Wednesday, May 07, 2008

IPods, Printing and the Inquisition

IPods, Printing and the Inquisition
Posted by Rupert Goodwins
An enduring question: what happened to Islamic science and philosophy? In early and mid medieval times, it was the best on the planet: any system of knowledge that encompasses algorithms, Algol and alembics gets my vote. But as the West clicked into overdrive, the Islamic traditions calcified and reversed; by the end of the 19th century, the Ottoman empire had gone rotten and collapsed under the pressure of expansionist Europeans and internal reformists. (Final outcome: to be decided.)

One of the more compelling arguments for this sea change is differing attitudes to the moveable type printing press. Although the technology certainly had its problems in the West - publishers still get burned these days through bad decisions, but not quite as literally as before - it became one of the major tools of reformation, gradually unhooking the fingers of church and state from the throat of those with other ideas. It was the primary tool of the Enlightenment.

Over in the Arabic-speaking world, the story was different. The printing press turned up, but failed to make much of an impact: as a result, documents of all kinds remained rare, expensive and tightly controlled. (It's probably wrong to say, as some have, that there was thus no reformation in Islam; Islam is, at least theoretically, non-hierarchical and eschews the sort of church structure that characterises Roman Catholicism. But that really is another story). From my reading, I thought that this rejection was due to a combination of suspicion at what might happen and a much better piece of good old-fashioned guild-style market control by the existing scribes than the Europeans managed.

Not so, says a (beautifully illustrated) article in Saudi Aramco World. The piece argues that the real reason was calligraphy: written Arabic, although composed from 28 basic letters much as is Latin script, is always joined up - with each letter having four ways to join to its neighbour, and each two-letter combination having its own unique shape. Moreover, the choice of which option to take was dictated by ineffable rules of beauty known only to the calligrapher, who choreographed his (oh yes, definitely his) words like so many dancers.

The mathematics of trying to combine all this with moveable type simply defeated the early printers, says the magazine, and the results were so clumsy and crude that the technology was rejected - quite rightly - as unsuitable to the task.

Now, it's true that early European printers managed to get their style together very early on, certainly comparable with hand-written script: did this help acceptance? Hard to argue that it didn't: the Gutenberg Bible went to great lengths to replicate the look of existing manuscripts. But as soon as the press got out into mass production, the quality went through the floor. Take a look at 16h and 17th century pamphlets, and you'll see all the horrors that DTP visited upon us in the 1980s. Nobody seemed to mind much.

But then, it's also true that there are cultural aspects of Arabic that just don't exist for European languages: it could well be that reading badly set Arabic is far more like having your eyeballs sandpapered than the effects of anything you could torture out of Ventura Publisher. And while it's certainly more agreeable to blame cultural lacunae on untransgressable beauty instead of reactionary conservatism, there's no doubt that Arabic is far more complex to set than the latinates.

Let's stay in the 1980s, and the arrival of another new world-changing technology: the microprocessor. It deals in the lingua franca of mathematics, of data represented as 1 and 0. If any rising tide should float all cultural boats, this was it: but apparently not. According to a pseudonymous post by "GT" on their Gatunka blog, the Japanese did remarkably badly from the early days of 8-bit microprocessors. (GT says they are a technical translator working in Japan: certainly seems to know their onions). While the West was busy enjoying the first wave of cheap word processors and general-use computing, the intricacies of entering and displaying Japanese ideograms were simply beyond what that technology could do. You could build a games console, where the few bits of Japanese you needed were represented as bitmaps alongside the rest of the game's graphics, but for text editing on a computer? Forget it. By the time cheap computer technology was up to the job - around 2000 - the West had had general purpose computers at home for long enough for them to have evolved into the central hub for an entire economy. The iPod makes no sense without a home PC: thus, argues GT, the Japanese could not have invented it. That's why Sony got stuck at the Walkman.

Obviously, the social, political and economic implications of being a bit behind with your iPods are substantially different to thoseof abandoning the printing press and the Enlightenment. But both stories illustrate how sensitive technology is to the culture in which it arrives - and how hard it is to avoid naïve assumptions about the interactions between the two (you listening, Negroponte?).

It's particularly important to bear these things in mind if you're an English-speaking jourmalist, finding oneself gifted with the most generally applicable language and (no coincidence) the most advanced technology on the planet. What else am I missing?

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

What CEOs Need to Know About the Social Web

What CEOs Need to Know About the Social Web
Posted by Tom Weber

From blogs and Wikipedia to Facebook and Twitter, each new wave of digital communications generates more upheaval for businesses. In his recent book, "Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations," Clay Shirky explores the ramifications of a world in which people can find each other and collaborate with increasing ease. Mr. Shirky is a writer, consultant and faculty member at New York University (we recently highlighted his comments on the payoff from converting TV-watching time into more productive endeavors).

Buzzwatch recently caught up with Mr. Shirky to discuss how these technologies are changing the equation for companies, managers and CEOs. Read on for Mr. Shirky's thoughts-and don't miss his unusual approach for handling information overload at the end of the interview.

Buzzwatch: Sum up the basic changes you're talking about.

Mr. Shirky: My five word summary of the book is: Group action just got easier. The thesis is that humans are natively good at doing things in groups. We know how to share, collaborate, converse. So whenever you get a new tool or technology that makes it easier for people to share or collaborate, you're going to see a lot more of that going on. The Internet-and increasingly, mobile phones-have provided us with a platform of huge new tools and services to do exactly that. So we're seeing now the first phase of experimentation and people saying, "What can we build on top of these tools?"

Buzzwatch: What does a CEO need to understand about the ways collaboration is changing?

Mr. Shirky: There are two different big things. The first is: Inside your hierarchy is a network. This isn't about networks replacing hierarchies-we're still going to have managers and promotions. But particularly for large companies, there's a lot of value that can be unlocked by letting employees work with one another. There were two research groups at IBM separated by the Atlantic Ocean-one in Armonk and one in the U.K. They were working on the same problem, but of course they didn't know that. They employed a tool IBM built called Dogear, a tagging tool. These two groups discovered-without any managerial oversight-that they were working on the same problem. They said, "Why don't we get together and collaborate?" That's the kind of enterprise value that can't be driven by the manager. In any complicated field, the people you're managing know more about the problem than you do. This is a way of getting at that value.

The outside message is: Your customers, who have previously been relatively separated from one another, with their principal connection to you, may start becoming your competitors or your collaborators. CEOs need to be in the position of understanding what might happen and then try to work out strategies for the threats and for the opportunities.

Buzzwatch: If you could suggest one collaboration tool for businesspeople to get familiar and comfortable with, what would it be?

Mr. Shirky: There's no one tool that does everything. So that's the first thing to understand. That said, one tool I would pick is Flickr. The value of understanding Flickr is in seeing how completely simple participation can be. You take a photo, you upload a photo. Flickr has me-first value. The principal value is to the user. But then you start to see what happens when you add even a little bit of participation to the mix, letting people label photos and comment on photos. You will see how quickly the social component can form around these artifacts.

There's also something that CIOs rather than CEOs need to understand. It's almost universally the case with social software that the software that launches with the fewest features is the stuff that takes off. The shift is from thinking about the computer as a box to thinking of the computer as a door, and nobody wants a door with 37 handles. Twitter has six features, and it launched with only one. A brutally simple mental model of the software that's shared by all users turns out to be a better predictor of adoption and value than a completely crazy collection of features that ends up being slightly different for every user.

Buzzwatch: Apart from the broader business implications, do you see lessons for professional managers? What can a manager learn from self-organizing groups?

Mr. Shirky: What a manger can learn is that self-organizing groups don't stay self-organized very long. This is one of the great myths of this stuff, the hive mind. Go look at the talk pages of any moderately frequently edited Wikipedia entry. When you look at open-source projects, these are not non-hierarchical paradises. These are strongly hierarchically managed projects.

The lesson for managers is that the kind of social issues that create the need for management don't go away. They're going to surface in any large project involving humans. But the skills needed now are different from the ones we're used to. We have a world in which the two classic poles are the micromanager and the grand strategic visionary.

But when people are self-organizing, it requires a management skill that is much closer to facilitation. When you see the really good ones-a Linus Torvalds on the Linux project, or a Teresa Nielsen Hayden managing the comments on Boing Boing-you see people who aren't operating with an ironclad set of rules but are responding situation by situation. To the degree you start opening up to insights of people who don't work for you or you can't control in the same way, that facilitating function becomes a core management skill.

Buzzwatch: Crowds can be wise, but they can also be shallow. What are the downsides in this new environment? What can be done to minimize them?

Mr. Shirky: The downside is that if society does not have the ability to affect which groups do and don't form, it creates negative as well as positive repercussions. I have an example in the book, these pro-anorexia groups. In the past they could not have taken out an ad in the newspaper or met in a church group. The people who control the bottlenecks wouldn't have let them. Now there are no more bottlenecks. It's similar to the way the First Amendment says to society, we can no longer prevent bad speech, so we put society in the position of reacting to bad speech. We can't prevent these things, we just have to react to them. It just takes more attention and more work.

Buzzwatch: How do you personally cope with information overload?

Mr. Shirky: Here I think the lesson is, there is no such thing as information overload. Or rather, we've been in information overload since 1500. Which is roughly the year there was more written material to be read than a human being could read in a lifetime.

What we're dealing with now is filter failure. Imagine going into a bookstore that had no organization, with books being dumped into the street and the store saying, "Wade in and find the management book you want." The bookstore would be as broken as our sense of email is today.

So the single most important change is attitude. We are all having to abandon, a bit at a time, the idea of getting through our email queue. We have to instead say, I'm going to start at the top of my day with the most important stuff and work my way down. And I'm going to accept at the end of the day that I'm not going to be done. For people for whom a sense of completeness is vital, that's a painful shift.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Publishers on Redefining the Role of Print

Publishers on Redefining the Role of Print
Outgoing ABM Chairman: If we don't change, we're 'in trouble.'
By Matt Kinsman

LA QUINTA, California-The tagline for American Business Media's Spring Meeting is "New Paths To Success." And while much of the conversation revolves around expected topics of video and social media, the changing role of the print product is accounting for much of the conversation as well."There's a lot of talk about Web 2.0 but there is very little talk about Magazines 2.0," says Hanley Wood CEO and outgoing ABM chairman Frank Anton. "If the magazines published two or three years from now aren't different, we're in trouble. "The current magazine model won't take us into the next five years, let alone the next 100 years."

Magazines need to be rethought from top-to-bottom-editorial approach to circulation to folio size, Anton says. "We need to let readers decide the content-instead of one version for 100,000 readers but a lot of custom versions," he added.

"Circulation needs to be reviewed. It's bloated-in some cases by 60 percent or more. Maybe we need to move away from controlled circulation and have people pay for products."Nielsen chairman and CEO David Calhoun said magazines have to be approached in terms of how they complement other media. "I don't believe publications are going away but if they don't understand their role in relation to other media, they will lose," he said. "I hate reading about one form of media losing out to another, and print is always thought about in terms of competing with other media.

In the evolution of the magazine, print will have to assume a role in the bigger scheme. What are its interactions with other media? Each reinforces the other." Limiting Magazine Size and SponsorshipsThick magazines may indicate publication health but they may not be serving time-pressed readers, according to Anton, who says publishers should start thinking about limiting folio size."Our biggest magazines going forward will be 96 pages," says Anton. "Publishers should consider exclusive sponsorship to one advertiser rather than selling many window advertisers."

Brands are interested in becoming part of the conversation both online and in print, according to IBM vice president of marketing Edward Adams-who stressed that doesn't mean violating editorial autonomy but didn't offer an example. "Magazines are important from that independent, authoritative perspective," said Adams. "How do I get embedded in a way that's less an advertising approach? I'm not talking about crossing the church-state line but how do we participate?"

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Why The Week is gaining on Time and Newsweek

Why The Week is gaining on Time and Newsweek
By Jon Friedman, MarketWatch

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- Watch your back, Time and Newsweek.
The Week is here to stay.

This upstart magazine publishes a compilation of the week's biggest news events, culled from media outlets all over the world. Like many mainstream media people, I wasn't bowled over when it was launched in April 2001. It looked busier than a Bloomberg TV screen and seemed to be filled with mostly quick-hitting headlines.

But gradually, The Week grew on me, as it has caught on with the public. Its circulation is now a robust 500,000. Business travelers, a conspicuous segment of the busy and affluent readers targeted by The Week, appreciate the compact way that it presents the news. Watch related video.

These days, The Week, headed by its chairman, Felix Dennis, is also looking strong partly because of troubles at the headquarters of its primary rivals.

When I perused Time's latest issue, I wondered whether the 56-page edition was the smallest one in its modern history. (Time also had the chutzpah to carry a cover blurb for Joe Klein's column proclaiming: "The Incredible Shrinking Democrats.")

Speaking of Newsweek, its employees' hot parlor game is asking one another, "Did you take the buyout?" Enough said on the state of morale at the Washington Post Co.'s

The Week is gaining on its established rivals by subscribing to the most basic tenet in business: Give people what they want.

"The Week is written by a method," said General Manager Steven Kotok. "In 2001, we sat down and asked ourselves, 'What does a busy person want to read?'"

That planning is paying off. The magazine has built a strong readership "during a time when the category showed a net circulation decline," said Kotok. On the ad front, "The Week has grown and is barely down [in the first quarter], while nearly all competitors are down double-digits or worse."

What's the tipping point?
"It's about utility, not achieving an apotheosis of beautiful journalism," he said. "If you write for the reader, you'll always have a job."

That faint sound you hear right now is a thousand establishment journalists reaching for their Maalox. What Kotok brags about is exactly what unnerves many pundits about The Week. They see it as something journalistically unholy because, they conclude, it dumbs down the news to fit a business model.

If this seems familiar to you, merely substitute the words "USA Today" for "The Week." Since its founding in 1982, Gannett Co.'s USA Today has been criticized for making news more palatable to a mass audience who wants the publication to do its thinking for it.
Plus, the naysayers fret, The Week utterly disdains traditional tenets of the craft such as . . . original reporting.

The Week's Kotok, an affable fellow who seems to have a keen appreciation for great writing, makes no apologies. When he and I talked over lunch, he mentioned my recent series on the Economist. Read the column.

"I would cry if the Economist closed," Kotok said. "But The Week performs a different function. The Economist hears everything and gives you one perspective. The Week gives you all perspectives."

Kotok subsequently sent me an email that further points to The Week's DNA:
"My feeling is that The Week starts with what a busy, sophisticated person needs to be well-informed -- which we believe is multiple perspectives on today's current events. And we keep it to just that, and no more, because people today are busy. And because of our reader focus, our readers read every issue. The Economist and New Yorker put in all the content they think is important; in other words, they don't start with the reader's needs."

Easy entry
"We're a populist magazine," he explained. "We really are about the reader. The New Yorker is great to read and rightfully proud of great journalism -- but for its own sake."
The Week has a populist bent throughout its structure, too. "When I was 20, I had 50 people working for me," Kotok, 37, said of his entrepreneurial roots. In St. Paul, Minn., he started by managing a falafel shop and built it up to be a Midwest regional wholesale food business.

"After that, nothing seems hard," he said. "If I get a resume from a college dropout who has an achievement record, he or she definitely will get an interview. I want to hire someone who is hungry, has raw talent and business sense."

To understand where Time and Newsweek appear to have gone wrong with their audiences, you can find an answer in the April 25 issue of The Week itself.

On page 21, it quotes esteemed journalist Herbert Bayard Swope, writing in the Naples (Fla.) Daily News: "I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure -- which is: 'Try to please everybody.'"