SciBling Walt Crawford indulges himself in some prognosticating about the (non)demise of various physical means of delivering information: music, films, magazine, newspapers and books. He takes a cautious, conservative tack there, for the most part. I am supposed to be the wide-eyed digi-evangelists around here, but I was nodding along and, surprising to me, agreeing with much of what he wrote.
But I’d like to follow-up on this with some additional caveats and thoughts of my own. You may have to read Walt’s post first for the context, as this will be a direct riff off of him.
Regarded as some kind of “visionary” I often get asked, including in media interviews, to give these kinds of predictions, i.e., will medium A be “dead” in X years. I try to weasel out of those questions, and for a good reason.
We tend to laugh at soothsayers who got all their predictions wrong: the Nostradamuses and similar fakes. But we should remember that many people, including numerous science fiction writers, made many correct predictions. Where they tend to get it wrong is in assigning the exact dates – and then we laugh at them for that instead of admiring their power of vision.
So, when I get asked those prediction questions, I tend to answer in a different form. For instance, I may try to articulate ‘order’ instead of ‘timing’ and say something like: phase A will be followed by phase B will be followed by phase C, etc. This eliminates the need to give any kinds of numbers – in years – as to when any of those phases will happen. I am, just like everyone else, notoriously bad at predicting the rates of change, but the order of changes (and the identity of those changes) is easier to get right.
If pressed further, I may say that phase A will happen ‘pretty soon’ (which is ambigious on purpose and can mean anything between 10 months and 10 years), phase B we’ll see within our lifetimes (again purposefully ambiguous – anywhere between 10 and 100 years) and phase C will happen in the far future (even more ambiguos – may mean anything between 25 years and a 1000 years). That’s about as much precision as I am willing to offer.
So, I think that Walt unnecessarily hampered himself by imposing a strict number on his predictions. It is going to be much easier to measure if he was right about timing and thus ignore if he was right about substance.
Also, Walt’s choice of 5 years is extremely short. It is very easy to say that ‘nothing much will change in 5 years’ because that statement is basically correct. Sure, five years is incredibly long when one thinks about technological innovation and the rate of technological change – those things happen much faster. But on the other hand, social change does not happen that fast. And Walt is not talking about new inventions that will emerge on the market and become popular, but about disappearance of existing technologies, which is the domain of societal change, not technological.
First consideration: when a new technology in the media comes into the market and becomes popular, it first sweeps the tech-savvy, highly educated folks in big cities in the developed world. If you live in Tokyo, Amsterdam, San Francisco or London, you will be surrounded by such people and will tend to think that “everyone is now using this technology”. This ignores billions of people in the rural areas of developed countries as well as entire developing/undeveloped countries. I have a nagging feeling that Walt will agree with me on this point.
Second consideration: emergence of new and vanishing of old technologies also depends on how well it tacks onto the existing infrastructure and if the country has that infrastructure. For example, cell phone technology does not tack onto the landline phone network. In developed countries, the landline phone companies will try to slow down the process in order to save the utility of the network they are operating, thus they will start operating cell phone business but in a very customer-unfriendly and expensive manner. On the other hand, in a developing country with no landline phone infrastructure, the country can completely leap over that technology and jump straight into building (if they have money) the cell-phone infrastructure with no hindrance from any government-connected corporations. Thus, the landline phone technology will “die” faster in a country in which it was never really strong (e.g., the entire continent of Africa) than in developed countries in which people are used to landlines (and want to keep doing what they always did) and there are business forces that try to slow down the change.
Before you all go off-topic dissecting the above example, the take-home point of the paragraph was this: adoption of new and disappearance of old technology is a) going to occur at different rates in different geographies and b) will be contingent on a lot of factors, including local politics, business, finances, culture and, yes, climate. Some technologies are better adapted than others to extreme heat, cold, humidity or dust. Also, how much electricity does your gizmo require? Can you use it with a hand-crank or a couple of hamsters in running-wheels or does it require a stable and reliable electrical grid?
Third consideration: people differ in regard to adopting new technologies. Some people hungrily go after every new shiny thing, some forever cling to the ways they always used to do things (it’s surprising how many professional journalists and professional scientists – people one expects to be the most novelty-seeking, adventurous and flexible – are in this group!), and most are somewhere in-between, waiting to see what new technologies become indispensable (not just fads) before starting to use them (heck, it took me years before I got my first cell phone).
Even if a new technology completely sweeps the market, there will always be traditionalists, collectors and fans of the old tech. I do not see LPs or ham-radios (or even slide-rules or moleskins) ever going away: too many people just love those things, collect them, trade them, organize conferences about them, write academic papers about them, etc. In other words, even if most of the population in a given geography switches to a new technology, that technology cannot be pronounced dead as long as there are fan-clubs still using it.
Fourth consideration: really a variation of the Third. Producers of the technology, in face of societal changes in the use of that technology, adapt to a new niche. Horse breeding is still a multi-billion dollar business. If anything, horses are better and more expensive than ever in history. But the use of that technology is completely different. Nobody in the developed world (yes, go visit an undeveloped country and go to the rural areas – watch horses, or oxen or mules, plough the fields) is using horses for day-to-day transportation or agricultural work. Horses are now used by a different set of users for sport and leisure. While the technology called horses-as-transportation is dead, the technology horses is not. The technology has changed its use – hobby, rather than a need. Producers of that technology adapt to the new market.
So, yes, I agree with Walt that music CDs are not going to disappear in 5 years (how about in 100 years?). Their market share will diminish and it may become more of a hobby, but they will be there (more in some places than others, of course).
I agree with Walt that DVDs will still be around in 5 years, though I think Blue-Ray will go the way of Betamax: essentially dead.
The future (or what little is left of it) of print journalism is photojournalism. Text is already all online (and so are the audio and video clips). Long after the newspapers stop printing news on cheap paper, the glossy magazines dependent on high quality photography will keep getting printed: bridal gowns, real estate, sport, fishing and hunting magazines will thrive for quite a bit longer – they are selling glamour that Kindle and laptops are still incapable of reproducing as well as the dead-tree technology can. For a little while longer…
Also, our favourite beach/pool/airplane magazines, like The NewYorker, Atlantic and Harpers (high-quality long-form writing, not quite pleasant to read on an iPhone or laptop yet), still have a long way to go before dying….
Books: the Kindle is soooooo much an early prototype of the technology, we have a long way to go before we have something that new generations will adopt as ‘their’ technology (not even to mention the business aspects) . Our collective love of physical books is too strong and an entire generational shift will have to happen before the books die. Not to mention how much time it will need to digitize all the books. But once the new technology matures, it will, of course, change the way we read books, in a MacLuhanesque way.
As for newspapers, I have written about it a lot, and stated that metros will die, but hyper-local and super-global newspapers will survive – at least longer than 5 years – but will mostly be online anyway (you can print your copy – there is a “Print” button on your browser).
Now, you take a stab at predictions!