The Digital Age: A Seasonal Snapshot


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What follows are edited remarks made last week to the Salisbury Forum at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut, on the subject of "Good Books. Quality News: Publishing & Journalism in the Digital Age." Some of these will be recognizable themes to regular readers of this column. But a summary from time-to-time provides a valuable base for measuring the enormous changes likely to come in the months ahead:

Welcome to the digital age of information and entertainment distribution, a world of profound, even dizzying, change. Facebook, with 450 million users, is barely six years old. So is YouTube. Google has been around for less than decade as a public company. And yet these brand names, and products like the iPhone, iPod, and Kindle have become standard features in our society and, by extension, they are playing an increasing role in our content economy.

For one measure of how fast things change and how volatile they are, consider that, in the mid-1990s, 30 million people were paying $20 a month for their America Online dial-up service—and then they weren't. The panorama before us is not the destination. It is a journey on which we are all being carried by technology, which is the driving force behind society's communications and entertainment as never before. A century ago, our culture was shaped by, among others, two graduates of Hotchkiss, Henry Luce and Brett Haddon. They were inventors of the mass news magazine, which were in a way, like today's websites, providing you with an array of information. Walt Disney, William Paley, David Sarnoff, William B. Mayer were the pioneers of film and television. Their emphasis was content, mainly entertainment, using cameras and screens as they evolved.

Today's version of those visionaries are primarily engineers and marketing geniuses like Steve Jobs of Apple, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Eric Schmidt of Google, Bill Gates of Microsoft, and Jeff Bezos of Amazon. In the space of a generation, they have transformed distribution but they are much less involved in developing the content than their predecessors. That is the role of people like me and the challenge we face is how best to accommodate this revolution in the way things are presented and secure the quality we cherish in the process.

The message I have for you is that what we see now is really a snapshot. If there is as much change in the next ten years as there has been in the past decade, then iconic brands of the moment may be replaced by gadgets and networks being devised right now by some graduate student in a garage. This is, of course, exciting, but it is also extremely daunting, especially for those of whose main role is to develop the content in all the ways technology now permits and, increasingly, demands.

There are three parts to this discussion. First, what does all this activity mean to you, the consumers, the readers of news and books? And then I'll try to explain where I think the worlds of book publishing and quality news gathering are headed. These are vast subjects, so what you're getting amounts to a sketch.

The Digital Age and Consumers

Two characteristics dominate today's information and entertainment more than they ever have before: the power of choice; and on-demand delivery. Each day, each of us makes a series of decisions about where, when, and how we consume information and entertainment. When it comes to news, each of you is your own editor-in-chief. A generation ago, the paper was delivered to your door, you watched the evening news, and you read a weekly magazine or two. All of these were prepared by journalists who told you what they thought you needed to know and that seemed to work. Advertisers supported the mass market so the proprietors and publishers, especially in monopolies, were secure and all-powerful.

Today that model no longer applies. As your own editor-in-chief, you select among a vastly greater series of options. ;Never before has more material—stuff, if you want to be vaguely pejorative—been so available. And never before has the consumer had greater responsibility and the privilege that goes with that to make choices about what they want to know. On-demand delivery: being your own editor-in-chief also gives you control over the timing and format of the information and entertainment you want.

Take movies as an example. Watching movies is one of our family's favorite weekend activities. Here are the ways we can watch: video-on-demand on cable (including, increasingly, independent films on the same day they are released in theaters), recent Hollywood films on demand, standard cable (I'm a fan of Turner Classic Movies), premium cable like HBO, iTunes downloads, and Netflix instant-streaming over the Internet. I can buy DVDs on Amazon, rent them through Netflix, or take them out of the library. And finally, if I want to see Avatar in 3D for $15 a ticket, I can go to the multiplex. Every one of these options is essentially mine on demand. The obligation of the content creator has decisively shifted from providing you with goods on their terms to making those goods available to you where, when and how you want them. Being hard to find is a disqualifier to success these days.

This is also true of news. If you want a single fix a day in the time-honored way, of course you can have it. But news at every level, from the cheesiest web gossip to the most sophisticated political and foreign policy analysis is available where, when and how you choose to search for it. The power to choose and on-demand delivery are defining features of our age. Both are thrilling and overwhelming.

The Digital Age and Books

Here is a basic fact. Books are not disappearing, contrary to what you may sometimes hear. Publishing is under pressure. That has always been the case. It is often said that the second book published after Gutenberg invented the printing press was called The Book Is Dead. Remember, books don't have advertising, so we're not losing it; we don't have subscribers so we're not losing them either. The issue for books has always been—now, stay with me on this—inventory management; that is putting books in the right place at the right time. In that sense, book publishing can only benefit if more people adopt the principle and gadgetry of on-demand delivery.

Traditionally, when people contemplated finding a book that was not a huge bestseller, their thought has tended to be, "I'll see if I can get it. I'll go look for it." In Russia, when I lived there in the 1970s, there was no verb in common use for "to buy." The verb instead was "to obtain, to acquire with difficulty." Most books, like those we publish at PublicAffairs, tend to be more visible in reviews and interviews than they are available from booksellers. A critically hailed work this winter by Jonathan Cole, the former provost of Columbia University, called The Great American University, was launched with 9,000 copies in print for our nation of 320 million people, because that was the orders we had in advance. Technology is now making these books far easier to find. In 2005, with support from the MacArthur and Carnegie Foundations, I started a project we called Caravan to do books in all the ways possible: in print, as e-books, audio, large print and from print-on-demand machines. The motto we adopted was "Good Books. Any Way You Want Them. Now."

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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