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EPublishing Innovations Forum 2008

My opening keynote speech at the 2008 EPublishing Innovations Forum, London, May 7th

Thanks, David! Two linguistic notes before I begin.

First, please forgive my Yank accent. My great-grandfather Crosbie, who was born in London, would wince at it.

Second, doe anyone here speak Chinese? I ask because, after people who read English, the second largest linguistic group online today is people who read Chinese. To make sure they benefit from my speech, I took the title that the conference organizers suggested – Thriving in the digital age: threats and opportunities for digital publishers – and put that into Google’s English-to-Chinese translation engine. Then, just to make sure that I got the Chinese version right, I took that result and put it into Yahoo’s Chinese-to-English translation engine. The resulting title is Watts that you say? Screw Gutenberg, the Change Underway is Even Larger. So that’s what I’m going to talk about.

Gutenberg. The Screw. Watt. And why the changes today underway are even larger than during Gutenberg. (Don’t worry, I’ll explain the screw.)

Here is a slide of Gutenberg in Strasbourg. His statue in bronze and a target today for pigeons. He’s also a target for quotes about the Internet. My guess is that you’ve all heard most the quotes before:

‘The Internet is the biggest things since Gutenberg.’
‘The change underway will be the biggest since Gutenberg.’
‘The Internet will change things as much as Gutenberg did.’

Well, don’t get me wrong: Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press probably sparked the Renaissance. Yet it’s time we understand something: The change today underway is even larger!

The change now underway is bigger than mass production was for the medieval calligraphers and scribes who Gutenberg’s invention put out of work. Moreover, it’s not just a change from production of single calligraphic editions to mass production of millions of books. What is underway is an intellectual jump. It’s a quantum jump in how information is distributed to people and how they find information.

I’ve lately become an academic, and in academia we have a technical term for the magnitude of the change today underway. It is an academic term that combines Norman French and Anglo-Saxon. We call it a Mindf*ck.

It’s like a jump from two to three dimensions. And from this new dimension arises phenomenal new opportunities for publishers. Opportunities we’ll talk about.

Unfortunately, most publishers today still think only in the old two dimensions – and therein lay the only threat to their livelihoods. Their failure to understand the new dimension underway in publishing is the threat. Understand me: The only threat is not to understand the change underway.

Let’s go back in time for a moment. The U.K. Statistics Office says there are more than 10,000 Britons who are more than 100 years old. In 1908, the streets outside this hotel, and all the streets of London, were full of horse carriages and horse carts. Though the 20th Century was new then, people nevertheless knew that the 21st Century would be a mechanized age despite the abundance of horses.

The early automobiles showed promise. Telephones were beginning to become common in offices and homes. Tesla and Marconi were each experimenting with something that would eventually be called radio. Yet nobody knew how quickly all those things would affect London’s seven million people, one million horses, 25 daily newspapers. Also, more esoteric and far-reaching things were also being developed in 1908. Things like quantum mechanics, which would later give us devices such as television, the transistor, the computer, the laser, and the CD, DVD, etc.

Today in 2008, people still get information distributed on paper pulp or from analog broadcast transmitters that fundamentally have changed little since Marconi’s time. Nevertheless, we know that our new century will be an all- digital age. An age of pervasive information. If the personal computer and mobile phone were our equivalents of the newfangled telephones and automobiles for people 100 years ago, so too can we now foresee things that are only recently being and invented, things we’re starting to have a clue that will shape the 21st century.

The one million horses were gone from London’s streets by 1920, only a dozen years’ after 1908. Likewise, the changes between now and 2020 will be phenomenal. If you think that you’ve seen change during the past dozen years, you ain’t seen nothing yet!

I’ve a bold agenda this morning. My job is to tell you how much things will change and explain the general themes and opportunities in those changes for publishers in the 21st century.

  • I will explain why 1.3 billion people have gravitate online despite their already having access to mass media in much more convenient formats than online.
  • I will explain why the fragmentation of audiences is an illusion.
  • I will explain why traditional newspapers’ and news magazines’ circulations, and news broadcasts’ viewerships, must ineluctably evaporate. And the reason is not because people don’t want news.
  • I will explain why most newspapers’ and news magazines’ and news broadcasters’ Web sites won’t save their companies. (In other words, why what you here in British publishing circles are calling the Rusbridger Cross won’t occur.)
  • And I’ll explain why people will be even better served by New Media than by Mass Media. In other words, why the change today is even greater than that during Gutenberg’s era.

That’s an ambitious agenda, so let’s begin.

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