Bookmarkable Reading: Clay Shirky and Newspapers

Since I decided to revisit Steven Johnson’s thoughts on the future of news, it would be remiss of me to not also say something about Clay Shirky’s “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” which also happened to appear around March of 2009. “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” generated a great deal of conversation at the time — and it’s easy to see why. Clay raised a number of important and interesting questions about the future of newspapers, publishing, and journalism; none of which have clear or obvious solutions.

Settling upon solutions to those questions is difficult, because it requires that we look back upon the history of what has been, while looking forward into the future of what might be. In other words, while we have very good reasons to believe that we see history in the making in the Digital Age, the honest answer is still, who the heck really knows? We draw upon similar-seeming examples from the past, make inferences, and do our best to forecast into the future, but like Hegel would have us believe: “The only thing we learn from history is that we never learn from history.”

For example: Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. Eisenstein’s scholarly work focuses on the Print Revolution, and the deep and far-reaching changes wrought upon society by Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. We can see what life was like before this period, and what life was like after. The true challenge, it turns out, is in discerning that historical change, as it is happening: “During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points.”

“Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” is worth reading (at least once, hopefully twice), because it covers quite a bit of ground — from the newspaper industry’s early and ultimately unsuccessful attempts in the early 90s to shape business strategies to deal with this thing called the Internet (“The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ’90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan”); a changing economic logic of publishing in a new digital age; and even what Craigslist’s ultimate significance might be in the shape of things to come.

The unthinkable scenario goes something like this: what if the old model of publishing no longer worked? Then what?

“That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.”

And that’s the really big question, isn’t it? If we know what doesn’t work, what does work?

“I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it.”

“… there is one possible answer to the question “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might.”

It’s an intriguing, even galvanizing sentiment — anything could work. We don’t really know what might be the next Gutenberg-type of revolution, and if history is any indication, it might be awhile before anyone actually does.

In a tangentially-related sort of way, has an excellent collection of Simpsons newspaper headlines.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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