Printing press ca. 1811

Printing press ca. 1811

Human beings are afflicted with a certain bias about the world: we don’t expect it to change, at least not radically. When things are going well, this bias is amplified. Blessed with prosperity and stability in America over the past couple of generations, we’ve trained ourselves to expect a certain level of technological progress. We expect that living standards will gradually rise over time. We don’t expect revolutions. (And even when they occur in the political world, things often settle back down to a semblance of how they were before. Meet the new boss, et al.)

But complete revolutionary transformations do occur with some regularity in history. And when they do, we’re gobsmacked.

Old structures – the way people organize their lives – are swept away. Something very different emerges and consolidates over decades or centuries. Think: the invention of agriculture. The Industrial Revolution. The printing press. It’s this final example that Clay Shirky focuses on in this cogent essay. The invention of the printing press and the emergence of printed books altered reading habits, literacy, politics, religion, the whole shape of society. They were used to things being one way. That way was dissolving around them. The “new way” had not yet taken shape. So people couldn’t really comprehend what was going on:

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.

And so it is today. When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

Indeed, “what’s the new business model for news?” is almost always a conversation stopper, not a starter. It’s usually meant as a bitter rejoinder from old-school journalists to innovators and dreamers touting unproven, and probably not profitable, news technologies. But let’s face it: “unproven and probably not profitable” is far better than “disastrously unworkable,” which is the state of the newspaper model today. As Shirky notes, nobody knows what’s going to “work” ultimately. We are not going to “replace newspapers.” Instead, we’re going to keep doing journalism using the increasingly powerful, proliferating tools at our disposal and see what happens. That’s all we can do. And we live in a vital, freewheeling democracy. Something will happen.

I also like the ecosystem metaphor Steven Johnson employs in this SXSW speech (indeed, I’ve used something similar myself). Newspapers used to be culturally important because they filled an information void. Now that void has been filled to overflowing. It is true that traditional, dead-tree investigative and foreign reporting are both needed and uniquely difficult to replace. But nothing so far has stopped the relentless effusion of rich content in (as Johnson notes) technology and politics. That trend is likely to spread and unlikely to simply, or ever, stop.

About these ads