Two realities for Issue 4: (1) For the first time, Kugelmass is available in digital format. (2) With no real intent on my part, a fair amount of work featured in this issue delves into the subject of religion. What do these seemingly disparate issues religion and digital publishing—have in common? I have no idea. Well maybe. It starts with this true story:
It is 2007 and you are working at a venerable Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper, the oldest continuously published newspaper in the United States, in fact. And things are bad. Ad revenue is a sliver of what it was five years earlier, five months earlier, five minutes earlier, as upstarts like Hotjobs, Ebay and Craigslist eroded classified advertising sections from the likes of 30 pages a day to six. Meanwhile, circulation numbers correlate with the per capita death rate and more and more advertisers stop returning phone calls.
Clearly the newspaper needed some vision, an answer for the future. And this newspaper had just the man for the job. He's a news veteran. Been with the paper for a couple decades, looks and acts like he'll retire any minute now, though he's actually about ten years younger than you think. He's just been promoted to assistant managing editor whose actual job description entailed a "focus on operations and strategies for the future."
He's your boss's boss but you walk into his office for a one-on-one. He's soliciting advice from underlings, perhaps to show he's open to ideas, a man of the people. Somewhere in the meeting you ask: So what's the paper's future look like on the web?
Ah, good question, he says. He's glad you asked. He promptly rises from his desk the size of a billiards table, walks to a shelf and returns with an enormous binder full of mockups, charts, memos and treatises. It looks like something they'd hand out at a board meeting ten years before the advent of PowerPoint.
The fact that the strategy for the future was housed in a binder says everything you need to know about the response newspapers had to the internet. These were dinosaurs. The meteor had crashed into the earth and these stooges were clinging to their dinosaur ways, peddling a product made by, for and about dinosaurs (though future fundamentalists would doubt the existence of these dinosaurs. Some would claim their dug-up bones to be a mass hoax while others would claim them to be placed on earth to test the faith of the existence of Craig, of Craigslist).
In hindsight, the binder was simple: Print was god. Ink and paper was dogma. It's all he'd ever known.
It's easier a few years out to see how vulnerable the newspaper institution had become, an institution that had begun to believe its power and control was inherent and God-given and everlasting. But, my, is it funny how disruptive technology can unseat once unquestionable power. Funnier how it's nothing new.
Remember the early 1500s? That pesky printing press thing had been on the scene for 50-ish years (which is about three months in 21st century time) and would soon flood the world with books and ideas. But at his core, its inventor, Johannes "Not Steve" Gutenberg was all establishment, making a ton of cash printing indulgences for the establishment of establishments, the Catholic Church.
Prior to Gutenberg's press, the church was like a state-run newspaper in Stalinist Russia, or a textbook committee in Texas. It controlled what information made it to the public, as producing written works required a lot of time and money and the scribes who copied them by hand were often the only literate people this side of the pope.
Can you imagine what would happen in a place where the one source of information was the church, and the means for its citizens acquiring knowledge came from looking at pictures and listening to a priest?
As printing presses began popping up and books flooded the countryside, the Catholic Church was losing its stranglehold on ideas. But man did they go down fighting, as Pope Paul IV trotted out the Index of Prohibited Books in 1559. Among the books on this list were Historiae animalium, by the botanist Conrad Gesner and the works of Jacob Ziegler, a theologian, cartographer, geography scholar. Lesser known books on the list were "Nadel im Heuhaufen Ihre (Needle in Your Haystack)" by Hans Bergmann and "Pokojové Rostliny Dělají Dobré Přátele (Houseplants Make Swell Friends)" by Svarc Ruzicka.
(Later, the church attempted to squelch the ideas of a few others with its list. Thankfully this was a collection of nobodys whose ideas and advancements were not only puny and inconsequential but obscene and mentally damaging, people like: Jean-Paul Sartre, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Victor Hugo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, René Descartes, Francis Bacon, John Milton, John Locke, and some burnout named Galileo. So, you know, if the church gives it a thumbs down...)
While Gutenberg could be considered the Al Gore of printing, it took a Steve Jobs like Martin Luther to come along and really stick it to The Man (or in this case, nail it to The Man's door), taking particular issue with rules that came not from historic religious texts, but from, as Luther wrote in 1517, "the hind end of a money-grubbing, fear-mongering, arse clown." Luther's reformation and the pamphlets and broadsheets that followed, aided by Gutenberg's commentum diaboli or "contraption of the devil," brought further deterioration of the Catholic Church, ending effectively its 90 percent approval ratings. Its faithful had been led out of the dark.
From there, the proliferation of books meant a mass exchange of information and exposure to new ideas. And not just for the elites, who'd been thinking their wealth and education was a bestowment from on high, never realizing that they had all the money and power because their fathers had all the money and power. This infiltration and sharing of knowledge spawned new ideas in art, philosophy, business and, notably, science. If the Catholic Church took a huge blow by some guy essentially offering a slightly different version of the same religion, imagine the catastrophe it would face when guys like Charles Darwin came out and said, "Um, I have some bad news."
While the church had allotted meager scraps of fish for centuries, suddenly the world was flooded with books on fishing. And with them, advancements led to more advancement. Things got more complex, not less. The distance between Rome and New York would—like microchips nowadays—shrink every day. Technological breakthroughs begot tools and machines, leading to mass production and capabilities to make a surplus of cars, refrigerators, toys, and pairs of pants. So we invented advertizing and consumer culture to convince people that they needed all of it. We entered wars and went to the moon. We faced unprecedented leisure time so we built an industry of entertainment and the idea of celebrity and the media mogul and the 24-hour news cycle. Wealth and fame and consumption became God, and life became about the Next Big Thing: for the developers to monetize and the consumers to show off to their friends.
When power is in the hands of a few, a rapid response to threat is not as urgent. But as the Web 2.0 has shown time and again, if you don't adapt and evolve rapidly you become history. Though many of the same power structures of the last 100 years are currently intact, the internet has clearly brought Gutenberg-like power shifts. Many of these have been in the media landscape like music, home movies, news and publishing, all unceremoniously transferred to the Wichita office.
I know what happened to newspapers but what about publishing? Even when e-books were still that half-fish, half-frog thing that finally crawled out onto land, did the New York literary giants still think we'd be reading on paper forever? Likely not. But like the dinosaurs at my old newspaper, when the question became, "When should we really start worrying," those calling the shots probably answered, "Not before I retire."
But it came before they were ready, which left them scrambling to find a way to retain their control. And their fumble, like newspapers, left them playing catch-up with some skateboard-to-work, ping-pong-and-dogs-in-the-office kids in Silicon Valley, who'd astonishingly rewritten the rules so quickly, rules that New York could have sworn were written on stone tablets.
The rules were on tablets alright. And they were handed down by God. Only God's name was Steve Jobs, and the type was definitely moveable.