Government and chip wrappers

Clay Shirky has written a characteristically sharp essay on the future of newspapers, the future of journalism, and how those two things may have nothing to do with each other.  He draws an extended parallel with the disruption caused by the invention of the printing press, making the point that we are simply at too early a stage in the disruptive impact of the ubiquitous internet to know what to expect.

Newspapers in the USA seem in many ways to be more fragile beasts than ours, so the problem looks more immediate and more acute there than here, but the basic issue remains the same:  business models based on printing and distribution being difficult and expensive become unsustainable in a world in which printing is redundant and distribution essentially free.  Those models have many benefits, including positive externalities for those who never buy a newspaper:  the existence of of professional journalism, wilder excesses notwithstanding, is a good thing not a bad one.  It's horribly tempting to slide from that into asking how newspapers can be saved for the greater good.  Shirky's answer is devastatingly simple:

Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.

And so what of government?  If newspapers first aggregate information and then distribute it, and their problems stem from losing control of that process, there's an interesting warning for governments, which are also in the aggregation and distribution business.  To take just one very narrow example, when Hansard and command papers were scarce and expensive, being part of the process was a specialist activity, with the popular views aggregated and expressed by politicians.  Now all of that is not just immediately available, but is already being reconfigured to be more useful and accessible to more people, and that reconfiguration is not under the control of the gatekeepers of the old system.

As long as there is a need for collective decisions, there is a need for effective political processes.  And as long as the hard part of those decisions is very often about trade offs and relative priorities, there is an inherent complexity of those processes.  Politics is essentially about finding ways of making complicated and inter-dependent decisions across a wide range of interests. Doing that is inherently hard (which is one reason why it's so easy to criticise politicians). But the fact that we still need this to be done doesn't in itself guarantee that the existing processes will continue to work to do it, just as the fact that there is great value in journalism does nothing to guarantee a future for newspapers.

One of the consequences of the invention of printing was, of course, the beginnings of the democratisation of reading, the reverberations of which are still being felt.  One of the consequences of the invention of universal self-publication is the democratisation of writing, the reverberations of which are only just beginning to be felt at all.  That is not just one of the big challenges to the conventional model of journalism, but is also a big challenge to the conventional model of politics, which also assumes a sharp divide between producers and consumers.  But as Shirky points out, there was no knowing in advance – or even at the time – how printing would change things:  those living through it did not have our advantage of five hundred years of perspective.  So what was it like to live through the early part of that revolution?

Chaotic, as it turns out. The Bible was translated into local languages; was this an educational boon or the work of the devil? Erotic novels appeared, prompting the same set of questions. Copies of Aristotle and Galen circulated widely, but direct encounter with the relevant texts revealed that the two sources clashed, tarnishing faith in the Ancients. As novelty spread, old institutions seemed exhausted while new ones seemed untrustworthy; as a result, people almost literally didn’t know what to think. If you can’t trust Aristotle, who can you trust?

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.

It is a bit too easy to feel like fair sport, but as an example of the old mindset struggling uncomprehendingly with the new, take a recent column in the Guardian by Marcel Berlins – an ill-informed philippic about the dangers of allowing ill-informed people to address the nation, calmly oblivious to the irony of a columnist in a national newspaper criticising the internet for not having given a voice to everyone.  Ingrid Koehler has done a splendid demolition job (and has since drawn attention to an even more splendid recasting of Berlins' late Victorian ancestor railing against the introduction of the telephone).

The document which prompted Berlins' piece, though he did not trouble to name it, is Public services on your side, published last week.  Chapter 7 (or rather 7.0, in a fit of failed trendiness) includes a commitment in principle to accept the approach of the Power of Information taskforce report.  Despite its being an apparently casual reference on page 67, that's a hugely significant step:  it's an acknowledgment that the revolution is upon us.