Michael Nielsen & Clay Shirky: Futurologists 'R Us

Predicting the future is tricky business. Trust me, I know.

But there's two ideas I always like to keep in mind when I put my futurologist's hat on:

  • The future will be at least as diverse as the present, probably more so. But not likely less.
  • There's no guarantee that things will change for the better. There's also no guarantee that things will change for the worse. The only thing you can be sure of is that it'll be hard to get any agreement on which is which.

These two ideas are closely connected in my mind, compelling me to (hopefully) think realistically and honestly, if not always happily. So it's a bit of synchronicity that a couple of articles came to my attention yesterday which really draw out those themes.

The first is Michael Nielsen's There is no single future for scientific journals. We all sometimes fall prey to the idea that exactly one thing is going to happen to scholarly publishing in the future, when in fact even the current situation is not as conveniently monolithically uniform across and within disciplines as we would sometimes make out. Somehow, it makes us happy to think that the future is simpler than the past or the present. Bad science fiction has often been about simpler future.

A question I sometimes hear which I find odd is "What's the future of scientific journals?" Often - not always, but often - underlying the question is a presumption that there is a single future for journals. The point of view seems to be that we've had journals in the past, and now we have this interesting new medium - the internet - so the big question is how journals are going to evolve, or (if slightly more ambitious) what we're going to replace them with?

This seems to me a peculiar point of view. The origin of the point of view seems to be the fact that paper is a static, relatively inflexible medium. There's only a limited number of things you can do with paper and a printing press, so scientific publishing to date has ended up concentrated in just a few forms (journals, monographs, textbooks, and a few others). This monolithic character leads to a presumption that scientific communication will continue to evolve in a monolithic way.

At the same time, there's the transcript of Clay Shirky's talk about the future of investigative journalism this past Tuesday at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. I think his talk is an interesting tonic to the rampant techno-utopianism that we can all sometimes engage in. The future is messy and uncertain, a road potentially paved with gold but also with potholes and dead ends. While it's likely that we will gain things that are valuable, it's also possible that we will lose or damage some valuable things as well.

It's worth noting that I don't see Shirky's analysis as only applying to journalism, but to a much broader media and publishing landscape where business models will have to adjust to the potentially disruptive impacts of the Internet.

Which leaves us with a giant hole, and a very threatening one. And in the nightmare scenario that I've kind of been spinning at for the last couple years has been: Every town in this country of 500,000 or less just sinks into casual, endemic, civic corruption -- that without somebody going down to the city council again today, just in case, that those places will simply revert to self-dealing. Not of epic, catastrophic sorts, but the sort that just takes five percent off the top. Newspapers have been our principal bulwark for that, and as they're shrinking, that I think is where the threat is.


I think a bad thing is going to happen, right? And it's amazing to me how much, in a conversation conducted by adults, the possibility that maybe things are just going to get a lot worse for a while does not seem to be something people are taking seriously. But I think this falling into relative corruption of moderate-sized cities and towns -- I think that's baked into the current environment. I don't think there's any way we can get out of that kind of thing. So I think we are headed into a long trough of decline in accountability journalism, because the old models are breaking faster than the new models can be put into place.

To use the historical analogy from Eisenstein, from The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, there was a long hundred years between the Protestant Reformation and the Treaty of Westphalia. And that was a hundred years in which people almost literally did not know what to think. The old institutions were visibly not functioning any longer, but the nation-state as a new organizing principle was not yet in place. And those were, for many people, not a great hundred years.

So I have no idea how long this transition will take. But I don't think that some degree of failure and decay is avoidable. I think our goal should be to minimize the depth of that trough, to constrain that trough to the areas we can constrain it to, and to hasten its end. But I don't think we can get away with a simple and rapid alternative to what we enjoyed in the 20th century -- in part because the accidents that held that landscape together in the 20th century were so crazily contingent.

Shirky's talk is no where near as bleak and pessimistic as you might think from the quotes above. It's definitely worth reading the whole thing, same with the Nielsen piece.

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