On Thursday, right after failing to get a root canal for the Xth time (saga here), I participated in a square-table discussion (I say that because we sat around a table with four corners) titled “How to Make Money in News: New Business Models for the 21st Century — An Executive Session sponsored by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy”, hosted by Harvard’s JFK School of Government. My panel was this:
|Panel 2: Disruptive Technologies and their Impact on Business Models in Other Industries|
It was a good one, and it was fun sharing the side (since there was no stage) with such bright and interesting folks. Nicco kindly let me speak last, since I was fighting major tooth pain at the time, and wanted a few minutes for the Tylenol to kick in. Other folks said I made sense. But I didn’t pull my various threads together since I kinda ran ahead of myself. So I thought this morning it would be good to share what I wanted to say, drawing from the outline I wrote on the pad kindly provided by the organizers there, and which I kept. Here goes…
Let’s take the long view here. Later I’ll bring in the paleozoic, but for now I’d like to start just a quarter-millennium ago, with The Enlightenment, the ideas of which were applied by the framers of our republic. The Enlightenment’s value system elevated the principles of liberty, freedom, self-reliance, personal rights, and reason, among other things. It was also a movement that was in some ways suspended when Industry won the Industrial Revolution, which, among other things, created the modern corporation. By “modern” I mean since they got big. (Although the East India Company was big enough deserve the Boston Tea Party in 1773.) Think railroads, oil companies, car companies, phone companies… and media companies, starting with the oldest of the biggies: newspapers.
The industrial system was this pyramid-shaped top-down thing that changed us from individual craftspeople to workers in a system that subordinated our originality to the positions we occupied in an org chart. Check your surname for evidence of some ancestor’s individual craft. Baker, for example. Or Merchant or Miller or Weaver or Tanner or Cooper. Nobody names themselves, or their kids, “Joe Middlemanager” or “Mary Drillpressoperator”. Collective power was all. This was believed by both the capitalist system and the communist and socialist thinkings that opposed it.
In the industrial system, nearly all industry, including orginal thinking — invention and innovation — took place within, and belonged to, some company. Governments, colleges and universities did some origination too, but The System still encompassed everything, and it subordinated the individual to its larger self. This was not a Bad Thing, but rather just how things worked. And it did lots of good. In the area of communications — our concern here today — this gave us magazines, newspapers, radio, TV, and a phone system that was smart in the middle and dumb at the ends. Innovation by the phone system, Bell Labs and all, included touch-tone dialing, the Princess Phone, the RJ-11 jack, call waiting and message recording. And that all happened over the span of about forty years.
Near the beginning of that stretch, in 1959, Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker”. By then Drucker had already forecast the end of the modern corporation, and had compared management (his specialty) to conducting a band or an orchestra of self-empowered individuals, each good at what they did, and eager to learn more and improve. He said companies existed at the suffrance of the individuals who comprised them, even as it organized their work and put it to use.
As it turned out the knowledge workers who mattered most were geeks. Engineers. Programmers. These were the people who gave us the Internet, the PC and now hand-held Internet devices that still do old-fashioned telephony — but within the context of a zillion other things.
Consider the differences between the International Telecommunications Union, which started as the International Telegraph Union, and the Internet Engineering Task Force, or IETF. While the former governs its member companies through a complex and slow bureaucratic procedure, the latter uses a “request for comment” system that results in operative good-enough standards based on “rough consensus and running code”. The differences here are what account for the fact that the phone system never could have created the Net, and geeks did exactly that, and then some.
Anybody know when we first started talking about open source? The answer is February, 1998. That’s when Eric S. Raymond posted a short instructional missive titled “Goodbye, ‘free software’; hello, ‘open source“. In it he explained why Free Software, long in use as a term and accounting for much success in the computing realm, was not going to make good enough sense to businessfolk, and why a crew of fellow geeks were going to make the world talk about open source instead. Look up open source, and you’ll now get 73 million results, give or take. (In no small way this was the direct result of Eric’s charisma — I’ve watched him hold crowds of fellow geeks in thrall while pacing the stage and holding forth for more than three hours at a time — and his and skills at evangelism and polemics. In the midst of this work he also put out some of the strongest and most durable writing, including The Cathedral and the Bazaar, which now amounts to canon.)
The Net employs a principle called end-to-end. Among other things, it assumes that the bulk of intelligence is at the ends of the network — with people and the devices serving them — rather than in the middle, where the phone companies used to be, back when they thought, as old-fashioned formerly modern industrial companies, that most of the network’s intelligence should reside, and make decisions for us.
This principle provides an environment for creation and contribution that is radical, profound, and beyond huge. It’s as big as the invention of movable type, or maybe bigger. Or maybe an exposive expansion of it. In any case, it’s the new environment. It helps us pick up where The Enlightenment left off, and gives us endless ways to start carrying those old principles forward again. It supports dynamism out the wazoo, both for individuals and for whatever collections they form.
Which brings us to journalism.
Big newspapers, big magazines, big radio and TV… these are industrial age creatures. Some will persist in the new age that is coming upon us. But they will need to adapt to the new networked environment, where everybody can contribute.
That environment is very new. Think of today as a moment in the early paleozoic, say in Cambrian time. In that context Facebook is a trilobite. Twitter is a bryzoan. The Huffington Post is a primitive sponge. For small-j journalism, this is not the End of Time, but the beginning of it. Will big-J journalism survive? Only if it adapts. While some of that adaptation will be corporate, the leadership won’t be in the corporate system. It will be among the journalists themselves. Just as it was, and still is, with technology companies and the geeks they employ.
Bonus link: Dan Gillmor’s The Only Journalism Subsidy We Need is Bandwidth.