their shelves in my office, slowly transforming it into a library.  This revolution that is sweeping the world and changing it is threatening these books that I love.  Electronic books are cheaper to produce and distribute, free to duplicate and take up no physical space at all save the space the storage medium takes in your pocket.  There are many other benefits too that ebook-lovers will tout (instant word definitions, book search, instant purchase in the case of kindle).

Eventually these could destroy the market for physical books.  In the same way, ebooks being easy to copy undermines their value in the same was as it does for music, tv and movies.  It will be harder to make a living as an author, indeed, it may eventually become impossible, destroying the very possibility of achieving the dream I have held since I was a young child.  You cannot be a full-time author if the job itself no-longer exists.

What will happen then?  Will novels cease to be made?  I doubt it, but what they are, and the way they are made, may well change.  No-one will really know till it happens as revolutions are a time to experiment.

We just have to wait and see.  It’s frightening.  Many of us are torn by conflicting loyalties and desires.  Tomorrow’s world will be very different, and theres no-way of knowing how long it will take to get there.  Remember: It was Gutenberg’s revolution that made it even possible to have newspapers.  The idea that they are a necessity that cannot be allowed to die is a falsity.  Society existed before and will exist after newspapers – if there is something better, then people will use that, and newspapers will die.  Maybe, even before that something better.

The essay:

Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable « Clay Shirky


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