What Would Darwin Say?
by Dick Kaser
"Do not mistake survival for success,” admonished the analysts at Outsell, Inc. in a report distributed to publishing executives at the Software & Information Industry Association’s (SIIA) Information Industry Summit in New York in January.
Yet, when the survivors gathered for a downsized industry event in New York City, the mood was celebratory and almost giddy at times.
Anthea Stratigos, Outsell co-founder and CEO, reminded the audience during her session at the event that we have emerged from recessions in recent decades partly due to the advent of new technologies.
For example, we came out of the dot-com bust with search, RSS, blogging platforms, text mining, and new business models powered by analytics.
Going forward, she spoke of mobile, social, and personal technologies driving the recovery, noting that growth exists even now in our still-troubled economy for those technologies that create new experiences for customers and users.
Among the happy faces in New York was Google, the search engine (OK, strike that), the ad engine (OK, strike that too), the all-around information provider; social-based information aggregator Jigsaw (a CODiE award winner); and winner of the Best Vertical Market Business Content Solution award Spiceworks.com Community.
Despite the euphoria of the moment, I was a bit blue riding home later on the train. Barely visible in the seat pocket in front of me was an issue of The Nation, a publication that was so thin that the cleaning crew had apparently missed it. Suddenly, I was reminded that I hadn’t seen many news organizations at the traditional industry gathering in New York.
Lately, I have been thinking about Andrew Keen’s observation that he made a few years ago. The Silicon Valley author pointed out how social media was potentially “destroying our culture.”
To the extent that “culture” is defined as the way in which humans represent and record their experiences for posterity (I found that on Wikipedia), I’m wondering if Keen didn’t have a good point.
The forward march of information technology over the last 6 decades has been relentless, but our solutions hardly last a decade anymore. Once-proud players sometimes get displaced and for no good Darwinian reason. The best do not always survive.
The Twitter stuff doesn’t even get archived. Facts delivered by apps are of the moment and don’t get filed. Word of mouth is ephemeral. And where has all the newsprint gone?
Ebooks, which are all the rage in publishing circles now, preserve the tradition of organized information, sustained thought, intellectual context, language, and even art (if you don’t mind black and white). But what would an archaeologist get out of them? Societies that don’t leave a cultural record get lost in the sands of time.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe in doomsday prophecies any more than I believe in techno-hype. But there’s no denying that today’s edge is still thin, and we may be regrettably losing some things that are not just of the moment but have enduring social value.
Society needs to take social responsibility for the support and preservation of our press. That means that you and I need to pick up a newspaper now and again, even though the headlines may come as RSS feeds to our readers. Librarians, you need to reconsider before you cut. And advertisers, don’t do the same as the bankers who brought the economy down by maximizing short-term gains at the expense of your own culture.
All that said, the mood of the information industry in New York was celebratory, almost giddy. A colleague sidled up to me and whispered, “If you survived the year, you’re doing well.”
I don’t know what Darwin would have to say, but I’m inclined to go with Outsell’s admonition. As far as the industry goes, let’s not confuse survival with success.