As the Internet has matured, the printing press has lost its gravitational pull. Talent, wealth, loyalty and smarts are slowly escaping its orbit - some by choice, some not. New centers of gravity have cropped up to capture some of the emigrants, others remain adrift.
In a recent blog piece, Clay Shirky, who studies the Internet and teaches new media at NYU, gives the story a historical context and, in doing so, makes a compelling case for packing up our journalistic principles and setting out for new worlds.
On the failure to find a viable business model to save printed paper, Shirky offers a brief "I told you so" moment: Realists, who saw Doomsday coming, were corralled and ignored. Fabulists, who sold the snake oil of micropayments and other paper-saving cures, were heralded as "saviors."
The more powerful aspect of the story is the parallel he draws between the "experiments" that shaped modern printing and the experiments that will transition us beyond the printing press. He embraces the idea that we live a dual role in history - we are actors charting our course and passengers riding a great current. In saying so, he lets us off the hook for not being able to save our papers and assigns us the responsibility of creating what comes next.
Even if you don't agree with his arguments, the piece is worth reading (and I urge you to read the whole thing if only because I feel guilty for excerpting so much of it here):
During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points. Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer and publisher, invented the smaller octavo volume along with italic type. What seemed like a minor change — take a book and shrink it — was in retrospect a key innovation in the democratization of the printed word. As books became cheaper, more portable, and therefore more desirable, they expanded the market for all publishers, heightening the value of literacy still further.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. There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie.
In craigslist’s gradual shift from ‘interesting if minor’ to ‘essential and transformative’, there is one possible answer to the question “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.