Though headlined by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and including a report on the progress of congressional copyright-related legislation by Rep. Jerry Nadler (Dem., N.Y.), this year’s Association of American Publishers annual meeting was really focused on the impact of disruptive innovation in the publishing sector. Indeed, the primary speakers, Forrester Research technology analyst James McQuivey and iconoclastic polymath Jaron Lanier, gave new meaning to the term “digital divide,” offering sharply contrasting reactions to rise of digital networks, devices, and social media and their disruptive impact on traditional business and the culture at large.
On the one hand, they both believe the havoc unleashed on traditional businesses by digital technology is essentially perpetual, but they diverge very quickly after that. For McQuivey, author of Digital Disruption: Unleashing the Next Wave of Innovation, disruption is the status quo and it is inevitable, a natural byproduct of relentless technological development that creates new opportunities in otherwise static marketplaces. “Digital accelerates disruption, other companies see ways into the markets of other businesses,” he said. “Disruption today is cheap, more people can participate,” he said before noting more specifically, “authors can bring their own ideas to market without publishers. We have to rethink how we deal with disruption.”
In the era of the smartphone, tablets, and social media, disruptive transformation is cheap, easy and constant. “Build new processes and relationships,” he said, “disrupt yourselves” before your competitors do it, including competitors from sectors publishers may never have considered before.
In the past, McQuivey said, disruption was expensive and essentially came from within each business sector—he used the ATM machine and the banking industry as an example. But today, in a world with more than 70 million Kindles, 195 million iPads, and hundreds of millions of smartphones, McQuivey said embracing disruption “is an economic imperative. The economics of disruption can work for big publishers.” Get staff involved, he exhorted, set their ideas free, budgets are no longer a barrier. “Let your staff and your authors explore new ways of doing business.”
A well-known technology author and thinker, Lanier is also a charismatic digital apostate, who laments the rise of digital networks and their impact on culture. The author of Who Owns the Future? but also a one-time pioneer in computer programming, Lanier essentially apologized to the assembled AAP members for his role in helping to develop the digital networks that power the world we live in today. “I started something that hurt you badly,” he said, focusing on the impact of technology on book publishing. “But the book is not just another file type. It’s the summit of individual personal expression, an integral whole. The book reflects a person and it must not be allowed to die.” Not the usual message one hears from digital natives, especially an ur-digital native such as Lanier. To reassure the audience of the sincerity of his message, he told the assembled publishers, “I want you to succeed,” and said he “turned down an offer from Amazon to publish my book.”
McQuivey, on the other hand, acknowledged that his book was published by the #1 publishing disruptor, Amazon, which he chose because he wanted “to own disruption.”
The digital transformation, Lanier said, is a bad idea run amuck. “I was around at the dawn of the digital world. I have a different persepective on it; its development was haphazard and arbitrary,” he said. “But it can be changed,” he said, telling the audience that digital evils like easy copying and file sharing can be reversed. “The world doesn’t have to be this way. Technology can be reinvented.”
“I was part of the early rhetoric about destroying the traditional publishing model,” he said. “We thought new things and opportunities would come from it. That’s true, but what happened next was very different.” Lanier believes that while destroying traditional business models, digital technology is also destroying the middle class. “What is happening to publishing is a precedent for what will happen to the rest of the economy.”
While McQuivey outlines a future of relentless innovation, powered by both technology and the input from vast numbers of producers and consumers themselves, Lanier sees a wasteland of unemployment, with jobs across all categories wiped out by the inevitable processes of hyper-efficiency. “There will be more disruption of employment,” he said. “This pattern will be repeated. Everything can be made hyper-efficient.” He called Big Data, the ability to use cheap and powerful networked computing to process huge data sets and make predictions, a “short-term, winner-take-all” strategy that will ultimately fail.
Talk about mixed messages. While McQuivey’s vision of a world of perpetual disintermediation, each new upheaval creating new opportunities, new jobs, and new business models, seems closest to the world evolving right before our eyes, it’s hard to completely dismiss Lanier’s dystopian projections. But can publishing or any other business in today’s world, really take seriously the notion that the internet can be “reinvented,” retrofitted so that it’s a kind of copyright-secure version of the current Web? It’s all just a little hard to believe.