Sunday, December 9, 2007

BoSacks Speaks Out; Steering the New World Digital Order

Steering the New World Digital OrderBy BoSacks

There is a book by Ray Kurzweil called "The Singularity Is Near." In this book, Mr. Kurzweil has a theory about The Law of Accelerating Returns, which states that in today's business environment, "Change happens faster than we are able to forecast or predict it." This is a departure not only from long ago, but from our more recent past as well. There was, in our lifetime, the possibility of accurately predicting technologic growth. Those days have gone up in digital smoke. Technologic growth that once took multiple generations to achieve now happens in months.

Another of Mr. Kurzweil's concepts is that the rate of technologic change is not linear, but exponential. This is not a new concept to anyone in the publishing field.

Everyone knows that I love technology and the possibilities that it holds, especially for those in our industry. We are, no doubt, on the bleeding edge compared to most other professionals. Retailers, lawyers, cabbies, mothers and most others, although impacted every day by the new world digital order, are affected somewhat less visibly than those of us who transmit information in the forms of magazines, newspapers, newsletters and the like. We are pushing and prodding the system to go ever faster.

Over the past decade, publishers have digitally married the electronic workflow. It occurred to me this morning that a magazine can no longer be produced without a computer. This is not a shocking discovery, but it did make me stop and think. From the written word pecked out on a keyboard, e-mailed and clipped by the editor, formatted and manipulated by the art director, spun with great skill and digital alchemy by the production elite, and converted by the printer magically to CTP, there is no longer any step in the process that is not fully and completely computerized. The presses are controlled by digits, the bindery is efficiently automated, and the bundling and shipping is all tagged and directed by database files. In the near future, magazines will likely have little computer chips called RFID imbedded into them for further electronic enhancement and accountability.

But what exactly have we produced with all this speed and technology? We have precision-engineered a book, a magazine or a newspaper--all three printed on paper. We have created a product that requires no electricity to operate. You don't need to plug it in or even attach a cord. In fact, if you do have a cord, it won't fit. It is not sensitive to magnetic surges or system failures of any kind. If left alone, it retains its imagery indefinitely. It can be dropped, stepped upon and will still be totally functional. And if, God forbid, you should spill coffee on it, for a few bucks you can get an exact duplicate. Basically, the format can never become outdated.

So now that that is out of my system, I can move on. Mr. Kurzweil is right about the dramatic speed of change, and that change has affected society as well as technology. And although the printed product is near perfection, there is one thing that it just cannot do, and that is refresh, change and update itself. Once, these were unnecessary, unsought-after functions. Now, we may have a society that demands them.

Here is another interesting thought on technology and our new society that comes from the findings of an in-depth, seven-month study by MTV and the Associated Press on happiness and young people: How happy are they, what makes them happy, and what are they doing to ensure future happiness? The results are that cell phones, the Internet and other technologies are woven into the lives of today's young people, and nearly two-thirds say that technology makes them happier.

What we have now in "screenagers" is a generation that has the ability to be in touch with each other immediately starting at earlier and earlier ages. This new generation of kids is naturally adept with technology and the speed of its change. They are comfortable with having virtual access to friends, family and the world at large. This is a generation that is just as comfortable with digital delivery as it is with bound books.

My conclusion from all this is that there is a very positive and robust future for publishers. We have the technology to print perfect books and magazines for those who desire them. We also have the ability to reach out to new generations of readers in new formats such as e-paper, cell phones and PDAs, and who knows what is right around the corner. All that matters is that we monetize our franchise and deliver our product to readers everywhere and anywhere they would like it.

Bob Sacks (aka BoSacks) is a consultant to the printing/publishing industry and president of The Precision Media Group ( He is publisher and editor of a daily international e-newsletter, Heard on the Web. Sacks has held posts as director of manufacturing and distribution, senior sales manager (paper), chief of operations, pressman, cameraman and often called a new age corporate janitor.