Tech Elephants & the State of Change at SSP 36

Photograph by William Albert Allard
With each new software release, what's possible grows. With each new company that comes online, or new resource or material that's created, what's imaginable expands. This is simply the state of play; Heraclitus' river is now grade-5 whitewater.

For those who grew up under Moore's law, not only are more things possible; they're inevitable. Whatever you see, briefly, as missing or desirable in any device, service, product, or feature set will be corrected or added to the next build, because if you've seen it, someone is already working on it and since they will naturally have faster and faster processors and more and more code at their disposal, the problem will fall.

It's a funny thing to grow up like that, or at least it's funny to those that didn't grow up like that; the outlooks and world views to come out of such an evidently or presumptively self-ameliorating iterative environment are fundamentally different from those outlooks that came before.

NASA saw the change/s and adapted to them early on. (This I have on the very good and entirely irresponsible, second-hand hearsay authority of a mother of a precocious college graduate who was snatched up to work in NASA labs in Texas a decade or so ago.) Older design engineers used to take lead in design-direction decisions on their teams because they were the most knowledgeable. They knew what worked and what didn't work, what would and what would not, and could guide the younger engineers as they 'came online' out of dream-filled days of school, learned those hard lessons, and caught up with reality. Later, as the pace of change increased, they saw that increasingly younger engineers -- who didn't know any better -- were able to try things that hadn't worked a few years ago, or even a few months ago, and get those things to work, delivering different results faster in rapid iterations. Silicon Valley and other tech centers saw this trend too, back in the late nineties, and regularly "poached" young elephants from computer labs.

It's always tempting to suggest that younger folks are smarter (especially for the less than superannuated among us); but perhaps it's worth while too to consider the case in less debatable terms, that they are less knowledgeable of the river that flowed before; ignorance isn't just bliss, but at times of rapid change, it is alternately enabling. Or to put it another way, when you step into rapids, regardless of your comfort level or experience with whitewater, you're going to go for a ride; it's your experience with the rapidity of the rapids, if you will, that determines whether the trip will be a happy and productive one for you or for your doctor.


In Erik Brynjolfsson's TED talk on the future of innovation The Key to Growth? Race with the Machines, (TED, February, 2013) he shares stats from the second industrial revolution a hundred and twenty years ago. He notes that the real advances in productivity did not happen when the factories electrified; in fact, it took another thirty years for workflows and processes to be reimagined, based on the flexibility of those new eFactories, for the greatest growth to be realized. That's time enough, as Brynjolfsson points out, for a human generation to turn.

In comparison with our age, he underscored that simply applying new technology wasn't what brought the greatest returns. Redefining who we were and what we set about to accomplish in light of the capabilities of the new technology is, and while we have seen great advances thus far, in our age of the computer, we will see more still if, when, and as we shift from the external focus of applied technology to this more existential and categorical focus of redefining the enterprise itself; i.e., not just replacing traditional processes and products with computers and digitally-built alternatives but in a sense "teaming" with the new technology to imagine what it is capable of in order to define new systems that aspire to do more and entirely new things than did the systems that were in place before.

The State of Change

Rick Joyce of Perseus Books delivered a rousing Keynote address to start the 36th annual meeting of the SSP last week in Boston. He shared many adventures in new marketing approaches at Perseus and its imprints (e.g., Basic Books), including the first ever Publishing Hackathon, from May of last year, and a thoughtful review of future implications of mobile-publishing and content delivery; e.g., work/s regarding famous landmarks delivered or offered to visitors as they pass by. The talk was rich with suggestions for scholarly presses -- such as finding new ways to leverage the inherent value in and expertise of our scholars/authors -- and as soon as slides/video are available, all scholarly publishers should check them out.

via niemanlab.org
Throughout Joyce stressed the growing need for publishers to stretch their definitions of their roles from producers of products such as books and eBooks to deliverers of value and wonder in new forms -- a sentiment that resonated well with the now famously leaked NYT's Innovation report from earlier in the year. Now, if we take a step back and consider the innovation discourse of just a few years ago, back when people were discussing mobile cheese and talking mice (can you imagine?), the argument was more externally focused. The cheese, she is moved; let's go find the cheese. Then, for a time, we heard messages about the pace of change and how the pace of change was accelerating; everything was about keeping up and reacting faster: be nimble, pivot to avoid disaster.

These suggestions that we're hearing today, from Joyce and the Innovation team at NYT and elsewhere, are more organizationally and internally focused (less cheesy). They foreground the need to rethink and radically restructure what we're doing not just how we're doing it (e.g., developing new software programs to deliver our own B2B services, finding new ways to leverage the expertise of our authors). I'd say that this shift in the focus of these strategic suggestions (from how can we react to a sudden change, to considering what else we can do entirely -- taking change as a given) places us somewhere down Brynjolfsson's productivity curve; we may not be running with machines, quite yet, but some of us are choosing up teams.

The 36th annual meeting of the SSP in sum

It's true to say that the SSP 36th annual meeting was, as it usually is, packed with new technology and creative uses of new platforms and practices, but from Rick Joyce's shared vision for new marketing and new programming, to Delta Think's tutorial on contextual inquiry-bassed product development, and on to the closing sessions on new product releases and on augmented reality via Google Glass and via other devices yet to be imagined, it was clearly more than that; it was a proving ground, heralding things to come not only for presses but from presses in the next digitally expansive era that's beginning to open up for us upstream.

Morag and others will of course tell you that there is absolutely no reasonable possibility for successful, meaningful change in the models for publishing, not yet, and they're as right as can be, in retrospect; an elephant never forgets the waters that it has stepped in. But as Joyce and others suggest, the opportunity to change, for the moment, is only the greater for it.