Bright lights, big web

The BBC reports today that the WorldWideWeb (W3) is 20 years old, a moment that will be marked by the recreation of the first ever web page by Cern.

What's interesting and sometimes overlooked by those who talk about the transition from analogue to digital, is how this revolution was also the impetus of a wider cultural shift and economic resizing. According to this BBC report, "At the heart of the original web is technology to decentralise control and make access to information freely available to all. It is this architecture that seems to imbue those that work with the web with a culture of free expression, a belief in universal access and a tendency toward decentralising information."

It is not hard to see the parallels in how the publishing industry has also been transformed by the connected web; how the traditional structures created to spread free expression for centuries have been blown-up by the web bomb. Publishing companies are often chided for their resistance to change, but actually the web plays to their strengths: the wide (ideally worldwide) dissemination of writing and knowledge is their thing. That said, it is understandable why publishing companies might need to be wary of these kinds of structural changes to their businesses, but publishers—the individual within the companies—should embrace the shift. [In my own field I could never understand a journalist who was reluctant to 'get their story out there' to the widest audience as quickly as possible because it might damage the business. That the business needed to adapt was a different conversation, to the opportunity presented to the journalist to seize the moment.]

However, the irony, noted by the BBC, is that the WWW has also led to a counter-force, creating ever more powerful companies, such as Amazon, Apple and Google, that now dwarf the so-called gatekeepers of old, and don't respect the web's original core intentions. Twenty years ago no single entity had the power to change how and what we read, or the prices we pay for those reads as Amazon now enjoys. Yet while these companies deliver some of the promised freedoms and democratisation those founders wanted, they practise an iron-hand when it comes to shaping the future. These pioneers of an open internet and shared web, are seldom open and sharing themselves.

What was interesting about the shadow debate at the London Book Fair over whether Amazon was policing territoriality appropriately was the genuine realisation that Amazon could simply and unilaterally change the eco-system for everyone. For Amazon, read also Google, and Apple, and no doubt others we have not yet even heard of. For territoriality read copyright, DRM, author advances, royalties etc . . .

Adapting to the rise of these big groups has been in many ways more difficult than adapting to the web or the wider cultural shifts.

Over the past twenty years publishing companies have focused on firming up their structures, making them both more robust and more malleable in order to withstand the changing market forces. Despite what the detractors suggest, publishers have not gone out of business and their recent financial performances give no indication that they will be any time soon.

The impending merger of Penguin and Random House is, perhaps, the peak of this movement, a reaction both to the web and to the rise of the tech giants. But even smaller publishers have worked incredibly hard to digitize practices that came from a different age.

Of course this work is not done. The publishing 'system' can still look cumbersome when measured against the whizzy wide web, but it at least now allows digital publisher-led bright-spots to flare, without undermining the infrastructure that supports everything else. Fifty Shades is the supreme example of this: breaking the rules and remaking them.

If measured by this 20-year span, publishing merits a pass: it lives to fight another day but only because it was sharp enough to focus only on the questions it had an answer for. This won't always be the case: things may get trickier. And over the next 20 years it is the bright-spots that will need to shape how the machine evolves, not the other way round.

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