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Technology, Change, and the Future of Content

Congratulations!  You are about to witness something people haven't seen in 555 years.  No, it's not a rare comet or corruption-free politics in Illinois.  What you are going to see is a complete shift in the way written content is produced and distributed.

I know, that's not the most exciting news you've encountered this week, but hear me out.  This is big.  Really big.  We are living on the cusp of history when it comes to creating, producing, distributing and consuming written content.  It may not seem like a big deal now, but in another 555 years, when people look back and consider what happened in the first decade of the 21st century, they're going to be pretty impressed, much like we are impressed when we look back 555 years to the time Johannes Gutenberg rolled out the first printing press, a technological development widely considered to be the most significant event of the last thousand years.  More significant than the Reformation, the Declaration of Independence, or Britney Spears' comeback.

Like I said, this is big.

Actually, the shift in content creation/production/distribution has been occurring for a few years now.  The Internet started it, enabling an upstart called Amazon to rewrite the rules for how books are sold, and that was just the beginning.  Most written content, especially the news, is now delivered digitally through various electronic devices powered by any number of programs.  Even the way books are printed has dramatically changed.  Technological advances have opened up Publishing on Demand (POD), a system that can produce a complete book from a digital file to final product in less than a day. 

In a way, this shift has been subtle, with no "killer application" hitting the culture in a single moment like Gutenberg's press.  But when you think about it and realize what we are witnessing, experiencing and utilizing, the implications for both content producers and consumers are absolutely and utterly staggering.

Certainly the shift is not lost on the traditional gatekeepers of written content, commonly known as the publishers.  Just this month four of the world's largest book publishers announced unprecedented layoffs as book sales slump and the prospects for an upturm anytime soon appear dim.  As if that news wasn't bleak enough, the giant Tribune Co.--owner of several big-city newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times--filed for bankruptcy this week.  Certainly the economy has something to do with these dramatic developments in print publishing, but larger forces and factors are at work.  The economy is just hastening the inevitable shift.

For those involved in traditional publishing, these are "dark days." At least that's the way Sara Nelson, editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly, put it in a recent blog.  "We may very well be witnessing the end of publishing as we have come to know it," she wrote.  Is that a bad thing?  I don't think so.  There will always be publishers--to publish something simply means to make it public--because there will always be stories to tell and people to tell them.  What kind of technology eventually emerges as the Gutenberg press of the 21st century (if it ever does) remains to be seen.  In the meantime, the opportunity for content creators, producers and distributors is greater than it  has been in, well, the last 555 years.  

 

Tags | Writing

Comments

There is nothing more important than Britney Spears' comeback...nothing.

..seriously though. This is awesome and really does change everything.

I think the other challenge, along with the move away from the printed page, is the very nature of what content is digested. Most people aren't reading long novels anymore; or short novels; or short stories; or articles; or short articles. The USA today version of assimilating content seems to present a challenge for those of us who like to both digest and disseminate content the same way we drink a glass of Merlot: slowly - fully engaging with the experience.

I'm feeling a little torn between the desire to accommodate cultural mores, and a desire to change them, all the while realizing that changing them isn't a viable option. But I'm wondering if you think there will still be room in this world for thoughtful essays, prose, and stories that require us to put down our i-pods and cell phones so that we can fully engage with the content?

Exciting days!

Richard,

I definitely believe there is room for thoughtful essays, prose, stories, etc. In fact, one of the misconceptions about the new generation of readers is that they want everything dumbed down and reduced. It depends on the type of content they are accessing. If the content is informational, then yes, put it in a USA Today style format. But if there's a narrative that speaks of real life, then let it play out.

The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) hosted a symposium on digital content last month and invited a panel of young media consumers to share some thoughts about content. They still read books and still shop in bookstores, but they are much more likely to read books that "tell stories" rather than self-help or how-to books. They want to read about people who have struggled. But hasn't that always been the case? The great narratives are about struggle, yet the Christian book "industry" has for the last 30 years basically featured how-to books by successful people. That approach worked for Boomers, but Millennials don't buy it.

So there is room for the thoughtful essay or book. The iPod and iPhone are simply tools to lead potential readers to the source. They're like avatars. Of course, the source has to deliver, but if it does, the iPod generation will take the time necessary to read and interact with the content. The challenge is to connect the content with these potential readers (it's one of our primary goals at Conversantlife.com).

By the way, a survey we conducted of the users of Conversantlife.com revealed that 73% are between the ages of 18 and 34, and 50% read 10 books or more in the last year. That should be an encouragement to writers like you, who appeal to that audience.

Stan: I think that written content is just one example of a broad socio-economic and cultural shift that will leave its mark on everything. Since we are so close to it, we tend to take it in bits and pieces--the shift in publishing, the postmodern church, economic shifts from hierarchical organizations, tech impact on business, tech impact on relationships, etc. It is like separating the impact of the Renaissance, first on art, then on music, then on political structures, then on science, then on work, etc. when it was a movement that transcended all of these forms at once. Thomas Friedman's "The World is Flat" gives a wonderful snapshot of this phenomenon, which he posits began with the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is a thick, but worthwhile read.

Joan,

Great thoughts! Your comparison of our current content-delivery shift to the Renaissance is interesting. Of course, only history will verify if this shift, which began nearly 20 years ago, will end up producing a global flowering of arts and culture, but there are parallels. The Renaissance covered the better part of three centuries, but it gained significant traction in Europe with the development of Gutenberg's press. Prior to Gutenberg, only the rich and powerful (including the church hierarchy) could afford books, so there was no reason for the rest of the world to know how to read. Because of the technology embodied in the printing press, the price of books dropped and suddenly the common person could afford to buy them. Literacy flourished, as did literature. The Reformation, too, followed Gutenberg's press. It's doubtful the Protestant movement would have taken root without that technology.

So now we have a technology shift on the scale of the printing press. Like I said, the implications are massive. And we're here to see it. What a unique place in history. What a unique opportunity.

Stan: Your post raises an important point about what is know in marketing (and likely other circles) as the digital divide. In the same way that before the Gutenberg press only the rich and powerful had books, it will be important in the coming decades for people to have equal access to technology and the skills to use it. Otherwise the wealthy and educated will press ahead of the less equipped at an unprecedented rate. That is one of the things I love about Friedman's book. He gives a number of examples of people who, with little more than a laptop and a broadband connection have created jobs for people in the remotest reaches of the world. He challenges the reader, saying that "if its not happening, its because you're not doing it."

and interesting Joan, that you should note the wall, and Freidman's book. Your comments seem spot on to me, as I write here from Europe. One of the cooks at the school where I'm presently teaching was born in 1989, months before the wall came down. He's been shaped entirely by this shrunken, high tech world of ours, and I honestly believe that it's far too soon to assess the effects of these collective shifts, so that we're still not sure how best to articulate truth in this time and place.

One thing is certain though, as far back as Paul in Athens (Acts 17), those who communicate well were students of culture. I'm grateful to the conversant format, not only for young people, but for we who were around when Kennedy was shot, because it's a great platform for intergenerational dialog and digesting culture.

I just returned from a late night moment in an Austrian restaurant where I sat and read Bonhoeffer's "Letters from Prison" and couldn't help but wonder what lies ahead for us, and not only in terms of communication. What challenges and opportunities for the gospel will arise through the global economic crisis? What about resources shortages? Are opportunities to provide alternative notions of community, truth, hope, and knowing, are greater than ever. But will we rise to the challenge?

This is so cool! Not only is this discussion crossing the centuries, but it is truly global. There you are in Austria (you rascal), Joan is on the east coast, and I'm sitting here in Southern California. This is a living illustration of what this new technology is all about. Yet, as always, the content is what matters (I love it that you're reading Bonhoeffer in an Austrian restaurant). Technology is just a tool.

By the way, I'd like to hear more of your reflections on the present/future challenges/opportunities related to the current global economic crisis and resource shortages. I especially like the thought you are floating about providing "alternative notions of community, truth, hope, and knowing."

Keep reflecting. Go back to that Austrian restaurant, and while you're there, have a cup of Turkish coffee for me.

Hi Stan,

As one who works in the publishing industry and who gets her bread and butter from people spending money on books, this revolution kind of scares me more than excites me. But there's no stopping it... and we probably shouldn't want to anyway. Will people pay money for digital books? Or will they get them for free? I don't know but publishers are betting on--or at least hoping for--the former!

Also, I wonder how our experience with a digital book will change the message or reading experience. A digital book is just the words without the book. We're losing the physical interaction with the page as we digest the intangible ideas. Personally I've noticed I digest a real book much more slowly than when reading online. Online seems to propel me to skim, to click links, to jump around. A book makes me sit down with this book and this book, go through it page by page in a linear manner, and eventually reach an ending. Online I have none of those restraints. In some ways that seems freeing and exciting, but I do lose something, something valuable. I guess it's like the difference between sitting down for a meal at a dinner table or getting fast food from a drive-thru. Both fill you up, but one is quite a different experience than the other.

Thanks for this post,
jessica c

Jessica,

You bring up some very perceptive and valid points. There's no question that the technology that enables people to more easily access and acquire content is just going to get better, leading to an even greater democratization of content distribution. There is both a benefit and a potential downside to this process. The benefit, of course, is that with the new technology, people who otherwise would never have an opportunity to get into "print" can now do so. The downside is that a lot of substandard content will get published. But I'm not concerned about this. The cream always rises to the top.

Your other comments are very interesting in that they validate some of the research focused on reading and retention. The reason you have to read content on a screen much more slowly is that it's more difficult for a reader to retain content transmitted on a screen. There's something about the tactile nature of content printed on paper that encourages retention. One of the factors is the involvement of the hand in reading. When your eyes and hand work together to read a printed page, you remember what you read to a much greater degree than when you read with your eyes alone. Also--and I find this fascinating--research has shown that the turning of a page (like a door on a hinge) also contributes to content retention and enjoyment. All of these are qualities that the screen just can't duplicate...yet.

Somewhat of a tongue-in-cheek question: Which is worse, a recording industry tanked by consumer theft or a publishing industry tanked by consumer illiteracy and attention span?

:)

Two vignettes of this phenomenon:
1. My wife is an prodigious consumer of information. She listens to podcasts daily, downloads books and reads them on her Kindle and reads print material. She doesn't pay cash for much of it (of course there was a certain capital outlay for laptop, iPod and Kindle). She mostly gets vintage works for her Kindle, which are hard to find in print, and are free to download. She writes blogs and follows others online. The podcasts are free. The print material she mostly gets from our excellent library system here in the Central Valley and from a network of friends that share paperback books (beside the daily newspaper and a few print magazines that come to the house). I think she may be typical of the new literate information consumer, with the future probably being characterized by somewhat less print material.
2. Hospitals where I have done volunteer work in Africa tend to have satellite uplinks with broadband internet access now. This opens up tremendous informational resources to students and young physicians who could otherwise not afford to buy books. Faced with a tight budget, the hospital can spend $2000 on broadband, computers and a digital projector or buy 8-10 medical textbooks for everyone to try to share. If you're trying to run a medical educational program, the choice is easy. It also allows the continued global community that has developed to keep funtioning. I correpond with RNs, physician's assistants and doctors in specialty training by e-amil on both sides of Africa.
doc

Doc,

Fascinating insights from an entirely different perspective. Thanks!

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About
Stan's entire life has been wrapped in content: selling, writing and publishing books and resources that help ordinary people capture a glimpse of extraordinary things.